One thing that a lot of people on Daily Kos have expressed surprise about is how the Russian Army is extremely tactically rigid—it doesn’t permit initiative or any real thinking by junior officers. It discounts the idea of a professional NCO (non-commissioned officer) corps, at least in the way that Americans think of the role.
By American NCOs, I mean highly experienced front line soldiers who are given real leadership roles. Their responsibilities often include training a new generation of American soldiers (drill sergeants) and effectively leading smaller units as young junior commissioned officers learn from the sergeants’ experience.
There’s virtually nothing like that in the Russian Army, just as there was not in the Soviet Army—many people find that puzzling, or archaic.
In reality, one can make a strong historical argument that the NATO nations who follow this model are the anomaly, and the Russian Army is the one that is “normal,” if that term means anything in military history.
That is, until around 1857, when a certain man named Helmuth von Moltke (the Elder) became the chief of staff of the Prussian Army, essentially every nation in the world operated the way the Russians do in this regard. Every nation that changed, changed because they copied the Prussian Army.
Moltke the Elder is so called, because his younger nephew was also confusingly named Helmuth von Moltke, who even more confusingly occupied the same role as his famous uncle as Chief of Staff of the German Army. Helmuth von Moltke the Younger is primarily known as the man who botched the opening months of WW1. We’re talking about the elder Moltke—who never lost a battle that he commanded.
Moltke is most famous for when his Prussian Army took less than 3 months to destroy the primary French Army in the Franco-Prussian war. At the opening of the war, most people thought France would win, as France had the bigger army (2M to 1.5M), more artillery, more cavalry, and what was regarded by many as the finest army in Europe.
Moltke overwhelmed and crushed the French for two reasons.
First, he recognized how revolutionary railroads were in accelerating deployment. He created an entire department devoted to railroad planning and management in the General Staff. He insured upon declaration of war, every railroad in Prussia would be immediately placed under military control. Detailed timetables were created to ferry newly deployed units to the front
The French mostly mobilized on foot.
Despite France having the larger army overall, Prussia brought more troops and material faster to the frontline than the French could muster. In engagement after engagement, Prussia beat the French army by having more troops at the point of contact, pushing the French into a more and more compromised state. Moltke cornered the Emperor Napoleon III and the main French army at Sedan, forcing its surrender.
France would fight on for 3 more months as a Republic, but the war had already been decided.
Second, Moltke implemented an entirely new way of fighting wars. He empowered junior officers and NCOs in the Prussian army.
Mission Based Command and the West
Like many great generals, Moltke was a student of history. And Moltke grew particularly interested in one theme: why was Napoleon so much more effective as a commander earlier in his career, compared to his later days?
There were many theories then (as now). Maybe Napoleon grew old? Moltke found this explanation unsatisfying as Napoleon was only 46 at the time of Waterloo—many great generals perform well even to a much later age. After all, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon when he was 50 years old.
While there are many other theories (Napoleon’s deteriorating health, for example), Moltke’s personal beliefs focused on one aspect of Napoleon’s career: the scale of his battles.
At Marengo, Napoleon led 28,000 troops against 30,000 troops of the Austrian Army.
At Austerlitz, Napoleon led 75,000 troops against 95,000 Allied Troops.
But in Napoleon’s later campaigns, the scale of his operations grew. Against Russia. Napoleon was in command of 685,000 troops against nearly 700,000 Russians. At Leipzig, Napoleon commanded 195,000 troops against 365,000 Allied troops.
Moltke argued that when a commander has fewer than 100,000 troops under his command, one can sit atop a hill and overlook the battlefield himself. But when armies expand to half a million men or more, a single man can no longer see the entire battlefield.
This, to Moltke, was Napoleon’s problem.
As the commander of the Prussian Army that would expand to over a million men, this was even more of a problem for Moltke.
Moltke’s solution was genius, and his influence reverberates down to today: he empowered younger officers and NCOs for tactical flexibility.
As commanders of his time could no longer personally see the entire battlefield, Moltke believed that trusting his subordinates to make good decisions would be key to his success. But this took Molke down a theoretical rabbit hole.
If it makes sense for the commanding officer to trust his subordinates because they understand better the immediate problems before them, why would that not also be true of his own subordinates? And below that?
Molke came to believe that a commanding officer’s task is not to micromanage his subordinates, but to give them context, an objective, and a general direction. instead of the commander trying to tell every regiment, every battalion what road to take and how to conduct an offensive, the commander would provide enough information to his subordinate to provide a ‘vision’ of how they want the battle to unfold, and to provide them with context beyond their immediate surroundings. An objective, as well as when that objective must be accomplished.
The rest, Moltke reasoned, should be left up to lower ranking officers.
To achieve this vision, Moltke realized that he needed to change how lower officers are taught. Rather than being taught to blindly obey, Molke personally began altering how the Prussian military academy taught junior officers to think for themselves. Furthermore, he began selecting 10-15 most promising officers to add to his personal staff for a year, where the young officers would learn to think like Moltke, to see the battlefield like Molke.
These young officers were marked for promotion, and were the future battalion, brigade and division commanders of the Prussian army—who knew how Moltke wanted battles to proceed, and could implement his visions on the battlefield.
These changes did not happen overnight, but 14 years into his command, the Prussian army was the most flexible and innovative army in the world and it showed—leading many nations to begin imitating the “Prussian Model.”
