The Ogarkov Reforms: The Soviet Inheritance Behind Russia’s Military Transformation

Reposting this article from Oxford’s Changing Character of War Programme latest Russia issue brief, just released this week. I encourage taking a look at the article compliation in these briefings, because CCW’s work typically includes some of the best analysis on Russian defense, strategy, economic or energy issues.

Since late 2008, the Russian military has undergone a period of sustained reform, and modernization to compensate for almost twenty years of divestment which took place after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Much has changed during the initial reform period under the then combination of Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov and Chief of General Staff from 2008 to 2012, and again subsequently under the new tandem of Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov since 2013. Implementing reforms to previous reforms is a Russian tradition, but the vision being executed is born of a deeper intellectual pedigree. The modern Russian armed forces owe a great deal to the current generation of military leadership, which disbanded the remnants of the Soviet mass mobilization army. But, in truth, it owes far more to the intellectual heritage inherited from the late 1970s through to the mid 1980s when Marshal Nikolai Vassilievich Ogarkov served as Chief of the Soviet General Staff.

The most recent decade of military transformation would be better known as the “Ogarkov reform inheritance”, since it represents the successful implementation of a vision he had for the Soviet armed forces in the early 1980s, which was only partly realized during his tenure. Looking across the changes implemented in the Russian armed forces, from the flattening of the command and control structure, to the execution of complex exercises with combined or inter-service groupings from different military districts, the deployment of recon-strike and reconfire loops, the integration of combat branches and arms around strategic operations in the theater of military operations, and the increasing emphasis on non-nuclear strategic deterrence, we can see that Ogarkov’s intellectual children have come home. This is not to dismiss the lasting influence of Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Alexander Svechin or Georgii Isserson, whose writing is also used to underpin modern military thought. But none of those men lived through the Cold War, and many of the current ideas or concepts take their heritage from the Ogarkov period.

Ogarkov was a technologist at heart, arguing for a revolution in military affairs in 1982, to reshape the Soviet armed forces with a new generation of technology. Many of the latest weapon systems deployed in the Russian military date back to the 1980s in terms of design, and were conceived as answers to the capabilities then being deployed by NATO. More important, though, is the doctrinal thought that the Russian General Staff has visibly inherited from him, which drives the development of capabilities and concepts of operations for their employment, i.e. the Russian way of war. The goal is to establish a balanced force, consisting of general purpose forces for warfighting, a non-nuclear conventional deterrent, a capable non-strategic nuclear force for escalation management, and a credible strategic nuclear deterrent.


It was Ogarkov’s vision to establish high readiness combat groupings of mixed forces, able to conduct defensive and offensive strategic operations in a theatre divided along strategic directions. This was the model for large-scale combat operations that has so heavily influenced latter day Russian planning for Joint Strategic Commands (OSK), combined arms armies as operational level headquarters, and the formation of high readiness combat groupings along said strategic vectors.

In his time, Ogarkov sought to reform how the military approached war at the operational and strategic level, unifying the work of the service headquarters and the general staff. His goal was to integrate services that they could create operational level groupings composed of combined arms units, which today is realized best at the level of the combined arms army. According to Makhmut Gareev, Deputy Chief of General Staff at that time, Ogarkov centered the General Staff as the ‘brains’ of the Soviet military. He sought the integration of air defense and the air force, seeing air power as decisive in the initial period of war, without which ground forces cannot effectively advance. Seeing the U.S. way of war as aerospace blitzkrieg, the Russian military has made air defense a strategic operation, unifying air defense, missile defense, and tactical aviation under the Aerospace Forces (VKS). In his own time, Ogarkov lost the fight internally to combine air defence and the air force as institutions, but, in the end, he served as progenitor for a reorganization of Russian air power and air defense around strategic operations to deflect U.S. aerospace attack (the Russian air force and aerospace defence forces were merged in 2015 to create the Aerospace forces).

It was Ogarkov who, together with other notable Soviet military leaders, such as Viktor Kulikov, Sergei Akhromeev, and Valentin Varennikov, restored operational-strategic and operational level training at the General Staff, with large scale command-staff exercises designed to explore operational art, and develop military strategy. Of particular note were Zapad-81, Vostok-84, Dozor-86, and Osen-88, testing concepts such as the Operational Manoeuvre Groups, reconnaissance at the tactical-operational level, destruction of enemy formations with fires and electronic attack through the depth of their lines.

