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Early Development

Headquarters of Mongolian partisan army, March 1921, near Altanbulag. Courtesy Institute of Party History, Ulaanbaatar.

The provisional national government in March 1921 declared that every male in the country, regardless of class, must perform military service. This compulsory service included the large numbers of monks and others who traditionally had been exempt, although in practice monks were not conscripted during the 1920s. The new government also proclaimed that it could declare war, negotiate peace, and determine budgets. A Mongolian-Russian accord signed on November 5, 1921, provided Russian assistance in organizing a regular army and in conducting training. In addition, special Comintern representatives eventually set up a military council in the government and propagated militant communism. Thus began a continuing close military association between the Soviet Union and Mongolia, which has endured with varying intensity through 1989 (see Foreign Relations). This association helped to communize and modernize Mongolia, as well as to provide the Soviet Union with a loyal ally and a buffer against Japan and later China.

In the early 1920s, Russian White Guard remnants remained as brigands in remote parts of Mongolia, and Chinese bandits and detachments of warlord armies constantly encroached upon the borders. Thus one of the first orders of business for the new Mongolian government was to establish a strong and politically reliable army. To help suppress White Guard remnants and Chinese bandits and to carry out Comintern policy, detachments of the Soviet Red Army remained in Mongolia at least until 1925. Thereafter, until the revolts of the early 1930s and the Japanese border probes beginning in the mid-1930s, Red Army troops in Mongolia amounted to little more than instructors and guards for diplomatic and trading installations.

The development and politicization of the Mongolian People's Army became an essential element of the Comintern's plan for Mongolia. As early as August 1921, the Main Political Administration of the army was established to supervise the work of the political commissars and the party cells in all army units, and to act as a political link between the Central Committee of the Mongolian People's Party and the army (see Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party). This politicization of the army served not only to ensure its loyalty, but also that of the government at large. Up to one-third of the soldiers were members of the party, which became the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party in 1924; still others belonged to the Mongolian Revolutionary Youth League. The army received up to 60 percent of the government budget in these early years, and it expanded from 2,560 men in 1923 to 4,000 in 1924, and to 17,000 by 1927. The more leftist members of the government, who also were prominent in the party, tended to be connected with the army as well, which made the army an important political force in the 1920s. With the close cooperation of the Red Army and the Mongolian and Soviet secret police, purges of rightists and nationalists were conducted, and the Buddhist theocracy was severely curtailed.

Most of the Altanbulag revolutionaries - soldiers and politicians alike - appear to have been more nationalist than communist. Choybalsan and a few of his immediate associates were exceptions. From an early age, Choybalsan had been Russian- oriented by schooling and communist-influenced by Bolsheviks at the Russian consular compound and print shop in Yihe Huree. In the early 1920s, however, the nationalists either became communists or were purged. Choybalsan's close cooperation with Comintern agents and the Soviet Union enabled him to survive to become premier.

Horloogiyn Dandzan, another member of the original Altanbulag government, succeeded Sukhe Bator as minister of war and commander in chief of the army when Sukhe Bator died in 1923. With the growth of the Mongolian People's Army and the reduction of the Soviet garrison, Dandzan thought he had sufficient power to opt for a Mongolian nationalist policy. Dandzan's anti-Soviet remarks to the Third Party Congress in 1924, however, led to his arrest by armed Mongolian Revolutionary Youth League members, directed by Choybalsan. His trial and execution were completed within twenty-four hours, and Choybalsan was elevated to commander in chief of the army. The portfolio of minister of war was given to Sandagdargiyn (Khatan Baatar) Majsarjab, a revolutionary military hero who had secured western Mongolia for the government. Members of the new top command, however, did not have the supreme authority enjoyed by Sukhe Bator and Dandzan. Comintern agents, many of whom were Russian-trained Buryat Mongols acting either as advisers or as actual administrators, were the real power in the government, which was backed by the secret police and by the Red Army. They instituted organizational changes that effectively attenuated the authority exercised by Majsarjab and by Choybalsan.

