Nerds Talk “Kill Ratios”. War Historians Talk Force Generation
Is Russia a banana republic?
During the war in Iraq the US Army faced an acute recruitment crisis. For example during the first three months of 2005 the US Army could only enlist 13,000 of the 20,000 (65%) men it needed for active duty to keep its numbers level.
With the US occupying Iraq and Afghanistan the proposition the Army had for recruits had changed dramatically. Risking life and limb in combat during service wasn’t just a possibility, it was now a certainty.
Even more importantly, anyone signing up in 2005 knew that meant extended deployments abroad during which they wouldn’t see their home/girlfriend/favorite bar for 12 months, and their only downtime would be in a base inside a warzone.
Service on a base in the US or even in Germany could be sold as something approaching a 9-5 job, but the certainty of long deployments to a warzone every other year changed that.
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If the Army couldn’t hit its recruitment targets then that much more of the burden would have to fall on the troops it already had. This would naturally lower retention levels and then you have a cascade effect on your hands.
If you have fewer guys then their time between deployments has to be shorter, which leads them to want out, which leads you to burden the guys that are left even more, which then leads them to want out next.
The military attacked the recruitment crisis in a number of ways:
Recruitment became more aggressive eg with more recruiters in high schools and more military pageantry in stadiums
Recruitment standards were lowered. A deferment could be got for virtually anything.
Sign-up bonuses became massive and shorter contract times became available.
The Army also frequently stop-lossed personnel. People whose contracts expired and wanted out were kept for up to another year.
The military also relieved the burden on active-duty troops by deploying Army Reserve and National Guard units to Iraq. The use of the National Guard was particularly controversial but it did mean that active-duty troops could get more rest, helping retention.
Even so, for a soldier to see himself deployed three times in five years was nothing out of the usual.
So then, a military with 500,000 active-duty troops in the Army and another 200,000 in the Marines was seriously stressed by having to sustain a deployment of “only” 150,000 troops to Iraq and 25,000 to Afghanistan and had to reach for some radical measures to avoid an unwanted cascade that would see the force depleted.
Moreover, wars that were killing 3 Americans per day (and wounding 20) at their peak were already enough to cause a recruitment crisis (since it is long deployments, even more than casualties, that hurt recruitment and retention).
The size of the Russian deployment in Ukraine is difficult to know. I would guesstimate that, not counting DLPR, Russia has about 150,000 troops in the theater.
That doesn’t look it should strain a military of nearly 1 million, but there’s a catch. The likes of Rocket Troops, Air Force and Navy aren’t in Ukraine, and Putin has made conscripts undeployable.
That leaves just 250,000 officers and contract soldiers of the land combat arms (army, VDV, naval infantry, Spetsnaz) to sustain a deployment of 150,000.
Iraq-Afghanistan deployments requiring 175,000 men strained a combined Army-Marine force of 700,000. But a pool of 250,000 Russian professionals is to indefinitely sustain a deployment of 150,000.
On paper 250,000 are enough to provide an indefinite deployment of 150,000. You just have to keep the majority of them in Ukraine at all times.
But what is that going to do to recruitment and retention?
These 250,000 are currently the unluckiest men in Russia. Who would want to join their ranks?
Who is going to sign or resign a 5-year contract with the Russian military now knowing that spending 4 of these years in high-intensity combat in Ukraine is a distinct possibility? Moreover, knowing that you will be one of only 150,000 to do so?
Before the war, becoming a contract soldier was being sold, as not exactly middle-class existence, but as the closest thing to it a working-class guy could get to in short order. The proposition was: sign on the dotted line and you get decent guaranteed money, a measure of societal prestige, and the military helps with the housing for you and your wife. The military wasn’t advertising itself to delinquents and gung-ho teenagers. Its proposition was that becoming a professional soldier was a quickfire way to get the capital to start and lead a stable family life.
Well, the majority of these family men are now sitting outnumbered in a Ukraine trench. Many of them have been there since the start of the war without rest.
There are 15,000 newly signed-up fighters of the 3rd Corps on the way to reinforce them, but that number only just about replaces the 10,000 dead and the 5,000 severely wounded. (And they’re only on the hook for 3-6 months).
Meanwhile, the army is still bleeding a certain number of troops as their contracts expire and they decide not to renew. (Since this is merely a “SMO” they can’t be stop-lossed.) How many new recruits are being signed up to replace these men?
I can’t imagine it’s a high number.
Just the fact that to raise the 3rd Corps, contracts as short as 3 months had to be offered and payments raised by up to 4 times, tells you that military work is looking extremely unattractive right now.
The army’s proposition has changed from “we’ll pay your mortgage so you can get married” to “we’ll dump you in a Ukraine trench for 7 months and not reinforce you as you gradually grow more outnumbered”, and people are not stupid.
Maintaining an indefinite deployment of 150,000 from a pool of 250,000 men is not sustainable as such extreme demands are going to lead to that pool of 250,000 to shrink. Those in the pool will start to leave at a higher rate, and far fewer will be joining than before.
The relatively pedestrian Iraq War was enough to cause a recruitment crisis for the US Army which had twice the population to draw from. I think the situation for the Russian army can be only many times worse.
To sustain a Russian fighting force of 150,000 in Ukraine the pool of 250,000 feeding it will have to be expanded, or else the ground army will gradually cease to exist. — It will be attrited into nothing through retention and recruitment problems. First slowly then faster and faster.
Russia is already trying to expand the 250K pool.
