In Part I, I discussed basic simple tactics. Here in Part II, I discuss how NATO believed the Russians want to fight, based on TC 7-100.2 Opposing Force Tactics (2011), the Asymmetric Warfare Group’s Russian New Generation Warfare Handbook (2017), ATP 2-01.3 Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (2019), the Operational Environment Data Integration Network (ODIN), and the Decisive Action Training Environment (DATE). All of this is open-source, publicly-available information. After discussing Russian doctrine, we will briefly discuss how well they can actually implement it. Part III is how the Ukrainians will likely try to penetrate the obstacles.
The Russian Most Dangerous Course of Action (MDCOA)
Russian doctrine calls for setting up a Disruption Zone in front of the Battle Zone. The Russians position both reconnaissance and a limited number of maneuver forces in this zone. The Russians will attempt to destroy all Ukrainian reconnaissance forces, though they may allow some through unhindered to give the appearance of having an assailable flank. The disruption zone is also designed to cause the attacker's main body to deploy prematurely, transitioning from a formation for rapid movement, like a column or wedge, to a much slower formation, line a line, where they may get intermingled or attrited to the point that they have to reorganize before resuming the attack. The disruption zone is also where the Russians attempt to reduce the effectiveness of the attackers by targeting key equipment, such as command vehicles, radar systems, or breach equipment. The Disruption Zone gives the Russians early warning of an attack and makes an attack less likely to succeed by using only a relatively small number of forces. In a properly-designed Disruption Zone, the Ukrainian attackers will culminate before even reaching the Battle Zone, forcing the Ukrainians to conduct a Forward Passage of Lines (FPOL) for a second unit that will continue the attack into the Battle Zone. Ukrainians may be forced to conduct another FPOL once enemy in the Battle Zone has been defeated, allowing an Exploitation Force to attack into the enemy Support Zone.
Forward Passage of Lines (FPOL)
An FPOL is a complicated maneuver that requires careful planning and coordination to be effective, particularly if it occurs while in contact with the enemy. One of the challenges is identifying and coordinating a lane for the passing unit to move through the stationary unit without masking their fires or becoming intermingled. Another challenge is determining exactly where the Battle Handover Line (BHL) should occur, shifting responsibility from the stationary unit to the moving unit to prevent either fratricide or having a lull in fires.
The Battle Zone typically takes two forms in Russian doctrine. The Maneuver Defense trades space for time, causing maximum attrition for the enemy while taking minimum losses. To accomplish this, the enemy divides his forces into a contact force, a shielding force, and a counterattack force. The contact force defends until the enemy gets too close and then displaces behind a second set of defenses set up by the shielding force, eventually setting up a third line of defenses, and so on. When the conditions present themselves, the Russians will use their counterattack force to destroy vulnerable attackers. Eventually, the attack will culminate, as the attackers expend too many supplies, take too many casualties, and become spread out over such a vast distance that they have to take an extended pause to reconsolidate and reorganize before resuming the attack, giving an opening for the Russians to transition back to the offensive themselves. However, I do not believe the Russians will use a Maneuver Defense. The Russians seem unwilling to give up territory, even when it would make sense (such as in Kherson). Also, a maneuver defense entails a large amount of risk and a high level of skill. The Russians are risk-averse and may have too many untrained forces to conduct a successful maneuver defense.
The Russians are more likely to instead use an Area Defense. For an Area Defense, the Russians will set up kill zones, where they set up mutually supported defensive positions protected by obstacles. In front of their obstacles, they will cut vegetation to create clear fields of fire, with highly visible target reference points to coordinate direct fire weapon systems like tanks and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), artillery reference points for preplanned artillery fire, and identifiable triggers to initiate fires, displace, etc. All this takes considerable time to set up, with a single turret-defilade fighting position for a tank taking approximately four hours to dig using two bulldozers. If enough time is available, each tank and IFV should have at least four fighting positions created (primary and alternate for the main kill zone, a supplementary position to cover a kill zone on a different enemy avenue of approach, and a subsequent fall-back position). Infantry should likewise also have multiple fighting positions, with at least 18-24 inches of overhead cover added to protect from airburst munitions. If time allows, infantry fighting positions can be connected by trench networks. All of this should be camouflaged to prevent identification from the enemy, which requires constant work to maintain. Infantry and vehicles should also have hide positions where they can wait until the engagement begins. These kinds of defenses cannot be created in a few days, but the Russians have presumably been digging in for months on end. A proper defense will also be rehearsed with units transitioning between positions and identifying targets in the dark or inclement weather.