The Military Council was inserted in the chain of command between the Presidium of the National Great Hural and Council of Ministers and the minister of war. The council was headed by a Buryat Comintern agent, and its members were among the more trustworthy leftists. Furthermore, interposed between the commander in chief of the army and his staff departments was a Soviet general as chief of the general staff. Thus restricted, the Mongolian military leadership would have had difficulty becoming deviationist even if it had chosen to. Majsarjab may have tried, for he soon was executed, but Choybalsan displayed complete loyalty to the Soviets. He succeeded Majsarjab as minister of war and continued his rise. In 1926 Choybalsan was a member of both the Central Committee and the Presidium of the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party.

Even with substantial Soviet assistance, organizing and training the Mongolian army in the 1920s was a frustrating experience for both the Soviets and the Mongolians. It helped that the recruits were excellent riders and good shots. The training base of experienced soldiers, however, initially was little better than it had been ten years before when the Russians first attempted to train Mongolian soldiers. The illiteracy rate of 90 percent among the population at large must have been reflected among the recruits. Venereal disease, tuberculosis, and trachoma were endemic. About one-third of the men of military age were monks exempt from military service in the 1920s. The young nomads who were conscripted were resentful of military discipline, were passive by conditioning, and were influenced against military service by the monks. Finally, the building of the army had to be carried out along with the simultaneous suppression of revolts in the Hovd and the Uliastay areas of western Mongolia in the 1922-23 and the 1925-26 periods and along with guarding the borders against the encroachments of Chinese bandits and warlord armies.

From the beginning, the army consisted of a cadre of regulars augmented by short-term conscripts, who were trained and returned to their homes as part of a reserve pool from which they could be mobilized when needed. In the beginning, both regulars and conscripts frequently deserted; a deserter was virtually impossible to apprehend in the steppes or the mountains.

Initially, training of conscripts lasted only three months before they returned home. Although the training period was short, it was an effort to bring as many men as possible under the unifying and modernizing influence of military training and political indoctrination. Administration of conscription and the conduct of post-service military training were delegated to aymag and to somon councils. Those eighteen years and older were conscripted locally and were sent either to the capital or to one of the principal garrison towns. Upon completion of their three-month training period, they returned to their native districts, where they were to reassemble every three years for refresher training and maneuvers. The population, however, still was largely nomadic and constantly on the move, and the administrative structure of the subdivisions was rudimentary and inefficient at best. Because individuals were hard to locate - if indeed they were known to exist - initial and retraining call-ups were hard to enforce.

By 1926 the government hoped to train 10,000 conscripts annually and to increase the training period to six months. Chinese intelligence reports in 1927 indicated that between 40,000 and 50,000 reservists could be mustered at short notice. These reports greatly overestimated the mobilization potential of the Mongolian army. In the fall of 1929, a general mobilization was called to test the training and reserve systems. The expected turnout was 30,000, but only 2,000 presented themselves. This fiasco prompted several changes and reforms. A new Soviet chief adviser arrived early the following year to aid in enforcing military service, but his unpopularity provoked an assassination attempt. The Military Council was reorganized, and in September, when the National Great Hural met, it strengthened the military service enforcement provisions of the legal code (see Government Structure). These actions, together with new laws that abolished all but a few monasteries - returning monks to civilian life, prohibiting young men from becoming monks, and making them available for conscription - laid the foundation for an effective army.

By the end of the 1920s, despite its deficiencies, an army with some cohesion and effectiveness had been established by Soviet instructors and Mongolian leaders through both patient efforts and draconian measures. The groundwork was laid for an army that was to put down the popular revolts of the early 1930s despite some disaffection, to meet the challenge - with its Soviet allies - of large-scale border clashes initiated by the Japanese, and finally to mount the invasions of Manchuria and Inner Mongolia in 1945. In March 1925, an aviation branch was formed with four aircraft; the anniversary of this event continues to be celebrated annually as Mongolian Aviation Day. By 1927 the army, almost exclusively cavalry, numbered about 17,000 mounted troops, and it boasted more than 200 heavy machine guns, 50 mountain howitzers, 30 field guns, and 2 armored cars. The basic unit was the 2,000-man cavalry regiment of three squadrons. Each 600-plus- man squadron had five companies, a machine gun company, and an engineer unit. Cavalry regiments were organized into larger units - brigades or divisions - which included artillery and service support units. The chief characteristic of this force was mobility over the great distances of Mongolia; small mounted units were able to cover more than 160 kilometers in 24 hours.

Last Update: 2010-12-07