Force densities and gaps - example Ukraine

It took a while, but I finally grasped that the Ukraine case is a wonderful real-world anecdote to support my (much) earlier point about low force densities in modern ground warfare.

My point is that the distance between predominantly combat-seeking manoeuvre formations (such as a mechanised battalion battlegroup) would be very large in modern, European-style insanity warfare.
I already mentioned at the link that even the Cold War setup was 26 divisions spread over about 1,000 km frontage (Central Europe). It's become much less since.
A decade ago or so even flag rank officers mused publicly about what it means to expect 100 km or more of gaps between two manoeuvre brigades. The Ukraine invasion scenario features this:

This graphic made the rounds a few weeks ago:
(c) Dmitry Tymchuk
A more detailed one followed recently:
AFAIK (c) Washington Post, based on RUSI info

The border in the Northeast and east of the Ukraine has a length of about 600-700 km*. The assembled forces of supposedly 80,000-92,000 men** are roughly the equivalent of eight to ten Western-style brigades. Now assume that at least in some places brigades would bunch up and you do indeed end up with gaps of about 100 km width.

This is very much the scenario I was discussing in 2012; a conflict without lengthy previous mobilisation or even arms racing.

It's not enough to keep the ~100 km gap under surveillance with a picket line. A picket line - especially if established by the not very combat-oriented modern armoured recce forces - may call in artillery fires on passers-by, but lacks the power to engage directly. 100 km gaps de facto exclude the use of unguided artillery fires on the middle of this gap. Helicopters cannot engage properly in face of capable battlefield air defences. Fixed wing air power is likely busy with air superiority, deep strike, main effort support or crisis management jobs. Even the A-10 fanbois got to admit that A-10's would likely be allocated to main effort support or crisis management rather than guarding the target-poor gaps.
So these gaps would not be defensible immediately. Hostile forces could push through suddenly. Mobile warfare ensues.

A corps commander doesn't need a mere picket line of observers, but rather area-covering (or at the very least bottleneck-covering) surveillance efforts - and preferably substantial delaying action capabilities in these gaps.
This is an area of military theory in which substantial improvements are possible over existing doctrines. This could be a golden age for armoured recce / cavalry - if only it develops along a wise route.


*: Border lengths depends on how you do the measuring - it's about 600 to 700 km if you simplify it into three lines. 
**: It's ridiculous to call this a 'massing of forces' as so many "journalists" did since the troops are dispersed over a very large region.


  1. I have three comments regarding this.

    First, I agree that powerful armoured reconnaissance forces - or some sort of "Light Dragoon" mechanized infantry, which would basically be a permanently organized Arm.Recce. battlegroup in any event - is ideal for guarding these gaps and has considerable potential for employment in modern low-density warfare provided that that all vehicles have sufficiently long legs to ensure adequate operational mobility (Because under combat conditions, one does not simply drive from A to B on hardsurfaced roads, as you've also commented on in the past regarding logs trucks and their requirements) and combat power. I've wargamed this a couple times and it's always achieved some sort of near-term success, but has a severe point of failure related to losing its mobility. In the theoretical exercises/wargames it has been a fuel or terrain issue, the unit comes up against a condition that restricts its mobility, then it gets sodomized by a reserve unit. It is not realistic to expect the unit to abandon vehicles and become partisan-esque raiders in complex terrain, though that has worked (provided such terrain is near at hand) and the REDFOR commander always sees this group in his rear and dispatches a reserve unit to deal with it accordingly or even stymies operations to create conditions wherein he can take a unit and beat the shit out of the hussars in his rear. Everybody's been very rear-sensitive so far, both officers trained in the Anglo-American tradition, a French officer, and myself using my closest approximation of Russian thinking. If these issues can be worked out there's a lot of promise here; it's all about maintaining fuel supply and ensuring the entire combat group has roughly equal mobility, and that mobility is of a high standard.

    Second, if the unit is powerful enough to perform this task it will be used in the area of main effort given low force densities. We need more conventional formations: this is what happened to the US Armoured Cavalry, who are basically picture-perfect for this mission you describe. There aren't enough mechanized infantry or tank units, so a unit like an ACR ends up deployed "in the line" instead of screening flanks and gaps as required. Military restructuring and retraining is clearly required to fix this systemic problem. It's not a case of "I only have hammers so everything looks like a nail," it's "I have a lot of nails to hit and only half a hammer."

