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Russia is trying to transform its military. This is one of the country's most challenging modernization programs, but it's not something that President Dmitry Medvedev talks about much, because it is so controversial. The project is huge, and it involves making painful cuts to the bloated Soviet-style armed forces. NPR's Anne Garrels has this report.
ANNE GARRELS: 75-year-old Vitaly Shlykov, a former intelligence officer, has been fighting the military establishment for neigh on 20 years. But at last he believes real change is irreversible. He chairs a public commission advising the defense ministry.
Mr. VITALY SHLYKOV (Adviser, Russian Defense Ministry: (Through translator) What we have now is the creation of a completely new kind of army with a completely new mission.
GARRELS: For centuries, Moscow's armed forces have been organized for emergency mass mobilization. Military analyst Alexander Goltz says Russia has now rejected this model in favor of a leaner, smarter force.
Mr. ALEXANDER GOLTZ (Military analyst): All conventional forces in Russia are oriented only on local or maybe regional war. We are not going to prepare our conventional forces to fight NATO, China. All deterrence of these possible big adversaries lays now on nuclear forces.
GARRELS: Pavel Zolotarev, with the Russian Academy of Sciences, says this radical change is not without opposition.
Mr. PAVEL ZOLOTAREV (Russian Academy of Sciences): (Through translator) Many think Russia cannot forget about the NATO threat or our huge border with China. Then there are the officers who worry about their future. For those being let go, the government is not fulfilling its promises to provide benefits and apartments.
GARRELS: But the reorganization of the military is well under way, and the man leading this transformation is Anatoly Serdiukov, a skilled manager and the first civilian defense minister in Russian history. That alone, says Shlykov, is a stunning change.
Mr. SHLYKOV: (Through translator) Until now, each new minister of defense lobbied for his own branch, to the point where the military was almost destroyed.
GARRELS: Under Serdiukov, the overall size of the armed forces is being cut by a quarter, with the officer corps taking the biggest hit. Fifty thousand have already been forced to retire. Another 150,000 will be pushed out in the next few years.
For those left, education and salaries are to be dramatically improved. Military units are being streamlined and, finally, there will be professional sergeants � the first 250 are being trained. Until now, first-year draftees have been controlled by second-year conscripts. One result has been brutal, often deadly hazing, poor morale and poor training.
(Soundbite of gunshots)
Providing this new army with up-to-date equipment is perhaps the biggest challenge now. Last year's war in Georgia laid bare a host of problems. Russian unmanned drones could not provide instant targeting information. Lacking radios, soldiers resorted to their personal, insecure mobile phones.
Russia's defense ministry has done little more than upgrade versions of weapons first designed 30 years ago. Alexander Goltz says the defense ministry is clearly fed up.
Mr. GOLTZ: It's first time I can remember when generals say, okay, guys, we are here to buy good military equipment. We don't want to buy this rubbish you produce.
GARRELS: And the so-called rubbish is expensive. For the first time, Russia's defense ministry has gone abroad for weapons. Analyst Pavel Zolotarev says the government has so far failed to modernize the defense industry.
Mr. ZOLOTAREV: (Foreign language spoken)
GARRELS: Until the current inefficient, corrupt system is totally changed, Zolotarev says, Russia will not have quality weapons and could well lose its position in the world as a major arms supplier.
Anne Garrels, NPR News, Moscow.
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