In Moscow, the Red Army Blues with the Soviet Armed Forces in Decline, Some Young Critics Are Prodding the High Command with Radical Proposals

By Ilana Kass. Ilana Kass is professor of military strategy Washington. | The Christian Science Monitor, August 21, 1990 | Go to article overview

In Moscow, the Red Army Blues with the Soviet Armed Forces in Decline, Some Young Critics Are Prodding the High Command with Radical Proposals


Ilana Kass. Ilana Kass is professor of military strategy Washington., The Christian Science Monitor


`IF reform does not occur in the near future, we will lose the Army. There will be no one in command and no one to command." This statement, recently published in Red Star, the central daily of the Soviet Ministry of Defense, encapsulates both the current mood of the Soviet military and the urgency and magnitude of the task it is facing.

Five years into President Mikhail Gorbachev's restructuring program, the Soviet military is at a crossroads. Divided, demoralized, and increasingly impatient, it is struggling through the most comprehensive transformation in its history. At stake is not only the future shape and makeup of the armed forces, but the USSR's future as a competitive, full-fledged superpower.

Already in the early 1980s - amid the domestic stagnation of the Brezhnev years and against the backdrop of resurgent American strength - the Soviet general staff became deeply concerned about the USSR's ability to keep pace in the superpower competition. It concluded that the armed forces had to fundamentally restructure how they organize for combat and how they fight, or else fall hopelessly behind.

The high command supported Mr. Gorbachev's restructuring agenda precisely because it responded to the military's long-standing concerns. Perestroika promised to deliver what the military needed: a modern economy, capable of producing the requisite quantity and quality of high-tech weaponry, and a healthy society, able to produce educated, fit, and motivated citizens to man the new weapons. Concurrently, Gorbachev's global initiatives were to stabilize the international environment, grant the USSR access to Western technology, and constrain the United States from racing ahead to field its technological edge. In short, perestroika promised to give the Soviet armed forces a most precious commodity: the time to rebuild and to remain competitive.

But now, the carefully laid out program to reshape the military - already buffeted by the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact, by disappointing economic performance, and by mounting domestic unrest - is being challenged from within. A group of young military reformers, impatient with the slow pace and "cosmetic nature" of the official agenda, is confronting the military establishment.

At the center of the current debate is an April 1990 draft proposal submitted to the USSR Supreme Soviet by a group of military legislators headed by Maj. V. Lopatin. It calls for "a phased transition to a professional armed forces, small in number but better in quality, manned by volunteers, exterritorial in structure and international in composition."

In simple terms, the current system of universal conscription, whereby every 18-year-old male can be drafted for a two-year period (three years in the Navy), would give way to an all-volunteer force. The volunteers would be drawn from each of the Soviet Union's 15 constituent republics, thus creating national-territorial formations (representative of the ethnic mix in each republic) and a nationwide professional reserve force. In administrative terms, the new units would be subordinated to both the republic and the central government. The decision to employ the force in combat would remain the prerogative of the central government in Moscow - as is the case with the US National Guard.

According to the reformers, the need for an all-volunteer force is dictated by several considerations. First, modern hardware is deemed too complex, too costly, and too dangerous to be handled by poorly-trained draftees, many of whom lack basic technical skills and barely understand Russian, the language of command. The recent spate of highly publicized military mishaps, starting with German teenager Mathias Rust's landing an airplane in Red Square and culminating with the sinking of a Mike-class submarine off Norway, seem to support this conclusion.

The botched-up rescue effort aboard the nuclear attack submarine is still discussed in the Soviet press as an example of military incompetence. …

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