Modern trench warfare

The Russo-Ukrainian War revealed many weaknesses of the Russian armed forces, including inexcusable ineptitude in trench war (both layout of field fortifications and assaults).
At the same time, it did expose that the Ukrainians appear to have a very limited skill set as well. Their offensive skill appears to be limited (= they didn't show more yet) to attacks with limited objectives and pushing on rearguards while the opposing force retreats (around Kherson autumn '22).
There's plenty equipment in their possession that would enable more than that; artillery, tanks and BMP IFVs could be used to form forces for rapid breakthrough (advancing 10 km in mere hours) followed by exploitation (most reasonably advancing to Azov sea or a two-pronged encirclement) and widening the breakthrough by rolling up defence lines left and right (the frontal instead of 360° defence orientation of Russian field fortifications is among their visible mistakes).
We saw something similar in the Iraq-Iran War (Gulf War 1980...1988). Both sides had all the tools for mechanised warfare, but were unable to fight better than European armies in 1916.
An army can be reasonably competent, yet still have a very incomplete repertoire. Rapid mechanised warfare is among the most demanding forms of land warfare (though let's forget about the American talk about how difficult combined arms is - they complicate everything because they deal with their own issues).
The rapid advances of 1940 and 1941 are technically very feasible, but hardly any army (maybe nowadays none) can actually execute those any more. Manstein's forces raced about 300 km in four days to establish a Dvina bridgehead. The invasions of Iraq were slow by comparison, despite modern motor vehicles being much faster and logistics vehicles having much higher capacity (thus better road usage efficiency).

The normal mode of army operation appears to be very different from such rapid advances. It appears that superior firepower application for higher attrition during a static phase is the dominant approach. This serves not only to wear down the opposing forces so much that they become progressively less competent; it also serves as shaping operation for a later advance by demoralising the opposing forces, by temporarily disabling their headquarters and by destroying high value targets such as high-powered radio frequency jammers or battlefield air defence assets. We saw this in 1991 and 2022 very clearly.
The advance phase is then much less ambitious and rapid, thus less "overrunning" than the advances in 1940 & 1941. It's rather a shallow push into softened defences (in Ukraine) or a methodical advance with security efforts against opposing forces that put up a fight that's disproportionally small compared to their nominal strength (in Iraq). The artillery has largely the purpose to suppress or neutralise during the advance phase, whereas it's almost all about lethality (remember how popular that buzzword is in the U.S. armed forces?) during the static phase.

NATO probably likes this; it has good reason to expect a superiority in air/ground attack, its air forces would need some time to wear down radar-based battlefield air defences, rapid advances would multiply interoperability issues among the multinational forces of NATO and it has (at least in U.S. stocks) many guided artillery munitions. The biggest issues in this context are the small size of 'dumb' artillery munitions stocks and that NATO armies are rather weak on infantry and thus not so good at holding a wide frontage.

This dominant approach to warfare is also a slow approach to warfare, though. You cannot win a war in three weeks if you first soften up the opposition over four months before you begin to advance.

We could cut some military expenditures if we accept that we're really only competent enough for such a land war model of static phase with attrition by firepower followed by brief phase of advance.

For starters, the IFV concept isn't meant for this way of advancing. Moreover, tanks don't need to be built for Blitzkrieg if they are meant to support infantry. They would better be built for 98% indirect fires and 2% rapid reaction fires during overwatch. We don't need to mechanise things like battalion command posts or passive electronic warfare (direction finding) gear. To add an armoured vehicle to these makes hiding more difficult and may actually reduce their survivability. We would need armoured transport vehicles for moving things and people on the last couple kilometres where the opposing forces may observe the movement of said supplies and people. This means APCs with folding seats or benches, preferably (band)tracked, with armour against artillery fragmentation and defences against drones (loitering munitions). Nobody needs a turret with autocannon and gadgets on this, especially not if that reduces the volume available for transportation.

Infantry might be divided between trench infantry and (rarely in action) assault infantry then, not some general infantry/mountain/para/marine/mechanised differentiation and there's certainly no reason to emphasise any "light" or "airmobile" role.

