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Everything Old in War is New Again
Pity we weren't paying attention.
A few months ago, I wrote an essay on the new (actually old), type of warfare being practised in Ukraine, and why the West would not be able to imitate it. Many people seemed to like that essay and find it useful, so I thought I would offer a small update in the light of the recent partial mobilisation announcement from Moscow.
In a culture which has the attention-span of a gnat, it’s always assumed that the way things are done now, and were done five minutes ago, is necessarily definitive for all time. So today, we have a hazy idea of what “war” is, drawn from videos and video-games, from reports of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and from vague recollections of militia groups in Africa. It’s in this context, for example, that the conscription of untrained personnel in Ukraine, and the arrival of foreign “volunteers” in that country, were both seen to be militarily significant in the West. We assume that this is what “war” is, even though we vaguely suspect it might have been different before. Yet what war “is,” changes all the time.
Most of the conflicts since 1945 that actually happened (as opposed to those that were anticipated) can be traced directly or indirectly to the process of de-colonialisation that began in the 1950s or, in certain cases, attempts to prevent it. From Algeria to Zimbabwe, from Vietnam to Mozambique, these were primarily infantry wars, fought with relatively small forces over wide areas, and with only modest supporting roles for armour and airpower. Victory conditions were ill-defined, and political objectives were very hard to translate into military ones. The post-independence struggles in Africa were likewise fought at generally low levels of technology, with small forces, often poorly trained. Even in Iraq and Afghanistan, after the first shock of the invasions the fighting rapidly dissolved into small unit actions. From the early 90s, the assumption was that this was how war would be in the future, and western states began to reconfigure their military forces and procurement plans accordingly.
There were exceptions, of course. There were conventional wars using heavy weapons between Ethiopia and Somalia, and in Ethiopia itself. There were major armoured clashes between South African forces and opponents from Cuba and Angola in the 1980s. And of course there were the wars between Israel and the Arab states, and the ghastly slugging match between Iran and Iraq. But all of that seemed long ago and far away, when western governments came to reconfigure their forces after the Cold War. The future, they decided, was going to be in small-scale expeditionary warfare, probably under the banner of the United Nations or the European Union. These were the kinds of operations that needed professionals, whose high level of training, and sophistication of equipment would allow them to overcome any likely opposition. There seemed to be little point in keeping large conscript forces for a major conventional war in Europe that would now never come, and so conscription was abolished, standing armies slashed by anything up to 90%, and most military infrastructure sold off. The French intervention in Mali (rather, perhaps, than the Afghanistan conflict) seemed to confirm that this would indeed be the wave of the future: a distant, largely antiseptic war, fought with drones, sophisticated aircraft and light infantry.
This was a very different kind of war from that which had been anticipated between about 1950 and 1990. That war, had it ever happened, would have been a paroxysm of violence on a scale never seen before seen, and would have reduced much of western Europe to rubble (as more than one military officer said to me at the time, the level of destruction would be such that it would hardly matter if it was nuclear or not). The war could only last a week or two, because after that the stocks would be used up, the equipment destroyed and the personnel dead. So senior officers at the time trained and studied to command millions of men fighting from Norway to Turkey in a series of cataclysmic high-intensity battles.
The western assumption that this kind of war could never happen again was not a stupid one. For the first time in modern European history, there seemed nothing to fight about. At that stage, the West did not regard Russia as an enemy, and even the first tentative moves to expand NATO were not expected to be problematic. Retaining the massive, expensive infrastructure of the Cold War, with its millions of conscripts, its enormous training areas and unpopular low-flying training, seemed pointless at the time, and indeed it probably was.
But the unavoidable consequence of these decisions was that, if the international situation were ever to deteriorate, it would be extremely hard, if not impossible, to rebuild the system again. Likewise, countries that had opted not to move so far from Cold War models would then have an advantage. That is pretty much the situation we are in now. There are many dimensions to the resulting problem, but I’ll just pick out a few of the more significant ones.
