In Ukraine, Russian commanders made a lot of mistakes and one of the most fatal, and personal, was not making an effort to conceal their field headquarters. The Ukrainians took advantage of this and during an eight month period in 2022 attacked Russian command posts over twenty times, killing ten generals and 152 colonels and lieutenant-colonels along with hundreds of lower ranking staff officers. This crippled Russian efforts to carry out offensive operations, and even defensive operations were clumsy because combat units often lacked timely communications with senior commanders. Requests for supplies or updates on the overall situation resulted in Russian operations being sluggish and less effective.
Field headquarters are vulnerable because they are easily identified by the high volume of electronic communications they send. The field headquarters are mobile but often have to be set up in tents without any protection from artillery or missiles. During the Cold War field headquarters were described as “missile magnets”. Western armies never came up with an effective solution while the Russian-dominated Soviet Union relied on the tactic of attacking units advancing in a general direction during the initial offensive and not relying on communications with higher headquarters until the attacking units ran out of essential supplies (usually fuel) and had to halt. This worked against the Germans during the last few years of World War II when the Germans were on the defensive and the Red Army’s minimal electronic tactical communications was sufficient. Over 70 years later everyone is more reliant on electronic communications at a time when detecting such communications is easier, as is hitting them from a distance with guided missiles.
Western armies have sought to solve this problem by using field headquarters that are more mobile and dispersed. Traveling in armored trucks that do not congregate, there is still a lot of electronic communications, but from dispersed targets that are difficult to destroy with missiles. These communications are often encrypted, which slows down enemy use of intercepted messages while the intended recipients of these messages have the decryption codes to quickly render the messages in usable form. These techniques cost more to implement and require headquarters personnel to work harder to get the job done. The Russian use of headquarters in Ukraine made it clear that you either adapt or die. As recently as World War I (1914-18) assignment to a headquarters meant safety and comfort. Over the last century the increased use of aircraft and missiles as well as electronic communications has changed all that. Russia and the NATO nations supporting Ukraine have seen the grim new world for headquarters duty. That’s an incentive to adapt, something not all nations are willing or able to do.