About defensive lines


What's going on in Ukraine these days can be explained without talking much (or at all) about fancy new technology. A European army's infantry regiment commander of  WW2 would understand it easily.

So here's an attempt to illuminate some aspects:

Up to 1914 the idea of a prepared defensive line was that infantrymen did a long, straight trench and stand shoulder to shoulder, shooting with repeating rifles at frontally approaching enemy infantry.

By 1915 it was understood that this required too many infantrymen and they suffered too many losses. There were too many targets (infantrymen in the trenches, the trenches lacked overhead cover, a high explosive grenade exploding in a trench would hit many infantrymen because the trench was straight.

Machineguns economised on defender personnel and shooting not frontally, but near-parallel to the trench with frontal cover greatly lengthened the field of fire (own and hostile trenches were only about 200 m apart while machineguns were effective beyond 400 m) and reduced defender's losses.The downside was that the defenders in any position could not defend frontally, so they needed to trust and rely on comrades in other positions for protection. 

Now we are at a first problem for the Russians; the cohesion is marginal, the infantry training apparently poor (and on average getting worse) and they are simply not good comrades on average. So they cannot trust comrades in another position to protect them. They'd be forced to defend themselves 360°, which means less if any cover against bullets above trench level and thus higher losses.

On a larger scale there's a rule of three; typically two elements (platoons, companies, battalions, battlegroups) are forward in attack or defence and one is behind in reserve.

The reserve element's task during defence is to launch a quick counterattack to help out or replace one of the forward elements. The lower the level, the quicker the counterattack (quickest with platoon). 

Here are two more problems for the Russians; the morale and discipline as well as physical state of combat troops wild camping in woods low, so mustering a quick counterattack is difficult if not impossible. The other is that the front is very long, the invading combat troops not terribly many, so the Russian side can apparently not afford to keep such a large share of combat troops in reserve. No rapid counterattacks = no ability to hold ground against a peer opposing force.

It's even worse; the best defensive scheme (for such flatlands) of the First World War (and maybe since) was to have relatively weak forward positions so few of your troops are exposed much to sniping and accurate artillery fires. This forward line and the fight in the few kilometres behind would slow down the attackers, incur losses, create disorder. The attacker's advance would make his resupply and his communication more difficult. Finally, after maybe eight to ten kilometres of fighting withdrawal at most the defenders would use a well-prepared defensive line for a stiff defence and stop the offensive. Soon after reinforcements would arrive and the attackers would see little more opportunity to advance against the now reinforced defences.

The Russians' problem is that they live in a dictatorship. They have elections, but they cannot un-elect their president for real. Dictators tend to be mistrust their generals out of fear of coups. They promote loyalists over gifted commanders, and after a decade or two they are right in distrusting their generals' competence. This doesn't make the dictator more competent at land warfare tactics or operational art, but nobody dares telling them so. Such dictators often meddle in tactical decisions, and particularly typical is an order to defend locations without withdrawal. Stiff defence. Strengthen points so much they don't get lost - which is the opposite of the elastic defence I described beforehand. We saw in WW2 how this plays out; locations with names on a map such as a city get reinforced to avoid capture, the voids around them are not properly defended and the opposing forces can more easily encircle the named strongpoints (Stalingrad, Lyman...).

The Russian army is largely mechanised (DPR, LPR and VDV remnants not so much). In theory it's more configured for rapid and brutal offensive pushes than for positional defence. The ideal tactic for such an organisation would be (if they got other basics right) to mount a rather mobile defence: A string of pickets backed up by powerful and many mobile counterattack forces. Again, a dictator tends to order the opposite; mechanised forces dispersed along a long front line.

Dictators behave this way because they are a lot weaker and more insecure than people commonly assume. Dictators are perpetually trying to maintain a critical mass of (public) support (and avoid poisoned food). To lose battles or to lose terrain in battle (which is quite the same to the civilian public) chips away from their support and thus endangers the dictator. The land warfare tactics agnostic dictator thus orders the army to avoid such embarrassments and when it fails he tries to order defensive success by ordering to not yield any terrain (or a least not any named locations that his subjects can find on a map).

It's a common trope that supposedly much is new in a just ongoing war. That's at least what those say and write who have no clue about what happened in pats wars and why. People also get distracted by gadgets very easily, for there are photos of gadgets and manufacturers who promote them, but to understand the inner workings of an army or of a battle requires much study of war and military affairs.





  1. A fine overview, which fits mostly my impressions.

    As you have written before defence relies mostly on indirect firepower, so I would have expected more of an inclusion there. It seems to me that the fractured nature of the Russian forces, from the top seemingly down to tank crews makes fire support even more of the mess from what I expected from a Russian army. Thus single strongpoints are often isolated and thus highly vulnerable, especially at night.

