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People who already understand how armies are put together should skip Part 1.
Part 1. How armies are put together
One of the things that I find irritating about battles in movies is that the director seems to think that battles are about getting an inchoate mass of soldiers together, giving a rousing speech and yelling “Charge!” That is absolutely not how it works nor ever has worked. Real armies are assembled out of groupings made from smaller groupings, themselves made from still-smaller groupings and so on down to the smallest group.
The smallest group is about ten soldiers. This is the fundamental bonding size – these are your buddies, the people you will really remember, the ones you depend on and who depend on you and for whom you will fight and sacrifice. Yes, you’re fighting for Freedom or some other Large Cause, but it’s really your buddy you’re doing it for. So we start with about ten soldiers.
In the Roman Army this was the contubernium – a corporal, seven legionaries plus two servants who shared a tent and ate together. The fundamental tiny piece out of which everything else was constructed.
The next thing to know is the span of command or control. The commander of each level, is trying, in very difficult circumstances, to get his subordinates to do something they would never do in their right minds. They know perfectly well that the first guy in the house, the lead guy attacking the machinegun post, the first guy out of the trench, the first guy out of the landing craft is almost certain to be killed or injured. It is very difficult to get people to do this and long experience shows that a commander can only control three to five elements.
The next principle to remember is square or triangular. Armies are usually constructed by making the next level of organisation out of three or four of the lower level. Why? With three, you can have two engaged and one in reserve. (A great deal of the problem of a commander, once battle is joined, is knowing where and when to commit his reserves). The “square” structure allows two in contact, one in reserve and one resting, or two up, one in reserve and one manoeuvring. Five or six are too many but two are too few. This introduces the fundamental principles of “fire” (applying the destruction to the enemy) and “movement” (moving so as to apply that destruction most efficaciously). (Movie battles have lots of the first, but little of the last.)
Finally, we have the combat arms – infantry, armour (cavalry in its time) and artillery – and supporting arms. “Combat arms” because they directly apply the violence. Other specialities assist them: engineers help them move, transport moves them, medical patches them up, signals communicate, logistics supplies them and so on. No army can function without them.
In what follows I will discuss infantry organisations because they are the purest soldier – the other two combat arms are machines, whether tanks or guns, and the support arms are functions. But, the principles of infantry organisations are followed in the other components. It should be noted that different military traditions have different names for some of these things but it’s all the same principle.
Three or four “tents” (sections) make a platoon; three or four platoons a company; three or four companies a battalion. At battalion level some specialisation will appear: it may have a mortar platoon, or a machinegun platoon, there will be a simple first aid element, some light engineers, communicators, headquarters and so on. But they are all capable of being ordinary riflemen if needed. The battalion is the first construction that is capable of some sort of independent action – it has enough companies to provide fire and manoeuvre and reserves, its machinegun or mortar elements give it some support. But it is still infantry and still pretty “light”.
The next level is a brigade of three or four battalions. But there is a decision point here: do you envisage this brigade being an “independent brigade” or a sub-division of a larger formation? If the former we introduce the other arms, if the latter it remains all infantry.
An independent brigade, or brigade group, will have, in proportions depending on what you want to do, infantry, tank and artillery battalions from the “combat arms” as well as “support” elements: like combat engineers, medical and dental, post offices, laundry facilities, possibly a helicopter battalion and on and on. It is an independent military town of 4000 to 6000 people which needs almost everything a civilian town needs while also being capable of moving anywhere at a moment’s notice. This formation is intended to carry out military tasks by itself with help from the air forces.
The brigade that is intended to be a piece in the next largest structure would have three or four infantry battalions and would still be mainly riflemen with very little added from the other arms. Next level is the division made of infantry, tank and artillery brigades in the proportion thought useful. In the Second World War divisions were usually the smallest thing one would see on the battlefield that could be given an independent task.
