Please Sir, Anything but the S3 Gulag: An Analysis of the Russian Alternative to the Battalion Staff
In the west there is a common impression that the Soviet Red Army planned to fight and win World War III with massive waves of men and machines dashing themselves against the valiant defenses of a numerically inferior but morally and technologically superior NATO alliance. While this cursory analysis is not actually far from the mark, it tends to create the impression that the Red Army, and by extension the Modern Russian Army, is completely unsophisticated and barbaric.
One area where the Russian Army appears particularly unsophisticated is in its rejection of “mission command.” In the Russian Army, tactical leaders are often given limited latitude in terms of decision making. Russian commanders are expected to choose from a short list of “battle drills” and pass simple orders down to subordinates.
“From a U.S. MDMP perspective, Russian military commanders have limited options for developing plans to accomplish given tasks. Commanders must pick from the “menu” of known tactics.” From “The Russian Way of War” by Lester Grau and Charles Bartles
The US Army has battle drills, but it specifically designates them as taking place at platoon level or lower. We have nothing like the rigid company, battalion, and even brigade level drills employed by the Russians. Furthermore, in the US Army, battle drills play a small role in a larger operation, only really covering actions on the objective or contingencies in case of enemy contact. American tactical leaders are expected to spend time planning out the rest of the mission in detail to ensure coordination within their unit and between other units. In combat, American leaders are encouraged to exercise “disciplined initiative” while Russian leaders are not encouraged to deviate from their dictated mission.
Given that the US military considers “Mission Command” to be a sort of lofty ideal towards which leaders should constantly strive, it seems dumb as hell of the Russians to do things differently. Certainly, it must represent a lack of military or even social/cultural sophistication on their part, right?
Much like a modern American lieutenant, the average Soviet conscript was marginally educated, illiterate, functionally alcoholic, and incapable of executing even basic military tasks such as land navigation. Many conscripts were drawn from areas of the Soviet empire where Russian was not widely spoken, making the communication of complex orders difficult if not impossible. If you’ve ever worked with somebody from New Jersey, you'll understand the problem. For these reasons, battle drills that had been practiced ad nauseum and could be boiled down to “run and also shoot in only that direction” were ideal.
These are the type of circumstances that are typically thought to govern Russian military thinking, but I am here to tell you that there was actually a much more interesting and attractive reasoning behind what appears to be the final manifestation of “Keep It Simple Stupid.” You see, the Soviets were big fans of the “operational art” and “maneuver warfare.” Now, like “socialism”, “fascism”, or “close of business”, phrases like “operational art” and “maneuver warfare” have been misused to the point where they have lost all meaning. This is especially the case in the US Army where people like me utilize sesquipedalia and the name dropping of esoteric concepts to draw attention away from poor work performance, unacceptable physical fitness and being a loser. What these phrases mean (for our purposes, as there are varying definitions) is that the Soviets cared a lot more about moving large units between battlefields to engage in battle on favorable terms and less about moving small units skillfully around the battlefield. In other words…
“[Operational level maneuver warfare] entails extensive maneuver to deliver the main blow at a weak point in the enemy’s defense or upon the flanks or rear of the defender.” From Soviet AirLand Battle Tactics by William Baxter
The Soviets went through (they killed them, execution style) a number of brilliant military theorists, such as Tukahchevsky, whose ideas, along with those of their Wehrmacht enemy, helped to lay the groundwork for Cold War and modern Russian doctrine. These influences led to a preference for maneuvers such as penetrations and envelopments by large units like Divisions or even Army Groups. Conversely, throughout WWII and really up until AirLand Battle in the 1980s, the US Army was focused on the tactical level of war at the expense of the operational level. Wait, the title talks about battalion staffs. What does any of this have to do with battalion staffs?
Well, the Russians basically trade tactical initiative for operational initiative. By ensuring that the planning processes of tactical units are simple, rapid, and achieve consistent (if not always incredible) results, higher echelons can count on these units being able to move faster and coordinate action more easily.
“The Russian goal is not simply to make the planning process faster, the Russian goal is to make the planning process faster than potential adversaries.”
“Although this [lack of tactical flexibility/initiative] would irk a U.S. commander, Russian commanders enjoy the system because although tactics are simple, but in aggregate, when multiple simple tactics are combined to accomplish a given task, a given maneuver could appear complex. Since these maneuvers are not developed “on-the-fly” and are instead a collection of simple tasks, the planning process is much less involved than an equivalent maneuver by a U.S. unit. At the tactical level, these units have miniscule staffs in comparison to Western units and do not require extensive operations orders to plan their missions.” “Tactics are simple and rigid, but since they are universal, when used in aggregate
they can provide great operational flexibility.”
From “The Russian Way of War” by Lester Grau and Charles Bartles As this passage explains, one byproduct of this framework is smaller staffs at tactical echelons (brigade and below(generally)). A modern Russian battalion staff will typically consist of
“…a senior deputy commander, a deputy commander for personnel, deputy commander for logistics and maintenance, and advisor for artillery.”