It’s easy to reduce the size of an Army. You freeze recruiting, make officers redundant and disband units. You sell off the barracks and the accommodation, you sell off the training areas, and you destroy, give away or sell the equipment. OK, so, about-turn, and the political leadership wants to re-form some of these units. Well, you can try to recruit soldiers, and then you have to reckon a minimum of four to six months to produce basic trained personnel, and longer than that for specialists. Except that your training infrastructure has been cut, so you need to buy land on the open market to expand it (firearms training in the local park is not really feasible). You have no accommodation, so you need to build that, and you will need to buy equipment which my be hard to get, or not even made any more. (It would take years for the equipment and ammunition for an artillery regiment to be delivered, for example: many types of equipment are no longer manufactured.) You need to recruit and train extra skilled personnel to maintain and repair the equipment, some of which is highly sophisticated. Expanding your air force is an order of magnitude more difficult: flying stations have been closed throughout Europe, and it would be unthinkably expensive and disruptive to open new ones.
All this assumes that you can produce, or at least buy, the military equipment that you need (a single tank battalion will have several hundred discrete items of large equipment to procure for example). But western defence industries have shrunk also, many types of equipment are no longer made, and remaining factories may just produce the minimum economic quantities of materiel needed to keep them open. The cost of military equipment has increased massively since the end of the Cold War, and it tends now to be ordered in historically tiny quantities. In theory, defence industries could be increased in size once more, but in most cases the real estate no longer exists, and new factories will have to be built on purchased land, and large numbers of skilled tradesmen and engineers will have to be trained, since for the most part they do not exist any more.
It’s not just hardware though. Military units require experienced non-commissioned (and of course commissioned) officers. Such people don’t come along quickly: a Sergeant or a Captain will typically have ten years’ service. A battalion commander might well have two years’ initial training, and anything between two and five years specialist and staff training before taking up their appointment. A Brigade commander will have commanded, successively, a platoon, a company and a battalion or regiment, and is likely to know personally most of their colleagues, and previously worked with them. And so on. Larger armies also require more highly qualified specialists, from engineers to information technology experts to heavy good vehicle drivers, to medical staff. And somebody has to train all these people.
Even then, a collection of trained soldiers is not a military unit, still less one that can fight. Different units from different specialities have to be brought together, train together and learn to operate and fight together. To get an indication of the sheer complexity of a modern military unit, here is a schematic of a relatively simple organisation: a US Infantry Brigade. Many military units have more complex structures than that, and all must learn to work together, not least as part of larger formations.
Now, in an emergency, and for relatively short periods, it is possible to make do and cut corners. Officers and NCOs can be brought back from administrative jobs, soldiers about to leave the military can be retained, reservists can be recalled for short periods, obsolete equipment can be taken out of storage, or even borrowed from elsewhere. Government buildings can be temporarily repurposed, large numbers of portakabins can be bought, more training can be squeezed out of existing resources. But the problem is that these kinds of solutions are only possible in a war or a crisis. They are not designed for long periods of tension, when political enmity may possibly turn into open conflict, but in circumstances which can’t be foreseen or trained for. A permanently higher level of military capability is something else entirely.
Problems like this can be described as fractal; ie every level of the problem reveals other, more detailed, levels below. Consider a very simple and relatively cheap example: an armoured reconnaissance regiment. The current British organisation is described here from which it will be seen that the full wartime strength requires a hundred or so military vehicles, around two-thirds of them armed. (Bringing peacetime establishments up to wartime strength with extra vehicles and reservists involves a whole different set of problems we won’t go into here.) Let’s assume that a government decided to form three such new regiments, as part of a major expansion of its forces, and that, over the course of a couple of years, it managed to man them by recruiting, by re-employing former officers and NCOs, and by diverting personnel from less urgent tasks. Now, it needs to equip the regiments, not only with fighting vehicles, but with missiles, ammunition, communications equipment and specialist logistics, maintenance and medical vehicles.