The Obstacle Belt
The obstacle itself is the main challenge for the attackers. A proper obstacle belt is tied into terrain on both sides (swamps, cliffs, rivers, etc.) so that they cannot be bypassed. Obstacles are usually made from a combination of antitank mines, antipersonnel mines, concertina or other types of razer wire, and tank ditches. Other less common obstacles include berms, anti-tank hedgehogs, and dragon's teeth. No one breach asset can defeat all the kinds of obstacles. Common breach assets include:
A mine plow digs down 20-30 cm (8-12 inches), traveling at a speed of 12-16 kph (8-10 mph), and pushes mines away using the "spoil" of dirt that's in front of the blade, making a path just wide enough for one vehicle. Mines that are not pushed out of of the path are typically flipped upside down, making their shaped charges useless. Mine plows are often installed on tanks. Specialty breaching vehicles are usually equipped with dozer blades, but can have mine plows installed instead.
A straight dozer blade is useless against mines or wire, but it can dig a ramp down into a tank ditch and up the other side.
Mine Clearing Line Charge
A mine clearing line charge (American M58 MICLIC or Russian UR-77 Meteorit) fires a long rope about 90 meters (300 feet) long in front of the launcher. The rope is full of a number of small charges which simultaneously detonate, causing sympathetic explosion of any mines in its path and throwing other mines aside. A line charge can also cut and throw aside wire. The resulting path is just wide enough for one vehicle. A single MICLIC can be towed in a vehicle trailer behind vehicles as small as a HMMWV. The American Armored Breach Vehicle (ABV) and Russian UR-77 both carry two charges.
Bridging assets like the American M60 AVLB or Russian MT-55 and MTU-72 can deploy an approximately 18-meter (60-foot) bridge in front of the vehicle in about 10 minutes to cross a tank ditch or a damaged bridge. Newer bridging vehicles like the American or Russian MTU-90 can bridge in under 3 minutes.
A mine roller is useless for clearing a lane, but it will detonate several mines that were left in the lane by other breaching methods to "proof" the lane for other vehicles. After all, if the lead vehicle through the lane hits a mine, it creates a road block to other vehicles, requiring the creation of a new lane. A roller is typically installed on the lead tank through the breach, which can only travel at a speed of 12-16 kph (8-10 mph). Because of the chance of an explosion damaging the main gun, this tank travels with the gun tube pointed to the side, rendering it unable to fire in self-defense.
Modern Breach Vehicles
Several vehicles combine multiple tools. The American Armored Breach Vehicle has two MICLICs, a dozer blade, and a lane marking system. The Norwegian NM189 has a MICLIC, a dozer blade, and an excavator (for removing berms). The Russian IMR-3M has a dozer blade, excavator, and plow.
A complex obstacle then, might have a sequence of 120 meters of mixed anti-tank and anti-personnel mines, followed by triple strand concertina wire, a tank ditch, another 120 meter mine field, and another triple strand of concertina wire. Each breach asset only takes a few seconds or minutes to complete its job. However, as the lane is only wide enough for one vehicle, different breach assets have to drive forward, extend the lane, and then back out, allowing the next breach vehicle to move forward, which then has to back out again, and so on. If a vehicle is destroyed in the lane, a new lane has to be created, as the first lane is effectively blocked and cannot practically be curved. As you can probably guess, this kind of operation can take a lot of time. It is also conducted while obscured by choking, blinding smoke, while being attacked (blindly) by every munition the enemy can fire, as fast as they can fire. If not properly rehearsed or supported, it can easily fail, making this one of the most challenging military operations. Military planners should expect to lose about half their breaching assets for every attempted breach.
Once a breach is successful, the Russians will try to counterattack with a local reserve, probably about battalion in size (500-800 Soldiers), located somewhere in the vicinity of the breach. The desired force ratio for a counterattack is 1:1 if the Russians can attack before the Ukrainians have established a hasty defense on the far side of the breach. To augment the counterattack, the Russians should try to use both close air support and rotary wing aviation, as well as all artillery assets in the area.
When time allows, the Russians develop subsequent positions so that a penetration of the first line of defense is stopped by a second line of defense.
A second reserve, about brigade in size (2000-4000 Soldiers), should be positioned to attack within about half a day of the breach occurring. This reserve would likely attack the flanks of the salient, supported by robust close air support and rotary wing aviation.
The main advantage of the Russian military is their superior quantity of artillery over almost any other force. The Russians also have more range on most of their artillery, particularly in their numerous batteries of rocket launchers. And, the Russians organize their artillery into an Integrated Fire Command (IFC) at each Joint Strategic Command (OSC), enabling massing of fires across the entire front at critical times and places. NATO forces, on the other hand, retain control at the Division level, but because of range limitation, often delegate control of artillery down to the Brigade. The Russians have an enormous advantage over Ukrainians in achieving overwhelming artillery firepower. However, NATO forces, and presumably Ukraine, counteract this in three ways. One is by superior targeting procedures driven by superior intelligence. The IFC is also so slow that it has difficulty with dynamic targeting to attack targets of opportunity in contrast to NATO artillery that focuses on identifying and destroying High Payoff Targets (HPTs). NATO artillery also has higher precision, allowing destruction of enemy equipment in fewer rounds than the Russians require.