A tank division would be constructed the same way except that the basic “tent” is the tank itself, three or four make a platoon, and then companies, battalions and brigades. Artillery would only rarely be organised into independent structures because while it has fire, it does not have much movement. The supporting arms – engineers, signals, logistics, medical and so on, because they exist for support, rarely appear as independent structures. In short “divisions” are infantry-heavy or tank-heavy (bitter experience has taught and re-taught that none of the combat arms can function alone).
Moving up, three or four divisions make a corps; two to four corps an army and a couple of armies make an army group.
So, a whole gigantic army group is assembled, step by step, out of our little “tents”.
Part 2. What’s All This Mean?
How big a war do you anticipate? A smallish one, a bigger one or a really big one? Your answer will determine the formations that you construct.
An important decision point, which reveals your answer, is whether you add in the other combat arms and specialised support elements at brigade (ie 5000 or so troops) or at division (10,000 or so)? If at brigade, you have made a decision that you expect your future wars to be rather small and that all-arms formations of 5000-or-so soldiers is as big as you need. If on the other hand, you decide to create divisions – formations about three times as large – you are showing that you are expecting a larger war. If you then start combining these divisions into corps, armies or even army groups, you are expecting a really big, all-out war against a first-class enemy. Something the size of World War II in fact. In 1945, for example, the Western Allies entered Germany with three army groups, totalling eight armies, totalling 91 divisions: about four and a half million soldiers.
It is possible to have a bit of both, but it’s only a bit. You may decide on independent brigades but also have a divisional headquarters. But, unless the brigades routinely exercise under the command of a standing divisional headquarters, and that headquarters controls assets, only the idea of divisional operations is kept alive.
In short, if you stop at independent brigades, you are telling the world that you expect, and are planning for, relatively small wars. If you go to divisions you are expecting something larger and if you construct a corps (or army in Russian terminology) you are telling the world that you are preparing for a big war.
And so, an observer who knows how armies are put together, can tell a lot about what kind of war a country expects by understanding how it has put its “tent groups” together.
Part 3. The Russian Army
The Soviet Army was organised for a huge war: it had divisions, organised into armies (corps in Western terminology) which were organised into fronts (armies in Western terminology) and further grouped into TVDs or Theatres of Military Activity (army groups in Western terminology) all backed up by a conscription and reserve system, immense stocks of weapons and gigantic pre-positioned ammunition dumps. This time, the Soviets did not intend to fight the decisive battle an hour’s drive from Moscow. When the USSR collapsed, so did that structure. The most ready elements were based in the Warsaw Treaty countries; Russia took responsibility for them and they were hurriedly moved back, shedding conscripts as they went. The formations which would have been filled up and then supported the ready elements were in Ukraine and Belarus and lost to Russia.
For some years the management of the Russian army did not appear to have understood that everything had changed – that the huge Soviet forces were gone and would not magically fill up with hundreds of thousands of conscripts to fill up the “empty formations”. But, they didn’t know how to make them smaller either: we were always told in talks with the Russian General Staff that the state could not afford to pay the officers the pensions and housing allowances they were entitled to. And so this once mighty army decayed.
Perhaps it was failure in the First Chechen War that finally convinced headquarters that the Russian army was not a temporarily shrunken big war army. We started being told that they were re-designing their army around independent brigades. It was clear from reading the periodic military and strategic doctrine documents that the wars that Moscow foresaw were smaller wars, on the scale of border infractions or a Chechen-sized war in which the enemy would be small agile lightly-armed groups. For such conflicts, anything larger than independent all-arms brigade-sized formations would be too large and complicated.
And, gradually, between the two Chechen wars, “divisions” (which our inspections had shown to be empty of soldiers but full of poorly-maintained equipment and under-paid dispirited officers) disappeared and were replaced by “storage bases”. We assumed these to be a way of avoiding the huge retirement bill while giving officers something useful to do. At the same time independent brigade groups began to appear, with the first ones in the south where trouble was expected. This is one of the reasons why the second Chechen war was a victory for Moscow.
