A Blog by Jonathan Low


Feb 27, 2023

How the Invasion of Ukraine Exposed Russia's Paper Army

Even if the Russian military force projection spreadsheets had actually reflected reality, its army never had enough troops to accomplish the goals set for them. 

But the spreadsheets were riddled with lies to coverup pilferage and corruption. And the result is that the Russian organizational model was even less likely to win in Ukraine than Putin had been led to believe. JL 

Kos reports in Daily Kos:

A Russian regiment had several BTGs. Commanders could stand up one combat-ready BTG while pilfering the supplies of the other 2-3 in his regiment. Entire BTGs could exist on a spreadsheet, but the money for them syphoned off for dachas and mistresses. Moscow would be none the wiser, as the single functional BTG was available for the typical Russian mission - Syria, Georgia, Moldova. In Ukraine, by April, Russia was throwing support personnel into front-line combat. They discourage drone monitoring to eliminate evidence of incompetence and callous disregard for the lives of their men. Putin believed the spreadsheets, and thus fielded an army that existed mostly on paper.

Cold War armies were organized around the division. For the U.S., it looked like this: 

Field Army. 50,000 soldiers. (last used in Gulf War)
Corps. 20-45,000 soldiers. Two divisions. 
Division. 10-15,000 soldiers. 3 brigades
Brigade/Regiment. 2-5,000 soldiers. 3-5 battalions 
Battalion/Squadron. 500-1,000 soldiers. 3-5 companies/battery/troop
Company/Battery/Troop. 60-200 soldiers. 3-4 platoons
Platoon. 20-50 soldiers. 3-4 squads
Squad. 5-10 soldiers. 

“Batteries” are artillery, “companies” are armor and infantry, and troops and squadrons are used by cavalry units. A regiment is generally units of the same kind—all tanks, all infantry, all artillery. A brigade is combined arms, so it takes pieces from various regiments and melds them together into a unit that can fight as a self-contained force. 

Traditionally, the division “owned” critical assets like aviation, artillery, engineering, and most important of all, logistics. Therefore, a division couldn’t send one of its armored or infantry brigades to fight on its own, as those units lacked all other stuff that makes combined arms function. It was either send that massive, lumbering 15,000-personnel creature, or nothing. For rapid reaction deployments, the Army had (and still has) the Ranger battalion and the 101st and 82nd airborne divisions. But those are light, unarmored units. 

In order to be more nimble, the Army is now organized around the Brigade Combat Team (can be armored, Stryker, or infantry), allowing the army to deploy smaller integrated units. For example, an infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT) looks like this: 

Cavalry Squadron 
Infantry Battalions (x3)
Artillery Battalion
Engineer Battalion
Support Battalion (logistics!)

That BCT has everything it needs to fight as a combined arms unit. So for example, when I served, I was part of divisional artillery of the 3rd Infantry Division. Today, 3ID has two regular army Armored Brigade Combat Teams (ABCT) and one National Guard IBCT that can all deploy independent of the division. There is still a divisional artillery unit, but it has no guns. It just manages things like training of the artillery assets now directly assigned to each ABCT. The only asset still owned by the division is aircraft (transport and attack helicopters). 

The Russians did something similar with their Battalion Tactical Group (BTG). But there was a massive difference in the American and Russian approach. This chart compares their BTG with an American armored IBCT: 




The obvious difference is that the US Army’s core deployable unit is much larger than the Russian’s. The second is how important artillery is to Russian doctrine. Both the ABCT and the BTG have the same number of guns, yet as a percentage of the overall force, the difference is massive. The US depends a great deal more on air power. 

Remember my rule of thumb on logistics—about 15% of a given force pushes a button or pulls a trigger that fires something, everything else is supporting that 15%. We’re talking truck drivers, fuel tankers, mechanics, medics, repair technicians, command and control, etc. In an ABCT, that means around 700 soldiers doing the direct fighting. In a BTG, that’s just 120. And a US Army analysis came to the same conclusion: 

BTGs deploy from garrison with about 200 infantrymen in four maneuver companies. According to Russian Army manuals, in the field as many as 50 percent of infantry soldiers can be required for local security and routine administrative tasks. This leaves relatively few infantrymen available for mounted squads.

So 100 infantrymen for mounted squads, plus 30 tankers for the 10 tanks in the BTG … 130! Yup, my 15% rule still holds up. Then again, that assumes the BTG was deploying at full strength. That never happened this war. From Day One, Russia attacked with a BTG structure that could barely muster 100 fighting men at a time. Suddenly, it’s easier to understand how Ukraine was able to fight off what seemed, on paper, to be a massive Russian horde.

There was a good reason for the BTG, however. A Russian regiment has several BTGs. Thus, a commander could stand up one combat-ready BTG while pilfering the supplies of the other 2-3 in his regiment. Entire BTGs could exist on a spreadsheet, but the money for them syphoned off for dachas and mistresses. Moscow would be none the wiser, as the single functional BTG was always available for the typical Russian mission—Syria, Georgia, Moldova, etc. 

Unfortunately, Putin believed the spreadsheets, and thus fielded an army that existed mostly on paper. We’ve since seen the consequences. 

Now, it wasn’t long before Russian BTG doctrine starting going by the wayside.

A metrologist isn’t a misspelled weather man (as I originally thought). It’s someone who calibrates equipment measurements. There are lots of obvious military applications, such as calibrating artillery measurement devices that allow for greater accuracy. Yet by April, Russia was already throwing support personnel into front-line combat units. That was the end of me talking about the 15% rule. 

Yet for every support personnel used as cannon fodder, that meant one less support personnel to, you know, support combat arms units. We can only speculate about what that metrologist did, but we do know that Russian artillery has shit accuracy. If a mechanic, or truck driver, or, heck, meteorologist is thrown at the front lines, there are consequences in the rear. 

