Ground forces and replacements

Back during the Second World War it was a rule of thumb that major battles consumed about a battalion's worth of combat troops a day. Exhausted divisions (or infantry regiments) would be withdrawn from the front and refreshed in a safe area. Sometimes entire divisions were reduced to a skeleton force and not merely refreshed, but rebuilt over months. The armies of WW2 became accustomed to the need to supply fresh bodies and new hardware to the front at appalling rates.

Later on, in 1967 and 1973 and again in 1991, clashes of all-motorised, armor-heavy forces destroyed astonishing quantities of tanks within a few days. Hundreds of tanks were destroyed daily (on average), exceeding even the mass destruction of tanks at Kursk 1943 on many days. This rapid rate of attrition freaked out NATO and presumably also Warsaw Pact army officer corps, but European NATO never really built up appropriate reserves of tanks, likening itself rather to the winning side of these tank destruction events. The U.S.Army instead kept building excess M1 Abrams, keeping thousands of older M1 Abrams models in storage at home.

Fast forward to current affairs:
Brigades and (reinforced) battalion battlegroups are the dominant formation for ground forces employment for conventional warfare. Brigades can be expected to have one or at most two tank battalions, reinforced battalion battlegroups one tank company or battalion. That's anything from about a dozen to about a hundred (main battle) tanks. In other words; one inept or unlucky move and the entire battlegroup may be very weak on tanks if not tankless (tank brigades would rather run out of infantry first).

Obviously, those formations would need to be able (prepared) to switch to a different mode of combat until the critical losses (this may be infantry, artillery or other specialist assets as well) would be replenished. Ideally, this would happen safe from opposing forces and offer time for an exercise to smoothen out the cooperation of old and new troops (to reduce friction) and give the leaders an idea of the capabilities of the new replacements.

There may be some infantry reserves (mostly troops who left the service only recently or who served in a different branch after their infantry service), but there are few if any tank reserves in European armies. The excessive focus on peacetime operation instead of on wartime strength (past the first two weeks) can be blamed for this. Germany, for example, exported most of its Leopard 2 tanks. Almost all of them are in service in NATO allies and thus most exports didn't weaken the alliance, but the German tank forces count their reserve tanks only in the dozens, and to date most of those weren't modernised for about two decades.
The situation isn't much different in the UK, France, Italy and so on. The Western perspective on the 1991 Gulf War is dominant - the experience of marginal losses - rather than the Iraqi perspective of seeing one's forces melting away in mere days.

Military history shows that armies tend to blunder early in a war if they weren't at war for a long time (and "a long time" may be as short as five years - see the U.S.Army's experience in Korea during 1950!). It's thus in my opinion wasteful to focus on peacetime strengths at the expense of wartime strengths. A country tends to overspend on support services if it focuses on a well-rounded peacetime force instead of on wartime (mobilised) force, which naturally has a smaller share of support services because attrition rates of and thus reserves for combat troops would be higher.
In other words; to have a tank battalion and a tank battalion's worth of tank replacements as well as two companies worth of tank crew replacements is much cheaper than to maintain two tank battalions, but in the event of a war it might be almost as useful.

This leads to two points which I covered many times already: Military expenses should be expenses for deterrence (Would potential aggressors agree that the reserves are important?) and the problem of a quick and short aggression (coup de main & fait accompli). 

A quick and short aggression would be smaller and more limited than an all-out yet still "conventional" WW3. You would need relatively few but very high readiness/rapid deployable or in-theatre forces to deter a quick and short aggression. Meanwhile, you would need much more military power to deter a larger war. 
An obvious compromise comes to mind: Set up active high readiness peacetime forces of the size and located as required to deter a quick & short conflict, and add the extra strength required to deter a larger continental conflict in great part with reserves (mobilisation formations and replacements).

As usual, I don't exactly feel that the mainstream does so. I think mainstream military policy is neither doing a good (efficient) job at providing deterrence to a quick & short conflict by having high readiness early defence forces nor does it exploit the cost-savings potential of reserves properly or even only signal to the world that the army could last and remain highly effective for many weeks even in a peer conflict.
There's no trace of this in army doctrines as far as I know (and that's more than I should be able to know). Field manuals simply have no chapter on "how to conserve strength while avoiding defeat". There are chapters on delaying actions, but only rudimentary ones that usually fit better to 1942 than to 2016.

Mainstream / establishment military policies rather seem to serve the bureaucracy itself: Strength on paper gets neglected, while the active force with its very real job for officers gets all the attention. You cannot derive much prestige from reserves either - or else everyone would rate the Swiss militia army much higher than the German army.
This is again one of the topics where I'm missing the political master's intervention in favour of a more reasonable, nation-serving policy and less bureaucratic self-service.



  1. Losses
    I think the high loss rates in the second world war were more a function of the sheer numbers of troops involved, rather than any hard rule, I'm pretty sure you've blogged on that a few times, losses are pretty static until one side is annihilated whilst running away. The Iraq examples fit in to the running away / ambush view. They could no more fight a western armoured division than I could punch a tank to death.