At this stage, (I’m looking at the 2002 CFE data now) there were entities called “divisions” and “armies” (corps) but they were very understrength – apart from the North Caucasus, there were perhaps two divisions in the western area worthy of the name; neither of them deployed to the west. The real force was in the North Caucasus: three divisions, fully staffed and an army (corps) headquarters. But the future was there too with the first two independent brigade groups setting the pattern for the rest.
In short, by the turn of the century, in their published doctrine, in everything they told us in meetings, in deployments and in their formation structures the Russians were showing us they had no offensive designs against NATO and they expected no attacks from NATO. The south was where they saw danger.
The CFE Treaty showed us all this: the Russians were obliged to give us a list of elements showing their precise location and relationship to other structures with the number of soldiers and major weapons; we could go there and check this out at any moment. Thanks to the Treaty we always knew what they had, where they had it and how it was organised. Our inspectors found no discrepancies. But the NATO member countries never ratified the Treaty, continually adding conditions to it and, after years, Russia, which had ratified it, gave up and denounced it. And so we all lost (because it was reciprocal) a transparent confidence building mechanism based on full disclosure with the right to verify.
All this time the Russians told us that that NATO’s relentless expansion, ever closer, was a danger (опасность) although they stopped short of calling it, as they did terrorism, a threat (угроза); “dangers” you watch; “threats” you must respond to. NATO of course didn’t listen, arrogantly assuming NATO expansion was doing Russia a favour and was an entitlement of the “exceptional nation” and its allies.
It is important to keep in mind with the everlasting charges that Russia is “weaponising” this and that, threatening everyone and everything, behaving in an “19th century fashion“, invading, brutalising, and on and on, that its army structure and deployments do not support the accusations. A few independent brigades, mostly in the south, are not the way to threaten neighbours in the west. Where are the rings of bases, the foreign fleet deployments, the exercises at the borders? And, especially, where are the strike forces? Since the end of the USSR they have not existed: as they have told us, so have they acted.
They planned for small wars, but NATO kept expanding; they argued, but NATO kept expanding; they protested, but NATO kept expanding. They took no action for years.
Well, they have now: the 1st Guards Tank Army is being re-created.
This army, or corps in Western terminology, will likely have two or three tank divisions, plus a motorised rifle division or two, plus enormous artillery and engineering support, plus helicopters and all else.
The 1st Guards Tank Army will be stationed in the Western Military District to defend Russia against NATO. It is very likely that it will be the first to receive the new Armata family of AFVs and be staffed with professional soldiers and all the very latest and best of Russia’s formidable defence industry. It will not be a paper headquarters; it will be the real thing: commanded, manned, staffed, integrated, exercised and ready to go.
It should be remembered that the Soviet Armed Forces conducted what are probably the largest operations in the history of warfare. Take, for example, Operation Bagration which started shortly after the D Day invasion. Using Western terms, it involved eleven armies, in support or attacking; recall that the Western allies entered Germany with eight armies – five American, one each British, Canadian and French. Tank corps (armies in Soviet/Russian) are the hammers – either they deliver the decisive counter-attack after the defence has absorbed the attack (Stalingrad or Kursk) or they deliver the offensive strike. The decision to create a tank army (armoured corps in Western terminology) is an indication that Russia really does fear attack from the west and is preparing to defend itself against it.
In short, Russia has finally come to the conclusion that
NATO’s aggression means it has to prepare for a big war.
As a historical note, Dominic Lieven’s book shows the preparations Emperor Alexander made when he realised that, sooner or later, Napoleon was going to come for Russia. And everyone knows how that ended. As Field Marshal Montgomery, who had more experience of big war than anyone in the Pentagon or White House today, said: “Rule 1, on page 1 of the book of war, is: ‘Do not march on Moscow’.”
This is what the light-hearted decision to expand NATO, “colour revolutions”, regime changes, cookies on the Maidan and incessant anti-Russian propaganda has brought us to.
And it won’t be a war that NATO will win.