Durability and attrition as pressing challenges

Auf beiden Seiten ist eine gewisse Erschöpfung festzustellen. Während auf der eigenen Seite die Zahl der Panzer immer mehr abnimmt, muß der Gegner schlechter ausgebildete Infanterie einsetzen.
Noch vor 4 Wochen 160, vor zwei Wochen etwa 100, sind es nach einem Tiefstand von 10 Panzern um die Jahreswende nun nur noch etwa 40 Panzer, über die das gesamte Panzer-Regiment verfügen kann (...).
Zeitlich gesehen ist eine Panzer-Division bei täglichen Kämpfen durchschnittlich etwa 3-4 Wochen eingesetzt werden (...) dann (ist), den üblichen Ersatz miteingerechnet, von jedem Verband nur noch ein Viertel bis ein Fünftel der anfänglichen Stärke am Feind. Der Rest des Materials befindet sich in den Werkstätten oder zerstört im Gelände.

Es war eine Faustregel des letzten Krieges, daß auf 100 Panzer je Einsatztag 3 Panzer als Nachschubquote bereitszustehen hatten.
"Zwischen Don und Donez - Winter 1942/43", Horst Scheibert, 1961

my translation:
"On both sides can a certain exhaustion be observed. On the own side is the quantity of tanks dwindling, while the enemy needs to use ever worse trained infantrymen.
Just four weeks ago 160, two weeks ago about 100, now after a low of 10 tanks around the turn of the year only 40 tanks at the disposal of the whole armoured regiment(...).
An armoured division can in daily combat be kept in action on average for three to four weeks (...) then (is), the usual replacements included, only a fourth or fifth of the original strength left up front. The rest of the material is in repair shops or destroyed on the battlefield.

It was a rule of thumb of the last war that for 100 tanks and day in action three replacement tanks had to be available as replacement quota."

Keep in mind that the Eastern Front armies consisted of a relatively stable line of infantry divisions and just a few, concentrated armoured divisions. Infantry divisions held the line while armoured divisions were being rebuilt or were otherwise unavailable.
Modern armies have shed this line of many slow infantry divisions and rely on motorized/mechanized troops only.

Concerns about the lack of such a durable stabilizing factor as the infantry front were downplayed during the Cold War because (almost) everyone expected a short war. That expectation was in turn partially founded on this unsolved problem, though.

This basic problem of durability and attrition in wars with combat-intensive operations has many consequences. It's important enough to deserve much more attention than it gets.

Look at the usual descriptions of the vehicles most prone to break down, for example: Main battle tanks (MBT). Wikipedia's Leopard 2 page has a summary description with 26 variables, 15 of which are technical. There's no information on durability and ease of maintenance and repairs included.
That's representative for most literature on tanks. I have an old Jane's Armour & Artillery that offers a staggering 53 technical variables in its three-column specifications table. Not a single one is about durability, repair times or meaningful in regard to survivability.

Guns, speed and subjective perceptions about (frontal) armour protection get almost all the public attention, but these superficial values wouldn't dominate for more than the first few hours of action. Range and fuel consumption would then become very important variables, and after a few weeks your first question would be about readiness.

Let's look at the figures offered by Rolf Hilmes in "Kampfpanzer" (2007) to see the variance of durability and repair time variables:

T-72A (ex Eastern German) / Leopard 2 (German)
main gun barrel life 87+ shots / 700-1,200 shots
track life approx. 3,200 km / more than 6,000 km
engine life approx. 1,000 hrs / 1,000 - 4,500 hrs
engine change 24 hrs / 0.2 hrs
barrel change 8 hrs / 0.25 hrs

These differences reflected very different approaches to tank warfare and in turn imposed different training philosophies.

Western armies had no conventional enemy who was able to keep up a fierce, conventional fight for more than a month since the end of the Cold War. This justifies a concern about whether Western armies are still paying enough attention to more medium-term concerns of conventional ground war.

The medium term readiness challenge can be addressed in many different ways:

- more durable equipment (technical design)
- more easily repaired equipment (technical design)
- enough spare parts in the right units (logistics)
- more mechanics (organization, training)
- better tools and vehicles for recovery & repair (TO&E)
- less demanding operational concepts (operational level)*
- better training (training)
- better tactics (tactical level)
- more breaks for maintenance
- better vehicle standardization
- more redundancy and versatility**
- lower ground pressure (less likely to get stuck)
- better accident prevention

That's more than a dozen topics in one.

The Cold War with his tunnel vision on short warfare ("Fulda gap" etc) is gone, the downsizing of the 90's is over - but the problem still doesn't seem to get the well-deserved attention because most stare nowadays at "small wars" and warband-based tribal warfare.

Underestimating the problem of attrition and dropping readiness/availability in conventional warfare is dangerous. The attrition rates have come under influence of many changes - some to the better, some to the worse. Western armies would mostly expend their heavy brigades' combat power in a month of conventional warfare if modern war attrition rates would be anywhere near WW2 attrition rates.
Four-week armies?

Four weeks may actually be a generous estimate because units would get exhausted by many factors in parallel. Sleep is one problem, uneven attrition that takes out critical capabilities faster than average is a problem, stockpiles and transportation of spare parts and munitions are another problem.
Modern combat brigades would risk to quickly run out of steam in conventional warfare. We should keep this in mind in our operational theory, organisation, procurement and in training.

We've shed and dispersed much of the Cold War arsenal (that aged a lot anyway) and couldn't sustain our heavy brigades in action for long. The bad thing about this is that we've got little else than those heavy brigades.

Good preparations for defence in conventional war would look different. We would address this problem much better. Instead, we play great power games in *remote* places of the earth against hyped-up marginal threats.


*: My operational concept of heavy skirmishers relieves the combat brigades in regard to readiness by shifting the problem to the heavy skirmishers who can more easily break contact to be refreshed.

**: Redundancy and versatility don't improve vehicle readiness, but they improve unit readiness.


  1. Very interesting! Are you sure the comparison of Leo2/T-72A is fully correct, though? For example the engine change takes < 1h with the Leo2 to my knowledge.

  2. Thanks, everything in the table was inverted (wrong head). I corrected that.

  3. It was never clear to me that the Warsaw Pact (really the Red Army) methodology for procurement and rebuilding units in combat was incorrect. The test never came. But by organization the Russians intended having just as many tanks on week two as in week 20. Great work. One of my favorite subjects and hopefully I'll have some time tomorrow to reply in more depth.