Zapad 1981
Zapad 1981

Under recent Russian Chiefs of General Staff, including Yuri Baluevsky, Makarov, and Gerasimov, there has been a resurrection of the influence of annual strategic exercises, together with a robust annual training cycle, to work out questions of operational art, mobility, mobilization, service integration, and so on. Consequently, today the Russian armed forces, while not the largest they have ever been, are at their highest state of readiness in decades, beyond that of the Soviet military in the 1980s.

Ogarkov is equally notable for what he opposed. For example, he argued against the USSR’s habit of spending large sums of money on civil defence. In his view, the USSR was burying its money in the ground by arming civil defense units with vast quantities of obsolete equipment. Instead, he wanted to rearm the Soviet military with the next generation of conventional weapons, thus restoring its conventional military power after Khrushev had invested heavily in nuclear weapons in a bid to reach parity with the United States.

Like any good land force officer, Ogarkov was critical of the Soviet Navy’s megalomania, especially its desire to build a vast surface combatant force without the infrastructure to support operations. He singled out the Navy’s desire to waste money on aircraft carriers in an effort to match the United States. Although the Russian Navy may never be cured of such aspirations, in practice it is transitioning to a capable green water force with a more practical set of missions and a host of new capabilities to implement them. Still, if Ograkov had had his way, the Admiral Kuznetsov heavy aircraft cruiser, perhaps the unluckiest ship in the Russian Navy and notorious killer of naval aviation, would never have been built.

Perhaps most importantly, Ogarkov understood the chief problems of the Soviet military, which in the 1980s had fallen behind in communications, reconnaissance, battle space management, targeting, automated systems of command and control. These problems were demonstrated repeatedly in Chechnya, and finally in the RussiaGeorgia War of 2008. The modern Russian military has worked to solve the hereditary blindness of the Soviet Union, and is increasingly able to find, fix, and finish targets at tactical and operational depths, while implementing new systems of command and control across all echelons.

Ogarkov observing 1981.png

Although Russia retains its traditional military strengths in firepower, mass, and warfighting at the operational level, the Russian General Staff has now come a long way towards implementing Ogarkov’s vision of conventional warfare driven by information, real-time integration of fires and strike systems with intelligence and reconnaissance assets. From this, one can see the evolution of Russian combined arms maneuver enabled by noncontact strikes, fires, and a growing share of precision guided weapons added to the legacy heavy firepower mix.

Ogarkov’s view held that the military should not be employed to resolve cases that were principally political crises, demanding political solutions. He was publicly opposed to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. This characteristic hesitancy to employ conventional military power has to some extent stayed in the Russian political and military leadership, typically exhausting other instruments of national power to achieve political objectives, and methods that fall short of war, prior to the introduction of high end conventional military power.

Nikolai Vassilievich was also one of the first senior Soviet leaders to conclude publicly that political victory in a nuclear war was impossible, instead seeking answers to what Soviet leadership at the time called the ‘independent conventional war option’. Under his leadership, the USSR began to develop concepts for a high intensity conventional war without depending on nuclear weapons, as a riposte to similar developments taking place in the U.S. establishment that culminated in the development of the AirLand Battle concept. As Ogarkov pursued this military transformation, however, his vision proved to be a costly strategy at a time when the USSR was in economic crisis instead seeking to reduce the unsustainable costs of military competition.

The present day Russian General Staff envisions a capable general purpose force, together with a non-nuclear deterrent that is able to deliver tailored or prescribed damage against critical objects of political, economic, or military significance. Rather than compete with NATO in long-range conventional weapons, an unwinnable contest not only for Ogarkov’s Soviet Union but also today’s Russia, the military has chosen an approach based more on reasonable sufficiency. Where Ogarkov had the right idea but wrong scope and execution plan, was in seeking to match U.S. technological might in a large-scale conventional war. It was overly symmetric, and economically ruinous. It also made less sense given that the USSR never believed that a war between nuclear powers could be kept conventional.

Given an asymmetry of interests at stake, in most crises the Russian military thinks it can meet the requirements of strategic operations with a much cheaper ‘strategic’ conventional deterrent, because its coercive impact would be greatly magnified by the presence of a capable non-strategic nuclear force. The latter can be employed as part of scalable nuclear operations in theatre, from demonstration employment to escalation management, or warfighting. This vision evolved from the early 1980s debates of Ogarkov’s General Staff, with an important caveat: while Ogarkov did not believe that nuclear weapons could be used as an instrument of policy in practice, it is unclear that the current Russian military leadership shares such views given the somewhat different nature of the stakes in the contest.