The first requirement will be to equip these regiments with the same equipment as is used by others in the same Army, or at least close relatives. This may well not be possible. Most western military equipment designed for high-intensity combat is now quite old, and no longer manufactured. (In the British example cited, the fighting vehicles date from the 1970s.) Now maybe you are lucky: maybe your country has some more vehicles in storage or ready to be sold-second-hand. Or maybe not. Maybe your country can buy second-hand from others, but that would only be the case if the equipment is widely used, and then, of course, many other nations will be after it as well. And specifications can differ quite substantially between different countries. You may try to buy completely different, more modern, equipment from overseas, but that will create its own problems of interoperability and maintenance, and you may be at the back of a very long queue.
So maybe you try to get someone to make it. There are at least two major problems, beyond the time and complexity involved. One is that it’s pointless and probably impossible to make more of the equipment designed and built perhaps thirty years ago. Tooling-up would be next to impossible. So you need to develop and produce new vehicles, which will, by definition, use newer and more modern technologies that your military has no experience of operating and maintaining. The weapons mounted on them will be new and more sophisticated as well. All of this will need training and operational experience, and then higher-level formations will need to integrate the new capabilities into the existing ones. But let’s assume you could theoretically do this.
Well, maybe your nation had a defence industry, and still has the remnants of it. So it can make the equipment you need? Not necessarily, because in many countries, old skills and technologies have been lost, and new technologies have not been adopted. You would probably need to build, or massively rebuild, factories from scratch, which is an expensive challenge in itself. Who is going to pay for that? The private sector is unlikely to want to invest in uncertain defence contracts, and few public sectors in the West today retain the knowledge and capability to do so. This isn’t wartime, and the government will only be able to procure equipment at the speed and to the extent that raw materials, skilled manpower and manufacturing and test facilities are available. It simply isn’t feasible, for example, to triple or quadruple your defence manufacturing base to increase your current (say) two mechanised brigades to four over a period of seven to ten years, only to close those factories again afterwards. Or of course you may not have a defence industry at all, in which case you could be at the very end of a very long queue, because even the major arms manufacturers of the world are not going to massively increase their capacity on a speculative basis.
This is just a small example of the general rule in military organisation (and in many other types of organisation as well) that it’s very easy to break down organisations, but it’s an order of magnitude more difficult to build them up again. Moreover, because the world never stands still, it will be harder to rebuild a military structure today, than it was to build it in the first place.
So what are the consequences of all of this? The first is that western nations and their governments have to decide what they want. The size and capability of Russian forces have not been a secret to those who were paying attention, but it was generally assumed that they could be disregarded. The psychological and political reasons for this are for another time, but the result is clear enough. The Russians, given their history and their geography, have decided to retain a capability for large-scale, high-intensity conventional land/air operations that we have given up. It didn’t matter, or at least it wasn’t supposed to: now it does.
This is not, of course, because Russian forces are about to sweep their way to the English Channel, as we fantasised they might in the Cold War. But it does mean, when the current unpleasantness in Ukraine is over, that a powerful Russia will confront a largely disarmed Europe, the more disarmed because it has been sending weapons to Ukraine to be destroyed there. The United States, with very small forces in Europe, will not be in a position to increase them, even if it is still engaged in Europe at all. Moreover, European forces, as they stand, are mostly light, whereas Russian forces are much heavier.
This will create a new political and economic relationship between Russia and the West. We can hope that it is a stable one, but such things are never sure. Let us assume, though, that the relationship is one of mutual suspicion and even enmity, and that the West feels threatened by Russian military power. What practical steps could be taken?
The first thing to bear in mind is that action would have to be multilateral. There is no point in only one country increasing the size of its forces. Likewise, action would need to be coordinated: there would have to be a lot of collective investment in heavy armoured units, for example, and these units would have to be deployed in appropriate places and exercised together. There would have to be a massive programme of tactical anti-missile defence, if the tanks are to survive very long. Some kind of peacetime and wartime deployment plans would have to be agreed: it would take weeks, for example, to deploy an armoured division from, say, France to Poland. An international command structure (not necessarily the current NATO one) would be needed. There would need to be a sense of common purpose extending over a good ten years to make this possible, not to mention unbelievable amounts of money.
