Low force density

Some comment replies are simply too long for the comment section:

Matthias WildeMay 3, 2012 05:30 AM
A short detour, Sven, which I would like to post at a more relevant article; problem is, though, nobody responds to the older ones.

Regarding force density: I concur that much lower force densities are an obvious fact at the current time. The Bundeswehr, for example, has probably about 120K people under arms right now, compared to more than 400K during the Cold War.

It makes perfect sense to cut the size of your military when you don´t have a real enemy, but why do you assume this would be the case when another "Big One" comes around?

You yourself said that societies as a whole could switch to war mode quite quickly; so if SHTF what reasons would prevent western states form forming large militaries again? Why do you assume that future wars will ipso facto be low density wars?

The long-expected world war type of war would probably see a force buildup that allows for multi-million (wo)men armies (NATO could within months mobilise about 120 brigade equivalents on a European theatre, with about 80 more away from the battlefield). The principal challenges would be 
(1) conversion to a war economy
(2) sustainment of a war economy (maritime trade, electricity supply)
(3) how to wage modern war with beginners.

We'd lack the reserve pool of experienced leaders after a decade or two of having tiny pro forces. "90 day wonder" 2nd Lts (U.S. in WW2) could have a comeback.

Also: Remember that NATO had 26 divisions in Central Europe during the Cold War. Even counting airborne and French reinforcements, we'd probably not have had more than 30 divisions for a front that's ~1000 km wide if drawn as a straight line. We (and the Reds as well) were stretched thinly enough to prevent regular operational reserves in-theatre. All divisions would have been expected to fight with a vastly lower force density than known from Europe 1939-1945 (save for Yugoslavian campaign, the Steppe south of Stalingrad and few other places). The first two weeks were widely considered crucial.

A huge conflict might be decided or very much influenced before the bulk of the military potential arrives. An armoured recce company raiding the last opposing military airfield at 700+ km depth has a certain appeal and its experience would not be close to Seelow heights '44.

Low force density is of even greater interest in another threat scenario; a more sudden escalation on an even more stupid "reason" for war than a World War - without lengthy force build-up. This has its greatest potential in sudden flare-ups of border conflicts à la South Ossetia as well as in regard to a Ukraine breakup scenario or a Baltic coup de main scenario.
An aggressor might see his chance in a coup de main (strategic surprise) coupled with deterring a counteroffensive with fait accompli and nuke threat. Would we really risk WW4 armageddon if the Russians had overrun and annexed Estonia by next week? Would we launch a conventional offensive to liberate it? Russia ain't Iraq, it has nukes. A low force density counteroffensive might actually stay below this deterrent 's actual threshold (this idea would require a lot of elaboration, of course).

Even "big" wars might have lots of low density fighting because of the full motorisation.
Traditional front lines had up to 10 km depth, and greater battlefields were difficult to cross on a day for an Infantry Division. Today battlegroups/Gefechtsverbände could scoot forward and backward by 100-200 km per day at ease and no continuous trench or outpost line would deter or slow them This greater depth reduces the density.
Additionally, reinforcements might trickle onto the battlefield and be reduced quickly because of attack overmatch over survivability (remember the unbelievable loss rates in Near/Mid East tank battles and in exercises!). In the end, maybe few troops would be on the (wide) battlefield at any one time.

Last but not least; my ideas/opinions do include two components for local high density combat (heavy brigades, reserve infantry formations).


P.S.: Bundeswehr strength is more like 200k now and 500 k then, and I remember 650k mob strength from just a few years ago. IIRC 150 k active is the new plan.


  1. 'Even "big" wars might have lots of low density fighting because of the full motorisation.'

    What place do light infantry divisions have in such a conflict, then? It seems they wouldn't be able to keep pace with everyones operational tempo.

  2. Divisions? No good choice.

    Reinforced battalion-sized battlegroups up to small brigades would have their niches, though.

    Just think of how easily they could disappear in cluttered terrain. Every wood, swamp, evacuated larger settlement would turn into a fortress akin to Vauban's. The protection wouldn't stem from walls and ramparts, but from elusiveness. Just as fortress garrisons, these troops could move out for raids to cut enemy supply and targets of opportunity, as well as long-range recce.

    Or these formations could get attached or get attachments on their own (such as an armoured recce company) which turns them into combined arms teams that can eliminate a pocket, for example.
    Eliminated pockets are much better than mere shattering of formations. No armoured brigade has the manpower to search closed terrain for hidden stragglers, though - they can shatter an OPFOR, but not eliminate it unless we're talking about desert terrain or poorly motivated OPFOR. Remember the handful Fedayeen in 2003? The Royal Marines were sent to mop them up, not some heavy armour force.

  3. Matthias Wilde4 May 2012 at 00:16

    Thank you for the elaborate answer.

    You mentioned quite a few points, the most salient in respect to the question of modern low force densities being the greatly enlarged battlespace in comparison to pre-motorized times.

    Another point you refered to was that contemporary military technology greatly favours the offence - what you called “attack overmatch” -, making posible the quick destruction of more or less isolated elements once they are identified and localized.

    Sounds plausible to me; so these two are the main factors in your opinion?

    The other points raised – while in my opinion not directly related to the original question – are quite interesting in themselves.

