Sergei Shoigu: Progress Report on Military Modernization

When Sergei Shoigu was appointed Minister of Defense on November 6, 2012, Russia was in the midst of its most sweeping military reforms since World War II. These reforms were undertaken largely in response to the 2008 Georgia War, when organizational, readiness and equipment problems seriously impeded military performance. The goal of reform was and is to develop a military better suited for modern warfare. Shoigu was assigned to carry through on reform efforts begun by his predecessor, Anatoly Serdiukov. Since Shoigu has now completed eighteen months in office, we can better assess whether he is on track to accomplish the mission.
Restoring Relations with the Military
Since taking office, Shoigu has made considerable headway in restoring trust between senior officers and the Defense Ministry. He accomplished this in part by reversing some of Serdiukov’s less consequential reforms. He restored the number of cadets accepted to military academies to prior levels, and he reinstated education programs that were particularly popular with the brass. Shoigu also ingratiated himself by wearing a general’s uniform and by renewing military participation in May 9 Victory Day parades. Given that Serdiukov had already completed the most unpopular reforms (e.g., military downsizing and reorganization), it has thus far been relatively easy for Shoigu to be conciliatory with the officer corps. Whether they will be as accommodating when he has to make tougher decisions remains to be seen.
Improving Operational Readiness
Meanwhile, Shoigu has pressed ahead with military reform on several fronts. Improving readiness has been one of his principal goals. To further this, he ordered over 750 military exercises during the past year and a half, including some of the largest military exercises carried out since the 1980s. These enabled Russia to thoroughly test out its new military formations and joint command structures, and to identify shortcomings in command and control systems, which are reportedly being addressed. The exercises also seemed to have validated the general direction of reform, while demonstrating Russia’s increasing military capabilities. Improved capability was also amply demonstrated in Crimea earlier this year, where Russian front-line forces conducted what most observers agreed was a well-organized and skillfully conducted military operation.
Completing Rearmament
Rearmament has been another important goal of reform. From 1992 until 2008, the Russian military received virtually no new equipment. In 2008, Serdiukov launched a major rearmament program, pursuant to which the Defense Ministry began purchasing new equipment at levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse. Simultaneously, Serdiukov negotiated hard with defense companies to obtain better pricing and quality commitments. When they balked, Serdiukov withheld orders and even began purchasing certain weapons from foreign suppliers. This led to delays in delivery, while generating significant tension between the MoD and senior officials in the defense industry.
Shoigu took a less confrontational approach with the industry. By demonstrating greater flexibility on terms and pricing, the awarding of new contracts for the upcoming fiscal period was much smoother. Moreover, Shoigu promised that future contracts would be awarded primarily to domestic firms. While easing tensions, however, these concessions also weakened incentives for companies to improve performance, and if this policy were maintained long-term, Russia’s rearmament program would certainly suffer.  Yet Shoigu has not abandoned the fight altogether. Lately, he has complained publicly about difficulties in completing price negotiations with certain defense companies, and he also hired new weapons inspectors. Whether this will lead to renewed conflict with the defense industry is not yet clear. For now, however, Shoigu’s overall approach has had a positive impact, with the military finally receiving equipment in the quantities needed to make a meaningful difference in Russia’s military capability.
Fixing Recruitment
Transitioning to a more professional military force while maintaining sufficient personnel levels is another key goal. The official size of the armed forces is 1 million troops, but due to recruiting shortfalls, the actual size is closer to 800,000. The military has struggled to find the right formula for remedying such shortfalls. The preferred solution is to create a purely professional force by eliminating conscription and switching exclusively to use of contract personnel. So far, however, efforts to recruit new contract personnel have fallen short by more than 200,000 troops. Meanwhile, Russia continues to rely primarily on conscripts. Due to demographics however, the number of available conscripts is declining steadily, and conscripts only serve one-year terms (another Serdiukov reform), a period far too short for useful deployment.
Shoigu has taken several steps to address these issues. First, he continued efforts to rebalance the military towards contract personnel while acknowledging that conscription would continue at a reduced level. To attract recruits, he has improved service conditions and increased military pay. He has prioritized the staffing of elite units, which are kept at full capacity in order to maintain readiness. He also recalled previously dismissed warrant officers to provide leadership until professional NCOs can be trained. However, because of Russia’s demographic challenges, recruiting sufficient personnel to meet current targets is likely to remain an intractable problem. Eventually, therefore, Shoigu may have to decide whether to extend the term for new conscripts or reduce the overall size of the military.
Notwithstanding the many real achievements of the past year, Shoigu’s toughest challenges lie ahead. Rearmament has barely begun.  According to one report, only 16% of the military’s equipment can be considered modern. Moreover, due to Russia’s recent economic slowdown, the planned $600 billion rearmament program is almost certain to be scaled back.  Corruption remains a significant problem. Addressing this will require aggressive enforcement measures, which could once again alienate the military. There is also substantial waste in defense spending due to deep structural problems in the defense industry. Reforming the industry will require additional capital and significant restructuring. Ultimately, the success of military reform will depend in large part on how Shoigu addresses such issues.