The brain-melting effect of rotation schedules for small wars

The recent small wars turned out to last long, very long. Just like several Balkan peacekeeping missions. These wars are no great wars, no wars which justify to send troops into theatre till accomplished their mission (for real). Instead, troops are rotated in, rotated out, formations rebuilt & retrained and rotated in again. Rotations are a proved countermeasure against burning out troops real fast. World War Two included frequent removal of troops from the front-line for vacation and service as trainers, for example. The ratio of front duty to garrison duty seems to be reversed in the more recent cases. The wisdom of short vs. long tours shall still not be the topic here, but the effect on thinking about brigades in general:

The rotation schedules have a certain in theatre period- out of theatre period ratio, 1:4 is apparently typical. The apparent problem is that this rotation mode seems to have influenced the whole thinking about brigades in general.

Brigades used to be handy combat formations, now they're apparently the administrative unit for deployment. The rumours about the development of the new German army structure included the idea of about half a dozen mixed brigades - not any specialized formations like mountain, armor, mechanized and airborne any more.
The thought process wasn't about maximizing army strength with a given budget, but about the creation of exchangeable, rotatable units for deployment.

2.A.6 In the land environment, Future Force 2020 will be able to provide: light, specialist forces for short-duration interventions; sufficient multi-role forces to provide flexibility for larger or more complex intervention operations or to undertake enduring stabilisation operations;  [..]
2.A.7 Capabilities will include:
• five multi-role brigades [...] each comprising reconnaissance forces, tanks, and armoured, mechanised and light infantry, plus supporting units, keeping one brigade at high readiness available for an intervention operation, and four in support to ensure the ability to sustain an enduring stabilisation operation; [...]

Brigade design according to rotation schedules. 1:4. Hundreds of dead generals and field marshals of fame roll over in their graves.

Don't get me wrong; multi-role brigades can make sense as an alternative to more specialized brigades if you have the specialized components ready for attachment in order to make them suitable for different missions and environments. It just freaks me out that brigades could be believed to be rotation assets. This is not about baseball or tennis.

What would it take to bring back brains and make decision-makers think of brigades as manoeuvre units in a corps context, almost all of them to be used at once in a war of necessity?

Are Western military forces reduced to the toys of politicians or is there still some seriousness about actual defence?



  1. Just discovered your blog. Nice. But no German? :-)

    You say short vs long should not be the topic here, but I think that's exactly the topic. Even 4:1 is not sustainable over longer time, not even medium I say. 7 or 8 to 1 is necessary for sustained operations.

    But what does that mean for forces, when even the whole U.S. war machine doesn't have more real infantry than to fill a medium soccer stadium? In earlier times wars as the current ones were fought with regionally recruited auxiliary troops (lead by European officers), supported by only a few core European regiments. And it's obvious that anything else is unsustainable.

    It's a huge topic of course, but in two sentences I think the brigade/BCT structure is not suited for expeditionary warfare over a wide range of potential enemies. It's just not flexible enough.

    In the colonial wars we see these days light infantry is king. Plus support assets, according to theatre and ops needs. Call it "Reinforced Regiments". Support assets can rotate in and out, but why does the infantry have to rotate on a unit level?

    That brings us back to short vs long, not on a unit level, but on an individual level. Even though the U.S. has a volunteer force, it is not a real professional force. Way too many soldiers are motivated by other things than being soldiers. Post-service education for example.

    What is needed is a force setup like the French Foreign Legion. Sign for 5 years, 10 years. And if you spend those years in a Central Asian hell-hole, well, so be it!

    Expeditionary warfare really shows the limits of the "citizen soldier", even the professional ones. A real professional soldier shouldn't have to be "rotated" every X month, and thus the overall force overhead could be reduced from 7/8 to 1 (or 4 to 1, as you say), to maybe 2.5 to 1.

  2. I think about writing articles of special interest for Germans in both languages, as I did once before. My original idea was to do that with all texts, but that's impractical.

    About your ideas; I'm not appalled by the lack of suitability for these stupid wars, but by the fact that stupid wars have gained primacy over actual defence.

  3. "What would it take to bring back brains and make decision-makers think of brigades as manoeuvre units in a corps context, almost all of them to be used at once in a war of necessity?"

    We simply lack the numbers for that to be a viable outcome anymore, as you said in your Blitzkreig piece, there are no infantry divisisions holding the line, and even if there were, technology has moved on.

    The enemy Corps would be beaten by our corps, it would be broken by airpower. Our Corps would then have to go and dig it out of whatever hole it hid in.

    For that, 6 mixed Brigades work much better than an armoured Brigade, a Mechanised Brigade and 4 light Brigades.

  4. Airpower would destroy the enemy in the field?
    What airpower?

    Have a look at European air forces. Their offensive role is mostly about the destruction of fixed targets and enemy air forces. They're not much into the destruction of army forces in the field, they weren't even back during the 80's.

    Al those Tornados - they were meant to take out bridges, trains, march columns and runways. They were never meant nor suitable for the decimation of a deployed brigade. Even the A-10 would have problems with that.

    The Americans aren't much better, especially not once they transitioned to the F-35. They have more quantity, but their ability to engage a brigade is 90% of the time marginal simply because it's so damn hard to find and identify good quality forces in an average (= inhabitated, cluttered) terrain.

    The no-concealment-terrain-features desert warfare against Iraqis have hidden this deficit from sight, but the Serbs exposed this lack of capability in 1999. We destroyed almost only decoys, very few actual tanks and artillery pieces in the field.

    Hostile air defences would not need to expose themselves to possible destruction most of the time simply because a brigade could hide most of the time. This would enable them to keep their precious AD intact for the vulnerable phases of activity.
    The resulting activity suppression effect of air power may be more relevant than the actual destruction.

    Attack helicopter squadrons have meanwhile largely given up the idea of routinely infiltrating hostile-dominated territory since an Apache regiment was badly mauled by 1960's technology Iraqi defences in 2003.

  5. The Serbs didnt deploy a Tank Corps uinto the field, point it at allied HQ and drive forward.
    They dispersed and hid their heavy stuff, and got us to bomb 20,000 decoys.

    Would assembling 600 Heavy Tanks into a spear head and charging forward be any use against a dispersed and hidden enemy?
    Of course not, they'd remain hidden as it shot past them.

    The best way to dig out concealed forces is with a mixed Brigade.
    If the enemy masses in force to overwhelm them, Fast Air is only a few minutes away to destroy anything thats stupid enough to mass in numbers in the open.

  6. US rotation policies are even worse for the reservists being used as full-time rotational soldiers. There are reserve units that are spending more time deployed than many active duty units that are barely getting 1:4 dwell time

    See http://grognews.blogspot.com/2010/05/humor-troop-dwell-time-unaffected-by.html

  7. Are Western military forces reduced to the toys of politicians or is there still some seriousness about actual defence? Yes and No, respectively.