In any branch of the U.S. military, you can divide troops into two major categories: enlisted and officers. Officers are lieutenants, captains, majors, lieutenant colonels, colonels, and then generals. Officers are college-educated, having either gone through reserve officer training corps (ROTC) in college, a military academy like West Point, or an officer training program. They are management. They are the soldiers sitting in tents looking at maps. (Not all, of course, but conceptually, they’re making the broad strategic decisions.)
Then there are enlisted personnel. They start as grunts: privates and specialists. Most enlisted soldiers do their three- or four-year enlistment and get out. But for those who stick around and have the leadership chops, they become NCOs—noncommissioned officers. They are the sergeants of the military (or “petty officers” in the Navy). In the Army, the NCO ranks are corporal, sergeant, staff sergeant, sergeant first class, master sergeant, and so on. You can get the full list for all the services here.
In an infantry unit, the lowest division is the squad, which is six to 10 soldiers and is commanded by a sergeant. The platoon is 42 soldiers, including three rifle squads, a weapons squad (carrying heavy machine guns and javelins), and a HQ squad. It is commanded by a platoon leader (a lieutenant) and a platoon sergeant (usually a sergeant first class).
An infantry company is four of these platoons, including three rifle squads and a weapons platoon, again, carrying heavier weaponry like mortars and anti-tank missiles. An infantry company is led by a captain and a first sergeant. Different types of units have similar setups, though the details may differ here and there. Point is, there are officers and then there’s a professional class of experienced enlisted soldiers. A sergeant first class usually has 15-18 years of experience. A first sergeant, at least 17 years. These guys know their shit.
So if officers are the management in the boardrooms, the NCOs are the soldiers who actually get shit done. Officers issue orders, NCOs make sure the orders are carried out. At the platoon level, lieutenants may be in charge, but the smart ones knew to let sergeants call the shots. Imagine one to two years of service as an officer versus that platoon sergeant with 15 years of experience. And once that officer gets experience, they get pulled out of that platoon. So really, NCOs run the joint. They’re the ones who made sure I got a haircut when I was dead set on being a punk rock rebel. But they’re also the ones who taught me to do my job, guided me in my training, gave me any necessary feedback.
In fact, as a junior enlisted soldier, I rarely came in contact with any officer, including my platoon leader. By my third year, as a specialist, I was in charge of the HQ fire direction section for my three-launcher platoon. (More on my unit here.) When the platoon leaders showed up to my vehicle during field training exercises, they knew to defer to me on certain decisions even though I wasn’t an NCO because I was damn good at my job. Expertise mattered.
And that’s the crux of it: expertise. Each section in my MLRS rocket artillery battery had sergeants in charge (except mine for the last year they put me in charge, because, as I mentioned, I was damn good at my job.) That was years of experience covering every single facet of the units’ operation. Our platoon sergeant had 15 years of experience. Our first sergeant had like, 20. All those years—even my own three—had value.
And American doctrine gives NCOs freedom to carry out orders. HQ may say “take that hill,” and the platoon leader may say “take your squad and flank left,” but it’s up to the squad leader, an NCO, to decide how to best carry out that task. In other words, the officers don’t have to worry about whether the troops can carry out commands. The troops are led by NCOs with tons of experience, able to carry out those commands. And that initiative allowed me to have that punk-rock hair (though I would flatten it with gel during work hours). My platoon sergeant valued my work, and he granted me this reward.
Russia’s army doesn’t have anything like that. There are officers, and then there are one-year conscripts. There is no institutional knowledge that can guide the new guys and make sure that orders are carried out efficiently. If you wonder why Russia can f--- up an ambush to the point where it costs them massive loss of life, it’s because they don’t have sergeants to drill scenarios like “turning into an ambush,” and their one-year service is certainly not enough to learn those lessons during their training. Only 1% of conscripts reenlist. Russia has contract soldiers—those who reenlist—but “Russia does not want well-rounded enlisted leaders, they want narrowly-focused, technically competent, professional, enlisted soldiers. Due to this very different system, Russian contract servicemen are probably more accurately described as ‘enlisted professionals’ than ‘noncommissioned officers.’” In other words, these are the guys manning complex weapons systems like anti-aircraft missiles. They're not in leadership roles.
Instead, “As soon as a new lieutenant graduates from an academy and takes command of their platoon, they are expected to immediately begin training and maintaining discipline [filling] the leadership, planning, training, and disciplinary roles of both a U.S. platoon leader and platoon sergeant.” But of course, instead of being trained by a soldier with 15 years of experience, you’re being trained by the guy fresh out of an academy where his training is likely theoretical and not practical. The end result is nonsense like this. Compare to this U.S. Army training led by NCOs.
And that suits Russians fine! They don’t want battlefield initiative and independence. They want soldiers who follow orders, no matter how ridiculous or stupid they may seem That’s why they kept dropping paratroopers behind enemy lines on those first few days of the war: Someone had orders to take airfields that moment, and so they kept doing the thing that didn’t work over and over again. Hundreds died? Russian leaders don’t care.
But this does mean that instead of sitting in those tents and the command center making the big tactical decisions, Russian officers have to drag themselves to the front lines to make sure their orders are being carried out. Because as we’ve seen, Russia’s army is one big clusterf---. And that’s why you see so many generals and colonels die. According to one European diplomat, “They're struggling on the front line to get their orders through. They're having to go to the front line to make things happen, which is putting them at much greater risk than you would normally see."
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