About high-low army mixes for today's NATO


Around 2011 I wrote multiple times about a scenario of a Russian surprise attack on NATO (at the only kind of attack that makes kinda sense, for it's the only scenario that gives the Russians a chance) and how this would lead to low force densities (very wide brigade sectors). This in turn would not allow to properly defend a frontline, and the benefits of a frontline (stability, safe resting area behind, counter-scouting) would disappear, the opportunities of a more fluid theatre situation would appear.

Consequently, I wrote many blog posts relevant to that scenario. Now Russia started the biggest post-WW2 war in Europe and the Ukrainians defend the full frontline. Neither Russians nor Ukrainians appear capable of breakthrough. I suppose that's a matter of competence, not of state of the technology or art of war. The Russians even botched the "strategic surprise" part and stumbled into Ukraine as they did into Chechnya in 1994.

My views seemed to be disproven (and I wrote about that a couple times).

Now I would like to claim that the war we're seeing is very similar in many aspects to both World Wars, the Spanish Civil War and the Iran-Iraq War. So there's little new. Even the drones merely repeat the accelerated advance of military aviation in WW1 and the accelerated advance of electronic warfare in WW2.

The concept of both sides appears to be to have a bulk of forces (80-90% ?) suitable for holding a frontline and a few formations set up for either breakthrough (Russian storm units) or main effort (Ukrainian mechanised brigades with Western gear).

Neither side has the competence to do a proper combined arms breakthrough, and the Ukrainian tank forces resemble rather the 'fire brigade' Panzerdivisionen of late 1944 than the 'Blitzkrieg' Panzerdivisionen of 1940-1942. The Russian mechanised forces resemble the French tank divisions of 1940.

It may not sound nice, but both sides suffer badly from insufficient reserves training prior to 2022 and are by now rather amateurish and incapable of combined arms warfare. Both sides are using armed forces that were ridden by corruption for three decades and are rooted in the at most modestly competent Russian army tradition. It's a common symptom that amateurish armies form when armies expand very quickly in wartime, with much of the pre-war experts killed in the opening stage. The American Civil War was such a amateur war. The British Expeditionary Forces were quite amateurish around 1916, too. Historians are usually too nice to point out that insufficiently-trained leaders and troops lead to amateurish, incompetent armies. They do usually research & write about their own country, after all.

The upside of all this is that the Russians gt a demonstration of the limit of their abilities. They do now understand they cannot defeat a 80/20 low-high mix force in the field. They understand that they suffer higher material and personnel losses than a moderately well-done 80/20 mix army, and without the Chinese helping them by the millions of troops the Russians would stand no chance against NATO even if NATO used 80/20 instead of trying to go for all high end forces (in the richer countries).

An all high end NATO might get swamped and overrun by a Sino-Russian force of three million troops in Europe, so maybe we need to counter mass with mass anyway, again leading to 80/20. The Chinese mobilisation potential is well in excess of 150 million men + millions of women for non-combat roles, so NATO might face a sustained incredible numerical inflow of PLA troops of low quality during a long war. We could defeat this only if we're prepared for it - this means at the very least have enough trained junior NCOs to do proper training for our own mobilised mass armies. The point of preparing for this scenario is to deter, avoid the scenario.

The Western way of war proved to be overwhelming to the Soviet arms-equipped 80/20 approach during 1991, but it did so at a time when the West enjoyed a near-monopoly on thermal vision in ground combat and it was in featureless terrain. High-quality munitions were expended at an unsustainable rate. Moreover, most of the ground combat was actually against Iraqi troops already withdrawing in disorder.

The fiscal argument is strongly in favour of 80/20. The 80% troops of the line would not need terribly much training and could be reserve troops. This would greatly save on the scarce personnel, as such reserve forces could have 1,000,000 troops mobilised strength with a peacetime active strength of less than 100,000. This reduces the high direct personnel expenses AND it frees up personnel for civilian, GDP-raising and taxes-paying jobs. A 100,000 € personnel costs soldier job has a true cost to the society of about 150,000...200,000 €. It's plain stupid to unnecessarily keep troops in active duty.

