The first (and only?) phase that counts


Do you remember the headlines about the occupation of Kosovo? The Russians (206 paratroopers in light AFVs) hurried up and reached their objective (Pristina airport) faster than Western ground troops. This became one of the ingredients of the "8x8 AFV" and "air deployable" fashion of 1999 till about 2004.

To get into a favourable position early and quick has also kept NATO busy during the 90's. The NATO strategy for a great war in the post-Cold War 90's was counter-concentration, the deployment of reinforcements in a crisis region. Many formations were selected for such early deployments in many European nations.
That may include a kind of vicious circle mobilization dynamic as it was important in the final days before the First World War, but it was adopted nevertheless. Oh, well, and its chance of actually deploy combat-ready forces in time despite the initiative advantage of whoever wants to launch an aggression is debatable.

These and other examples reveal a great interest in the first phase of a hot conflict; get your troops into the place in question ASAP. An alternative would be to exploit an aggressor's culminating point and prepare for a counter-offensive only as happened in the Libyan desert in 1940 and in Korea 1950/51, but that's apparently not something you can sell to politicians.

The interest shifted away from the early (deployment, stop aggressor's advance) phases of war to the final one - occupation - due to the course of the recent mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

- - - - -

I think it's about time to allocate attention again to the first one or two phases of war.

Nobody wants protracted war, especially not amongst great or even nuclear powers. The outbreak of an armed conflict of this kind (most likely on a proxy's or allies' terrain) is nevertheless possible. What would be the obvious political conclusion? You should end the war ASAP, preferably by making sure ASAP that the aggressor accepts that his plan failed and by offering a draw.

Let's take the Baltic example; the Baltic is known in NATO to be quite indefensible, at least without predeployment of forces. We could do something about this weak spot (like subsidizing them into copies of Israel at least in regard to their armies), of course.
A quite difficult scenario would include a Russian coup de main in a matter of days and the occupation of the three Baltic countries with Russian internal ministry forces (~Chechnya) behind a screen of military forces.
Russia could then annex all three (NATO member) Baltic countries and simply state that any attempt to reconquer or continue the hot conflict would lead to tactical and operational nuclear strikes.
I bet we wouldn't risk that and instead go through the predictable procedure of a UN-guarded ceasefire and UN talks. Exiled Baltic governments would probably partially save our face by asking us not to risk a nuclear war in their homeland.

- - - - -

There are more such examples of wars that could be decided in a matter of days because a continuation of the conflict after fait accompli would be a too terrible alternative. The South Georgia conflict in 2008 fits quite well.

Then again, air-deployable forces probably lack the punch and even the steadfastness in the defence for the job. Air-deployable forces are limited in their vehicle size, weight and quantity as well as their quantity of supplies. They tend to rest much combat power on infantry, anti-tank missiles and rather basic indirect fires.
Positional defence is - and always has been - unsatisfactory in warfare. You always depend on at least local counter-attacks to succeed in the defence (even during the Trench War 1915-1918!).
The "air deployable" fashion seems to be an unsatisfactory answer for the problem of few-days-wars to me.

Pre-deployment isn't satisfactory either. Take the Baltic example; it would take about six to twelve brigades in the theatre to deter or stop a competently planned invasion cold. These troops could be misunderstood as a threat, the deployment would cost much and it's an impossible approach for many other conflict hot spots. We couldn't use pre-deployed troops to deter a Russian intervention in Ukrainian domestic conflicts, for example.

- - - - -

Well, what should we do about this?

First of all, I'm only pro "wars of necessity". This cuts down the range of potential scenarios because it excludes many possible follies.
We agreed to protect the Baltic when we welcomed the in NATO and this means that we should be prepared to defend their sovereignty with violence - successful violence. This ranks higher than all stupid adventures that our politicians have embarked Western troops on since '91. Adults recognize that the world isn't a playing field and life includes unpleasant obligations.

