Armor: Why BTGs Died In Ukraine

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December 4, 2022: Russia has stopped sending troops to Ukraine as members of Battalion Tactical Groups or BTGs, starting in August. This was done quietly and there were practical reasons for this. First, most of the Russian troops sent to Ukraine since August have been poorly trained light infantry and were often just used to build fortifications.

Russian losses of junior officers and NCOs (soldiers with a few years of service) were heavy in the first few months of fighting, and with few replacements for them. Normally, officers require several years of training and even the effective World War II practice of promoting combat experienced enlisted soldiers to officer rank failed because any Russian soldier with several years of service, and several months of experience in Ukraine, is reluctant to return to Ukraine in any capacity. The volunteer soldiers in the Russian army are called “contracti” because they sign a contract to serve a number of years with higher pay than conscripts. Russia has still not been able to develop Western-style NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers). The best they can do is use veteran soldiers with a few years of experience and sense of responsibility who are willing to carry out some NCO functions, like telling new recruits what equipment they will receive and where to go next. Unlike Western NCOs, most Russian NCOs are less eager, or able, to train and lead new recruits.

With all this in mind, the big surprise (to Russian generals) was general failure of the BTGs as they took part in the February invasion of Ukraine. The current BTG composition has been around for about a decade and began to evolve from earlier “battle group” ideas formed in the 1980s. Until 2022 the Russian version of the battle group had consistently proved successful in many small wars, including the rather large operation in Afghanistan during the 1980s. BTG development began during World War II when it was found that forming temporary task forces containing tank and infantry units were more effective. The Germans did the same thing, calling them battle groups and the Americans adopted the practice after World War II.

The Russians did not take into account that there was an important difference between the Western battle groups and the current BTGs. The Western battle groups were kept simple (mainly infantry and tank companies) with the addition of combat engineers or artillery as needed. American infantry officers got lots of realistic training using these battle groups. Western armies had many career NCOs to make sure their troops performed well in battle groups.

Russia expanded their BTG concept after 2000 by adding more support units. Eventually this meant that each BTG had most of the support capabilities usually found in a division. These support units were smaller in the BTG, often just a dozen or so specialists riding in a few trucks. The BTG commander put an officer in charge of all these non-combat support troops and the dozens of trucks they traveled in. The combat element of a BTG always consisted of a few hundred infantry and ten or twenty tanks. But now there were small (platoon sized) detachments of specialists. The only ones that were always present were a dozen or so self-propelled artillery (152mm guns) and somewhat more 82mm and 120mm mortars. There was also a medical detachment. In the last decade a detachment of fire control troops was added to coordinate all that firepower with some UAVs to scout for targets. There was also a small number of self-propelled anti-aircraft weapons in addition to the portable anti-aircraft missiles carried by individual soldiers. There were several other specialist units that could be added as needed. Total strength of a BTG varied depending on how it was assembled. Personnel strength could vary from 600 to 800 personnel.

These new BTGs became the standard for Russian divisions, which now consisted of two or three brigades. Each of these usually had just two BTGs. The division had fewer support units because most of these troops were now assigned to BTGs or brigades. By 2021 there were 170 BTGs. The combat elements (one tank company, two or three infantry companies and one or two batteries of artillery) contained contract (volunteer) troops while most of the rest of the BTG depended on conscripts. The conscripts had several shortcomings. They could not be used in a combat zone; their term of service was only one year and they were not as well trained as the contract troops. Conscripts were often not formally trained at all. By law conscripts were not allowed in a combat zone unless it was wartime and they were defending Russia.

This massive adoption of BTGs was a mistake that became obvious after nearly half the available BTGs were sent into Ukraine in early 2022. Many newly formed BTGs were sent to the Ukrainian border in late 2021 to threaten Ukraine and if that did not work, to invade.

The flaw in the BTGs was not obvious until they encountered well-armed and motivated opponents. That happened soon after they crossed the border into Ukraine. The leadership of these BTGs could not handle the complex composition of BTGs. Senior Russian leaders knew this from the performance of BTG leaders during military exercises. This was not a surprise as the quality of officers had declined in the last decade and there were still not enough experienced NCOs while contract soldiers with a few years’ experience were not an adequate substitute in combat.

The lack of competent leadership meant the troops in the BTGs were poorly used during combat. That led to many troops abandoning their vehicles and fleeing or surrendering if they encountered Ukrainian troops. The Ukrainians concentrated on hitting the very vulnerable tanks and light armored vehicles (like BMPs or wheeled armored infantry carriers) with a variety of modern portable anti-tank weapons that often destroyed or disabled tanks or BMPs quickly. This was made worse because BTG leaders failed to carry out effective reconnaissance or get the infantry out of their armored vehicles to protect the vehicles from Ukrainian infantry armed with anti-tank weapons.

