Attrition: The Training Edge

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August 24, 2023: Until 2014, when Ukraine received military assistance from Western nations, the Ukrainian armed forces were based on the Russian model. After all, Ukraine had been part of the Soviet Union until the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. The Russian military was and still is based on the principle that quantity had a quality all its own. Russia was never able to adequately train all the men it conscripted into the military, The Russians adapted by selecting and training about ten percent of their troops to give this group a high degree of skill. Compared to the less-trained troops, the select group were more effective in combat and suffered far fewer casualties than the untrained troops. The Western approach was somewhat different in that Western nations believed that quality would generally defeat quantity. To obtain that qualitative edge you had to know how to train new recruits to a high level of competence in the shortest possible time.

After the Russians invaded in early 2022, the Ukrainians quickly realized that they could not sustain higher casualties among untrained troops and had to increase their training standards to survive. The veteran as well as newly conscripted or enlisted Ukrainian troops appreciated this and eagerly accepted the additional training.

Russia was unable to provide as much training and suffered higher losses because of it. As the training levels of the Ukrainian forces continued to rise, the difference in loss rates between Ukrainian and Russian forces became an embarrassing reality for the Russians. Ukraine was able to bring in a large number of trainers from NATO countries, most of them former or retired NATO soldiers who could operate in Ukraine without causing an international incident. These men were not mercenaries but foreign professional trainers who often had experience training troops of other countries. Ukraine also brought in a lot of foreign professionals for skilled jobs Ukraine could not fill. This included aircraft maintenance and several other military specialties, and here Westerners had almost fifty years of providing such services to foreign militaries, chiefly in the Middle Eastern oil states who needed, and could pay for, these services. There are a number of Western firms that specialize in providing all manner of professionals for short-term employment contracts.

Putin and his generals also noticed the growing difference in casualties between better trained Ukrainian troops and relatively untrained Russian soldiers. The Russians missed what happened when NATO personnel served in Ukraine between 2014 and 2021 and taught Ukrainian officers how to become a NATO-compatible force. That included much more training for new troops and more flexible and effective combat leadership methods. This turned out to be a major advantage because the Russians were still using their rigid Soviet-era command and troops control procedures. By 2021 the Ukrainians had adopted more flexible Western methods where junior commanders were trained to improvise when necessary. The only Russian troops who did any of that were spetsnaz (special operations) forces. Most Russian troops follow detailed orders and, when they encounter something not covered in their orders, they halt and wait for further instructions. Ukrainian forces regularly exploited this. After nearly a year of fighting the Russians have not changed, even though the more flexible Ukrainians constantly win battles because of their initiative.

Ukrainians appreciate this training effort and it makes a difference on the battlefield. This is especially true because Russia is sending more troops to Ukraine with little or no training. That means the Russians suffer higher casualties and the Ukrainians lose far fewer men. After a few months of fighting in 2022, Russia had lost many of its veteran soldiers and officers. Since then, most of the new Russian troops have little training or advanced tech and suffer from low morale and poor leadership. That sort of thing makes a big difference in combat but is often discounted during peacetime.

Ukrainians could find out how this came to be, because the current NATO tactics began emerging in the late 1970s when NATO’s most powerful member (the U.S.) sought a new combat doctrine to make the best use of new weapons, an all-volunteer force and growing air superiority. West Germany was urging the United States to adopt tactics that would mean losing less German territory in the opening stages of a war. In 1982 this led to AirLand Battle doctrine, which emphasized meeting a Warsaw Pact (mainly Russian) invasion by attacking as well as defending. West Germany was reassured as were those who had studied the 1972 Arab-Israeli war, which began with a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria which was quickly defeated by an Israeli “active defense” that emphasized attacking as well as defending. The Americans had already adopted an “active defense” doctrine in 1978 but AirLand Battle was a refinement of that, and evolved to the present with improved versions of these tactics.

The Russians interpreted AirLand Battle as the result of how much post-Vietnam military reforms had turned NATO defense plans into an offensive opportunity for NATO that made any Russian attack less likely to succeed and vulnerable to a NATO invasion of East Europe. The 1991 Iraq war certainly confirmed this, but Russians attributed that to poor quality Iraqi officers and troops.

After the East European Soviet satellite governments collapsed in 1989, it was revealed that the Soviets had become less confident of the ability and willingness of East European Warsaw Pact armies to assist Russian forces in attack or defense. Part of this was due to the aftereffects of the crackdown in East Europe after the uprisings of the 1950s and 60s. Western intel officials interviewed many of East European civilians getting out and thought the refugees were exaggerating. They weren’t and that became obvious in 1989, and again two years later when the USSR itself collapsed. Once the Ukraine War has ended, the Russian military may accept that the NATO tactics were a major reason for their failure in Ukraine. Russia will have a difficult but not impossible time implementing a version of the NATO tactics for their forces. It would mean changing how their officers are trained and finally getting serious about reviving the use of NCOs, something the communists eliminated in the 1920s to prevent a counter-revolution against communist rule.

 

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