Strategic reaction to inter-state war crisis situations


Historians keep blaming the mobilization of forces for setting Europe on autopilot for the Great War (now known as First World War), or at least partially so.
Quick mobilization of reserve divisions and transportation thereof to the theatre of war by means of the railroad network have been known since the mid-1860's. The better armies of the 1900's emphasized this very much in their peacetime planning. To be slower than an a opposing staff or to have politicians introduce any delays was believed to risk a quick defeat in war.

Mobilizations - even reactive, defensive ones - are since 1914 widely regarded as provocative measures and as escalating steps potentially (likely) leading to war. Politicians don't authorize mobilizations lightly for this reason any more, nor equivalents.
The result is that the aforementioned politically induced delays have become rather likely.
Scientists calculated during the 70's that a Soviet first strike with intercontinental missiles could reach Washington DC within about seven minutes if launched from the USSR (and almost no time if launched from the Atlantic ocean nearby). This wasn't enough for a reasonable decision-making about a retaliatory attacks even without including any friction. Again, politically induced delay was a major 'problem', and there was no doubt that a second strike ability after the first (only) thermonuclear attack wave was required, hence all that interest in the ridiculously large quantity of U.S.and USSR nukes and in mobile (rail, truck, submarine) long-range missiles with large yield warheads. The delay and its consequences shaped a large part of the Cold War arms race. The nuclear arsenals didn't so much compete against each other as some people believed: It was a race to convince the other bloc's leaders that they couldn't keep you from retaliating. We will never know if much less of an arsenal would have sufficed as well.
Well, this was how seriously all the things which can go wrong were taken in planning for a crisis situation during the Cold War. Seemingly insane spending levels were 'justified' with the necessities caused by the difficulties of Cold War crisis situations.

At the end of the Cold War, everyone seemed to slack a bit.
By 1991 NATO had adopted (but not trumpeted out very much) counter-concentration as its crisis reaction doctrine.

The massing of military forces, or massing of their effects, at a particular time and place with sufficient military capability to counter the attacker's force concentration. Counter-concentration can be conducted by the defender to neutralize the effects of the attacker's ongoing or future concentration.
Dictionary of Modern Strategy and Tactics

To be honest; the rather few noises made about this may indicate that few take it particularly seriously more than two decades later, but then again there's to my knowledge no real alternative doctrine and counter-concentration is the rather intuitive response anyway. It doesn't take the studying of von Clausewitz' "Vom Kriege" original edition to understand the concept.

The strategic counter-concentration doctrine didn't provoke very much activity, though. Planning for such counter-concentrations, base-building, forward supply stocks, quick deployment exercises - none of this coined NATO since the 90's. NATO went playing great power games over Yugoslavia and in Afghanistan instead. 
The Baltic countries were still a bit reassured by the established quick deployment forces (paras, mountain troops, wheeled armoured reconnaissance units) and probably also by Gen. Shinseki's quick deployment fetish post-'99.**
Western airborne forces were never adequately equipped to face competent mechanised forces on relatively flat, open terrain. In fact, Western airborne forces doctrine and equipment didn't seem to much sense in face of competent adversaries ever. They were all weak in regard to on-ground mobility, supply, anti-tank firepower, protected mobility, direct fire support, indirect fire support ... basically a hyped-up reserve pool for regular infantry.

NATO's counter-concentration capability is suffering from inevitable political delays as only warmongers would want to provoke and escalate needlessly and it's suffering from a rather low speed of counter-concentration because the units of highest strategic mobility are rather inadequate in a major crisis once on the ground.

Air power deployments don't change this much either, for in part they compete with ground forces deployments for air lift and in part Western air forces seem to lack what it takes.
The Soviets were always making sure that all their front combat aviation would be capable of operating from grass strips if necessary. Westerners fiddled around with some STOVL aircraft (yielding only a handful Harriers), some impractical zero length launch devices (only suitable if you think of an aircraft as a single use cruise missile with a nuclear warhead or to evacuate cratered air bases) and other than that occasional exercises with some aircraft operating from motorways were about the maximum ever done.
This unhealthy love affair with big airbases became even more fortified during the 90's. Aircraft flying missions against targets in Kosovo didn't necessarily take off in Southern Italy, but usually in more distant Northern Italy. This was much worse in regard to endurance over the target area, fuel reserves for air combat and so on, but there were more big and beautiful bases up north. Aviano Air Base, for example. Aviano was suitable for strikes on most of Serbia, but far away from Kosovo

The same ridiculous story was repeated during the bombardment of Libya (and I don't mean Reagan's, which was even more extreme): The participating air forces did mostly not set up shop close to Libya, on Crete and Sicily, much less on Lampedusa. Instead, they used whatever fully built-up air bases already existed in the Mediterranean, with all bells and whistles. Even in ridiculously distant places. It's no wonder that European aerial refuelling assets were inadequate. They were never dimensioned to make up for such epic laziness.