I personally like my idea (quelle surprise!) of a "Grenzer" kind of defence for the Baltic. They could be subsidized to build up forces way beyond their own capabilities. The Baltic would become militarized like Israel, probably the least unlikely method for having enough defenders in place.
I called this "Grenzer"; the Austrian-Hungarian empire had almost perpetual troubles with the Turks (Ottomans), which had proficient light cavalry capable of devastating raids even in peacetime. Their answer was to exclude the border regions from taxation and to require that the inhabitants and colonists in these regions be prepared to defend themselves in return. The model was kept for many generations; it seems to have worked. The Grenzer model allowed the empire to cut its regular army free from the Southern Border.

This model adapted to the Baltic would replace the tax exemption with subsidies (quite the same effect if you think about it; the border regions get the economic ability to sustain sufficient military power by themselves). NATO manoeuvre armies could be held back, would not need to deploy and especially not to garrison the Baltic in peacetime.

An improvement of land traffic infrastructure is highly advisable as a preparation for this and other possible peripheral conflicts. There's only one real road that connects the Baltic states and Poland, for example. Such a bottleneck is unacceptable.

It would also be worth a try to have some full brigade deployment exercises. The German, French and Polish Secretaries of Defence should phone some colleagues and get the right to deploy a brigade for the purpose of exercising (and as an experiment) sometime in the future. Then, months or years later, they should suddenly during a Saturday night decide on their own that one of their brigades should deploy ASAP.
That would become an interesting spectacle. I wouldn't expect Western or Central European Brigade to become 80% combat-ready (with supplies) in Lithuania in less than two weeks. Units with many tracked vehicles would probably take much more. An invasion on the other hand would likely be complete after a few days.

We should really go back to old habits and stress the look at the early phases of armed conflict and the prevention of conflicts. That is when you can still keep the war from taking a bloody, expensive and protracted course. The occupation phase does by comparison not even exist in many armed conflicts!
There's much to do in regard to the early phases of conflict. NATO's "counter concentration" and "multinational rapid reaction forces" approach doesn't cut it in my opinion.



  1. i don't wanna kill your illusions, but georgia actually was armed to the teeth and it did not work all together. ukrainian buk-m1, osa-k, tin shields; t-72 with israeli fire control systems, su-25 with israeli avionics; all kinds of western infantry weapons like g-36, m-16 etc.; huge amounts of howitzers and artillary; not to speak of american support and training, moment of surprise and, oh my god - the best defense facility a country can enjoy - the biggest and most massive defense barrier possible - the caucasian mountains. all they had to do was to destroy the roki-tunnel and they weren't even able to do that. russia did not even had the numerical advantage.
    lets stick to the fact: you can not defend the baltic states and in the future they will fall back into the sphere of influence of russia due to their geographical cultural and economical proximity to russia, their russian speaking citizens, the economic collapse of the west resulting in ever less ability and ressources to defend western interests in different areas in the world, the successive economical, military and political rebound of russia and - last but not least - the massive disappointment of their population of the "western" project of free market economy pursued by corrupt politicians pampered by the west leading to an ever sinking standard of living. (today its even lower than in the soviet union)

  2. We're not much in disagrement about the SO conflict here.
    I consider Lithuania and Latvia as potentially defensible and wouldn't judge on Baltic politicians for I don't know them, though.

    The "economic collapse of the West" is a misperception. The problems among Western countrie are in part opposites and very different in general. There's no general economic collapse in sight, except that a few economic bubbles did burst in quick succession.

  3. Georgia: Well, while I have to agree that Georgia was well armed, I think the main reason for their defeat was a lack of properly trained troops.
    Saakashvili's government tried to rapidly expand the Georgian Army before the war and at the same time they had deployed a significant number of troops to Iraq. I should also add that most of the training by US forces was focused on COIN.

    The Baltic countries: A lot depends on Belarus. If Lukashenko remains neutral in a hypothetical conflict between Russia and NATO/EU, the Poles will find it a lot easier to secure the E67.