    Finally, I want to advert to you the following link regarding military maps and estimations of Russian military strength. No doubt you'll disagree with Gorenburg's analysis regarding RU strength versus NATO strength, given the relative immobility of our strength (no major move exercises in the past twenty years) and so on, but his second example map is actually the same map that you've got as the first example. There are some significant problems with the infographics regarding Ukraine, generally because they're produced by nonspecialist observers who haven't got the first clue of what they're talking about. There's also a major problem regarding the historical context of everything going down in Ukraine right now: no Western commentator that I am aware of seems to be aware of the historical drivers in play here.

    1. Check the May 9th comment at your link. :)

      Europeans fighting Europeans always yields a big meatgrinder. The survivability of a Panzergrenadier lieutenant in 1944 was measured in days, for example.
      The dangerousness of armoured reconnaissance is not in itself prohibitive in an intra-European conflict if there's enough of a counterweight.
      I consider (and described once) armoured recce as 'exposing few to great risk in order to reduce the risk for the overall force'. The risks taken are worth it if this is 'achieved'.
      This surely sounds cynical, but the cynicism is a built-in feature of warfare, not a bug in the thought.

      The 80's ACRs were posterchilds for too combat-oriented armoured recce, for having too few infantry in a combined arms team and for a helicopter fetish applied to a by far too low level (helicopters should be corps assets).
      A fine way to reliably prevent employment as a quasi-armour brigade would have been to set up identical mixed cavalry battalions with nothing but an administrative regimental HQ between them and the corps HQ.

      The 'historical drivers' are not so interesting to Westerners because right now the interest is focused on getting the Russians to respect international law more than Americans and British do (or did). Distractions such as the origins of a problem are not helpful in this effort.

      I'm all for paying attention to historical perspectives (did a reminder piece about the PRC, for example) - but right now the West appears to be rallying to look at a neglected direction.

      That's a poor time for in-depth thinking. All the 'very serious persons' out there focus on their own pivot to Cold War 2.0, trying to make us forget that they were obsessed about irrelevant great power games for a decade. There's a German 'security policy' blogger with much style yet little to no substance who mused about the need for a German amphibious aircraft carrier for interventions - but now he's gone all in onto East Europe, for example.

    2. Good points, all. I don't read the comments to articles on blogs other than this one because I generally don't respect the readership much.

      It is necessary to understand the origins of this conflict and the historical context in which Ukraine is operating because that's how the Russians think. I don't see how failing to understand the Russian position is irrelevant, especially when we're dealing with a revanchist "Great Novgorod" or "Glory of Kievan Rus" myth.

    3. Firefighters trying to extinguish a fire don't muse about how humans came to choose wood as a material for furniture.

  2. I don't agree that military theory needs to address this.

    Rather conscription should simply be reimposed in any state that requires military force to secure its frontiers.

    This will happen as soon as there is a real shooting war between two non-garbage countries, which will make very clear the negative consequences of low force densities.

    A war between the Russian Federation and the Ukraine would accomplish this quite nicely, and for that matter the successful infiltration of Russian troops into the Crimean peninsula helped show this.

    1. There was no infiltration of troops into the Crimean peninsula. The Black Seas Fleet is based there. Each Russian fleet has a Naval Infantry Brigade. The troops were already there. They simply removed their patches and went into action. The Black Seas Fleet Naval Infantry Brigade has the most modern equipment because of the 2008 Ossetian War. The "Crimean Self Defence Force" was already in place. There was no infiltration.

    2. The patch-less troops occupied an airfield early on where IIRC additional patchless troops were flown in.

    3. I was under the impression that Russia infiltrated additional troops into the Crimean Peninsula without notifying Kiev, but the numbers were well under the 25,000 man maximum allowed by treaty.

      Am I incorrect? Were only the troops already in the Crimea used?

      Even so, it's quite striking they were able to surround key military installations very rapidly and mostly unnoticed until able to present their fait accompli.

  3. I did not see mention of that. That is very good to know.