For example, the US already had somewhat of a tradition of empowering junior officers prior to Moltke, but the US sent military observers to Prussia in 1871 (the Sheridan Expedition) and Prussian military theory began influencing American military philosophies.
The US formally adopted Mission Based Command in 1980, but had been incorporating many ideas in how it treats junior officers and NCOs well before that time, dating back to the Spanish American War and WWI.
Soviet Doctrine and the East
Soviet military doctrine emerges out of the Red Army that fought in the Russian Civil War, and it was clearly influenced by tactics and doctrine of the Russian Imperial Army that came before it.
The Russian imperial Army never adopted the Prussian model in part, because the Russian Army never really improved or reformed hardly anything. At the time of WWI, it was extremely outdated and ossified. Nothing like “entirely reforming how the officer corps operates” would have been contemplated.
When the Red Army formed in 1918, it quickly took shape as an ad hoc mixture of defectors from the Russian Imperial Army and a handful of it’s officers, along with a huge majority of untrained peasant recruits and conscripts. The Bolsheviks immediately faced two significant foes: the Whites, the former Imperial Army and conservatives. And the Blacks, AKA the Ukrainians, who supported Anarcho-Communism (a form of decentralized democratic communism) and were fighting for Ukrainian independence.
The early Red Army was built around an assumption of bringing large numbers of untrained peasants, supported by a small number of elite units to hold the whole operation together. This basic structure would remain true throughout the Soviet era, and into the Russian Army today.
To make this work, the Red Army, very likely correctly, believed they needed 2 things
- Tactical rigidity
- Operational flexibility
Tactical rigidity means local commanders are given strict instructions how to deploy an assault. They may be given just 2 or 3 options of how to attack or defend, and soldiers are trained to do these actions by rote and without thinking.
Given that the Bolsheviks essentially had to build 80% of a new army from scratch in a matter of weeks, if not days, this approach made sense. Peasant conscripts were handed a rifle, given a few drills. Their unit commanders, who often had no military experience were taught just a few basic tactical options, and told to obey their superior without question.
Thus uniformity between units was emphasized so all units operated tactically the same. Each unit got similar amounts of artillery, no concentration of resources happened or else different units would have to operate in different ways (excepting elite professional units). This means that every conscript unit could be expected to have similar firepower, similar performance, similar abilities.
Operational flexibility means that Brigade and higher level “operational commanders” are given more flexibility in their approach. Because most units are the same with similar performance, strengths and weaknesses, this means Brigade commanders and higher have very few doctrinal constraints on their approach.
In Western armies, this is reversed—smaller units have high degrees of tactical flexibility. However, because units are non-homogenous, doctrine dictates (to a certain extent) how brigade and divisional commanders can deploy their units, and how they must be utilized to ensure they mutually support each other.
For the Red Army—at the time—it worked. Despite the Whites receiving military aid from the West, for a variety of military and political reasons, the Red Army prevailed in the Russian Civil War.
This experience was reinforced in World War II, when the Soviets lost a vast proportion of their experienced forces in the opening weeks of the war, and ad hoc barely trained Red Army units led by young officers recruited en masse turned back the Nazi invasion.
In many ways, tactical inflexibility became worse during the Stalin era—there was a tradition in the Tsarist Army of keeping valuable NCOs on for years and building a core of experience, but when ad hoc NCO led units had success in WW2, Stalin (who was highly suspicious of career army officers) transitioned the Red Army to a more strict 2-year conscription model, where virtually all conscripts leave the army after 2 years of service.
There was a growing recognition in the Red Army that in the age of growing individual firepower, where increasingly “mass” could less and less replace “efficiency” on the battlefield, that the traditional approach of tactical inflexibility would be a major problem.
Nowhere was this recognition greater than among Spetsnaz units deployed to Afghanistan in the Soviet-Afghan War. Only 10% of the Red Army was devoted to the war in Afghanistan, but a majority of Spetsnaz units fought in the war, which led to a growing difference in opinion as to the state of readiness of the Red Army between elite unit commanders and regular army commanders—most of whom had little to no direct contact with the fighting.
Spetsnaz and former Spetsnaz officers began pushing for greater tactical flexibility and the need for stronger corps of NCOs, but their calls for reform ran straight into the economic problems faced by the USSR starting in the late 70s to early 80s and resultant reductions in the defense budget, that made any reforms nearly impossible.
This led to even worse deterioration as the Soviet Union collapsed and funding all but disappeared for the Russian Army—Russian officers went entirely unpaid for 6 months in 1992, and funding was crippled for a decade and a half.
Difficulties in the 2 Chechen Wars and the short invasion of Georgia in 2008 led to further calls for reform, leading to the failed experiment that was the Battalion Tactical Group—a short lived reorganization of the Russian army that sought to create uniform rigid tactical units in line with traditional Soviet Doctrine, but was supposed to have the requisite firepower and mechanization to succeed in the modern battlefield.
Trying to update the Soviet model (rigid tactics aimed at a low-training level rigid tactical force) may have been easier than uprooting it to create tactical flexibility in line with a Western model. But the reluctance of Russian Army commanders to address this shortcoming likely had catastrophic consequences for the Russian Army in the Russo-Ukrainian War.