Leadership: The Best of Frenemies


November 8, 2009: Greece has joined the growing list of countries that are putting more emphasis on having the best trained troops in their combat units. To do this, in what is still largely a conscript army, the Greeks have been recruiting long term volunteers (who join on seven or five year contracts.) For the last eight years, the Greeks have been attracting these men and placing them in elite units (raiders, or " katadromeis", marines, paratroopers, and airmobile infantry, as well as selected tank and artillery crews). They now have 21,000 of these very professional troops in service. This comprises over 20 percent of the army. The conscripts are still the majority, and these are assigned mostly to support jobs. There are still conscript infantry units, but they are stationed on secondary fronts (Albania, Macedonia, training units and reserve divisions to be filled out by reservists in wartime.) The professional troops are facing the Turks, an ancient, and formidable, enemy.

All this is actually an ancient practice that got downplayed in the last century, as the need for tech savvy troops in support jobs became a higher priority. But it was rediscovered that you need your best (or at least best trained) men up front if you want to win. This does not mean that conscription always produces lower-quality troops. This is not always true, conscripts can be formidable.

Whether conscript soldiers are well-trained and motivated, and thus more effective, depends on a number of factors. Certainly, conscripts that are faced with poor equipment, poor leadership, poor training, poor discipline, and corruption in the ranks are bound to perform poorly in combat. Probably the best example of this is the Russian soldier in the Afghan and first Chechen wars, where many of the troops were either alcoholic, suicidal, on drugs, or all of the above. But these standards apply to all combat troops, be they conscripts or volunteers.

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have had conscription since the founding of the country and are considered to be among the best in the world. Why? The same thing that makes the American and British armies so successful: good equipment, good training, and good leadership. The IDF’s officer and NCO corps is particularly good and training focuses on motivating troops in battle and taking the initiative. The Israelis have a system where essentially every officer was first an enlisted man and an NCO. For example, after basic training and completion of their branch school, a certain number of conscripts are selected to attend tank commander courses, which turns them into sergeants. Afterwards, the graduates are given the option of obtaining a commission. They would then return to their units as platoon commanders. This not only helps reduce elitism in the IDF, but also fosters a close bond between enlisted men, NCOs, and officers.

An excellent example of a conscript system with serious drawbacks is the old Soviet Red Army. All Soviet men were conscripted for two years upon their 18th birthday, just like the Israelis. Although Soviet soldiers were generally well-drilled and trained in basic combat skills, the absence of a real NCO corps was a major pitfall. In the Soviet system, still used in Syria and a few other countries, the NCOs job is basically just to supervise training. All real responsibility was delegated to the officers. A wide gulf existed between enlisted men and their NCOs and the officer corps. Officers were generally drawn from the upper classes of society, were Slavic Russians dominated, and received better clothing, equipment, and pay than their subordinates. Few, if any officers, were from non-Slavic republics.

The duration of service is another factor that determines the quality of draftee soldiers. In Israel and Egypt, conscripts serve for at least two years, which is long enough to teach and develop high-quality combat skills. Four years is ideal, but few countries keep their conscripts for that long. In other countries, however, the duration of service is much shorter, only a year or so. Many times, such soldiers are poorly-trained and perform poorly in combat, such as the Argentine troops in the 1982 Falklands war, where most of the Argentine troops were one-year draftees with only two or three months of training. Colombia also uses a short-term draft system, with conscripts serving between 12-18 months. Not enough time to teach much at all before the next batch of raw recruits comes in. Only countries with larger defense budgets, like Finland and Greece, can get away with this, but even then, a minimum of at least two years service is still better.

Greece makes up for their short mandatory service time with an exceptional NCO and officer corps to lead their men. Basically, the idea of conscripts being bad troops really isn’t true. Just like anything else in the military, it takes time and practice to develop essential skills and good combat performance require competent leadership. The Greeks have also found that their recruitment of higher-paid and longer term volunteers, also enhances their NCO quality. Many of these long-term volunteers decide to make the army a career, and their experience in all-volunteer units causes them to instill higher standards in the conscripts they eventually have to work with.

Like most other conscript armed forces, many young men volunteer for longer service in the air force of navy. In Greece, these two services are less than 20 percent conscripts. But it's the army that decides wars, and Greeks are putting their best men into elite infantry units that are more likely to win, even against the Turks.

Note that while Greece and Turkey have, technically, been NATO allies for over half a century, a thousand years of mutual hostility (and centuries of Turkish occupation) has left in its wake many territorial and political disputes. NATO has long had to deal with the fact that, while Greece and Turkey would jointly resist a Soviet invasion, the two NATO allies were definitely frenemies (simultaneously friends and enemies.) The Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, and the two nations have had to work hard to avoid falling into violence born of centuries of bloody animosity.





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