    Brute massed firepower has its own magic but seems to reduce the mental effort directed at an intelligent and efficient use of resources. Once they become more limited it is difficult and too late to chance course.

    The Ukrainian forces grew in an austere environment and their artillery use tried to make shells count. In relative terms much more was spend into training well, getting accurate, gaining info, linking up and reacting quickly. Modern western gun and rocket artillery slotted well into that system and mindset.

    Interesting but not surprising at all how often tanks are used in practice for indirect fire. With such a long front and relative little western artillery the organic fire support matters a lot. The K9 with its active suspension seems especially suited for it.

    Personally I thought that the Soviet tube-launched guided missiles were influenced by WWII tank use in practice. Israel and Korea are once again a bit of an outliner in this regard outside the ex-Soviet sphere. A longer-ranged missile or gun module with the standard interfaces of a container x makes, as you wrote, overall more sense for fire support.

    Still some precise organic capability is needed and using guided missiles and indirect fire themselves will also make tankers more aware of the indirect threat.


    1. Russian/Soviet armies have never been very skilled with artillery, though in 1943-1945 the Soviets were at least at late 1917 state of art level.
      I have no explanation why they have apparently never improved their responsiveness.

    2. I have a theory, take it for what it's worth: responsive artillery fire requires the 'owners' of that artillery to delegate their eyes to forward observers and listen to and trust the requests of subordinates- inferiors. In a culture where macho strength is worshipped and subordinates exist to be kicked, this equates to a show of weakness and a loss of face. There is no cultural incentive to do it. You don't need to treat Russian culture as alien, to believe this. I see similar behaviour play out in western business all the time.

    3. "responsive artillery fire requires the 'owners' of that artillery to delegate their eyes to forward observers"

      Artillery battery leaders were THE forward observers until mid/late Cold War (except among the Americans, which used flying controllers a lot). Dedicated forward observers and later joint (arty/mortar/helo/CAS) fire support controller teams are rather new and not needed for responsive fires.
      Sometimes the man with eyes on the target can order fires, sometimes he can only request them. He might even be able to order mortars, but only request arty.

      Overall, responsive arty fires for troops on the advance have become feasible with portable wireless telegraphy by late WWI and any decent army should have very responsive, agile mortar and arty fires. Even warbands and militias can do it. It's really not hard. I don't get what the Russians are doing.

    4. Maybe you are just not well informed about what the Russians are actually doing.

  2. That is a good question with no good single answer.

    From 1944 onwards all the tool for a responsive artillery during the first days of every larger offensive ought to have been available. They became better but never reached the quality heights the Germans or the Western allies achieved.

    At a lower level the heavy use of mortars and direct fire support by single guns and tanks did lessen the problem but nothing can truly substitute responsive artillery from the brigade/divisional level up.

    Much of your old stuff holds up very well. I have to cringe when everything which happens is described as new tactic or way of war.

    I recently read again about American artillery planes in Italy. The suffocating combination of air supremacy and artillery dominance made life very hard for the defender. Did you know about target detection by ground radar by the Americans from at least 1945 onwards?

    Many seem also oblivious to the fact that under the right circumstances attacking can be far less bloody than defending.

    Something interesting might be the relationship between losses at the front and in the rear. The battlefield is more empty than before but the supply lines and nodes sometimes more concentrated. Trying to fix the Kherson bridges must have been very bloody for the Russians. Supplying those strongpoints is also no joke.


    1. I know radar-guided BAT glide bombs targeted bridges in Burma in '45, H2S and H2X bombing, and then by the 1960's the Americans had GMTI and SAR radar, but the output was film to be analysed after landing. 1960's crew-movable battlefield surveillance radars used IIRC noise output to signal that the antenna is facing a moving target.

    2. Counter-mortar Operational Research in 21 Army Group by Terry Copp

      By late September both 1 Canadian Radar Battery and 100 British Radar Battery were organized and a ten day training course "in the theory and drill of locating mortars" was underway. At the divisional level, organizational changes were implemented in time to assist the British in the Arnhem Salient and the Canadians in the battle of the Scheldt, but the two Radar Batteries were not ready for an operational role until January 1945....

      The real test of the new counter-mortar methods came in Operation "Veritable," the Anglo-Canadian attack down the west bank of the Rhine. Both the Canadian and British Radar Batteries were deployed to provide counter-mortar information and near complete success was obtained. The attacking infantry reached their initial objectives, consolidated and moved forward to the next phase without any interference from enemy mortars.

    3. Sounds like bollocks, as counter-mortar radars cannot prevent firing anyway. And by January all kinds of things may have happened without any gadgetry being involved.

