There is an old saying that Russia is never as strong as it appears to be, and Russia is never as weak as it appears to be. According to the lead story in the October 15 New York Times, “Russian Military Uses Syria as Proving Ground, and West Takes Notice,” the pendulum is swinging from focusing on Russia’s weakness to seeing her again as strong and threatening. Much of the latter is threat inflation, an old Pentagon practice during the Cold War. (After lecturing on military reform many years ago at the Air Force’s Squadron Officers’ School, an Air Force intel captain came up to me and asked, “Does military reform mean we can stop inflating the threat?”)
But it does seem the Russians have learned. The Times story notes that Russian jets in Syria are now conducting as many airstrikes in a day as the U.S. and its allies have been carrying out in a month. Sortie rate is an important measure of an air force’s effectiveness, and ours has long been abysmal, except for the A-10. The newer our equipment, the worse the picture, because each new aircraft we buy requires more maintenance hours per flight hour than the one it replaced.
But the real importance of President Putin’s military reform program lies not in equipment but in ideas. As American military reformers used to say, quoting Col. John Boyd, “For winning wars, people are most important, ideas come second, and hardware is only third.” The Times noted that Russian reforms have included tactics and strategy, not just equipment. And they included the all-important “people” category:
Mr. Putin . . . began a military modernization program that focused not only on high-profile procurement of new weapons . . . but also on a less-noticed overhaul of training and organization that included reduction in the bloated officer corps and the development of a professional corps of noncommissioned officers.
As any visitor to an American headquarters quickly sees, Russia was not alone in having a bloated officer corps. But ours keeps growing.
We here witness an old military phenomenon: the loser learns while the victor goes to sleep on his pile of trophies. Russia was one of the twentieth century’s big losers, along with Austria and Germany. The defeat in World War I, the Red Revolution, Stalin, Communism’s murder of 60 million Russians, the immense destruction inflicted by World War II, and, with the fall of Communism, Russia’s retreat to roughly the borders she had when Peter the Great came to the throne, add up to a catastrophe Americans cannot grasp.
But Russia is now recovering under President Putin, and her defeats and failures have taught her some things. Among those learning are the Russian military. Several decades ago, the Soviet Army historian John Erickson said to me, “Do you want to understand the Russian army today? Ask yourself what it was like under Nicholas I.” I think that is no longer true.
The laggard now is the U.S. military, happily vegetating in the Second Generation of modern war, content to lose wars so long as the money keeps flowing, led largely by generals and admirals who are interchangeable in their skills and attitudes with Soviet industrial managers. The quality of the product is not important; what matters is acquiring and justifying resources.
That self-satisfied (at senior levels) and sleepy military is in turn employed by a foreign policy elite that lives in Disneyland, a place where the whole world is to be reduced to a nursery run by themselves and their European counterparts. All the children will play nice because they tell them to.
Among the consequences of this departure from reality is a failure to ally with both Russia and China in defense of the state system against Fourth Generation war. In Syria, while a reality-based Kremlin acts in support of the remnants of the Syrian state, we bleat about Russian air attacks on our “democratic allies” who do not exist.