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Army Reserve: not yet "Individual" or "Ready"

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti defense commentator Viktor Litovkin) - Southern Shield 2006, a major exercise currently running in the Volga-Urals Military District, lacks media coverage as well as attendance by ministers and dignitaries, and it would have barely been noticed at all - but for the partisans.

"Partisany" is Russian militarese for reservists who understandably tend to wear their uniforms as if they were suits or working clothes. This time, commissioned officers, as well as enlisted men, drafted from the reserves from across the military district (the Perm Territory, Udmurtia, and the Orenburg, Penza, Samara and Sverdlovsk regions), made up 3,500 of the 9,000-man force earmarked for the exercise.

The customary procedure for such cases is to deploy the reservists in one or several local military units, equip them, divide them into battalions and hold preliminary "reminder" training sessions according to their specialties learnt during conscript service in the past, including a small shooting exercise. After that, the military units thus created are transferred to a training field (in this case the Totsky and Donguzsky training centers, Orenburg Region) for a live-fire exercise, which about wraps it up for the reservists for years to come.

Colonel Sergei Sofyin, a district military commissioner in Perm, complains it is very hard to draft enough men for a reserve exercise these days, what with too few people showing up when summoned by mail. In his district, a third of summons were left unanswered, and there is little belief that the police search for dodgers will bring any success. Other commissioners confront the same disregard for duty.

The explanation lies in the existing law on military duty and military service. Reserve soldiers in Russia can be drafted for a training cycle until they are aged 50, no more often than once every three years, for no longer than two months at a time and 12 months overall.

The problem is that the government, in addition to military pay and free food and kit (while the former is scarce, the latter has to be returned at the end of the cycle), guarantees reservists their jobs and average monthly pay wherever they work. It seems like a good deal, but because dividing employees' pay into taxable salaries and nontaxable shady "bonuses" is a well-established tax-reduction practice in most Russian firms, willful participation in a national defense effort often turns out too costly for the participants themselves (because the government compensates only the taxable part) and for their employers (because private companies may lose God knows how much money from the absence of a valuable worker or manager). Needless to say, an owner or CEO's week out in the field may literally bring a firm to its knees.

Hence upsurges in sick, parental, and other leaves, unexpected business trips to other parts of the world and sudden attacks of forgetfulness to check your mailbox for the last month or so. Even if the military can and are willing enough to prove that a dodger had received the summons letter and threw it away (which is a rare occasion because the lawyers on the other side of the legal battlefield are usually smarter), the fine for dodging is chicken feed.

There is more to dodging by reservists, though, than just grass-root economics. Some men might be interested in getting away from home and family for a fortnight, sleeping in the field, shooting real Kalashnikovs and watching out for senior officers as the squad is sharing a bottle of vodka inside the tent, like they used to when they were young. But others, leading increasingly active and engaged lives, see reserve training as an utterly boring and uninstructive enterprise.

Indeed, in the absence of a new global military threat - or so the top brass say on TV - the military's mobilization concept, involving two-week courses during which old recruits can hardly learn new combat tricks, looks empty and shallow to many, including Dr. Anatoly Tsyganok, Military Sciences Academy professor and head of the Military Forecasting Center at the Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow.

A modern war, be it regional or major, leaves little chance for an army made of men of a certain age who are more used to the pen than the rifle. A war-winning fighting force employs high-end weapons, countermeasures, intelligence systems, smart missiles, and smart people who know how to handle them. Smart people clearly do not come at the cost of a week's training, which calls into question the very raison d'etre of reserve training in its current boyscout-style form.

Tsyganok cites deep-rooted "World War III" fears among the upper echelons of the military and security community. Maybe so. But why do they, while inculcating those fears, still favor outdated World War II concepts in trying to fence it off? Or maybe they are scared to lose funds currently allocated for mobilization if a single ruble is left unspent - no matter how wisely?

The debate, however, does not solve the core problem of a ready reserve in the military. As long as war remains an extreme but widely accepted practice of resolving deadlocked international and ethnic issues, reservists are going to be needed for active military duty as well as for anti-terrorist and other tasks in times of national emergency. Such a ready reserve, though, should consist of well-trained professionals capable of confronting a technologically advanced enemy within days of being called up. One good example is the United States, which has successfully used its Individual Ready Reserve in all its recent wars - leaving aside the debate about their fairness and lawfulness.

Another good example lies on the other end of the spectrum. Quite like the U.S., post-Soviet Belarus runs a regularly trained reserve, rather than a massive mobilization force. Minsk offers 250 to 380 hours of reserve training a year for two to three years - depending on education - at local military units or Army Assistance Volunteers (similar to Russia's ROSTO and DOSAAF) to eligible young men who for various reasons could not be drafted into active service. This could serve as a good example for Russia, whose Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, has famously denounced people whom he described as "dancers and suchlike" for misusing their peaceful occupations as a pretext for draft evasion.

"[Reserve training] is, in fact, more useful to the individual than to the army," said Colonel General Leonid Maltsev, Belarusian defense minister. "Anything might happen to anyone of us tomorrow, and a man needs to be ready to protect himself and defend his doorstep and family. Every man needs some military skills in everyday life."

Quite so. And all the more so, the Belarusians might add, provided these skills are imparted in an environment of true territorial defense - effectively on the same doorstep that the man is probably going to defend some day.

The Collective Security Treaty Organization, a regional security grouping including Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan, already holds territorial defense exercises every other year, mixing reservists with active-duty servicemen in simulations of high-technology land and air battles and intelligence, telecoms, and command-and-control operations.

This should probably be the future for Russian national reserve training as well. With a fighting force increasingly manned by professionals and college graduates who, if they did not receive military-officer training in universities, would soon be eligible for active enlisted service, the manpower supply will eventually surpass the Defense Ministry's demand. Meanwhile, draft service terms will shrink to 18 and subsequently to 12 months, thus making it impossible to turn a rookie into an effective operator of state-of-the-art weaponry. This combined effect will inevitably push the generals into a new reality in which reserve training will be locally based - either in military units or in academies.

This reasoning may still turn out to be little more than wishful thinking. Russia's top military are holding all the cards. Let's just hope they will not play their hand just to counter the successful European and North American experience.

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