Kremlin scraps massive army for elite force

Russian armed forces: Generals decide small is beautiful in biggest shake-up since 1930s
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The Russian army is going through its most fundamental and radical restructuring since the advent of nuclear weapons, and probably since the 1930s.

The new, smaller army will have at its core a rapid-reaction force based on the 50,000 troops of the Airborne Forces.

The restructuring coincides with a drive to revive pre- 1917 military traditions and restore the armed forces' prestige, including smart, new, well- designed uniforms.

A brief announcement last week on the front page of Red Star, the forces' newspaper, said four airborne brigades would be transferred from the strategic reserve to army command. It said the move, far from diminishing the airborne forces' importance, would enhance it.

The airborne forces, which include the Spetsnaz, Russia's equivalent to the SAS, are Russia's toughest and most competent fighting troops. They are organised in five small divisions of about 6,000 troops and eight brigades, each of 2,500. Red Star said these units, according to the commander of the airborne troops, Colonel-General Yevgeny Podkolzin, would be reinforced with heavy weapons - tanks, artillery, other armoured vehicles and anti-aircraft weapons - to turn them into "an elite, vanguard force, able to conduct operations independently".

In other words, the Russian army is shedding the baggage of mediocre, undermanned mechanised infantry and is focusing on the elite airborne forces as the only troops to be trusted to conduct operations successfully and meet the demands of modern warfare.

To do that, they need heavier weapons. In Afghanistan, ordinary mechanised infantry units proved unable to cope with mountain operations and special units were formed instead. In Chechnya, the Russians found ordinary units were also unable to cope with street fighting. In Bosnia, the 1,600 Russian peace-keeping troops are all from the airborne forces.

It is logical, therefore, to focus on airborne troops, trained to high physical and disciplinary standards, and to use them as the basis of the army of the future. Last week it became clear that is what they are doing.

It was no coincidence that the British arms control inspection team, which has working in Russia last week, arranged to visit the 2,500-strong 27th Independent Guards Mechanised Infantry Brigade at Mosrentgen, south of the Moscow ring road. Unusually, this brigade, which has T-80 tanks and armoured personnel carriers, is directly subordinated to the commander of the airborne forces, and is commanded by an airborne officer, Colonel Sergey Generalov.

With the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty in force, there are few secrets, and Colonel Generalov confirmed a substantial restructuring was underway.

Colonel Generalov, 37, reports directly to General Podkolzin and then to the Defence Minister, General Pavel Grachev. He said the airborne forces were not exclusively designed to reach battle by parachute: "They can also be lifted in aeroplanes and helicopters." The Russians have some huge transport planes which can carry his 46-ton T-80 tanks.

The mixing of tough, elite airborne troops with the best tank and artillery units, is, in part, a reaction to the experience in Chechnya. Paratroops were sent in, but were not sufficiently heavily armed. They were assigned artillery and tank support, but were not experienced in using it.

The restructuring now under way clearly goes much further. In the 1920s the Red Army debated the view that armies of the future might be small, elite, high- technology affairs. For dogmatic reasons they decided to have a mass army which was also of high quality - an unrealistic aim, never achieved. The pragmatic decision of the modern Russian General Staff, headed by General Mikhail Kolesnikov, to go for a much smaller, higher-quality army suited to all kinds of operations, may prove to be the most radical change since then.

Colonel Generalov knows about quality. His father was a general and he served in Afghanistan. He took us to see his T-80 tanks, immaculately kept. Unlike the British, the Russians use a few tanks for training, and keep the rest for when they are really needed.

Colonel Generalov is a graduate of the Frunze military Academy, equivalent of the British Staff College, and commanded the "Berlin" regiment of the elite Taman division during the 1991 coup and the 1993 conflict between President Boris Yeltsin and parliament.

He agreed that a brigade - 2,500 troops - was "not typical" in the Russian army. His had been formed in 1980, from 404th infantry regiment, during an earlier, less radical era of restructuring. As an independent brigade, it was at first subordinated directly to the Moscow military district, then to the state security forces - the KGB - then back to Moscow and then, for the last two years to the Vozdushno-Desantnye Voyska - VDV - the airborne forces.

"Our operations will be at the behest of the high command of the airborne forces," he said. "You know airborne forces are designed to be able to perform unplanned and emergency operations. But we're not training for any specific operation at the moment".

Above his desk, Colonel Generalov has a portrait of Field Marshal Alexander Suvorov, (1730-1800), Russia's greatest general. He never met Napoleon in battle but if he had, the Russians reckon he would have won. "Why don't you have a portrait of the President?"

"Because presidents come and go," Colonel Generalov said. "Suvorov - he is always there."