It's the basics, idiot!

This Ukraine War is a powerful reminder about what military professionals have said for generations: It's about the basics. You need to get the basics right, beginning with individual soldier skills. Supply, communications, discipline, keeping morale up, large-enough and secure-enough munitions and spare parts stocks are some more basics.

You don't need great sophistication for most things in war, just at a few big levers.

  • reduce enemy air power influence with some persisting air defences
  • be able to defeat top-of-the-line tanks without extreme sacrifices
  • be able to maintain at least quasi-instant text message communications

The big budget NATO forces haven't limited themselves to basics, and indeed ALL NATO land forces have neglected some or most basics. We've had 30+ years of big budget Western armies pursuing "leap ahead" technology to "overmatch" hostiles rather than just being good at soldiering and being an army and winning becuase the hostiles aren't.

I very much doubt that this will change, albeit the spending frenzy will lead to more spares and munitions in stock.

Yet assume we were to shift to a "we're good at what we do, and use sophistication only where necessary" policy; that would make us unbeatable in land war, but what would it give us in terms of deterrence? Would the Russians -who played the gold-plating game to some extent as well- be properly deterred or would they be fooled by 2030 when they presumably have Armata armoured vehicles and Su-57 stealth fighters, along with new stocks of hypersonic missiles, certainly a bunch of proper battlefield drones and the tools to suppress enemy air defences (SEAD) for real? Might they not fall prey to the promise of their own wonder weapons?

The lessons of war are usually falling out of favour within about three years of fighting a war, largely forgotten within 20 years and reduced to book knowledge within 40 years. How could we deter with a "we're good at what we do, and use sophistication only where necessary" approach?

Could we do exercises to show off our basics from individual soldier camouflage to hauling huge quantities of fuel and artillery munitions on secondary roads and around craters on roads? Would being able to break camp from sleep within five minutes impress? Would marksmanship, casualty care drills, rapid tyre changes, rapid AFV engine changes? How could we keep potential aggressors from trusting their wonder weapons more than fearing the solid foundation of our land forces?




  1. This reminds me of Stephen Biddle who argues in his book "Military Power" that technology as well as quantity is overrated and that the most decisive factor in modern land warfare is force employment, training, doctrine and tactics.
    I am not sure though if that necessarily means we could save much money on defence.
    Proper training and equipment stocks are expensive as well. Even for just a "large enough" force.

    1. Germany buys about 30k 15 mm DM 121 high explosive shells per decade for its artillery. A single brigade equivalent could expend this in less than two weeks, so it's almost nothing.
      6 brigades each 18 SPG 155 mm each 200 rounds/day for 20 days = 432k shells would be needed (additionally propellant modules, fuses and storage costs).
      Costs are 3.4k € per shell. That would be € 1.7 bn more expenses once per decade, or maybe € 3.5 bn including propellants, fuses and storage. This would cost us about 1% of our military spending and it would make the army VASTLY more war-ready.

      Even the very affordable basics were neglected while irrelevant bullshit was paid for, and that's a failure of political and military leadership.

      This was about the 2009 order, not the 2019 order:

    2. *I meant 155 mm DM 121.

    3. But artillery munitions are just a part of the package. Spare parts, maintenance and fuel for vehicles, aircraft and ships are also needed regularly if high training and readiness requirements are to be met.
      But I agree that there was a lot of waste in recent years and that we could much more for the same money.
      For that you just have to compare the Bundeswehr to the JSDF.
      Japan spent the same, or even a bit less than us on defence in recent times and they have higher manpower, more tanks, more planes and even a quite impressive navy.
      Meanwhile corrupt politicians here are wasting the defence budget on McKinsey Consultants.

    4. Japan had a scandal during the late Cold War. Leaked documents revealed their munition stocks would only last four days then. They've put up a good show and developed much indigenously (including class-leading AAMs that hardly anyone has heard of), but it's unknown whether it's any less a Potemkin village than the Russian armed forces are.

  2. Last Dingo:

    Your initial question of how to deter an enemy who believes in their own superior weapon systems and at the same time underestimates ours is truly essential. In this context, however, another question arises: whether the primacy will belong to land warfare at all in the future. Your statements are indeed correct in relation to the army, but they do not apply to air warfare in the same way. The question of technology is much more crucial there.