Worse for the Russians, Ukrainians concentrated on attacking the BTG trucks carrying supplies and maintenance personnel. The trucks were the last to enter Ukraine because there were a lot of conscripts driving the trucks and these conscripts were not told they were driving into Ukraine. Instead, many were told they were on another training exercise. Most of these vehicles were destroyed or abandoned because of Ukrainian airstrikes, artillery fire and ground troops using whatever weapons they had. In one case a retired Ukrainian soldier was given a single-shot RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade Launcher) by some passing Ukrainian troops. The elderly veteran used that one RPG to destroy a Russian fuel truck, after allowing many cargo trucks to pass. The fiery explosion ignited other trucks including some carrying fuel. Soon the truck column was in flames and the surviving drivers were walking back to the border. The attacks on the trucks meant that the combat units could not refuel and had to stop before they reached their objectives. Ukrainians now had lines of stationary Russian vehicles to attack. The few competent or determined BTG officers were soon killed as they tried to get their troops to put up an effective fight. These young officers had no experience and many had little or no training for combat, such as a weather officer ordered to try and perform as an armored reconnaissance officer. Senior Russian officers (colonels and generals) who did have experience were under tremendous pressure from their military and political commanders to get the problem fixed. Many went to the front line BTGs to show the junior officers how it was done, often by example. At least 150 senior officers were killed and many more wounded. This further weakened the leadership of the brigades and divisions that went into Ukraine dependent on their BTGs.

The BTGs and leadership problems were known to many senior civilian and uniformed military leaders. There had been several reform efforts after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. The Russian Defense Ministry introduced some unexpected changes in 2013. For the first time the “Command Center '' for the military was physically separate (in a new building complex) from the Stavka, which was the traditional General Staff that had long handled planning and administration of the military. This was part of a trend towards installing more Western style civilian control over the military high command.

At the same time there was an effort to placate military traditionalists. A new Defense Minister reversed the conversion of the two elite divisions stationed in Moscow; the Kantemyrovskaya tank division and the Tamanskaya motor-rifle division, to the new brigade/BTG structure. The ministry also ordered the return of ideological training for troops and increased the use of informants and opinion surveys to monitor morale and loyalty in the military. This included a return of the Soviet era "Zampolit '' (political officer). In Soviet times every unit commander had a deputy (Zampolit) who represented the communist party and could veto any of the commanders’ decisions. The Zampolit was responsible for troop loyalty and political correctness; sort of a communist chaplain. In 2010 the army reintroduced chaplains, something that the communists did away with in the 1920s. The new chaplains were, however, expected to report on the loyalty of the troops to church and state. Additional officers were added to handle ideological training and monitoring morale. Not exactly the return of the Zampolit but a return of most of the Zampolits’ duties.

This was not what a lot of senior officers expected when the reformist Defense Minister (Anatoly Serdyukov) took over in 2007 and was replaced by Sergei Shoigu in 2012. At first it was believed that Shoigu was going to reverse a decade of military reforms, but that did not happen. Some senior members of the Defense Ministry were openly advocating returning to the use of divisions, instead of Western style brigades, which had proved successful in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mixing BTGs with a large reserve force was something that was only talked about and rarely acted on. The reason for the demand to keep the divisions was the possibility of a large war in the east. The only major foe out there was China, but was not mentioned because China had become an economic and diplomatic asset for Russia. Nevertheless, China is and remains the major potential threat to Russia. The Chinese Army is three times larger and has 15 tank and mechanized infantry divisions it could place on the Russian border. China is also reorganizing its ground forces into one based on brigades rather than divisions. China believes that will be more effective than divisions and they may be right.

Officially Russia ceased to consider Chinese ground forces a threat as Russian nuclear weapons are supposed to stop a Chinese ground assault. This is what kept the Russian brigade reorganization efforts alive, because brigades are more effective in dealing with insurrections and low-level unrest.

Traditionalists in the Defense Ministry pointed out that nuclear war would destroy both nations and that the current situation allows China to quickly grab the Russian Far East (which China has long claimed) and then call for a peace conference. This is the sort of tactic China has used in the past and the Chinese are big fans of their imperial past and its “ageless wisdom”, but senior Russian leaders believed they could use diplomacy and new, faster moving conventional forces to prevent any Chinese use of “grab and declare peace” tactics.

