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Russia Profile
June 2, 2007
Starting From Scratch
Military expert Colonel Vitaly Shlykov says that military reform can only happen if Russia forgets plans made for the Cold War.

Interview by Andrei Zolotov, Jr.

Colonel Vitaly Shlykov, 73, spent 30 years as a career officer with Russia's Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), Russia's largest intelligence agency. In 1988, he retired from the GRU after completing his doctoral dissertation, which challenged the entire system of Soviet military planning. From 1990 to 1992 he was Russia's deputy defense minister. In 1992, he co-founded the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. Russia Profile Editor Andrei Zolotov, Jr. spoke with Shlykov about the appointment of the new defense minister and the challenges facing Russia's military today.

R.P. How do you see the current state of military reform and the appointment of Anatoly Serdyukov as the new defense minister?

V.S. I think the appointment of the new defense minister is the most important step in the area of military reform that President Vladimir Putin has made during his term. It was a surprise for everybody, perhaps an unpleasant surprise for the military. Our president, who usually thinks through such decisions, would not have done it if the stakes were not high. Since military reform is a long-term project, I don't think he would like to return in 2012 to a situation of a total failure in the military field, so he is laying a foundation for something serious.

You know various interpretations of it - one politicized extreme claims that Putin wants to deprive the military of a figure around which to rally in this pre-electoral period, the other is that he is a financial expert who is to fight theft, increasing prices of weapons. The second theory has some likelihood to it, but I think it is just a small part of this large project of having a civilian defense minister.

Much is being said today about the galloping prices of weapons. For example, the price of a T-90 tank late last year was 42 million rubles ($1.6 million), and as of Jan. 1, its producer, Uralvagonzavod, is demanding 58 million rubles ($2.2 million). There are many other examples like this. The Yury Dolgoruky submarine, which has just been launched, costs about $1 billion, while the next such submarine will be about $3 billion. But it has to be said that this is a natural process. The military industry was destroyed during the past 15 years and now, when serious money is coming - the armament program for 2007-2015 is worth almost $200 billion - the industry is getting interested. But a lot of subcontractors have left and others are monopolists and can demand whatever price they want.

It is a natural thing, and one can fight it only in a market way - by creating competition. If there are two or three subcontractors, you can choose. At the Uralvagonzavod - it is a state company - you can fire the director. But most subcontractors are now private companies. According to Yury Solomonov, director of Institut Teplotekhniki and principal creator of Topol M and Bulava missles, first the small subcontractors left and now mid-size are following.

One would think this is a task for the new defense minister! But that is not the case. Just in February, the president signed a decree founding the Federal Procurement Agency, which is now in charge of buying not just the weapons, but all military supplies. It is a civilian organization - although people who came there are officers, including the head, Lt. Gen. Alexander Denisov - which reports to the Cabinet. It is outside the Defense Ministry. Rosoboronzakaz [the Federal Arms Procurement Service] will also leave the Defense Ministry. All of them will report to the military industrial commission in the cabinet and not to the defense minister.

R.P. So what is left for the defense minister here?

V.S. We have plenty of bodies that are supposed to be catching thieves in the army: the Military Prosecutor's Office, the Auditing Chamber and the FSB. It is not really the defense minister's job to be catching thieves.

To explain this appointment, I would draw on a historical parallel.

I am supposed to be advising the defense minister, so what can I tell him? To tell him that he should meet foreign defense ministers and learn from them - I'll tell you, it is a hopeless approach. When I was deputy defense minister in the early 1990s, I also thought that our military should be exposed to the work of their Western colleagues and took many generals abroad. One of them later became chief of the general staff - Mikhail Kolesnikov - another, defense minister - Igor Rodionov. I took them to the Pentagon, other defense ministers, academies - you name it! Through an interpreter, it doesn't work. Because the terminology is always changing, there are tens of thousands of abbreviations - we don't even have such translators! All of it is in vain.