The logistics need to be three- to four-staged in such a trench war;
  • (transportation by sea or rail)
  • transportation by civilian lorries
  • transportation by military lorries within artillery range (40...120 km depending on opposition)
  • transportation by protected off-road vehicle within observed / FPV range (2...10 km)
The supplies need to be compatible; 
  • 20 ft ISO containers
  • military lorries with DROPS/PLS/MULTI load handling equipment can either take the container directly or pull a big pallet out of it
  • smaller pallets or boxes that fit into/onto vehicles for the last few kilometres
A breakthrough operation should not be made visible days in advance by massing of vehicles and supplies or by suspiciously increased fires. The logistical system should thus be a bit deceiving; emptied containers could be left standing and removed only much later. This would make it invisible when more supplies get stocked in one sector of the front for a breakthrough operation. Everything within artillery range needs to be dispersed (low value supplies such as diesel fuel, S-wire, construction materials) or hidden from detection (certainly all high value munitions).

Battlefield air defences would consist of very low level counter-UAV and of rear area intercept of precision rockets to span an umbrella of protection over clusters of high value targets (brigade supply depots, brigade HQ, important bridges, high powered radars).

The forces could be trained for limited repertoires instead of pretending we could do it all:
  • Infantry brigades to fortify, hold and slowly push forward a frontline (few combat AFVs)
  • Independent artillery regiments for larger calibre main effort breakthrough & counter-offence firepower (could be substituted by airpower)
  • Small and agile armour brigades for rapid exploitation of breakthroughs and for flank counterattacks against breakthroughs, worst case mission rearguard during a withdrawal
- - - - -
One objection is totally obvious: This would be a force design to fight the current war ("the last war"). There are two problems with such a force design; the next war may be different and the very different strengths of NATO would let the current war look very differently if NATO was fighting itself.
Regarding the latter issue; the mentioned land forces design approach suits NATO's air power and missile strengths very well. Regarding the more general 'preparing for the last war' argument:
  • There's hardly any good reason for Europeans to fight a land war far away from their continent. Thus European (great power) war scenarios are the only ones that really matter. The toying around of the British and French governments in faraway places didn't never yield net benefits to the British and French nations for more than a hundred years by now.
  • The war in Ukraine actually looks eerily similar to WW1, WW2, the recent wars in the Caucasus area, the Iraq-Iran War '80...'88. It's not a one-off. Moreover, preparing for "the last war" was historically not a bad idea if said "last war" was a conventional one. Lessons learned in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904/05 and the Boer Wars (the conventional stages of the latter) should have been respected more by European armies until 1914. A U.S. Army still mentally, organisationally and materially configured to fight in 1950 as it did in 1945 would have done much better in the Korean War. Besides, look at our armies; they use formations not very much unlike the tank divisions and American infantry divisions of WW2.
Much of my past writing assumed a mediocre degree of military competence on part of the Russian Armed Forces and thus I concluded that defensible frontlines are unrealistic in the early phase of a hot Russia-NATO conflict. The observations from the Russo-Ukrainian War indicate that defensible frontlines are still a valid concept against Russian Armed Forces, and they offer risk mitigation and cost-cutting potential for NATO (cheap territorial reserve infantry formations were used by Ukraine to hold the frontline).
The much more demanding concepts that I wrote about around 2011 might work brilliantly, but are more demanding and thus not the most cost-efficient approach to deterrence & defence by NATO against Russia.
The relatively affordable forces of the line make much sense at least until autonomous drones take over land warfare.



  1. If the useable skillset in modern warfare gets so simplified, does this give an advantage to quickly trained large conscript armies with simple gear? I imagine that Russia would try to exploit such an advantage of getting more bang for the buck in their next planned war.

    1. Rule of thumb 3 months for decent basic training to turn a civilian into a soldier. +3 months for a basic infantryman. +6 months for a junior NCO, +about 2 months for most specialisations. Then add a couple months of applying the skills in exercises to make them quicker and more self-confident.

      To create a decent senior NCO or decent junior officer takes a lot longer. It depends on ambitions, but two years total may be enough.
      A junior officer with half a year experience in leading a platoon (including several good exercises beyond training areas) should be a usable company commander.
      A battalion or brigade commanding officer needs much more and wider experience to be good. Warlords can raise to that level of command quickly (see some young commanders in Ukraine's volunteer forces 2014/15), but they will lack the broad understanding of land warfare that's advisable at that level.
      I say 4...6 years for either if the training is really streamlined and much effort put into many good non-computer simulation exercises.