      I understand that in 14" WW2 battleship shells were observable on radar, but the tech of the day was hardly useful in the counter-mortar role. They might have used fading displays and doppler filter, but then they could only detect a battery with sufficient accuracy if they detected the mortar bomb in the first one or two seconds. That seems very unlikely.
      Meanwhile, mortars were detectable by sound ranging at the time under favourable atmospheric conditions.

    4. I don't know what you are taking about? The damn Wehrmacht got its ass served first and foremost by the Russian artillery. You arrogant uebermenschen seem to be due again for a remainder how the actual Russian ari works.

    5. >actual Russian ari works

      Run away like Speedy Gonzales from ukrainian army, meh.

    6. The Red Army had much more indirect fire weapons (especially light field guns and mortars) than forces opposing it and expended great quantities of munitions '43-'45, but it was never noted for competence at anything but per-planned fires and rolling barrages.
      I'd absorbed German and English literature on among other things this subject for more than 20 years and never found any indication of greater competence.
      The German, British and American arty were most competent in WW2, and among mortars the Germans.

    7. So you are basing your opinion solely on the writings of those who in actual war were BOTH defeated by the Russians and are claiming that they where more competent to the Russians at it? This is borderline ridiculous. And no, I'm not going to give you any pointers to actually valuable sources of solid information. It's better when you stay incompetent.

    8. The army that gets shot at is in the best position to judge the effect of arty fires.

  3. "So you are basing your opinion solely on the writings of those who in actual war were BOTH defeated by the Russians and are claiming that they where more competent to the Russians at it? "

    Look, if we are talking about the tactical level, the interesting number are KIA, try to understand this and then come back.
    It is supported by hard facts that the RA was not very good in the field of artillery, nor was the Russian army in 1914-17.

    1. I will repeat myself: seems you have forgotten the actual facts. You seem to behave like you are overdue for a reminder. However this time you may very well get "thrown out of school" once and for all.

    2. The Red Army lost more than 3 KIA for each German KIA in the period of time 1941-44. On both sides the number of losses due to enemy artillery was > 50%.

      From these numbers it becomes obvious thart the artillery of the Red Army was not very effective. Considering the high numbers of barrels the efficiency is even lower.

      Got it?

    3. Ulenspiegel, this is not a discussion on military history any more. He's indulging in a nationalistic power fantasy trip.

    4. You got it how many of those 3 to 1 where actually killed in prison camps and other not tactical but rather criminal activities?

    5. Anon, look up the Soviet archive figures for losses battle and compare them with German archives figures for German losses. The Soviet capability to lose troops and material was staggering.

      The anglophone post-2000 books usually take into account data from post-Cold War access to archives.
      The German army was largely shit in 1942-1945, but the Red Army was shit in a worse league.

  4. Also wanted to talk about artillery.
    And how it shows how 'classic' the conflict is.
    Russia has no true air dominance.
    So lob in missiles (a bit like German bombing in WW2), ..
    Also: lack of A2G power means the artillery gets to survive.

    The Russian expertise in war is at every level: control of E-emissions, ground forces, but also their pilots and integration of forces is poor, and so is their navy.

    The incompetence is present at every arm of the Russian army.
    This does not mean they aren't dangerous to be clear.

    1. https://twitter.com/DefenceFreedom/status/1586311230205366272

  5. Hey Sven,

    you might be very interested in the use of ground radar intelligence by the US Army 44/45 as described in this article in the August 1946 issue of the field artillery magazine:

    "Employment of Radar by XV Corps Artillery
    By Brigadier General Edward S. Off, USA"

    "During March, XV Corps passed to the offensive on the 15th of the month, broke through the Siegfried Line, and turned the Germans completely out of position. By careful pre-planning we had the radar sets where they could check upon the rearward movements of the Germans and we capitalized on this form of intelligence with some amazing results, including intelligence missions around 40,000 yards (although normal radar intelligence extended from our front lines out to about 25,000 yards).The situation was fluid the latter part of March."

    Lots of diary entries and at least one table.


  6. Hey Sven,

    the article in the July issue about the US artillery conference is also very informative.


    In considering what, if any, calibers of recoilless weapons should be developed, the entire conference group
    recommends the establishment of a continuous research program to eliminate or reduce the disadvantages of present recoilless weapons, to investigate the German experimental breech reaction chamber types, and to apply the recoilless principle in combination with the recoil, counterrecoil type carriage."

    Interesting to see once again the counter-recoil or soft-recoil tech coming up. What do you think "German experimental breech reaction chamber types" are? The latest smoothbore (AT)-guns like the 8cm PAW 600 with the high-low pressure principle later used by the 40mm grenades?



    1. Yes, it could be the high-low pressure principle, the other German innovation in the field was the V3 dead end.

  7. Indeed, seems also to slot in nicely among the other tech mentioned there.