The Russian General Staff has made considerable progress in building a military to answer the technological advancements and the concepts of operations developed by the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, i.e. what they perceive to be the modern character of war. It was largely Ogarkov’s answer – a military transformation envisioned by the USSR General Staff in the 1980s, even as the Soviet Union itself hurtled towards state collapse. Albeit fitful and perhaps incomplete, the restoration of Russian military power was decades in coming, and now it is here. Whether the United States will be able to successfully adapt to these developments, innovate, invent, and evolve where necessary, remains the open-ended question for our generation of analysts and strategists.

There’s a great deal more that could be said of Ogarkov’s influence, ideas and legacy, so this is an abridged exposition. Comments and feedback are always welcome.

13 thoughts on “The Ogarkov Reforms: The Soviet Inheritance Behind Russia’s Military Transformation

    • it doesn’t forget about Manevr-M, it simply doesn’t mention it along with numerous other items of interest regarding Ogarkov’s legacy, in an effort to be an article and not a book on Ograkov


      • I perceive it otherwise – Soviets were not behind in C4 systems (this is my opinion was a Soviet misperception) and considering when Manevr started as a program (early 1960s) it was not Ogarkov’s legacy either as he wasn’t even a MD commander at that point.

        The Chechen wars experience cited is misguiding, as it does not reflect the Soviet era development of the C4 systems.


      • I disagree. Almost completely. However, I have a great idea. Why don’t you write your own article on this subject and I will read it with great interest.


      • And that is ok, but won’t it be trivial for you to fact check:
        – when did Ogarkov reach a position of authority to influence major programs?
        – when did say Mashina-M/B and Manevr initiate their design? When did they reach trials?


      • Look, I’m approving your comments because I always enjoy hearing another perspective, but you have really not taken the time to put your thoughts together into an argument, substantiate them with anything, and explain why these ideas merit engaging. Hence I suggested that you write an article, or at the very least find an article by someone else arguing what you think, and posting it here. However, your expectation is that I will do all these things for you, because you have some notions about Manevr, Ogarkov, etc. So, because I believe that other readers may benefit from reading why I think you’re incorrect, let me expand just a bit on what I think your argument is.

        Manevr design work is initiated in the 1960s, but we can consider to have begun in earnest 1968-1969 when MG Y. Dmitrievich took over as head designer. Ogarkov becomes Chairman of the state technical commission in 1974, and Chief of General Staff 1977. He is at the same time deputy minister of defense, dealing with issues pertaining to the defense-industrial complex. The Manevr system is developed and tested throughout his tenure in both positions, and accepted into service November 1981 after tests in large scale exercises, under…Ogarkov. Ogarkov appoints Gareev, one of his acolytes, to oversee the system during his tenure as Chief of GS. The system is further modernized in the late 1980s. So you may be operating under the belief that because research into the system began in the 1960s, and Ogarkov only begins to be influential in the sector in the mid-1970s, that somehow he is not responsible for its development and introduction – even though the last 7 years of development take place under his tenure in various senior posts. The system is subsequently implemented under his tenure as well, and modernized under the tenure of those he appointed as his deputies. Now to be clear, I never suggested that there were no systems of command and control in the USSR prior to Ogarkov, or that he was the only genius who thought it would be good to build an automated system of command and control. However, it gets built, tested, and accepted into service under him – end of story. Here is a general link on the system’s history, which is how we could have gotten this conversation going:

        As to your secondary point, I don’t know if the USSR was behind NATO in automated systems of command and control. Never did this assessment. Have you published it somewhere? I only know that this is what Ogarkov thought in the 1970s. I am confident he had better visibility on the problem than you or me at that time.

        I look forward to approving your next comment if it substantively adds or expands on this conversation, and demonstrates some investment of time on your part.


      • I am uncertain if having publications is a reasonable standard for internet discussions from an anon user. As to my style – while it may appear nitpicky, asking leading questions is a useful tool. If you find that style unacceptable within your blog – you can state that directly and I would drop this conversation.

        My point is that he did not intitiate work on those systems and that they reached conceptual maturity by the time he had the ability to influence them, this is why I have asked about the years. I would also argue that by the time he reached that position atleast one 2nd generation system reached service (Luch-1, 1973, and as such we can conclude that 2nd generation thinking (and scientific base behind it, this teaching material: covers it to some extend) was already mature (I can expand how generations differed if that would be of interest to you).
        As such I believe that his influence over the Soviet thinking, particularly in respect to automated C4 systems, is often grossly overstated.