      Existing armies need rather ~20 years to form a brigade CO. The times invested into training people in normal standing armies aren't anything close to the time that's really needed.

      I don't think Russia will bounce back anytime soon. They mistook the Russian Federation for the Soviet Union. Russia's economy is comparable to Brazil's, smaller than Italy's and they run out of countries that they can attack without the West helping that country.
      Have a look at Kazakhstan. It may seek an actual ally soon - possibly the PRC.

    2. China just offered a defensive alliance to almost all Central Asian countries. That's a big step for China, because they officially avoided binding themselves in alliances until now.
      Is the Heartland theory still considered a valid approach, because China is controlling the heartland of the largest world island, Eurasia?
      I could imagine China trying to get enough coastline to connect to Africa under their sway, so that a green water navy can defend against the more expensive blue water navy of the US. Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan would be key corridors of such an approach, while India needs to be allied, occupied, or neutral. Russia holds considerable sway in India and I can imagine that China bargains for Russia to bring India into their orbit.

  2. The Ukraine War is static because both sides are fighting for territory with armies of similar general strength. Russia is unable to mobilize and Ukraine has the world's worst age pyramid, so neither side has an incentive to risk their very limited pool of aggressive/competent young fighting men more than they already have. Mobile breakthrough warfare only comes when one army is much stronger than the other or one side doesn't need to use the acreage for anything but fighting. Russia has to defend a narrow land corridor to Crimea and the Ukrainians can't lose the Donbass they still own without being thrown back to the Dnieper. What eventually broke WW1's stalemate (flankless front between armies of similar gross power) was a better system of artillery deployment, which restored maneuver to pursue an enemy defeated first by fire, rather than fire destroying an enemy put in an untenable position by maneuver first.

    1. I disagree. Breakthrough merely requires local temporary superiority, some munitions and 1917-level skill.

      The Ukrainians were playing a longer game and chose to train 20+ brigades rather than going for breakthroughs after the Kharkiv offensive.

    2. Right, neither side has local superiority anywhere now, so they are reduced to fighting for yards. If all else remains equal and the Ukrainians commit 20 more brigades to battle, then Ukraine will be much stronger and capable of creating and exploiting a theater-level breakthrough.

      Neither the Russian or Ukrainian army is the Mongol horde. They can't just "start maneuvering" because the acreage is the prize, not an idealized battlefield to roll their tanks around in.

  3. An essential difference between 1940/41 ff and what is happening today is imo the question of anti-tank weapons and in particular hand-held anti-tank weapons and light anti-tank weapons. These did not exist in WWII and above all not in this number.

    In addition, there are precision ammunition (especially for artillery) and the much better reconnaissance that you have today. This was not the case in the past and in my opinion has a significant influence on the question of whether trench warfare is possible, can be successful and, in particular, whether mechanized breakthroughs and advances into the depths of enemy space are feasible.

    These systems can not only wear down the attacking tanks themselves, but also be turned against the supply lines after the breakthrough. The combination of anti-tank weapons, long-range and precise artillery and significantly better reconnaissance means that it is much more difficult to supply the breakthroughs and advances and the supply chain for such units is much more endangered than ever before.

    Incidentally, this also speaks in favor of significantly smaller mechanized brigades, above all in order to reduce the supply costs for them and make them more mobile.

    Finally, I believe there is a proven correlation between the available technology and whether the offensive or defensive is superior. The technological level in Ukraine and the circumstances there strengthen the defensive, accordingly trench warfare is possible there, but not elsethere or everythere / everytime.

    In the face of a serious air force, effective close air support and precision munitions deployed from the air, all trench warfare is pointless. And accordingly, such front lines are not tenable.

    One of the primary reasons the Russians are incapable of conducting mechanized breakthroughs, and also why the Ukrainians are incapable of doing so, is precisely the lack of adequate close air support. If the Russians could do it, then the trenches would be unsustainable and the Ukrainians would not be able to hold a front in the current form. And the Russian artillery, which in theory is supposed to replace / substitute the close air support of the air force, is not powerful enough for that. Mechanized breakthroughs would be possible as soon as the Russians could establish sufficient close air support and/or modernize their artillery. That still leaves the problem of exploring these breaches and how to sustain the breached units.

