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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Still No Time for Sergeants

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Better late than never. The Defense Ministry has announced its plans to open an institute devoted to the training of professional sergeants for the armed forces. "We have everything we need in place to train contract soldiers to be professional sergeants," said Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Belousov. "The Defense Ministry will do everything necessary to meet this goal." Sergeants and other senior noncommissioned officers serving under contract are to enter into service from 2009 to 2011, with 153 billion rubles ($5.3 billion) earmarked for the program.

Over the past 15 years, there has been much discussion of the fact that no army can function effectively without a well-trained base of professional sergeants. It's one of the few things military analysts can agree on. In fact, this was already the consensus in a report by a military reform commission delivered to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev two decades ago.

The current horrible problems with discipline and endemic hazing in the army are a direct result of the phasing out of professional NCOs in the 1960s. It was at this point that the armed forces lost the people that Marshall Georgy Zhukov -- the Soviet Union's most accomplished general in World War II -- was referring to when he said the army was commanded by himself, the defense minister and the sergeants.

When the sergeants left, discipline went with them. Looking for a way to fill the gap, officers dumped this responsibility on second-year soldiers, who fulfilled that duty the only way they knew how -- with their fists.

But sergeants are not only needed to maintain discipline. The decision four years ago to create units made up entirely of professional soldiers took many foreign observers by surprise. They warned that, without professional NCOs already in place, such a system was more likely to turn out mercenaries than a professional army. They were right. This is because sergeants play by far the biggest role in turning recruits into soldiers, instilling in them morale and pride in defending their homeland. The results of this are already clear, as the shift to contract service hasn't improved much in the fields of discipline or morale.

The decision regarding the sergeants is clearly a positive one. The problem is that the military leadership doesn't appear to understand that effective NCOs are not simply older soldiers. The Defense Ministry has said nothing about how it intends to train professional NCOs.

The most logical approach would be to stick with the current system for as long as it takes to put enough future sergeants through the necessary six months of training in special programs. Unfortunately, the majority of this training will be related to a concrete combat specialization -- for communications personnel or tank drivers, for instance. No one will teach future sergeants how to command. In the best of cases, the army will end up with specialists and not effective NCOs. These soldiers will be called on to command people of the same age, from whom they will not differ in knowledge or military and life experience. Sergeants of this sort won't do much, if anything, to increase levels of combat readiness or discipline.

But let's assume that some miracle occurs and the army does, indeed, end up with 1,000 highly professional leaders. The next question is what responsibilities will officers commanding platoons and regiments have. After all, they are the ones trying to do the work of the sergeants today. Cardinal changes to the system of training and service responsibilities for platoon and regimental commanders will be needed. Beginning at the rank of lieutenant, officers will have to spend more time improving their own skills and training.

The paradox is that, even if these plans work out, it will make little difference if the army remains essentially a mass-mobilization organization. The country's defense is still based on the idea of putting millions of soldiers under arms to deal with military threats. In such an army, junior officers simply have to follow orders from above while a large number of soldiers are doomed to die in their first brush with combat. so what's the point in wasting time on training.

Attempts to modernize one particular element in a hopelessly obsolete mechanism are doomed to failure. It's impossible to transfer the engine from an SUV to a horse cart.

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.