Moreover, those 80% troops of the line would be technologically and fiscally as well as doctrinally feasible for almost all NATO countries. The challenges of a high end tank brigade may not be met by any Western countries these days, and with better effort (focus on conventional warfare) maybe half a dozen NATO countries could master the tank brigade/exploitation brigade pattern well enough for consistent success with it.

So in my opinion 

  • We should prepare NATO defence against Russian strategic surprise attack by 2028 or later
    • This still means first weeks would have low force densities
    • This still means it's important to get combat-ready forces to the front en masse within a few weeks
  • We should prepare NATO defence against a 3 million men Sino-Russian land force 2026 or later
    • This requires enough mass
    • Facing demographic challenges and high costs of labour, we should make use of a hi/low mix with focus on mobilised strength after a few weeks. Peacetime military strength of most NATO members does not matter much for defence. To boost it is inefficient.
  • We should consider helping the poorer NATO members with equipping & training proper brigades of the line
  • We should consider helping the NATO frontier countries with equipping & training surprise-resistant 'first line of defence' forces that can delay incursions well.
  • I keep insisting that forward-deploying brigades and setting up multinational (poor cohesion) brigades and creating small pools of increased (not total shit) readiness forces was and is all bollocks. ALL forces should be up to their tasks. Set up a multi-brigade air/land warfare training ground in Poland with always three or four (rotating) brigades present and maybe entire brigade sets of equipment prepositioned if we absolutely need such a forward presence.

Is there a place for my low force density ideas left? Well, yes, in the exploitation brigades. They do not need to be classic tank brigades or French-style 6x6 wheeled armoured car-based  formations.

I wrote about affordable brigades with reduced expectations (accepting some dependencies on higher level support) before. There's one draft (~80% done) for a text relevant to this.




P.S.: I should mention that the German, Japanese and Soviet forces of WW2 followed a similar pattern of bulk of forces being poor quality but 15...20% being either elite light infantry or fully motorized troops.  The only Italian troops of WW2 that were effective were concentrated in two divisions and the Bersaglieri battalions of the infantry divisions. Armies had no such high-low mix during the First World War (they thought they had it with the cavalry divisions being high end, but they proved to  rarely be of use). The German army started to be able to breakthrough the Entente in France once it created high end units (assault infantry with actual trench attack training and equipment) in combination with smarter artillery plans. Overall, a high/low mix proved to be the most cost-efficient approach through centuries in Europe. To go all high-end (as Americans with their fully motorised and tank-rich invasion force in 1944) is a luxury left to those with vastly superior industrial resources (or in peacetime: insane military spending).



  1. I wrote you about a possible Chinese intervention in a war between Russia and NATO and you brushed it off, because of logistics. What made you change your mind? China is very fast in building roads and railways.

    1. I paid attention to them for a long time

      The logistics are indeed perilous (air traffic, few rail connection), but deterrence/defence needs to be configured with a bit pessimism. Russia is rebuilding its munition industries and its arms industries switches to Chinese suppliers.
      The threat of a Sino-Russian land force in Eastern Europe is no more as unrealistic as before 2022.

      about the rail capacity:
      trans-siberian railway transport was about 158 Mt in 2022
      A (fat) infantry division consumes about 4,000 tons per day. A divisional slice for such a division is about 50,000 troops.
      Let's assume 4,000 tons per 40,000 men (support consumes fuel) and no civilian transportation. That would be 75 divisions in a 3 M men army for 300 kt supplies per day. About 110 Mt/yr.
      Air transport won't transport more than high value stuff (PGMs, electronics, troops).
      That would leave a much-reduced cargo transport to meet the needs of the Russian arms industry for Chinese supplies.
      This is before even only slight interference with that indefensibly long rail connection. It could literally be struck daily by B-2s. Moreover, the entire transsiberian railway is now electrified. This means hundreds of vulnerable yet critical transformer stations.
      The polar ship route doesn't help, as the Chinese would not be able to ship past Japan or even Alaska.

      The Chinese might quicker pre-position troops in Europe to deter Europe from getting involved in a Pacific War than we could build up strength to comfortably cope with a 3M land force next door, though.