    Overall i think we would be ill advised to structure and equip our armies for trench warfare, to fight the ukraine war again in a better form (fighting the last war). It is very easy to claim, that the russians (and others) will be incompetent forever and such hybris and arrogance was the reason for many military disasters in history. To the opposite we should invest more into our air forces and in our artillery, which would stopp any russian aggression much more easily, faster and to much lower costs in human lives.

    1. I suppose we need many fake positions and more emphasis on concealment and deception than on camouflage and digging. Digging under concealment is only part of the solution.
      In the end, frontlines do their job (see the functions blog posts) if they make infiltration and exfiltration too risky and slow major advances down to the point that operational reserves arrive in time to deal with that offensive. They don't need to stall attacks the way they seem to do in this conflict.

    2. "An essential difference between 1940/41 ff and what is happening today is imo the question of anti-tank weapons and in particular hand-held anti-tank weapons and light anti-tank weapons. These did not exist in WWII and above all not in this number."

      1) There were millions of panzerfaust etc. in WW2.

      2) Hand-held AT weapons do not prevent a operational success after a breakthrough, and a breakthrough can be achieved by infantry. AT weapons "only" affect tanks at the tactical level or at the operational level when the attacker operates with to small units that make militia effective.

      My issue with the (uncritical) comparison of Ukraine to other potential conflict is that both sides are not very good.

    3. The Russians are at astonishingly low quality level (I'd have guessed Bulgaria at such a level), while the Ukrainians remind me of the Apartheid South Africans and Rhodesians with how they cope with limited resources.

      We have seen the American way of war in '91 and '03. There's no reason to believe the Americans would be any better if they were starved of resources as are the Ukrainians.

    4. Uhlenspiegel:

      And to be precise, nearly 7 million Panzerfaust of different types were actually made. The Panzerfaust 30 from August 1943 on (with a range of 30 m) and then the other types that followed, which even in 1945 had an effective range of around 100 m at most (only the newest types).

      I, in turn, wrote expressly of 1940-41 and the breakthroughs achieved at that time. And neither the Germans, nor the French, nor the Soviets had such weapons at that time.

      In 1944 the panzerfaust was for a time a problem for soviet breakthroughs, but then countered by an infantry screen for the tanks and the short reach of this weapons.

      Today the situation is completly different: even after a breakthrough, modern anti-tank handguns pose a significant problem because they can be used anywhere in the rear by rear service troops, militias, security units, etc. and are available and available everywhere. In addition, the range and the effects are not remotely comparable to what was in the Second World War.

      An in 1940/41 there were none.

    5. An anti-tank weapon or munition matters little if the user has thrown it away in order to run faster.
      A proper breakthrough exploitation would not encounter much resistance until still intact hostile operational reserves intervene. And then it's about the big calibres again, not about Panzerfäuste.
      Dumb Infantry AT weapons are mostly long-range hand grenades, but when used against vehicles they mostly serve to block narrow routes for hostile vehicles and to keep hostile tanks at a distance.

  4. This is an interesting note, because this view of what a front could and should be is exactly what I think it should be.

    Finally, a front formed by the infantry could therefore be understood as a kind of barrier (Sperre), which has the task of delaying (Verzögerung) and channeling (Kanalisieren) the enemy, making him more vulnerable to air attacks, artillery hits and counterattacks by our mechanized formations.

    In addition, in my opinion, infiltration is one of the most essential methods in modern warfare, and accordingly I also see the task of the modern equivalent of a front (of trenches etc) primarily to prevent infiltration.

    1. https://defense-and-freedom.blogspot.com/2011/10/functions-in-military-theory-front.html

      " What does a front line do?

      Basically it keeps weak forces from advancing much. A proper front line may be infiltrated, but the risk/price is usually high. It can be penetrated by an offensive (under some circumstances), but it cannot be overwhelmed by a general advance along most of its length.

      It does thus keep the enemy largely from advancing and thus creates security in the rear. This in turn enhances the efficiency of forces in the rear, for they can train, repair and move supplies without needing to pull much local 360° security. Of course, they also sleep better. Sleep deprivation is a big issue in wartime."