We’ve even seen multiple videos of Russian artillerymen complaining about being thrown into the front as infantry fodder. That’s great news! Artillery is far more destructive.

One last point about the BTG—Russia never managed the ability to attack with mass, or display any combined arms abilities. The largest attacks reported were 2-3 BTGs at a time, and I doubt those were full-strength BTGs. We’ve never seen a video of 20-30 tanks and 120 infantry fighting vehicles swarming down a field toward an objective. The U.S. could easily manage that with a BCT.  Heck, it could do so with multiple BCTs at once. 

Over the last few months, whatever notion of a Russian BTG still remained had long since passed. Russia’s tactics devolved to massive artillery barrages followed by suicidal infantry attacks against Ukrainian defensive positions. Rarely, armor makes an appearance, like the repeated (also suicidal) attacks around Vuhledar (more here), and recent Russian efforts round Kreminna. But mostly, it’s just meat-grinder tactics. So finally, Russia has given up any pretenses. 

There’s some great stuff in that thread, written by a Ukrainian army officer. 

The Assault Detachment is customizable to mission requirements and consists of 2-3 assault companies, a command unit, an artillery support unit, and other groups: recon, tank, EW, AD, fire support, UAV, Medevac, flamethrowing, assault engineering, reserve, equipment recovery.

Assault unit armament:

- Three T-72 tanks
- Two Zu-23,  and 3 MANDAPS [air defense]
- 12 man-portable flamethrowers
- Six SPGs (2S9) [self-propelled artillery] 
- Six Towed artillery guns (D30)
- Two AGS-17 [grenade launchers]
- Two Kord HMGs [heavy machine guns]
- Two ATGMs [anti-tank guided missiles]
- Two sniper pairs
- BREM-L [recovery vehicle, to tow back broken vehicles]

Additionally, the Assault Detachment has 12 infantry fighting vehicles. Initial thoughts: their BTG was already too small for operational effectiveness. They've gone even smaller. Yet despite cutting armor by 70%, artillery has only shrunk from 18 to 12 guns. The flamethrowers are good for clearing trenches, I think? So this looks like Russia is accepting their dramatically reduced stocks of armor, and are going to lean even more heavily on artillery and infantry. 

Main assault provisions:

• The pause between the assault and artillery fire on fortified positions should be no longer than one minute

• Using UAVs for reconnaissance is advised, but it is not recommended to use them for battle monitoring to avoid the loss of the UAV.

Given Russia’s lack of artillery accuracy (I bet zero metrologists are left), there is absolutely no way they can coordinate a one-minute pause between artillery and infantry assault. As it stands, Russia has already suffered heavy friendly fire casualties from mistargeted artillery. 

And having UAV (drone) coverage of an ongoing operation is invaluable for alerting soldiers on the ground of changing battlefield conditions (such as, for instance, alerting friendlies to an enemy flanking maneuver). Given Russia’s communications woes, maybe it’s irrelevant—I doubt cannon fodder is being equipped with valuable radios. But the callous disregard for lives, in order to avoid the loss of a cheap freakin’ drone, is unbelievable. Heck, monitoring the battle might even inform Russian commanders of changing Ukrainian tactics!

I’d guess the real reason they’re discouraging drone monitoring is to eliminate evidence of incompetence and callous disregard for the lives of their men. 

• Occupying abandoned trenches is prohibited because they may have been booby-trapped or could have been prepared as targets for artillery strikes.

• Assaulters cannot evacuate the wounded themselves; they must relay the wounded's coordinates to the evacuation team.

Interesting information on the trenches. This means Ukraine has been effective in booby trapping their trenches, and in accurately landing artillery on those coordinates. As for the wounded, once again, Russia shows its callous disregard for the lives of its men. We all know there’s no “evacuation team” coming. This is all about pushing the infantry forward until they’re all dead. And valuable meters might be lost if anyone stops to actually help a wounded comrade. 

• The platoon commander controls mortar fire.

• The platoon/company commander decides on artillery targets, but only the unit commander can provide the air support.

This is a change in Russian doctrine, in which on-the-ground commanders have zero authority to deviate from whatever master plan has been handed on down. Russian Telegram has, from nearly the start, complained that targets of opportunity are missed because it takes hours or even days to approve coordinates sent to artillery commanders. 

Good luck changing that, in the middle of war, with little incentive for artillery commanders or senior officers to cede any of their power. Who do those upstart young lieutenants on the battlefield think they are, anyway? Shit worked fine the way it was!

• During an assault, it is prohibited for an assault company or platoon to move through open spaces and they should instead move solely within the treeline.

This is a bit of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Out in the open, it’s easier for drones to spot the movement. But the tree line is easier to hit with artillery, as the coordinates are well defined. 

This decision seems to be influenced by Wagner's advances in the Bakhmut area and the decreased availability of vehicles and weaponry since February 2022. Unlike BTG, assault detachments doesn’t seem to have a logistics or MLRS units in their structure.

There is no organic logistics in these units, meaning, they don’t have trucks directly assigned to supply with ammo, food, water, spare parts, lubrication, fuel, medical gear, and all the other things that a war machine needs. So what could go wrong? 

The problem with the BTG was always its small size and Russia’s inability to coordinate with other BTGs to bring massed armor to offensive operations. Shrinking its operational unit even further doesn’t seem to address that core problem. 

But if Russia’s plan is to keep trickling assault groups forward of 6-8 men at a time to expose Ukrainian defensive positions so they can subsequently be targeted by artillery, then I guess this does the trick. 

RIP BTG. We hardly knew you.


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