    I didn´t know, for example, that already during the Cold War the densities were this low, even in the Eastern bloc, which was of course much more militarized, society-wise. How come? Why should, for example, the DDR have had proportionally fewer soldiers than the Reich during WW2, according to you? (Or do I misrepresent your statement?)

    The guarantee of the Baltic states by NATO against Russia is, of course, a controversial topic; I´m sure I´m not the only one who vaguely thinks of Britain and Poland in 1939 in this respect. On the other hand, given, for example, the recent war against Serbia started by “peace-loving” Europe, the Ukrainian affair, hare-brained missile defense plans and general US warmongering, I would not necessarily be inclined to view NATO a priori as the good guys, should things heat up in the east.

  4. Both Germanys as well as Switzerland were Cold War anomalies - they had lots of lightly armed reserves, in case of West Germany the territorial forces. They had few old tanks, few towed howitzers and otherwise lots of infantry - but not enough to come close to '39 levels.

    East Germany had much paramilitary personnel (CSFR too, I believe) of questionable military relevance (comparable to Soviet NKVD units in '41, I guess). The GDR NVA was six understrength divisions and an airborne battalion. "understrength"; peacetime strength of NVA army about 100 k personnel, wartime 250k. That was comparable to West Germany (in relation to population size), they just had smaller formations with older equipment. Their six divisions were comparable to about three to four Western ones (in quantities).

    West German formation quantity overall was poor in comparison to earlier generations, but equipment value was high. West Germany had IIRC up to about 80 tank battalions, half of them modern and half of them still useful. That's a bit more quantity than Germany '39, but with bigger tanks (and additional AFVs in other units, especially the Panzergrenadiere with their IFVs).
    West Germany's industry was anticipating the coming skilled worker shortage by the time of rearmament and foreign worker inflow started soon thereafter. Powerful people did not want much manpower wasted on the military, so the military went the capital intensive path. That brought more arms orders to the infantry, too. The same mechanism was at work in other Western major powers.

    In the end, we revived the early WW2 strength in light infantry (airborne, mountain) and expanded on the ~10% fast troops (motorised, armour) while largely ignoring the legacy of about 85% of the WW2 force; the line divisions (infantry divisions, later grenadier divisions).

    So far I do still diagnose a lack of doctrinal replacement for the stability and functions that having a front line composed of reinforced infantry divisions did provide.

  5. Matthias Wilde4 May 2012 at 22:36

    Nice, seems plausible: a more or less consciously taken decision to go the more capital-intensive route, saving manpower for the industry while trying to maintain equivalent fighting strength, although, as you mention, a real doctrine had never really been developed for this kind of force composition.

    Could you name some of the "powerful people" or groups tied to this development, in Germany, NATO or the Soviet bloc?

  6. Mostly industry association people and politicians who agreed.
    http://tinyurl.com/6vs8cuj is a neat source on what happened early on in the new army.

  7. Matthias Wilde6 May 2012 at 21:59

    Nice, looks interesting. From the resume it seems that also the vulnerability of non-mechanized units to tactical nukes played a role in abolishing mass formations.

  8. The appearance of battlefield nukes hadn't so much influence on the size of formations as on how they deployed and moved. Battlefield nukes also made Soviet style artillery concentrations impractical (and unnecessary).

    Middeldorf summarised the early 50's understanding of battlefield nukes which was apparently also informing the Heeresstruktur I. His chapter on nukes communicates that the effect of even a 20 kt nuke wasn't necessarily satisfactory even against an entrenched infantry battalion. That may have been wrong, but it was apparently what they thought when they developed the first army structure.

  9. In a non-militarized society and a peace time economy major conventional warfighting operations would be over very soon I think. The whole show would just run out of steam within 10 days to two weeks. But that's why there are nuclear weapons, right? They make large high-density formations suizidal. And in the face of strategic nuclear weapons the whole soldier game is becoming pointless - win glorious battles on the front, maybe even remain combat capable over longer time, while your home is falling to ashes. Pointless.

    Third world countries might wage longer war, since it's basically just a bunch of guys with AKs, plus a few schwerpunkt units with industrial-warfare equipment (often too precious for domestic reasons to be thrown into battle). Everything dissolves into 30-years-war style warfare. Low density by default.

    The question is: Can a small modern/Western force strategically defeat, conquer, and subjugate a country or a people without resorting to the Mongol pyramid-of-skulls/kill-everyone approach. Or is it necessary to utilize huge manpower-intensive formations (mostly infantry). Because these two things don't really go together, militarily and economically/societal: Nuclear-minded highly mobile low density forces designed against top-tier peer enemies, and conventionally-minded high density forces designed against irregular peoples armies.

  10. In a low force density environment with a motorized and flying enemy, my first solution would be to install remote controlled ambush devices with information transfer through fiberoptics.

    Ambush devices can move a limited distance, are small and hard to detect in their hidings. They have off-the-shelf detectors and can deploy explosives, fire guns, missiles, grenades and some light artillery. They would be the most convenient measure to create a front line with old soldiers commanding numerous recruits in safe places. These devices have far more utility than the simple mines of old and can be used in defense and offense (cutting supply and withdrawal) because every enemy with limited and increasingly predictable position becomes easier to eliminate (they can surrender, no need to kill every time).