    2. Your points are valid, but how fast can the picture change? China has immense capacity to build roads and railways and if there's preexisting infrastructure, this can be accomplished at a rapid pace.

  2. In my deepest pessimism, I consider it possible that Iran, Turkey, India, Pakistan, North Korea and many more join Russia and China, because they think Europe as easy prey with the US in turmoil. That would open additional transport routes by rail and sea. I do have huge doubts about the reliability of our alliance with the US. The US allies in Europe and East Asia might be left to fight on their own, because political divisions created the Second Civil War in the US and TikTok might have lit the match for this with its mind poison.

    1. Iran would stay regional, they're no threat to Westerners in Europe or North America
      Turkey would stay neutral despite being NATO member. They can't gain anything from conflict with the West and are fragile domestically.
      India is opposed to China. Give it 15 more years and they might form a 3rd bloc with Africans and SE Asians.
      Pakistan is only concerned about India and has nothing to gain from overt conflict with the West now that Westerners left their neighbourhood.
      North Korea is 100% about serving the dictator and ensuring the security of his dynasty. They are not aggressive for real, more like playing madman for deterrence.

      The U.S. may turn full-on Fascist within a year. The Chinese would then focus on the U.S. as threat (because the lying moron spelled them out as adversaries, and since "Mein Kampf" such shit gets attention for real) and Europe would be alienated from the U.S., thus be much less likely drawn into conflict with China.

      There will be no 2nd ACW. Either the lying moron loses the election or he dies in time or the military top brass decides to save the Republic or the country goes full Fascist, with lots of concentration camps for political prisoners.

    2. I mostly agree. But I also consider more pessimistic events. India has potential, but until they have realized it, China can bully them with a stick, while Russia provides the carrot. We shouldn't count India as securely not in their camp.
      The suggested policy for Turkey is logical, but I've also seen their ambition for recreating the Ottoman empire. They might do something stupid.
      The NORKs could be made to fight the South if China puts her foot down on the issue. They might not want to, but they're too dependent to rebel.
      Iran and Pakistan would join out of opportunitism.
      The next US election is critical. We've seen idiots on all sides of the spectrum, willing to create a dictatorship of sorts. Whatever the outcome, they will try to similarly transform their sphere of influence, so we're probably between a rock and a hard place.

    3. Biden and Trump are the oldest POTUS in history. The third place goes to some president from the 1800s. Does this remind you of anything? All I can think of is Andropov and Chernenko. Funny and scary at the same time.

  3. Today, with the rapid development of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence, why do you still emphasize large-scale manpower. You were right before, future warfare is about low density, large-scale precision indirect fire (5-40km), autonomous unmanned system assault and encirclement (close combat within 5km).

    Assembling company-sized troops under persistent surveillance and cheap precision long-range firepower would be a recipe for disaster.

    After 2030, the proportion of robots in the military will become higher and higher。

    1. Back around 1919 some Swissman thought that in future wars every man would be a machinegunner and successful attack impossible.
      Some people thought in the 1920's that future armies would be all-tank armies.
      Some people thought in the 50's that conventional war between great powers was impossible, nukes would be all you need.
      Some people thought in the 1960's that the future of land warfare was all about helicopters.
      Back in the 60's some British politician thought the age of rocket missiles had come and manned combat aviation was sbout to end. He almost killed the British aviation industry.
      Back in the 70's peple declared the end of the tank in face of ATGMs.

      The problem with expectations about the future of war is that they are often exaggerating, impractical our way too optimistic regarding the timeframe.

      You better have a solid backup plan.

    2. He is wrong in only one way. It's not the future. It's what is happening right now. Few guys on cross country bikes take positions dodging FPV drones.

  4. Why would anyone invade Europe anyways? I see Ukraine's fertile farmland often cited as a reason. But other countries? Norway's oil and gas, Netherlands' ASML, France's nuclear plants, and that's all I can think of.

    1. How about thinking a bit harder then? It’s not very difficult! On second thought: Don’t bother. It may be better if it stays as is…