A few days ago, NVO published a lengthy interview by Viktor Litovkin with General Vladimir Shamanov, the commander of Russia’s airborne troops. Litovkin got answers to some questions that have long been circulating among observers of the Russian military.
Maintaining the old organizational structure
First of all, he addresses the issue of why the VDV was the only service (other than the strategic nuclear force) to retain a divisional structure, rather than shifting over to brigades. He argues that the divisional structure was kept because it was tried and true practice. While the ground forces, air force, and navy were all undergoing wholesale restructuring, there was a need to retain one combat force that would be prepared for combat while these changes were going on. Shamanov goes on to say that the VDV was able to react quickly to the Georgian attack on South Ossetia at a time when the ground forces were being shifted to a brigade structure. This is an odd response, both since the shift to brigades was announced in October 2008, three months after the Georgia War, and because the ground forces’ 58th army was very involved in that conflict. Airborne troops did arrive first, but rapid response is their job, isn’t it?
Furthermore, if the main reason that the division structure was retained had to do with keeping one combat force stable while the others were being reformed, wouldn’t the airborne troops have been shifted to a brigade structure once the organizational transformation of the ground forces was complete? There are two possible implications: either the military’s top commanders are not yet satisfied with the combat readiness of the ground forces’ new organizational structure or Shamanov is not giving the real reason for the VDV’s retention of the divisional structure. Perhaps the rumor that Shamanov simply had enough pull to shield the VDV from the organizational reform is the real story, but obviously not one that can be shared by an official source. In any case, Shamanov notes that some organizational changes are coming to the VDV. Instead of regiments, in the near future the VDV divisions may be comprised of brigades. Also, each division now includes an anti-aircraft missile regiment, armed with 9K35 Strela-10 short range SAM systems, 9K38 Igla man-portable SAM systems, and ZU-23-2 autocannons.
The VDV and the General Staff are currently working out whether the airborne troops might have their own helicopter regiments in the future. Another option is to have army aviation regiments or brigades that operate as part of the VDV without being formally included in VDV command structures. The incorporation of helicopter units will first be tried out by the 7th VDV division in the Caucasus, with the first test to come in the Kavkaz-2012 exercises this fall. Shamanov also briefly addresses the question of the VDV’s position in the overall military chain of command. The VDV is still subordinate directly to the Chief of the General Staff, but in some situations its units could be commanded by the commanders of individual operational strategic commands. Furthermore, the 98th division and 31st brigade are also part of the CSTO rapid reaction force and subordinate to that organization.
Manpower and social needs
Manpower is the second major topic of discussion in the interview. Shamanov notes the increasingly important role that professional soldiers are playing in the VDV. Currently, contract soldiers make up 40-45 percent of the troops across all services. He believes that the official goal of reaching 80 percent by 2016 is eminently reachable. He points out that since military salaries were increased in January, the army has been able to be selective in choosing who serves in the military. At the same time, conscription will be retained in order to maintain some mobilization potential and to socialize one segment of the country’s youth. This all sounds great, but I’d like to see some specific numbers on recruitment of contract soldiers in the last 2 months. Otherwise, it just sounds like more of the type of empty generalities we’ve all heard too many times before. Shamanov also talks extensively about the role of sergeants in the VDV.
Currently, most of the sergeants serving in the airborne troops are technical staff (i.e. former warrant officers), who are currently being trained in 10-month courses in Omsk according to the old warrant officer training program. There are also some technical sergeants trained in other specialized schools in fields such as communications and servicing anti-aircraft weapons. But this summer, the VDV will receive the first cohort of sergeants graduating from the three-year training program in Riazan that is designed to train sergeants to command troops. While this first class will be just over 200 people, they will form the basis of the new corps of command sergeants. Again, this sounds great, but the Russian military will need a lot more of these sergeants before there will be much effect on overall discipline in the force. Shamanov briefly addresses the question of officer housing, as well. Since VDV units are mostly located in large cities, they have fewer problems with housing and spousal employment than other services do. They tend to attract contract soldiers who already live in the city and need neither housing nor jobs for their wives. Instead, the service focuses on creating comfortable conditions for service within the VDV. They have also pretty much resolved the issue of wait lists for apartments for retiring personnel. The one exception is those who want an apartment in Moscow — they have a choice of waiting for a long time or accepting an apartment well outside the city.
New technology and training
Shamanov notes that the VDV is increasing its participation in multi-national and bilateral exercises, including a two-week counter-terrorism exercise in Colorado with US Special Forces coming up in May 2012. During this calendar year, the VDV will also participate in CSTO rapid reaction force exercises in Armenia, the SCO exercise Peace Mission 2012 in Tajikistan, and an exercise with Ukrainian paratroopers on Russian territory. As far as new equipment, Shamanov focuses primarily on UAVs. VDV is currently using domestically produced Grusha UAVs for reconnaissance, though he is not fully satisfied with the quality of the device’s optics. Nonetheless, its use has improved artillery accuracy by 20 percent. He would also like to receive attack UAVs, with a range of 50-100 km. For now, there are no such domestic UAVs in production and there are no plans to buy foreign UAVs for the VDV.
To conclude, Litovkin asks Shamanov about the biggest unsolved problems facing the service. Shamanov lists two — increasing the amount of modern equipment used in the service and improving the quality of conscripts drafted to serve. He pins his hopes on Rogozin’s energy in speeding up production of new equipment and military-patriotic clubs in schools increasing the physical preparedness of young men before they are called up. I’m not sure which is more likely — Rogozin creating an effective and efficient Russian defense industry or a new DOSAAF turning Russian teenage boys into models of physical fitness.
Dmitry Gorenburg is a Senior Analyst at CNA blogging for PONARS Eurasia on military and security affairs in Russia and Eurasia. This comment is also available on Russian Military Reform.