NewsRussian military reform: Challenges and implications of increasing troop sizes amid dwindling equipment supplies

Russian military reform: Challenges and implications of increasing troop sizes amid dwindling equipment supplies

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 06: Russian recruits gather outside a military processing center as drafted men said goodbye to their families before departing from their town in Moscow, Russia on October 06, 2022. More than 200,000 people have reported to service under partial mobilization, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu said on Tuesday. (Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 06: Russian recruits gather outside a military processing center as drafted men said goodbye to their families before departing from their town in Moscow, Russia on October 06, 2022. More than 200,000 people have reported to service under partial mobilization, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu said on Tuesday. (Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Images source: © GETTY | Anadolu Agency

12:11 AM EST, February 11, 2024

The Russian army regularly undertakes modernization efforts, which are shaped by the lessons learned from the wars it has waged. Although the generals are competent in concluding what advancements are needed, the implementation of these reforms tends to be less effective.

After the unsuccessful war in Georgia in 2009, a military modernization plan was formulated, focusing primarily on technological advancement. The army was set to be reduced from 1.35 million soldiers to roughly one million. The goal was to create a more professional, modern military force.

The Kremlin's roadmap proposed that over ten years, the Russian Federation would receive 100 warships, 600 new and 400 modernized aircraft, a thousand helicopters, 11,000 armored vehicles, not less than 56 squadrons of anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems S-400, and 10 squadrons of air and space defense systems S-500.

The plan wasn't executed completely, leading to issues for Russia. Over a thousand pieces of substantial equipment were produced in collaboration with Ukraine. After the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Donbas, the Ukrainians cut off cooperation. Despite an increased number of contract soldiers, it didn't result in improved training standards, as demonstrated by the invasion of Ukraine.

Reform ignited by war experience

The first reform, driven by war experiences, began in fall 2022. For the first time, it was decided to increase the army size and commence regular reserve training, involving over 25 million people. At least in theory, given that most of them are in poor health and unfit for service.

The authorities then elected to mobilize an extra 500,000 conscripts and extend the maximum conscription age by three years, from 27 to 30. The minimum age limit would remain at 18. Andrey Kartapolov, Chairman of the Defense Committee of the Council of the Russian Federation, underscored that the recruitment age hike in Russia will be executed gradually. The second phase is underway, currently drafting 29-year-olds. The program is set to be expedited, and those born in 1994 will also be enlisted in the army.

This measure only improved the army's staff capacity. Nevertheless, increasing losses meant that the troop size remained inadequate. Russians planned another reform with the ultimate goal of enhancing the army's capacity to 1.5 million soldiers. However, the minimum conscription age would be increased to 21.

The Russians deduced that 18-year-olds are still too young, their bodies have not fully developed physically, and they struggle to endure the horrors of battle. Furthermore, they are frequently undereducated; and even in the Russian army, individuals with at least primary technical education are required.

Conscripts as cannon fodder

Old Russian folklore suggests that there's strength in numbers, a fact that Russia seems to bank on. Subsequently, despite numerous pronouncements, the Kremlin doesn't obsess over the training standards of the conscripts. Russian social media teems with reports of soldiers sent to the frontline after just two weeks of preliminary training. Similar to the previous year, the defense ministry maintains that this time will be different and soldiers will undergo comprehensive training.

"On the battlefield, we still see scores of previously mobilized soldiers, indicating that the soldiers conscripted this year may receive slightly better and longer training than those from 2022. They still fall short when compared to a Western army, but their quality could be slightly improved as cannon fodder," notes Dr. Michał Piekarski from Wrocław University.

Presently, the training level of Russian conscripts is pitiful. Whereas Ukrainians claimed a year ago that it was very low, now they attest that soldiers and young officers have zero skills.

-They just throw themselves at us in a disorganized fashion. Like flies attracted to light, they swarm, drop, and then are replaced. And so the cycle continues - said Sergey, a soldier of the 47th Independent Mechanized Brigade, who is battling near Avdiivka, over the phone last week.

The challenge of armament

The head of the Russian Ministry of Defense, Sergey Shoygu, did not offer any details on how his department plans to fund the new recruits and their equipment. The personal equipment of a soldier, according to the distribution, costs approximately $31,900. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

-"While the Russians may aim to increase their army size, they will need proportionately more equipment. Though low-quality uniforms aren't unusual and can be easily produced in Russia, what will they equip them to fight with? Tanks? Armored personnel carriers? The supply in Russian warehouses isn't infinite- says Dr. Piekarski.

The Russians have lost roughly 25% of their total tank reserves that were available when the war commenced, as well as roughly 50% of the frontline vehicles. Moreover, the condition of the stored tanks is deplorable. The manufacturing of T-90M tanks and the modernization of T-72 tanks to the B3 standard barely make up for the combat losses, that too with diminished combat capabilities. They lack advanced electronic equipment and fire control systems, which Russians have generally imported.

The situation is similar with armored personnel carriers. Ukrainians report the destruction of almost 8,000 armored vehicles, both tracked and wheeled. The actual losses could be around 4,500-5,000 vehicles from a total of 15,500. Half of these hail back to the time of Leonid Brezhnev.

Even if Putin doesn't exhaust his human resources, he may eventually run out of relevant equipment. This is unlikely to be resolved even though Shoygu revealed that state defense financing based on orders is set to increase by nearly 50% in 2023, purportedly covering 97% of the equipment needs of the Russian army.

Reform of the command system

Upon Finland and Sweden's accession to NATO and problems with the command chain, the Russians decided firstly to reactivate the Leningrad and Moscow Military Districts, and secondly, to alter the command system at the division and corps level to streamline the order passage route.

Regarding the Leningrad Military District, a new Mechanized Corps comprising of three new mechanized divisions and two airborne divisions is set to be instituted, expanded based on the existing brigues. Furthermore, seven mechanized brigades from the Western Military District are proposed to be expanded to division levels.

The Western Military District is likely to be entirely disbanded once the Moscow Military District becomes operational. The intention is to split the operational area in two halves. The Leningrad Military District will be responsible for the borders with Finland and Baltic countries, extending to the Belarusian-Ukrainian border, while the Moscow Military District will concentrate entirely on operations against Ukraine.

The magnitude of the reform is reminiscent of the period after the failed war with Georgia. Based on subsequent experiences, the Russians are tailoring the unit structures and recruitment system for conducting military operations amidst a protracted conflict. It seems that the Kremlin has reconciled with the fact that they will not quicky win the war with Ukraine.

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