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In Moscow, the Red Army Blues

With the Soviet armed forces in decline, some young critics are prodding the high command with radical proposals

`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.

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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. And just as the Rust affair seemed to be fading from memory, Soviet media reported on June 9, 1990, a ``Rust No. 2'' incident: A light plane swooped out of the skies over Soviet Georgia and dropped off a bouquet of carnations and a note for Gorbachev before speeding back across the Turkish border.

Second, mistreatment and abuse of recruits have reached epidemic proportions, resulting in a dramatic increase in deaths and suicides. According to Soviet press reports, overall morbidity among conscripts increased by 29 percent in 1988.

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Third, draft evasion is mounting - Soviet sources report a sixfold increase in 1989 nationwide, peaking at a 2,500 percent annual increase in certain military districts - to the point that the 1989 draft quota has not been fulfilled and this year's spring draft had to be postponed.

Fourth, declining health and fitness standards of the incoming cohorts strain the infrastructure to the breaking point. Four percent of new recruits are found unsuitable for service; an additional 10,000 seek a medical discharge each year. Future prospects look even more daunting: 300,000 adolescents aged 15 to 17 are currently in treatment for serious psychological disorders and, as the Soviet press points out, ``they might be wielding weapons in one or two years' time.''

Fifth, low pay, poor benefits, and increasingly inadequate living conditions have demoralized the officer corps, causing an alarming increase in the number of younger officers seeking early retirement. In short, according to the reformers, the existing military structure has collapsed. It must be replaced by a qualitatively new system.

In addition to changing the armed forces' manning system, the reformers call for greater civilian control over the military, to include replacing recently promoted marshal of the Soviet Union D.T. Yazov with a civilian Minister of Defense; full public disclosure of the military budget and its consolidation under the Ministry of Defense (instead of the current distribution among dozens of ministries); and better social and legal protection of servicemen and their families.

The submission of the military reform draft proposal caused a flurry of activity. On the one hand, disciplinary proceedings were initiated against its key author, culminating in Major Lopatin's expulsion from the Communist Party on the grounds of ``irresponsible behavior and dereliction of duty.'' His case is still pending on appeal. His colleagues were similarly pilloried for incompetence and lack of professionalism. Concurrently, however, the Ministry of Defense developed its own reform proposal and senior military leaders went on record to explain its key features. Not surprisingly, the official approach is much less radical.

As envisaged by the high command, military reform is to be implemented cautiously, in a phased manner, ``so as not to harm, even for one minute, the nation's defense capacity and the armed forces' combat readiness.'' It will take as long as 10 years to complete. While the switch to an all-volunteer force has not been rejected or taken off the agenda - indeed, Chief of the General Staff M.A. Moiseyev termed it ``a good idea as a long-term prospect'' - it is deemed ``premature, too costly, and ineffective in satisfying the need to build up militarily-prepared reserves.''

Nonetheless, beginning in 1991 a form of contract service will be tried out selectively, first in the Navy and subsequently in the other services. The experimental approach will give the draftee a choice: Serve for a fixed, two-year term with virtually no pay, or under a three-year contract, with a monthly salary starting at 150 rubles, but with the requirement of acquiring a military specialty within the first six months. Given the prevailing negative public attitudes toward military service, however, the outcome of the experiment is less than certain.

The reformers' proposals concerning national and territorial military formations have been rejected by the Ministry of Defense as ``completely outdated, incapable of solving the USSR's defense tasks, and fraught with very grave consequences in the context of the current exacerbation of ethnic tensions.'' Similarly, their proposal to allow alternative service was rejected due to ``the acute shortage of draftees and lack of legal norms to regulate it.''

While the debate on military reform continues, a legislative package is being drafted, to include new laws on defense, on universal military service, and on the status of servicemen. If and when approved by the Supreme Soviet, these laws will fundamentally change the size, structure, and deployment of the Soviet armed forces and place the military under firmer civilian control. Together with the ongoing efforts to revamp their warfighting doctrine, equipment, and command and control organs, these changes will determine how Soviet forces organize for combat and how they might fight through the end of this century and into the next.

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