See also “Russian voluntary mobilization continues. Upper age limit for Russian Army contractors removed“.
The new realities of modern wars are such, that almost all of the military professions require a deep and specific knowledge and ample experience. If in the WWI or WWII most of the military professions could rely on a fresh recruits with a few weeks of training, then today the situation is very different. In the past, only some professions which were considered elite ones, like pilots, navy and artillery officers, tank commanders… The most of the fighting and work were made by people with very little training and experience: they shot their rifles, loaded canons, they dug trenches, delivered ammunition, built fire positions, cooked soup etc.
But today, the main fighting on the front is done by means of technology. Static artillery war requires not only to operate the howitzer, but also drone pilots to find targets and provide accurate targeting data. They also need the support of the air-defence troops, electronic countermeasures, communications, air and space reconnaissance assets… One the other hand, hunting enemy artillery requires special radars to detect and truck the trajectory of the shells and to determine the enemy firing positions. It requires drones and combat aviation, precision artillery or missile fire to engage those in effective and timely matter. Same goes for any other aspect of modern warfare, be it on land, see or in the air.
So if we could imagine a pyramid, consisting of professional soldiers and unprofessional recruits, for the wars of the more distant past it would be consisting of a wide base of unprofessional soldiers, with the narrow top of professionals. Today the pyramid’s base of unprofessional soldiers got much smaller while its top of professionals got much wider. It is no longer a pyramid but rather a cube, or even the reverse pyramid.
But this new reality isn’t reflected in the built and organization of the armed forces. As a century ago, armies assume they could recruit or mobilize any number of unprofessional soldiers to fight the big war if needed. This goes for every army I’m more familiar with.
Modern Armies — professional, conscript and hybrid
US has professional army, which isn’t large enough to fight any major war. So in the time of need, they will recruit new soldiers, which will be more of a burden, considering they are required to be equipped, trained, fed, clothed and transported to the front. This investment of effort will not prove itself worthy, because their effectiveness will be very limited, but their losses very significant in a near-peer or peer-to-peer war. Us also has a reserve forces of the National Guars, which have limited combat capabilities and in reality are mostly used as a national emergency response troops to put out fires, evacuate and supply areas of natural disasters, as well as an internal troops for civil unrests.
In Russia, the Army it received from the USSR was a conscript Army. Which in theory is great for any large wars, then you could mobilize every capable man under 60 and rise a army of tens of millions. Assuming they are still remember their army days training and there are enough military hardware stored to equip them all. This approach nave a number of problems. Social one, which appeared in the later Soviet Union and got much worse in Russian Federation, is the problem of the older soldiers abusing the fresh ones. This became the main reason for the public to try and evade military service by all means possible. Until now, many parents are wary to send their sons to the Russian Army. The second problem is that the mobilization bases that hold all the necessary equipment and are manned by skeleton crew of officers and NCO’s, is a fertile soil for corruption. Many materials and equipment being stolen and sold, and the quality of the officers there often seemed to be very low. Then such base is required to be unfolded into operational unit, the results are very underwhelming, to say the least. Still, those units consume a great deal of resources, considering they are suppose to serve as a basis for hundreds of thousands or million of mobilized soldiers. And the third reason is that the resulting forces, will have very little combat effectiveness, compared to professional or even regular troops.
This problem was realized a long time ago, and since then Russia is trying to turn their Army into a professional one, relying less and less on conscripts. There is still an element of reserve forces which is required in the event of a big war, i.e. against NATO or (theoretically) China.
Another example is the Israeli Defence Forces, the IDF, which relies heavily on conscripts an reservists. Even the relatively small combat operations such as in Lebanon or Gaza or the Palestinian Territories, it has to put forward some kind of mobilization. In the latest — and very limited — conflict in Gaza, Israel has mobilized 25,000 reserve soldiers. Israel has no plans to shift to the professional army at all, because it consider itself to be extremely undermanned in any major conflict against one or more Arab states. For example, Israel’s Jewish population is about 7 million in total, while Egypt’s population is about 100 million (with almost half a million active troops). At any other time, IDF is reliant on its conscripts to provide day-to-day defence of the country.
Testing the theory by fire
The realities, shown by the Ukrainian War are such that even if fighting a considerably weaker Army, the professional component by itself isn’t large enough to engage in a maneuvering warfare. If the other side can mobilize significant forces and arm them to some degree, the warfare becomes a positional one, with heavy reliance on artillery and missile strikes.
So we see the reserve forces can only tie-up the enemy offence and force it to the positional fighting. That is, if the enemy cannot or unwilling for some reason to go around those defence lines. This defence against professional and well-equipped enemy will come at expense of large losses among the defenders. So reservists lives will buy some time, but they will not last forever.
On the other hand, if Russia would mobilize its reserves or move conscripts into action, it would suddenly make this war an unpopular one, and may negatively impact its economy. The losses will rise drastically, and the ticking-clock element would appear, giving less room for the government to play its economy games against the EU.
Voluntary mobilization — Russian choice
As I discussed in some of my earlier posts, Russia chose to implement the voluntary mobilization and conscription in order to supplement their numbers in Ukraine. Now, some new information is coming out.