But there was a time when it was not so complicated. In the mid-1950s, the U.S. Defense Department was in about the same position as we are now in terms of military orders and procurement. Money was simply allocated by Congress, divided among the services and they spent it as they saw fit. The Defense Department was very weak. But the weaponry back then was relatively simple - largely the same as in World War II.

At that time, the Americans realized that they had a large missile gap. That Russians, having created powerful centralized bodies in the nuclear and missile fields, were very successful and surpassing the Americans. So the services started working on the Atlas, Titan, Polaris missiles, and the B-70 bomber - things whose cost was incomparable to what had been before. Huge money! Moreover, nobody knew ahead of time how much it would eventually cost. The real cost was many times more than what had been originally declared, and every service wanted to wage its own war. The army was preparing for a long war; the air force was preparing for a short nuclear war; the navy wanted to land all over the world. And everybody was demanding all the best and most expensive equipment to carry out their tasks. And they got it. Until [U.S. President John F.] Kennedy noted that the problem was not even the money, but the need for a unified strategy and concrete targets. And that is when Robert Strange McNamara emerged, who was secretary of defense from 1961 to 1968. I hope the appointment of Serdyukov is similar.

R.P. Why do you think that Serdyukov and not Sergei Ivanov is the first civilian defense minister?

V.S. The question is not that Ivanov was a lieutenant general and even a colonel general - he was a politician. He is a politician. He got the money for the defense ministry. Why did we have a total degradation of the defense sector for 15 years? There was no money. Ivanov has played a historic role in this. Now we have a manager - similar to McNamara, who had been a top manager at Ford Motor Company prior to his appointment. Serdyukov was in the furniture business. Serdyukov's huge advantage is that he doesn't know the military world, he doesn't come from within this hopeless system.

R.P. What did McNamara do that is so relevant to Russia?

V.S. He did a lot of things, but he became famous for implementing what is known as PPB - the planning-programming-budgeting system.

He did not have a large staff, and he could not count on the military and industry people telling him the truth. He hired Rand Corporation economist Charles Hitch as comptroller and he, in turn, brought over hundreds of whiz-kids. He also hired an assistant secretary in charge of systems analysis, who also had a staff of several hundred people. These systems analysts were asking the military why they think that what they were doing would serve a particular purpose, why it would be done in this time frame and at this price, and then presented an independent evaluation for the defense secretary. There was such an uproar among the Joint Chiefs of Staff that they seriously considered a collective resignation.

But the system became such a success that by 1967 it was being implemented in other U.S. departments and in many foreign defense ministries. In our country, we realized that we needed it and a number of books on PPB were translated. The 1960s was a period in which military thought flourished and there was a real desire to learn from foreign experience - not like today. In 1988, the PPB system was decreed not only for the Ministry of Defense and the defense industry, but even for the KGB. However, the government did not have time to implement it. But of course, in the Soviet Union we took only one part - planning and programming, because there was no such thing as budgeting in our country.

What does the PPB system mean? That for every major weapons system, there is a development program and a budget that do not recognize the boundaries between the services. The program is controlled by the defense secretary through the head of the program - usually a general or a colonel - and his staff of 200-300 people. The head of the program is personally responsible for it in its entirety. If we do not reform our system today - not the production and not procurement - but the system of the development of new weapons, Russia will have no new weapons. It will never have the fifth generation fighter jet or something like that because today we produce what was developed in the Soviet era. If the new minister does not introduce PPB and system analysis, we will be forever behind.

R.P. So you think that the Defense Ministry should now have functions of analysis and auditing?

V.S. No, not just analysis and auditing. It should plan the outlines of future weapons. And for that, it needs to have the relevant infrastructure.

Today Russia spends 2.7 percent of its GDP on the military, and some people say that is not enough, that we need 3.5 percent, for example. This is the wrong approach. How did McNamara break his generals? He told them there is no limit on what you can spend, but tell me what you want to build, why you want it and what it is going to cost. Of course, much of their intentions did not pass through this scrutiny. But at some points, the United States spent up to 10 percent of its GDP on the military. This system can be introduced only during a period of growth in military spending, as was the case in the United States in the 1960s and as it is the case in Russia today.

