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The Russian Army's Greatest Weakness
It's one of the U.S. Army's Greatest strengths.
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invasion of Ukraine Special Military Operation to Take Ukraine in 3 Days™ has proven to be deeply flawed, to put it mildly. Now in its fifth month, it’s been an absolute soup sandwich for a long list of reasons, including too few infantry with too much armor, unsecured comms, a shocking lack of logistical capacity, and horrible morale. This week the Pentagon estimated that upwards of 80,000 (!) Russian soldiers have been killed or injured—more than half of the initial invading force. Keep in mind that they’ve achieved none of Putin’s objectives. That’s what happens when you launch a major war in Europe, against the continent’s second largest country, with a force operating at peacetime manning levels.
Less attention has been paid, however, to leadership and the way Russian forces are structured, and how these critical elements effect the wider campaign at the tactical level. Ukraine has a real advantage when it comes to military culture, which is a reflection of society writ large. Nominal leaders in the Russian Army treat their soldiers like garbage. This not only fosters animosity, but it makes trusting one’s immediate superiors very difficult. During peacetime, good leadership in garrison is important for the same reasons it’s important in any organization. But during a time of war, the importance is increased tenfold. The stakes are never higher. You have to trust the people giving you orders when you’re out in harms way, and this trust is practically nonexistent in Russia’s Army.
Once you really start to dig into what “normal” looks like for contemporary Russian forces, what you find is a chain of command so centralized that soldiers are utterly incapable of making on-the-spot decisions because of this lack of trust.
Their Weakness, Our Strength
The U.S. Army is better than the Russian Army. A lot better. The dichotomy between the two is at least 10x wider than anyone previously believed before Putin’s blunder exposed Russian forces for what they really are, which is almost comically incompetent. I am biased, obviously and enormously, but I think this assessment holds up quite well under scrutiny, especially considering one of the U.S. Army’s greatest strengths is one of the Russian Army’s greatest weaknesses: An NCO corps.
Since World War II, Russia has mostly made do without a noncommissioned officer corps in practice if not in name, in large part because Putin still hasn’t fully modernized his military. It’s really kind of mind-blowing. When I try to imagine what the U.S. Army would be like sans noncommissioned officers, I think of a skyscraper missing its steel skeleton structure. Without all the bars and beams to reinforce the concrete, the distribution of weight will be uneven and it’s only a matter of time before the building collapses.
If your standard U.S. Army company of approximately 200 soldiers were to operate without NCOs, this would be the equivalent of having just six officers responsible for every little detail in that unit. If that kind of lopsided ratio seems unwise, especially in combat when you’re going to be presented with situations that call for real-time decision-making, that’s because it is.
Even within a non-military context it’s easy to come up with countless examples of elite organizations that capitalize on effective command and control to achieve success. Does New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick do everything on his own? Of course not. He’s indispensable as the captain of the ship, but Billy B isn’t the one who makes sure that there’s water on the sidelines, or that players don’t leave their helmets in the locker room after away games, or that nobody pulls an Urban Meyer by not getting on the damn plane, etc. Belichick delegates.
Most modern militaries rely on a strong cadre of NCOs who are charged with the care, training, and readiness of every soldier, not to mention unit fitness, vehicle and weapon maintenance, and squad-based tactics.1 In other words, they do a lot of important stuff. But the chain of command structure Russia has in lieu of a professionalized NCO backbone means that more often than not, a lot of this important stuff isn’t done, and what is done isn’t done well.
There’s also very little discipline without good leadership at the squad level, which, combined with the Russian Army’s lack of food and supplies and proper gear, is why things like this have become a regular occurrence. That same lack of discipline gets soldiers killed, too:
“The Ukrainians have put up a drone video armed with thermal imaging. It’s so chilly out there that the Russian tank crews sit with their engines running through the night. As the Ukrainian drone hovers over the woods in the blackness, it picks out the Russian tanks hiding in the cold. Each Russian exhaust spills its presence, white on black. Then Ukrainian artillery, pinpointed by the drone, moves in for the kill and takes out each white dot, one by one.” — New Lines Magazine
Complacency kills. Never in a million years would your average hardass American NCO (or officer, for that matter) allow something like that to happen. You’d freeze in that ice box all night, but you’d still have a pulse come dawn.
Conscripts and Contractors Don’t Make Good Soldiers
While the U.S. makes it a priority to train and educate enlisted soldiers who become NCOs as they’re promoted through the ranks, the Russian military has remained a hybrid of sorts, integrating a contract-professional system reliant on conscription. All able-bodied Russian men are obliged to complete a year of compulsory military service before they turn 27. The Institute for the Study of War reports that the annual conscription pool is around 1.2 million, but “only about half” actually show up because officials and doctors are often bribed. According to official statistics, there are 1.9 million Russian Army personnel, about 80% of whom are conscripts.