It appears, a large number of new units of different varieties are being created all other Russia and Russian controlled territories in Ukraine. All of them are created on a local basis, have names of their cities or regions or of local ethnical or cultural nature. Some of them are combat units of battalion or brigade, like tank or motor-rifle, while others are support and non-combat units of logistical, technical, medical etc. nature.
Those units are under the Russian MoD command, and their personnel is being conscripted into the Russian military. The Russian army is also equipping and training them. The regional governments are responsible for publicizing this recruitment, as well as providing additional benefits (including additional payments) for the conscripts and reservists. The MoD is paying a relatively high salaries and additional payments for combat service, medical and death insurances and other usual benefits for servicemen.
Those units are intended to be used only as long as the war in Ukraine continues. At least for now there are no plans that we know of to keep them as some kind of territorial reserve or regular forces after the war will conclude.
Obviously, this is a totally new approach to mobilization and reserves. On the downside, it makes any long-term planning very complicated or even impossible. There are no way to know how much volunteers can be mobilized. It will greatly depend on the nature of the war: the moral support for it amongst the population, the level of danger perceived, the size of payments, the employment situation etc.
The closest thing to this novelty is the already established Russian use of the Wagner private military company, and possibly others like it. It wasn’t a Russian invention — for as far as I know, it was firstly widely implemented by Americans in the second Iraq war, as a measure to keep the domestic popular support of the war.
The Russians have the same reasons, as well as keeping the costs down. It is rarely a significant size of this force is required, and there is no need to pay for the veteran warriors with rich combat experience just to sit down on their hands, or to invent some new small-scale conflicts to keep them busy. On the other side, these veteran soldiers obviously aren’t interested in the military carrier, but rather prefer to get in, do a job, be payed nicely and then get out.
The future prospects
I expect this new revival of the mercenary troops of the past will get some development after the end of war. As I’ve said, its problem is that it is not something which is suitable for planning. Another problem is their detachment of the regular forces which are integrated with all kinds of support troops. Wagner is fine at taking control of a town, but won’t have much use against near-pear opponent in the maneuvering warfare in the open field. The accident in Syria there close to 200 Wagnerites were obliterated in the desert by the US combat aviation is a good example. They are effective as the National Guard, maybe more, given their combat experience and higher morale (being volunteers). But not as a true regular army unit.
To overcome those problems, what is needed is some kind of highly combat-ready reserve force, which should be integrated fully into the armed forces and be able to operate as one of its organic units, while still have a long periods of free-of-service time and a much flexible bureaucracy, allowing the personnel to enjoy their civil lives to the fullest at times of peace. So it is a kind of a half-time professional army, maybe similar to a degree to the US National Guard, but of much higher combat efficiency and readiness level. It shouldn’t be used for disaster relief or civil unrest control operations, but solely for the event of the war.
If so, instead of the present two-tier system of professional army + reservists in Russia, I would think a three-tier system is needed: regular (professional) army, semi-regular veteran and volunteer forces and finally the reserves. The first tier is fully active constantly, including the peace-time. The second tier is activated for short periods during peace time in order to keep and update their competency, while they have their equipment in a constantly ready state. They will activate fully only during a time of a limited war. The third tier are the reserves, which have some basic knowledge of their military profession, and are rarely called for a short-time sessions to refresh their memory, update their knowledge of modern tactics, and reevaluate their physical and otherwise condition. This third tier will be only activated in the event of a large scale war, then the first two tiers won’t be enough to handle the situation.
In the example of the current war in Ukraine, only the first two tiers of that theoretical new structure would have to take part in the fighting.
Predictions on the effect of the volunteer mobilization troops on the course of war
I don’t know the numbers of Russian Army troops in Ukraine, but my very coarse estimate is about 100,000 men. About the same number are the rest of the allied forces: militias, volunteers, National Guard units, Private military companies… All those will suffer some losses, and some won’t be willing to endanger themselves for too long, after the initial excitement has passed. So this initiative of a volunteer mobilization is probably intended to supplement those forces already in place, and replenish combat and non-combat losses. So lets say, 50,000 of new soldiers will be flowing into the battle zone during the next months, having better training, equipment and much higher moral than that of the Ukrainian mobilized (many — forcefully) troops.
If so, we should see the hastening of the Russian offensive, given the growing ratio of Russian-to-Ukraine manpower. Ukrainian strategy of pushing the Russians back to the Dnepr has failed (at least for now, but probably ultimately), so all they have left is try and hold the Russians on the eastern side of the river in order to delay their advancements on other regions like Odessa and Kharkov. After those two will eventually also fall (unless some king of a cease-fire agreement will be reached), there will remain almost no Ukrainian Army to defend the rest of it — only some kind of a partisan movement in the Western half of the country could made some problems for the military. All that will realistically be left for Ukrainians is a civil resistance, much like in some Eastern-European countries during the Soviet times. The difference is that those countries were seen as allies during the WWII, not as the enemy, hence they haven’t met the ire of the Soviet Army, only some confused 18-year-olds who weren’t ready to shoot and kill. I expect things may go different way this time.
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