Too many officers?

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On October 8, a joint panel of the Russian and Belarusian Defense Ministries issued unexpected, if not breaking news, which is sure to trigger significant feedback from the public.
MOSCOW. (Nikita Petrov for RIA Novosti) - On October 8, a joint panel of the Russian and Belarusian Defense Ministries issued unexpected, if not breaking news, which is sure to trigger significant feedback from the public.

Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov revealed a new plan to cut the Army and Navy size down to one million personnel by 2012, and not by 2016 as previously stated. The plan, which will be heavily debated in public, will mostly affect commissioned officers (COs), not conscripts and non-commissioned officers, despite the fact that the latter is suggested regularly as a target for cutbacks by pro-democratic public. According to the plan, the number of serving COs will be reduced by half, from 300,000 to 150,000.

Anatoly Serdyukov remarked that it was not his decision, and that the changes will be made in accordance with a presidential order. The appearance is as if the draft was not suggested to the President by the Defense Ministry. "We will not discharge any officers. The reduction will be done routinely by attrition through retiring COs who are beyond their term of required service," the minister said.

There has been discussion regarding the need to reduce the CO count for several years. A significant disproportion has developed in recent years, as the General Staff and the Defense Ministry and various other departments have too much redundant duplicating structure. However, there's a shortage in COs at platoon commander level, who are responsible for training conscripted junior ranks. Currently, platoon-level commander positions are only 40 to 50% filled.

The Defense Minister has issued a directive to reduce personnel in the departments and other subordinates in the Defense Ministry and General Staff by 40 to 50%, filling the newly vacated positions with civilian specialists, allowing a transfer of the former COs from the reserve.

The shortage of platoon-level commanders will be compensated for by young reserve officers, graduating from military training centers at civil higher education institutions, who will be called up to serve for three years as Lieutenants. These COs will also have the opportunity to sign another contract for an additional three to five years, if they wish to continue their service. This will grant them the privilege of using the savings and mortgage system for housing and other benefits.

The idea that Russian Armed Forces will need 150,000 COs instead of the current 300,000 was a surprise for every analyst in any way connected to the Army.

Opinions differ on the Defense Ministry's decision. Some experts say it will make the Russian Army proportionate to those of the world's leading powers like the U.S., Great Britain and France, where COs are elite decision-makers, who rely on professional sergeants in the execution of orders. An armed force would need a limited number of such commanders, therefore there are a small number of military academies in the above mentioned countries. The U.S. has three military academies, with officers receiving their basic education at civil colleges and universities before going on to training courses which last for six to nine months depending on the specialty, training them to successfully lead the subordinate units afterwards.

It is different with the Russian Armed Forces. Russian COs graduate military higher education establishments after at least 4 to 5 years of study to become military professionals for almost the rest of their lives. COs are personally responsible for the fostering and training of subordinate soldiers, they lead attacks and organize defense and mobile dispersion. In peacetime, COs supervise day-to-day control of their subordinates' activity.

A number of military experts believe a rapid cut in the number of COs is risky and could significantly decrease the military's combat readiness. Adjusting the Army to Western military standards should begin with the creation of a professional junior commander core, which could replace COs in the fostering and training of privates, as in the U.S. Armed Forces. This task couldn't be accomplished within one or two years. Also, servicemen need training with sophisticated hardware, which could be most effectively achieved by professionals. The Russian Army also needs modern battle management and support systems, including intelligence, target acquisition, communications and navigation systems, science-intensive computers among others, which are a necessity for modern warfare.

Currently, the Russian Armed Forces don't have the above listed advantages, and are unlikely to have them before 2012, because insufficient defense industry capacity and the low educational level of the soldiers will hinder the reforms. Two or three years won't be enough to improve the situation.

The federal program aimed at filling sergeant positions with professional servicemen hasn't been approved yet. Relevant funding has not been allocated. There are no sufficient education and training programs for professional sergeants, as well as no favorable social or financial environment with which to encourage them to serve for at least ten to fifteen years, allowing them to master their specialty and to effectively train conscript soldiers. Much work needs to be done to replace lieutenants with professional sergeants at the platoon commander level.

Experts say the severe reduction in COs will solve several nagging problems, allowing the Defense Ministry to provide housing for 122,400 CO families, which have been waiting for it for ten years or longer, free up funds to increase military compensations and avoid boosting defense expenditure. It's impossible, however, to improve the country's defense capabilities, while losing many of the most experienced specialists.

The decision by Anatoly Serdyukov could prove to be pure voluntarism not backed up economically or socially, causing a weakness in national defense capability, which would take many years to reverse.

Meanwhile, the joint panel of the Russian and Belarusian Defense Ministries made a series of other important decisions, including the joint strategic exercise Zapad-2009 (West-2009) scheduled for 2009. "By holding this exercise, we will take the next step towards ensuring high capability of our Armed Forces and the military security of the Union State", Anatoly Serdyukov said. The decision to cut CO numbers will not affect this exercise.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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