    But if air warfare will have primacy over the ground (I don't know if that will be the case), then one cannot afford to fall behind technologically in this area. On the other hand, in my opinion, air warfare in particular is dominated too much by ex-fighter pilots and technological progress is wrongly seen here as progress in manned multi-role fighter aircraft.

    A cost-effective and at the same time technologically new form of the armed forces overall could be to convert it to drones in the broadest sense as weapons. Just as an RPG-7 was (is) a tech killer, drones are actually more tech killers than technological breakthroughs. At the same time an army set up in this way would have a greater deterrent effect, despite the lower costs, since "war robots" generate more fear than manned systems and are also overestimated today due to the hype surrounding them. Therefore, in my opinion, one should switch to robotic warfare both in the air and on the ground. This would increase deterrence and at the same time save costs (relative to other paths of developments).

    1. Radio physics and electronic warfare are a roadblock that can only be bypassed by autonomous decisionmaking of drones. I keep writing that this will come and will change things, albeit maybe in the sense of "first time a tragedy, second time a farce".

    2. ECM and ECCM are not a oneway gate. UAVs can carry out electronic warfare too, also they can be used to counter enemy EW, or to locate EW assets of the enemy to destroy them directly or with artillery etc.

      So EW is not a roadblock per se and can and will be bypassed even by conventional drones. This will be of cause a new arms race and again the technological overmatch will be of the outmost importance.

      Specific for small drones one have also to take into regard, that you have to detect them to use EW against them. This is quite difficult, most times you would not even know that there is a drone.

    3. You don't quite understand. Radio comms work when few drones are in use, but they do not work when there's a gazillion with huge bandwidth requirements. EW may not be able to reliably cut comms, but it can reduce how much effective bandwidth is available because jammed data packages need to be sent again. Also, repeaters are needed in the swarm to relay data farther, as EW deteriorates effective range. Autonomy is needed to cut down the bandwidth requirements in order to permit simultaneous operation of thousands of effective drones in a small area.

    4. I understand that, and bandwith has become a problem for drone warfare even years ago. But first you do not need a gazillion of drones operating at the same time - especially if you use loitering munitions they would operate in waves and then will be replaced because they are used in kamikaze style. Moreover the necesseary autonomy to assist the human operator and to reduce bandwith is not that complicated. Today the bandwith is wasted with so much unneccesary information. It is not necessery to have an video lifestream from every drone. For example in a drone swarm you have only one drone which gives you the video live stream and they others coordinate with this leading drone etc, so many possibilities to reduce the bandwith. Such simple primitive swarm autonomy is available here and now, no technological problem.

      We are wasting the bandwith because we misuse the drones. If we would use them in a better, more efficient way, there would be no bandwith problem.

      Last but not least drones could be coordinated and controlled from front line troops with a direct link. It is not necessary to controll them all from farther away.

  3. S.O.

    What if both sides get the basics right? Which factor then decides the outcome? Historically new technology, an technological advantage, an leap ahead technlogical overmatch was then a common reason for victory of one side over the other.

    That does not mean, that getting the basics right is not so important, to the opposite! But imo it is insufficient for detterence. You asked the question how to deterre an enemy without such an technological overmatch? This is imo the wrong question. The true answer is imo: simply have one.

    This technological overmatch must not have an high quantity, it is sufficient to have only a few of such systems. Also not all assets must be technologically superior, only a few. Then the costs are not that high.

    1. "But imo it is insufficient for detterence. You asked the question how to deterre an enemy without such an technological overmatch? This is imo the wrong question. The true answer is imo: simply have one."

      That is too simplistic. The quality of training and "doctrine" can make a huge difference.

      Germany did not have better hardware in 1940, but after the winter 1939/40 a better trained officer corps and better ideas what to do with modern weapons.

      And in a war of attrition numbers really matter.

      In an European context same numbers as the enemy would be sufficient, as Russia has no realistic chance to gain a huge qualitative advantage for hardware and training.