As an example of the difference, the Russian BM-30 Smerch, or "Tornado," fires 12x massive 300mm rockets per launcher up to 70km (200km with special rockets) away in just 38 seconds, giving a battery of four the ability to potentially destroy an infantry battalion in a single salvo. NATO, in contrast uses the HIMARS, which fires 6x 227mm rockets up to 45km away (300km with ATACMS). The Russians have approximately 106x BM30 Smerch versus 20x HIMARS and 15x M270 MLRS (old version of HIMARS) for Ukraine. However, while the Smerch has better range, firepower, and numbers, the accuracy is low. Each HIMARS engagement generally results in a kill, while the Smerch is better for area targets. If the enemy discovers the location of a Ukrainian headquarters, artillery battery, or a breach lane, the Smerch can do massive damage. The Russians also have massive numbers of BM21 Grads, other rockets, and various tube artillery.
Most Likely Course of Action:
Contrary to popular belief, Russian doctrine is not obsolete nor is it ineffective. The Russian military was taken by surprise when they launched the war in Ukraine and was not given an opportunity by Vladimir Putin to rehearse or do any operational planning at the division or below. The units did not even get to follow their own doctrine, since Russian war plans called for the professional core of their front-line units to be filled out by conscripts. Since then, they have lost a large number of experienced Soldiers and have not had the opportunity to rebuild combat power. Russian leadership, rather than bring units up to full strength, has opted to leave companies, battalions, and so forth at 50% strength, which makes them unable to accomplish their doctrinal missions. The Russians have also been unwilling to do a second round of mobilization, even as the first round of mobiks is running out. After a brief initial training, Russian units are responsible to train their new recruits but are finding it impossible to do so while on the front line. The worst enemy of the Russian Soldiers has been their own leadership.
First, the Russians are probably not using much of a disruption zone as they appear to be under strict orders not to cede any territory. The battle zone is probably right next to the front, and where a disruption zone exists, it is likely not very robust. While this helps the Russians retain territory, it makes it harder for them to stop a Ukrainian penetration.
Second, the Russians may not have developed complex obstacles across the entire front. Even with months to prepare, the Russians may not have had enough land mines, wire, etc. to build this many obstacles. Most likely, the Russians have complex obstacles along the isthmus to Crimea and along the major highways leading into southern and eastern Ukraine. Most of the rest of the front probably consists of simple obstacles that require only one or two breaching assets to penetrate. They would be willing to assume the risk because the road networks in those areas would not support a rapid exploitation by Ukrainians.
Third, the battle positions behind the obstacles are likely not to doctrinal standard on most of the front. The videos of infantry positions rarely have overhead cover, and there are few images of vehicle battle positions. Camouflage is often ineffective, and news articles and videos suggest most of the trenches are held by poorly-trained mobiks. In interviews, captured Soldiers do not describe any sort of defensive rehearsals, nor do they seem to understand how they fit into the larger plan. Parts of the front may also be weakly held, particularly if the Ukrainians are able to misdirect.
Fourth, daily news reports suggest the Russians lack robust reserves. Normally, they would have at least a company set aside for each brigade, a battalion for each division, and a brigade for each OSC (Corps). I don't think most of those reserves exist. In the past, the Russians have also prematurely committed reserves instead of waiting to ensure they are used appropriately. The Ukrainians just announced that the majority of the Russian reserves are in the vicinity of Bakhmut. Without adequate reserves, the Russians will be unable to stop the momentum of a Ukrainian penetration.
Fifth, the Russians have not shown a willingness to use aircraft to support troops in contact. Most aircraft use seems to involve extreme standoff distance to avoid risk to the aircraft crews. Also, the Russians appear to be short of precision munitions for planes and helicopters.
Still, despite all these challenges, the Russian defense is still likely to be difficult. The Russians still have an enormous artillery advantage, with massive numbers of long-range rockets and seemingly endless batteries of tube artillery. They have also developed multiple lines of defense, allowing them to quickly stiffen resistance and stop any Ukrainian attack that proceeds too slowly. Currently, the ground is still too soft for mechanized vehicles off-road, but that will soon change. Still, much of the front lacks a robust road network, necessary for the Ukrainians to exploit a breach by moving enough vehicles and logistics rapidly into the Russian Support Zone. Therefore, the Russians can focus most of their defenses on the few places on the front with the best roads.