From “The Russian Way of War” by Lester Grau and Charles Bartles
In the case of the Soviets, I offer this passage from a lively piece of Cold War propaganda wherein a fictional Soviet junior officer puzzles over the disparity in staff composition between a Soviet and American Battalion. “The staff of a Soviet battalion numbered a total of three, two officers and a sergeant, with a signals platoon of thirteen men. For twenty-four hours a day over a period of many months the battalion’s staff had to cope with directing combat operations and seeing to all the necessary documentation. However, within an American battalion, for some reason or other, they had devised a staff company, which had the same number of men as a whole Soviet battalion. It was completely impossible to understand what all these people could be doing...” From “The Untold Story: The Third World War” by General Sir John Hackett These small staffs mean that Russian officers spend the vast majority of their early careers as either commander or deputy commander of a tactical unit. Even staff officers are often commanders at the same time, as in the case of the Russian Brigade where the senior signal officer might command the brigade signal unit while at the same time sitting on the brigade staff.
“....if the Russian system was implemented in a U.S. maneuver brigade, the brigade S-2 would also be the military intelligence company commander.” From “The Russian Way of War” by Lester Grau and Charles Bartles
This means that the staff who helps the commander develop his plan is also intimately involved in the plan’s execution. In contrast, it would not be remarkable for an American officer to spend less than half of their early career in command, especially if they cannot do 49 pushups. This leads to officers who are adept at making powerpoint slides and updating excel spreadsheets, but may have less experience in peripheral tasks like leading soldiers in combat.
Given all this apparent inefficiency, you might be wondering how we have ever won a war. Well, we win wars because we have always had more factories and teenagers at our disposal than our enemies and if that didn’t make the decisive difference in a war then we lost (Vietnam) or “”“won””” (Korea), however some of y’all aren't ready for that conversation yet send tweet.
The other answer is that we have NCOs that do all the work. Marx said that the capitalist class lives off the surplus labor of the proletariat like a bunch of leeches. I can’t comment on the validity of this because I live off the surplus labor of civilians, but I bet Marx would have had a field day writing about how American officers live off the surplus labor of the NCO class. On the other hand, the Soviet and later Russian Army has historically lacked a professional NCO corps and this has placed much of the burden of leading and administering formations on officers. Because more leadership burden falls on officers, the Russians must have smaller tactical units and cannot execute complex tactical missions, whereas our professional NCO corps allows officers to go sit on battalion staff and write convoluted OPORDS with cool phaseline names. At this point it might sound like I am advocating for us to switch over to the Russian system. Hell, you might even be thinking of straight up defecting to Russia so you can get out of the 3 shop.
I’m not saying that we should tear down the American Army’s system of organization and doctrine. Firstly, a country's doctrinal framework is a complex, emergent manifestation of its historical, military, social, intellectual, economic and cultural factors and a system that works well for one country will not necessarily work well for another. Additionally, there are serious issues with the Russian system that have reared their ugly heads in the past. Russian doctrine is generally formulated to address a massive ground war on the European continent. When the Russians invaded Afghanistan and suddenly weren’t moving divisions around European plains but were instead moving squads and platoons around highly restrictive mountain terrain, they found out that sacrificing tactical initiative sucks if you really need tactical initiative to win a war. Lack of a professional NCO corps really bit them in the ass in Afghanistan and they were forced to develop small unit tactical competence, that they then lost when they left Afghanistan. Lack of tactical efficiency wasn’t the only reason the Russians lost in Afghanistan. “… the Soviets conducted indiscriminate air and artillery attacks against the rural population in order to force them out of the countryside in order to dry up the mujahideen supply lines.”
From “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” By Lester Grau That being said, it isn’t tough to imagine how a powerful behemoth of an Army that cannot be finely manipulated at the lowest levels might not be ideal in a counter-insurgency conflict. Similar Russian experiences in Grozny have reinforced the idea that tactical competence cannot be overlooked.
While the Russians have begun to increase their emphasis on the tactical level of war with the introduction of the Battalion Tactical Group and other modern developments, they remain tied, by tradition and preference, to their historic system. !!!DISCLAIMER!!!
At this point, you might be tempted to think that by learning how the Russian army conducts a platoon, company or battalion attack, you could simply prepare a defense to meet their perfectly predictable attack. This is not the case. First off, if you are smugly surveying your perfectly prepared engagement area from your carefully constructed fighting position, you are probably going to be annoyed when the grid square you are in is turned into the surface of the moon but on fire by a Russian artillery unit that was laid in with perfect accuracy because somebody in your formation lit a cigarette or turned on a radio. On the bright side, your widow’s new husband will be able to buy a really nice boat with that $400k. Furthermore, you should be cautioned that:
“Plans to defeat a [Russian] offensive that assume rigidly standardized formations and waves of neatly arrayed forces making easy targets are a naive prescription for defeat.” “In fact, the [Russian] Army requires its commanders to exercise a high degree of initiative by deliberately building flexibility into the planning and conduct of the offense through devices such as specific tasks set in order of priority, to be executed as opportunities arise.”