There’s no career path for Russian soldiers; you either do your one year and be done, or you become a commissioned officer. Most guys leave. The shortened 12-month conscript term provides at most five months of utilization time for these conscripts. This is a big deal in a profession that puts a premium on experience. It also means lieutenants in the Russian Army basically have to do everything themselves. On paper, your standard Russian platoon is organized with some soldiers wearing corporal or sergeant’s stripes, but they’re not given the authority and autonomy to be true small unit leaders, which means communication is a one-way street. If you’re not an officer, you have no tactical flexibility; the word “initiative” isn’t in your vocabulary.
“They are not in charge of, you know, adapting the unit. They’re not in charge of tactics and things like that…The person in charge of everything is the officer. That’s why the Russian military is officer top-heavy. The officer corps handles all those issues that NCOs might,” said Michael Kofman, research program director at the Center for Naval Analyses’s Russian Studies Program.
Good NCOs sharpen a unit, ensuring that soldiers are competent on individual tasks—all the little things that make a 40-man platoon function like a well-oiled machine during combat. In the U.S. Army, a platoon sergeant and squad leaders allow a platoon leader to focus on tactical imperatives and keeping everyone alive. Within each squad, squad leaders (NCOs) assign two E-4s (specialists) as team leaders tasked with looking out for the most junior soldiers within that same squad. The Modern War Institute at West Point refers to this kind of decentralized leadership as “Mission Command.”
During the Ia Drang battle in Vietnam, there were multiple occasions, in multiple platoons, during a 24-hour period that the most senior man in the platoon became the new Platoon Leader until he had to be replaced by the next senior man—and every time this happened, the guy thrust into the role performed admirably because the U.S. Army believes rank and file leadership is important.
Command had passed from Lieutenant Henry Herrick to Sergeant Carl Palmer to Sergeant Robert Stokes as each, in turn, died fighting. Now it was the turn of buck sergeant Ernie Savage. “Sergeant Savage came up on the radio,” Captain Herren recalls. “He said Herrick, Palmer, and Stokes were dead; to give him more artillery and he would direct it in as close as possible. We could never establish the platoon’s exact position but Lieutenant Riddle could adjust fire on Savage’s sensing, and he began to do that.” The extraordinary, unyielding resistance that the dozen or so effective fighters were putting up, plus the artillery barrages that Ernie Savage was bringing down, finally beat off the heavy enemy attack.” — We Were Soldiers Once…and Young
American soldiers are encouraged to take action in the absence of orders. But what we’re seeing happen in Russian units is that when the PL takes a 7.62 round to the dome, for example, soldiers basically react with some invective and then just look around for a while before making a beeline to the nearest tree line. The military contractors and “professional soldiers” Russia employs to do the small but critically significant operational duties and tasks that good NCOs oversee predominantly excel at embezzling. This, in combination with relying on conscripts, is more or less the framework of the Russian Army. Slightly problematic when the entire system is practically designed to implode during the times when you can least afford it to.
Russian doctrine relies on centralized command and control, while the U.S. uses mission-style command and control. The latter emphasizes the individual initiative of every soldier so that they can adapt to the exigencies of a chaotic and ever-changing battlefield in order to accomplish a mission. Putin has never embraced the decentralized mission-style command-and-control structure that is the hallmark of NATO militaries, and it’s proven costly.
“The Russians don’t empower their soldiers,” Ukraine's former Minister of Defense, Andriy Zagorodnyuk, explained to the Atlantic. “They tell their soldiers to go from Point A to Point B, and only when they get to Point B will they be told where to go next, and junior soldiers are rarely told the reason they are performing any task. This centralized command and control can work, but only when events go according to plan. When the plan doesn’t hold together, their centralized method collapses. No one can adapt, and you get things like 40-mile-long traffic jams outside Kyiv.”
Ukraine, meanwhile, has spent the past decade working closely with U.S. advisors and Special Forces. The training they’ve received and their own experience fighting Russian-backed separatists in the east has quickened a cultural change; they’ve replaced the stultifying Soviet model of top-down leadership that has hamstrung Russian units with a new generation of small-unit leaders and NCOs who can think and act independently on a dynamic battlefield subject to rapidly changing circumstances. Collaboration with NATO has produced professional-minded officers who aspired to Western standards and helped build a decentralized, empowered, more agile way of warfare.
“The Ukrainians are able to stay nimble,” a U.S. defense official told Politico. They’ve been able to “better adapt and react with initiative in a way that [they] could not before,” the official said, adding that flexibility and the ability to improvise and adapt has been a game-changer so far against a Russian onslaught that has fielded “a larger, more capable force—who is all about its rigid plan.”