It is doing so by deploying Rogvardia internal troops, hiring Wagner mercenaries, recruiting in penal colonies, and forming infantry and tank detachments from hastily trained navy sailors and strategic rocket troops under contract.
In the sense that they help spread the burden all of these are welcome. All of these relieve the 250K officers and kontraktniki in the land combat arms somewhat. But all of these are improvisations that even taken together don’t amount to a half-measure.
The only things that can decisively solve the problem that Russia is trying to solve with this desperate array of one-tenth-measures is deploying conscripts
Russia doesn’t have anything like the National Guard or an Army Reserve to call upon. (Its BARS reserve is 80,000-strong and not deployable in an SMO except for volunteers.) But it does have the mechanisms of conscription which is even more potent, and which Ukraine is using with wild abandon.
Rather than reach for this existing mechanism for which it already has all the infrastructure, Moscow is engaging in frenzied novel improvisation to forestall using conscript soldiers that it literally already has in uniform (270K, 150K in the land combat arms) for as long as possible.
Aside from being half-measures, there are also other problems with these approaches. For example, using sailors as tank crews is wasteful. Conscripts from tank units are far more capable tank crews who are going to suffer much lower attrition, than sailor kontraktniki.
Also, reliance on the likes of mercenaries and convicts takes some shine off of the war (if you think it has shine to lose).
A different regime might proclaim service in the war an honor, or even a duty. Or the chance to win glory. Kremlin instead treats it as something filthy, something that in an ideal world could be outsourced to mercenaries, Chechens, and convicts.
As a friend of mine said “they are appealing to everyone but normal people.”
Even when they make a pitch to normal people that pitch is focused almost exclusively on monetary benefits.
Rather than speak to the demos, the government’s approach is to try to bribe just enough people so that it doesn’t have to.
Maybe it doesn’t know what to say?
Moscow proclaims its war existential, just, and externally imposed, but the lukewarm way in which it is prosecuting it reveals that it internally experiences it as iffy.
Either that or it regards talking to the people as iffy.
Launching a war, but not asking the demos to sacrifice for it sounds lofty. Provided you can finish what you started.
But if midway you’re going to turn around and seek a bailout from the people then all you have done is increased the sacrifice they must bear beyond what would have been necessary if you had the guts/class/foresight to ask right away.
Having been given 7 months of breathing room Ukraine now has 300,000 to 400,000 decently trained troops. Who is to say that if given another 7 months it won’t find a way to add another 100,000?
Also, first throwing the contract army into the fray and driving it into exhaustion. And only then throwing the conscripts simply allows the opposition to face your men piecemeal.
The longer conscripts are kept out of it, the higher the obstacle they will have to overcome once they are activated, the less help they will have, and the higher the blood price they will pay.
It is no mercy to your demos to allow the opposition a year or so of preparations before you call them in to aid you.
While Russia hasn’t touched the amazing instrument of conscription for its war, Ukraine has no such reservations. People look at a map and conclude that in any war the much larger Russia must be dominant. But in reality, it is not really countries that fight but institutions and systems.
If Ukraine is force-generating with the modern institution of conscription and mobilization — and Russia simultaneously limits itself to the feudal-era bargaining with mercenaries, criminals, and warlike mountain minorities then it’s anyone’s guess which of the two will be dominant in the long term.
The 5D crowd which proceeds from the axiom that Kremlin always makes the optimal decision and that there is a method to every Kremlin madness will say that Russia doesn’t need to force-generate with conscription because it is achieving incredible kill ratios that are grounding the Ukrainian army into dust.
This is flawed. Even if you are achieving incredible feats with your artillery there is no reason not to multiply its effectiveness by combining it with the firepower and maneuver of infantry and tanks.
Indeed, if Russia has all the infantry it needs then why are convicts, sailors, policemen, and Donetsk 40-somethings and 50-somethings being thrown into the mix?
Also in reality the Ukrainian body counts from artillery are substantially lower than in 5D daydreams.
What the Russians do is they concentrate vast portions of their artillery fire against just a few kilometers of the enemy front line where they are hoping to make gains. This means that just a few battalions on the other side are bombarded with several thousand shells per day.
These few unlucky units suffer grievously over the course of days and weeks, and frequently end up retreating into the rear without an order and making a video about their horrible ordeal.
But where the 5D crowd makes the mistake is to assume that this is replicated all along the front. This is not true. The Soviets/Russians are big on concentrating their artillery, and for every kilometer of the front that is getting the Verdun treatment, there are hundreds of kilometers where the birds are chirping and barely any shells get fired.
The dimension of this war where you are looking at the greatest disparity between sides isn’t casualty counts but the means of force generation. Moscow can only dangle money and hope there are takers, while Kiev can take a pencil and write a summons for as many conscripts as it thinks it can arm and feed.
What I would like to see is less discussion of abstractions like “Russia” and “Ukraine” and more discussion about the institutions actually at war here, namely the fighting part of the two militaries.
It’s all good to say that Russia “can’t lose to Ukraine.” But Russia and Ukraine aren’t really fighting. Portions of their militaries are.
So how about this:
In the one corner you have a 350,000-strong conscript army backed by a state that is using the instruments of conscription and mobilization. And in the other corner you have a 250,000 all-volunteer force (augmented by 50,000 local proxies) backed by a state which is acting as if conscription and mobilization have yet to be invented by it.
Presented this way, is it at all obvious that the latter force is going to defeat the former?
Which one would you rather be in charge of?
In the short term, to me this looks like a stalemate while in the long run Russia better go ahead and invent conscription or risk more unwanted surprises.
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