R.P. How much do you think military spending should be?

V.S. We can spend 10 percent, or 20 percent of the GDP as the Soviet Union did, but it will all be wasted until you identify targets and make plans for how you will achieve these targets. If this plan turns out to be overly expensive, you don't throw out the target, but make another plan for achieving this target to guarantee national security.

Maybe we need to spend 30 percent of GDP, but we need to identify the threats. If we are to have a war with China tomorrow, maybe we need not 30, but 40 percent of GDP spent on the military. We need a system that will be adaptable to the threats.

R.P. Let's talk about a key thing - today's threats to Russia. There are very diverse opinions on this - from the proposition that nobody threatens Russia today to the notion that Russia is surrounded by enemies.

V.S. You are right, it is a key question, and usually in any discussion of military reform you stumble over this issue of threat identification. My personal assessment is that if we start to react to all the threats that our military usually identifies, even if you triple or quadruple the current military budget, it will not be enough. What is most important is that our armed forces will not be the kind that Russia may need when the threats change.

Today the threats are changing faster than the weapons systems. For example, the terrorist threat emerged, and it turned out that our armed forces are completely incapable of fighting it. The Chechen War happened, and it turned out that our huge, heavily armed army was totally unsuited for it. China has 125 million soldiers in the reserve - how can we match it? We cannot.

The key is to create a structure that would allow the armed forces to adapt to any kind of threat, including new threats that we can't identify yet. It is a very complicated task. It is impossible to achieve without system analysis and all the other things I have discussed already. In order to do it, we should not let ourselves be dragged into big concrete programs. We have now adopted the rearmament program for 2007-2015, are proud of it and are even planning to fulfill it. But Yury Solomonov, the creator of Topol and Bulava [nuclear missiles], says that we will certainly fail. This is already the third such program. The previous was for 2001-2010 but we failed to meet it because we simply could not assess the cost of new weapons. With the old ones, you can bargain here or there, but we have no idea what the new one will cost.

R.P. From the 1960s to the 1980s our country was preparing for World War III. What kind of war is our country preparing for now?

V.S. We are not preparing for any war except a nuclear war with guaranteed mutual destruction. We have always been ready for it, and we are still putting our stakes on it.

R.P. Is it right?

V.S. Partially right. That's all we've got. Our entire status as a global power is based solely on this. Without it, we are just a raw materials appendage. We don't have real industry or anything else. Our military-industrial complex has long ceased to exist. There are hundreds of diverse military companies, but no real coordinated complex.

R.P. So you are saying that the nuclear component should stay as the last resort?

V.S. Yes. As they say, if Saddam had nuclear weapons, the U.S. would not have attacked Iraq. It is the same with us. As long as we have nuclear weapons, nobody is going to take away our oil. It's our curse, the symbol of our backwardness. But this curse is being protected by nuclear weapons.

R.P. So we are preparing for a nuclear war?

V.S. We are not preparing for it. We think that as long as we have nuclear weapons, no one is going to touch us. And that is correct - for another 10 to 15 years, and then it will probably no longer be correct. Now is the time to rethink our entire approach to defense, which is why I place my hopes in the new minister. Even if he doesn't succeed, he would at least set a precedent that others could follow. [Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration] Victor Ivanov said that Serdyukov will be in charge of rearmament. We need new weapons. And in order to have new weapons, we need to forget all that we have done so far and start again from scratch.

R.P. Is there a problem with Russia's military education system?

V.S. We have huge systemic problems in military education, more than in other fields. Note that the business elite is successfully solving its education problem. They have quickly learned the appropriate market terms and many of them speak English. The military, in contrast, are totally blocked from the outside world. There is a huge language barrier. No one in the military elite speaks any foreign languages.

We have a completely distorted understanding of military professionalism. Professionalism first and foremost means a solid liberal arts education. A West Point cadet studies for four years, just like the average Harvard student. They study purely civilian disciplines, foreign languages and history, as well as tactics.