    In theory, I get, and in practice, I can see them working, but current reserves are utterly useless.
    Skills fade, quickly.
    Equipment, even in climate controlled storage, fades too.
    I just dont believe a tank that has sat in a bunker for 5 years can be driven to the battlefield by a man who trains two weekends a year.

    To be worthwhile in even a short (30day) peer conventional war, reserves would need a higher level of training than we give todays line regiments.

    If I were designing a reserve force for Germany / Poland / Baltica, it'd be as motorised, ATGM equipped, infantry, who could function as the deep front line thats missing.

    1. You may want to read about Guy Brossolet if you have such ideas.

      Concerning reserves; I favour shadow brigades for the combat brigades, composed of reservists who trained last in the respective active brigade and have at least an annual no-BS exercise of two weeks, with a month's worth of pay. These would easily be ready within two weeks of mobilisation. The active brigade would switch the vehicle parks with their shadow brigade every year.

      Additionally, six month volunteer reserve pool with fine pay (for 18 year olds; 10 grand net for six months basic volunteer service) and voluntary annual exercises and maybe six month extension for junior NCO training. That would provide a basis for a two-year arms race (and a recruiting pool + basic training for the active force).

    2. Yeah I agree that seems reasonable, pretty sure we have line battalions that don't get that today though....

  2. Maybe y'all didn't notice but we are already in WWIII. The world is fighting terrorists, more and more countries are getting attacked. It's a conventional war in terms of the implements used but unconventional in terms of who we are fighting and how.

    1. No, we're not. That's cheap hyperbole.
      We would notice if we'd been in WW3 for months or weeks already.
      The Seven Years War was much more of a world war than the current irritations by some religious extremists. In fact, one could rather claim that tobacco and sugar industries are on a genocidal campaign these days than the few immature asswipes deserve to be called world war opponents.

  3. Agree with most of what you say. Major land combat operations between (near-)peer hightech opponents would run for 10/14 days and then degenerate into 1930's-style motorized infantry warfare with a few and far between schwerpunkt units.

    There's neither mindset (incl civil society) nor mechanism in place to replenish manpower losses, and with the typical lead times in industry even less so materiel; the manufacturing base just isn't there.

    Re M1 reserves @ CONUS: Yeah. But there isn't any logistics capability to ship them off-CONUS inside any meaningful timeframe. Support and logistics are in general the Achilles' heel of todays mech/tech forces - it's just not there, not glamorous enough.

    Re reserves: What the U.S. is trying with Guard Units integrated into frontline units tries to solve the issue of reserves "contemporaneity". Why the Guards and not the Reserves is a different question ... But basically it's like the 4th group in the old Luftwaffe. What it also means is an increased militarization of civil society - not necessarily bad but something to think about (especially with Hybrid War being waged all over the globe these days), also from the point of view of civil workforce annualized productivity and effects on social structures, etc.

  4. To play devils advocate here, in 1941 the RA had a great pool of reserves, while the Wehrmacht maximized they resources for the now with a tiny pool of reinforcements.

    While we all know how that played out, it seems the Wehrmacht investment was better, pound for pound.

    E.g. it might be better to have 3 active brigades that will inflict higher casualties on the enemy then 2+2 brigades that will be able to take the higher casualties.

    1. To elaborate on this:
      "You would need relatively few but very high readiness/rapid deployable or in-theatre forces to deter a quick and short aggression. Meanwhile, you would need much more military power to deter a larger war."

      It's fine to meet two aggressor brigades with three alliance brigades in the first two weeks, but largely inactive reserves are (IMO) no doubt more cost-efficient in regard to deterring a long and big conflict than active ones.

      The armed bureaucracies emphasise active strengths over mobilised strengths because the former serve the bureaucraticies' interests.

  5. The most likely serious war scenario isn't the Russians marching to Berlin, but rather them taking the Baltic and or Kiev. Reserves are not a great deterrent for that case, as the idea would be a coup and wagering that the NATO won't respond with the full force. In the long run, with or without reserves ready, the NATO is a lot stronger, so it doesn't change that equation.

    Having a high readiness, strategically road mobile and heavy force would be an effective deterrent, as long as the local defenders can be counted to buy some time.

    However it would make a lot of sense to keep the reserve force as a way to be able to expand the active army in case of high tend tensions.

    For some reason there is no awareness in Europe that right now is that time, there is no shift in priorities from long term R&D to force readiness.

    1. I doubt NATO or EU would use violence if Russia took Kiev. Cold War 2.0 yes, violence no.

      The rest of what you wrote is pretty much what I wrote over the last few months and years.

      Make sure you use many sources and ideas, be skeptical if you agree with some author by more than 90%! That's usually a telltale sign of poorly balances intake of ideas and info.

  6. Big wars happen when gamblers go a dice roll to far. Poland 1939, when it was a similar calculation.

    The disagreement is in the detail, you consider the force balance such that no increase in military spending is justified.
    I don't think the current forces are ready, and the political division in EU means that certain overcapacity should be created.

    High readiness reserves should right now be created by the Baltic states, even if they are light infantry forces.