        I would however agree that Ogarkov did create good conditions for maturation of 2nd generation and initiation of work on the 3rd generation of systems even though that work was completed long after he was gone (ie 1998 or later depending on your measure).

        As to the relative level of C4 systems you can look at how and when specific capabilities matured, but sadly the most obvious examples do come later in the time period (post Ogarkov) and thus it is a bit harder to illustrate Soviet advantage, but I would suggest looking into what Luch3/4 (and related technical solutions such as TKS-4 etc) offered, when they were introduced, how they compared against say US technical solutions and when those (because datalinks were mentioned we can look up later Link-4 mods and Link16).
        But at the same time I am unsure how one can present western advantage, when Soviets were consistently thinking a lot about automation, from first generation of automation systems in air and missile defense, the strategic nuclear forces, to automation complexes in ground forces (KSAUNO Mashina-M/B) to submarine based systems (ie on Alfa class).


      • I find leading questions to be an annoying form of communication, as does much of the rest of the internet so my advice is just don’t do it. This isn’t an internet forum. Just advance a reasonable argument and substantiate it with evidence via links to works that support the case. You can stay anonymous, though since we’re discussing Soviet C4 from 1970s I don’t see much reason to hide.

        I think I demonstrated to you in all fairness why you were wrong in the case of Manevr, and have still in no way substantiated your argument that the Manevr system reached conceptual maturity before Ogarkov could influence it when we can clearly see that he was there for much of the development, testing and induction of the very system you were using to make your point. The evidence is simply against your argument, as I showed based on their timeline of development and testing. This helps explain why Ogarkov is given much of the credit he is.

        You have now expanded your argument to other systems because you were not convincing in the case of the Manevr system, and much of the argumentation does indeed strike me as nitpicking. I am not a leading expert on Soviet command and control systems, but I can see that you’re somewhat stuck arguing a negative about Ogarkov’s role.

        This is where your argument is very weak. It would work better if you argued a positive on who should be given credit if not Ogarkov and why. Also your argument on Ogarkov’s influence is overly literal.

        Ogarkov did not invent the idea of C4 in the Soviet Union. He also did not personally assemble all of the systems in his garage. Nobody has suggested that he personally built them. Why does it matter that he, by personal order, did not initiate the work for some of these systems in 1960s? Would it not be odd if as Chief of General Staff he spent the weekends at the institute telling them how each system should work? Probably this is why he assigned M.A. Gareev to oversee Manevr system testing….

        He is credited with being a leading advocate and proponent for their development and adoption. This is likely true for the systems developed in the 1970s and 1980s. I believe he not only influenced their development, but more importantly their adoption. This is absolutely true in the case of systems inducted into the armed forces early-mid 1980s. So there we probably agree. He was in a leading position to influence them 1974-1984, and likely had enduring intellectual influence afterwards, especially because people around him went on to advance some of those ideas. That’s debatable of course. He did not just create a good environment, he invested in 2nd gen development, and initiated 3rd gen systems – assigned people to oversee development, testing, and induction into the armed forces. I’m happy to hear how the generations differed, but I would be happier to hear who you think conceptually influenced them other than Ogarkov, since it would also help your case. Realistically we will find that no one person is responsible for C4 in the USSR, but Ogarkov in fairness deserves the most credit as far as any single individual was relevant to decades of work. So what I’d like to do is take your point on board that his role is over stated, and then ideally have you agree with me that actually probably Ogarkov more than any other single officer deserves credit in this department – even if he did not personally initiate all the systems across 40 years of generations/design.

        On the USSR-NATO C4 balance, or gap, I think being unsure as to the relative advantage is a more reasonable position to take. Soviet mil leadership thought they were behind not in thinking but in deploying automated C4 throughout the force – this is my interpretation. I suspect that the reason for this was a much higher command and control requirement imposed by Soviet force structure. As a vastly larger mass mobilization army, with far more equipment, conscription, different doctrine, etc. Soviet requirements doubtfully aligned with those of the U.S. The question merits study, and I don’t know the answer, only what Ogarkov’s people thought. However, it is equally possible that like any good set of officers, they believed that the best way to get money for automated C4 was to cry that the USSR was horribly behind NATO – this is a programmatic strategy I’ve seen in other countries 🙂


  1. interesting overview thank you. I think what the new generation of Russian officers managed to achieve, first of all, is rethinking the possible battlefield at a conceptual level. After the recent reforms, they have almost everything to mix the traditional and asymmetrical means they have mastered using military force as a limited and rational continuation of politics, so to say..


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