  4. A neutral Belarus would actually be in Russia's interest in a Baltic invasion scenario.
    Belarus would offer a safe base for electronic reconnaissance and its neutrality would greatly reduce the frontage.

    The Poles have a small army and would need to keep brigades both next to Kaliningrad and at the border to Belarus, so even with a neutral Belarus they would be utterly incapable of keeping a land route to Lithuania open in the case of a strategic surprise invasion. The road would be cut within minutes by artillery-laid minefields and within two hours by ground forces.

  5. I don't know about the quality of Georgian troops, but i believe that was not the reason why Russians won SO conflict. There is one more thing an army needs besides trained men and equipment - leading. If an army lacks good commanders, it's not capable of winning any bigger battles. As one wise man once said: there's a difference between bunch of armed men and an army.

    Even though Estonia gives military training to only every third of our men, they are trained well. At least that's what they keep on saying. In time we hope to get enough heavy weapons to respond to tanks and artillery our enemy might deploy against us. What we lack is competent leaders. We have only one or two battalion level exercises a year and that's just way too little to ensure enough practice to our higher officers.

  6. I like your Grenzer concept for the defence of the Baltic states, but I think the Grenzer concept with air transportable infantry, apc's and light tanks would be even better.

    The point of an air transportable combined arms team is to get into the enemy rear, block supplies, block or delay enemy reinforcements and if the Grenzers do their job; block the enemy retreat.

    In the Georgian war, the Georgians planned on getting surprise and maintaining the initiative, but the Russian response surprised them and they lost the initiative. If the Georgian army dropped an air transportable combined arms battalion that blocked near or at the Roki tunnel, they might have been able to regain the initiative.

    Here's an analysis of the Georgian conflict you might like to read.

    Set-Up for Failure: U.S. Light Infantry Advisors Make Georgians into Mirror-Image Narcissists who Foot-Slog and Truck-Hop; Have Asses Handed to Them by Combined-Arms Russian Light and Medium-Weight Air-Mech Infantry with Tanks, Artillery and Aircraft


  7. Thanks, but I don't want to read Sparky's stuff.

    The vertical envelopment idea is too difficult to pull off and too risky in my opinion.

    Russia could overrun the Baltic states as they are in a matter of days. NATO would hardly be able to air-drop enough forces behind enemy lines to make a difference. The spearheads would be too disconnected from their corps rear area for a few days anyway.

    A vertical envelopment operation requires a certain degree of security agiainst air defences and fighters. This is almost impossible to achieve in a few days after being surprised strategically. NATO has few air bases in practical range and even less air power.

    I wouldn't expect a successful NATO air power intervention in the first week.

  8. I've seen this Sparky Gavin meme pop up everywhere. What is it?

  9. Sparky is an overmotivated, highly persistent web author with a tendency to use terrible formatting and overlength texts as well as strange rants about the USMC.
    He's famous for being banned on most military forums - usually within days of his arrival.

  10. Sorry for reawaking a "dead(ish)" post but I've just found your site and it is quite brilliant.

    Firstly, the Baltics.
    Even if Russia DID manage to surprise NATO, it would only take two days for the UK's rapid reaction force to be landed in Norway. To drive from Russia to Western Norway in two days is one hell of a stretch. Doing so whilst under ground attack from native defence forces and air attack from all NATO powers is another question entirely.

    If given a list of strategicaly vital (to advancing Russia) transport hubs by Norway, the UK could begin destroying them within hours

    Unless by the Baltic States, you just mean the corridor between Konigsberg and Russia.
    In which case yeah, that would be possible.

    As for Georgia. (Or what I read on it anyway)
    The Georgian defence collapsed when its air defence was broken and not a second before.

    Had NATO provided a no fly zone, its my belief the war would have gone very differently.

  11. Norway, Denmark, Sweden adn Finland is Scandinavia.
    The Baltic countries are Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.