For a while it seemed that Russian reformers were on the defensive. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, there have been growing efforts to drag the army out of the 19th century. There was substantial resistance to change, especially when it involved ancient and often uniquely Russian practices. All these new ideas from the West were seen as, well, un-Russian. A year after reformist Defense Minister Serdyukov was replaced, most of his reforms continued and some, like making life more comfortable for the troops. were expanded. Soldiers now had showers in the barracks and lots of hot water. The food was getting better and buffet style dining, used for decades in the West, was introduced. New barracks were built and life in the military was much less like being in prison, which is what it resembled until the reforms began.

For generations Russian conscripts were confined to their barracks when not on duty. This was unpleasant, as the barracks were often decrepit and uncomfortable. The barracks were upgraded over the last decade to include flush toilets, showers, central heating, washing machines, and many other amenities Western troops take for granted. In these old barracks troops were allowed to bathe once a week in a bathhouse that was often improvised for the occasion. In addition to showers in all barracks, along with wi-fi in some and new furnishings, the new barracks had flush toilets and central heating. During the Cold War Russian troops stationed in East Germany lived in modern barracks, often ones formerly used by the Nazis, and that was one reason why duty in Germany was considered a choice assignment.

Military reform has never come easily to Russia and usually occurred when a particularly strong and harsh ruler was in charge. In modern times Russia has undergone four periods of major military reform. The first was in the early 18th century, under Czar Peter the Great. The next was under Field Marshall Milyutin in the late 19th century. In the 1930s over a dozen daring reformers made the military ready for modern warfare. However, most of these men were executed by a paranoid dictator, Josef Stalin, just before World War II. For over 60 years there was not much real reform, until 2008, when Defense Minister Serdyukov sought to make the Russian military similar to what the West had long possessed. This meant fewer officers and conscripts, more NCOs and volunteers, plus new equipment, weapons, training methods, and tactics. Serdyukov made a lot of enemies in the military with his reform efforts and was replaced in 2012. One of Serdyukov’s most unpopular moves was to shrink the size of the officer corps. Despite the fact that most of the officers being let go were not really needed, this elicited a lot of protests from active duty and retired officers.

Despite the complaints, the mass officer firings continued. Shrinking the officer corps proved bad for officer morale, as could be expected. Moreover, most of the good officers had left after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Russian military’s budget was slashed by 80 percent.

Building an NCO corps of long-serving soldiers was difficult because the 1930s reforms eliminated them as a potential source of revolutionaries. Officers, all members of the Communist Party, were considered more politically reliable than NCOs. Another big problem was the collapse of the Soviet-era military industries. With orders from the Russian military disappearing in the 1990s, many of these firms disappeared or switched to civilian products. Those that survived did so with export orders. The defense industries lost their best people, who left for better paying jobs overseas or in new non-defense firms in Russia.

Then there's corruption, which expanded in the military in the 1990s when the size of the force shrank over 70 percent. Officers and troops sold off a lot of unneeded military equipment and officers stole money they had control over. This caused all sorts of problems, from lack of equipment maintenance and barracks to shortages of food or fuel to stay warm during the severe Russian winter. These food shortages caused hunger and even some starvation deaths among lower-ranking troops. After 2000 military prosecutors have been busy sending unlucky corrupt officers to jail, but that did not even begin to eliminate such misconduct. Low troop morale remained a problem. It was not surprising that the government gave priority to keeping nuclear weapons, and the missiles that deliver them, in good shape. As for the rest of the armed forces, change kept coming very slowly but persistently. The ancient Russian army traditions are gradually being peeled away and the Russian army is slowly evolving into a 21st century force. The new Defense Minister Shoigu didn’t halt the reforms, he just made them more palatable for the traditionalists and made it clear that the big changes were here to stay. Shoigu was a loyal and often effective associate of Vladimir Putin. Unfortunately, Shoigu slowly became more compliant than effective and was a major supporter of Putin’s claim that Ukraine was really part of Russia and most Ukrainians secretly agreed with that. When that proved to be false during the first weeks of the 2022 invasion, Shoigu got behind the fantasy that Russians were actually fighting NATO troops in Ukraine and that explained the failures of the BTGs and the Russian military in general. Preaching fantasies like this united Ukrainians and NATO nations and caused them to increase efforts to get the Russians out of Ukraine and Putin out of a job.

Mentioning such Russian problems and failures was soon outlawed in Russia. That slowed, but did not stop the spread of popular resistance to the war effort. Survivors of service in a BTG sent to Ukraine were eager to find out what caused the disaster that killed so many fellow BTG members. The BTGs did not die in vain.

 


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