Modern War: The Return of the Big Battalions

Modern War: The Return of the Big Battalions
Main image by Manhhai via flickr (Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0))

There are better and worse ways of fighting engagements, wrote the great Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz. But, he added, these were just a matter of tactics and not what decided the outcome of wars.

The latter depended upon strategy, and – simplifying somewhat – when it came to that, Clausewitz had a clear opinion: what mattered was assembling a bigger army than your opponent and then using it to smash the enemy in combat. Yes, there were better and worse ways of smashing, but they were ultimately of lesser importance than numbers. As Napoleon never said, ‘God is on the side of the big battalions.’

Numbers, of course, aren’t everything, but Clausewitz here draws our attention to an important point, namely that it’s important to consider the level of analysis when discussing war (as no doubt about many other things). What applies to one level of analysis may not apply to another. And so it is with the war in Ukraine today.

Concentration of force is a fundamental principle of war. But at the tactical level, the experience of the past few months in Ukraine indicates that amassing large numbers of troops and pieces of heavy equipment in a single locality all too often ends badly. Modern armies have access to various means of surveilling the battlefield and seeing through the ‘fog of war’. Significant concentrations of force are likely to be spotted. Troops with good communication systems and responsive command and control can then summon highly accurate artillery down on the enemy concentration, destroying large formations in a matter of minutes. Experienced commanders note that rather than seeking to smash the enemy with overwhelming numbers, it is better to use smaller groups to carry out thorough reconnaissance and then summon accurate fire from air or artillery.

Tactical success thus relies on a combination of three factors: a) accurate intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR in military jargon); responsive command and control (nowadays often computer-enabled); and precision fire. Together these factors make up the core of what military analysts have for 30 years or so been calling the ‘revolution in military affairs’ (RMA). Supposedly, they create a synergistic effect that fundamentally alters the character of war. War will now be determined not by mass but by precision weapons, information dominance, and ‘network-enabled operations’. The large armies and linear formations of the past will be replaced by rapidly moving units in a fluid environment without clear front lines. The side that best masters the new techniques will be able to win quick victories, with the advantage in war switching to the offensive. Short wars, combined with precision weapons that can hit the target the first time, will drastically reduce ammunition consumption and collateral damage. Wars of the future will look nothing like those of the past.

The remarkable thing about the war in Ukraine is how ‘un-new’ it is.

Yet as the war in Ukraine demonstrates, this is not the case. It has long been a criticism of the RMA that it confuses tactics with strategy. And so it would seem in reality. At the level of tactics, its precepts hold up well. But when one moves the level of analysis up a notch, one finds that theory falls flat on its face.

As I demonstrate in a recent article and in a shorter piece, the remarkable thing about the war in Ukraine is how ‘un-new’ it is. New technologies play their role, but by and large, they do so in a manner that supports traditional methods of fighting wars rather than revolutionizes the way that armies operate.

At the strategic level, many of the predictions of the RMA about the character of war are not borne out. Take, for instance, the idea that modern technology negates the need for large armies. The front in Ukraine is nearly 1,000 kilometres long. Somebody needs to physically occupy the ground. And the only way to do that is with a large amount of traditional infantry. Russian failures have many causes, but one of the most fundamental is that until recently, the Russian invasion force was simply far too small. God still very much favours the big battalions.

Meanwhile, precision weapons have not negated the need for copious ammunition expenditure. Exact figures for ammunition consumption are not available, but what is certain is that both sides between them have fired several million rounds of artillery ammunition (and, one suspects, tens, or even hundreds, of millions of small arms rounds). As Stalin said, artillery is still the ‘God of War’, and it has a voracious appetite.

At the same time, the advantage has passed not to the offence but to the defence. The ability of modern surveillance systems to identify concentrations of force have made it difficult to assemble mass in sufficient quantity to achieve a breakthrough. The Russian response has been to rely on obliterating whatever stands in their way with artillery fire (thus the millions of shells fired so far). This, though, is a very slow process, allowing the enemy to bring up reserves and fill any gaps, requiring the process to start again from scratch. It is all very First World War, when armies worked according to the slogan ‘artillery conquers, infantry occupies.’

To protect themselves against the artillery, both sides have resorted to digging holes in the ground and supplementing them wherever possible with concrete fortifications. ‘The soldier’s main weapon … is the shovel’, said the commander of the Vostok Battalion of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Aleksandr Khodakovsky, recently. One might be excused for imagining that it was 1916, not 2023.

When it comes to large-scale inter-state war, we learn from all this that despite technological advances, the fundamentals of war remain unchanged. War is still, as Clausewitz said, ‘an act of violence’. It is immensely destructive. It has been long since Western states fought somebody capable of fighting back. The experience of the Ukraine war suggests that if they ever do, the results will not be pleasant.

Therefore, it’s important to draw the correct conclusions from the analysis above. Looking at the war in Ukraine, one may imagine that military planners will determine that they need larger, more heavily equipped armies, that they need massively to increase their ammunition stockpiles, and that for this, they need substantial budget increases. But that only holds if we intend someday to fight a war against a peer or near-peer competitor (such as Russia or China). In other words, it only holds if we plan to commit suicide. Rather than planning for such an eventuality, we should focus on how to avoid it.

Main image by Manhhai via flickr (Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0))

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