From Soviet AirLand Battle Tactics by William Baxter
“…a U.S. staff cannot simply “put on their red hats” and reasonably expect to ascertain the decisions of their Russian counterparts…”
From “The Russian Way of War” by Lester Grau and Charles Bartles
Ultimately, we must remember that varying task organizations, the Russian history of effective deception operations (their famous maskirovka), and their high optempo all mean that we will probably not meet them at a predictable time, place or disposition. In Conclusion While I think our system of large staffs and complex, detailed orders actually serves us quite well, especially in the counter insurgency field, a consideration of some of the advantages of the Russian alternative may yield valuable insights.
I am going to specifically avoid making any hard suggestions because I don’t actually know what I’m talking about, but I will say that in a major war in the vicinity of, say, the Suwalki gap, being able to turn a battalion sized element on a dime with minimal loss of coordination would have some major advantages. Additionally, there may be advantage found in having some members of a brigade or battalion staff concurrently commanding units within the brigade or battalion. While this might seem like an undue burden in terms of workload, our superior NCO corps could make this dual role less daunting.
I do not know how a reorganization would work or even if it would work, but I believe that our current system is the result of traditions that date back to before radios, tanks, repeating firearms, or training meetings, and while it may continue to serve us well, there is no crime in exploring alternate formulations and organizations. You might object to my attacks on the American system or think my vague proposals too radical and you may be right. I leave you with these quotes from J.F.C. Fuller, a man who, despite being called “the [...] most arrogant and aggravating military writer of the twentieth century” was at the very least, a free thinker and an Armor officer. What more can any of us hope to be? “We equip ourselves with new weapons, but we fail to discover their values or the relationship between their respective values. We invent tactics on suppositions, and then we organize our forces to fit traditions, barrack-rooms, parade grounds...“ “We must liberate our thoughts from customs, traditions, and shibboleths, and learn to think freely, not imitatively. When anything appeals to us or displeases us we must not accept it on its face value, but examine it, criticize it, and discover its meaning and inner worth. Remember that every student has much more to unlearn than to learn...”
From The Foundations of the Science of War by J.F.C. Fuller
1. Army Training and Evaluation Program (ARTEP) 7-8-DRILL, BATTLE DRILLS FOR THE INFANTRY RIFLE PLATOON AND SQUAD, “A battle drill is a collective action executed by a platoon or smaller element without the application of a deliberate decision-making process.”
2. CPT Charles K. Bartles and Dr. Lester W. Grau, “The Russian Way of War,” Fort
Leavenworth, KS: FMSO, 2016
This book, while long, is probably the best means of understanding the modern Russian Army. Chapters 3-5 discuss all manner of tactical battle drills from squad to brigade.
3. Viktor Suvorov, “Inside the Soviet Army”, Hamish Hamilton, 1982, “Individual initiative could ruin the overall plan. In many cases, regimental and divisional commanders have no authority to deviate from the route they have been ordered to follow.”
4. Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 6-0, Mission Command: Command and Control of Army Forces
5. General Sir John Hackett, “The Untold Story: The Third World War”, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1982. While this is a work of fiction, it is intended as a work of narrative pseudo-non-fiction and can typically be relied upon for solid information on the Soviet military. Describing a motor rifle platoon: “…they spoke half a dozen different languages, of all of which he was ignorant, and almost none spoke Russian.”
6. Robert Citino, “Blitzkrieg to Desert Storm: the evolution of operational warfare”, University Press of Kansas, 2004, “There has of late been a great deal of interest in the Soviet concept of “operational art,” so much so that the phrase threatens to become a slogan without objective content.”
7. John Stone, “The Tank Debate: Armour and the Anglo-American Military Tradition”, Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000
Chapters 2 and 5 discuss this topic at length. “Because of the technical and political conditions under which postwar preparations for the defense of Europe took place, the attritional and linear/tactical [as opposed to operational] emphasis which had been adopted in 1944-45 remained extant for several decades thereafter.“
8. Charles Bartles and Lester W. Grau, “Russia’s View of Mission Command of Battalion Tactical Groups in the Era of ‘Hybrid War’”, Fort Leavenworth, KS: FMSO, 2018, “American officers have a variety of professional experiences throughout their careers and command is one of those experiences. By comparison, Russian officers, who are in the command track, are either commanding, attending school or serving as chief of staff while waiting for their next command.”
9. Lester Grau, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan”, National Defense University Press, 1996, “…faced with this imposing security challenge, and burdened with a military doctrine, strategy, and operational and tactical techniques suited to theater war, the Soviet Army was hard pressed to devise military methodologies suited to deal with the Afghan challenges.”
10. Kendall Gott, “Breaking the Mold: Tanks in Cities”, Combat Studies Institute Press, 2006
Chapter 4 provides a good summary of the consternation experienced during the Russian incursion into Grozny.
11. CPT Nicolas J. Fiore, “Defeating the Russian Battalion Tactical Group,” Spring, 2017,https://www.benning.army.mil/armor/eARMOR/content/issues/2017/Spring/2Fiore17.pdf. This article describes the organization and function of the Russian Battalion Tactical Group.