In short: NATO's air forces may think of themselves very highly (or not), but they are far from oriented towards quick a deployment in force onto ill-prepared air bases or roads in some distant country. Counter-concentration isn't their strength, and I suppose if politicians asked them to shape up in this regard the first and loud answer would be a multi-billion wish list for more transport and tanker aircraft instead of a couple serious unannounced deployment exercises.

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Now, how to do it better?
First, acknowledge there will be politically induced delays. We're not going to get rid of them because they actually make sense. In fact, to pay more attention to political means of addressing conflicts not only during conflicts but also beforehand (budget!) would be very promising.
Second, acknowledge that whatever quickness of counter-concentration 'we' may have when we need it, it's more likely to be called "slowness" by later historians. Take this into account in general.
Third, military forces need to get quicker by actually preparing for their defence job for a change and run unannounced quick deployment exercises. Tell a German brigade on Sunday at 19:00 to be on an army training ground in Bulgaria by next Friday at 12:00. Then run a demanding one-week exercise there. Someone from top leadership should be there and see what arrives in time, and in what shape (and whether they fall asleep on 5th day or maintained sleep discipline). Rinse, repeat (with new locations and times) till they're good at quick strategic deployments.

Fourth, forget all this Arab beating up business with six months of preparations, "overwhelming force" and "synchronized" stuff, including detailed plans for many hours ahead.
We need doctrine, organisation and equipment meant to prevail while outnumbered, partially outclassed by hardware, unaccustomed to terrain, from -30° C to +45° C, with severe yet random personnel deficiencies (up to ~20% non-deployable personnel and vacancies) and material deficiencies (up to ~15% material unserviceable). Small units of manoeuvre (reinforced battalion battlegroup size at most), prepared to make do with little and sporadic official supply. To wait till large units of manoeuvre arrive completely and with plenty stocks would add much delay.
Air forces need to be banned from their air bases at times, their ground units have to be able to generate two or three sorties per combat aircraft and day on average - including repairs of combat damage and with the wing dispersed on two or three improvised airfields. An air war needs to be sustainable far away from depots without time to stock up forward depots first.
Quick deployment plans involving not only the easily disrupted rail network, but also civilian trucking companies need to be available for contingencies.

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Military bureaucracies would no doubt prefer a very expensive and not particularly challenging forward deployment with lots of forces in lots of areas over a cheaper yet very challenging preparation for very responsive forces capable of prevailing under very unfavourable conditions. I prefer the latter if it's reasonable that it will succeed to deter an aggression against our alliance(s).
Now what we have least use for are stupid military adventures for no real gain whatsoever in distant places that distracts said military forces from their most noble mission:

(1) Der Bund stellt Streitkräfte zur Verteidigung auf. Ihre zahlenmäßige Stärke und die Grundzüge ihrer Organisation müssen sich aus dem Haushaltsplan ergeben.

(1) The Federation shall establish Armed Forces for purposes of defence. Their numerical strength and general organisational structure must be shown in the budget.


*: Including Chancellor Schmidt, whose alarm about the SS-20 was naive in my opinion.
**: The goal was to deploy an American brigade with Stryker 8x8 AFVs by air within four days, but nobody seemed to have asked the USAF if this did fit in its plans and nobody had convinced the Russians that 8x8 AFVs were equals to T-80s.

P.S.:  This was in part inspired by the Ukraine crisis, but it combines several opinions I had about the entire topic for a long time. I criticized counter-concentration already back in 2010, for example.

By the way; I recommend to read about the undefeated (in over 60 battles) Generalissimo Suvorov and his habit of being so quick and direct on campaigns that his opponents were rarely ready for the fight.


  1. For a little humor, if World War I was a bar fight:


  2. Scientists calculated during the 70's that a Soviet first strike with intercontinental missiles could reach Washington DC within about seven minutes

    This doesn't sound right to me. I think it was more like 30 minutes. I remember American SLBMs launched on a depressed trajectory close to the Soviet North Shore that had sub-10 minute flight times and were therefore such a headache to Soviet planners. Soviet subs could of course sail almost all the way to Washington, but they were rarely as brazen as the American ones, preferring to sail close to home waters.

    1. You seem to be right, and though I can't find the book right now I'm still sure it was about seven minutes warning time for the assumed scenario. Maybe it was an Arctic SSBN's SLBM, though.

    2. OK, warning time, not flight time then.

    3. I'll see when I dug up the book.
      But the general example stands; there was too damn little time to react prior to impact. And once the nukes impacted it might take some time till a response was possible again (communications, dust clouds over silos et cetera).