In practice, none of this would be possible without the return of military service. At the margins, most militaries could employ more people than they do now, recruited on the open market. But an all-volunteer Army two or three times the size of a typical European one today is simply not feasible. Conscription will probably be highly selective, but it will be needed: whether that in itself would be politically acceptable is an interesting question.
Massive investment would be needed to establish new factories, train new staffs in research, development and production (assuming you could recruit them), probably sponsor new courses at universities, and purchase land for test and proving areas. To make the cost even vaguely manageable, international coordination and international organisations would be required. New barracks, accommodation and training areas would have to be built on purchased land, new ordnance depots would have to be constructed, and an infrastructure capable of deploying and sustaining troops at a distance would have to be created. In addition, since increasing the size of your military is never an end in itself, there would have to be some kind of international agreement about what all these forces are actually for and what they are going to do.
In reality, there are many more detailed issues than the ones described above, although this will give you an idea. But the main conclusion from this brief summary is, I think, unmistakeable: more money by itself is meaningless. What will make the difference will be resource constraints, and it’s likely, for example, that a great deal of any extra money agreed will simply be lost in inflation, as governments are forced to bid against each other, and other purchasers, for increasingly rarer commodities.
The fact is that rebuilding a sophisticated modern military capability after running it down for decades is something that has simply never been attempted in history, and it’s not even clear that it’s possible at all, still less in a number of countries at the same time. But, you may say, surely militaries have been expanded before? What about the two World Wars? What about rearmament in the 1930s?
On examination, though, these examples mostly concern Britain and the United States. Take Britain, which had a professional cadre Army in 1914. Safe behind the Channel, with no need to worry about invasion, the British recruited and trained a volunteer Army from the autumn of 1914. Yet in a world of technology infinitely simpler than today’s, when leg infantry battalions were the basic form of military unit, it took well over a year to recruit and train them properly, and start expanding the military infrastructure, and their first real use en masse was the 1916 Somme offensive. Conscription was introduced in 1916, because the numbers of volunteers—though large—were insufficient. For all Britain’s vaunted engineering capability, not enough weapons and shells could be produced, even as industry was increasingly geared for war. (After the United States entered the war in 1917, it only managed to deploy a handful of troops to Europe before the war ended, and had to scrounge equipment from other nations.)
A number of countries started rearming in the 1930s. The Germans, with an excellent technological base, a large population and, many officers from 1914-18 still young enough to serve, had intelligently retained a professional force largely of NCOs. They could expand easily. But they were not ready for war in 1939: the commanders wanted to wait until at least 1942-3 for what they regarded as an acceptable capability, and the campaigns of 1939-40 were fought, at least in part, with obsolete equipment. The Germans never really caught up, and even towards the end of the war their air force still largely consisted of older designs. Most of the planned navy never made it off the drawing board.
The French began rearming under the Popular Front, but encountered resistance from industrialists who were not only more frightened of the Socialists than the Nazis, but who’d lost money on arms contracts in WW1. Their attitude was summed up most eloquently by Louis Renault in 1940: “I don’t give a **** about the War. What I want are cars that make money.” In spite of Herculean efforts, the French were not really ready in 1940 either. The British started rearming at the same time, but could afford to put their money into aircraft and radar technologies, not expecting to contribute large numbers of troops directly to combat in Europe. Even then, the RAF entered the war with aircraft that were largely obsolete, and the Spitfires, Hurricanes and radar systems only arrived just in time for the battle of Britain in 1940.
Which is to say that, even under conditions of national emergency, at far lower levels of technology and with an industrial base infinitely stronger than that of today, European countries still took the better part of a decade to rebuild a decent military capability. To imagine that we can rapidly rebuild western military capability today just by throwing money at it is a complete delusion.
The decision to move away from planning for heavy-metal warfare in the early 1990s was certainly correct. The decision to phase out conscription entirely was probably politically inevitable, but it’s now clear that highly selective conscription (say 5-10% of the cohort) would have been a better and more effective solution. The disappearance or massive consolidation of the defence industry was a feature of the financialisation of western economies generally, and the endearing belief that you only had to want something for the market to provide it. But all of this was dependent on one simple condition: don’t do anything to revive tensions in Europe. To run down European defence capabilities after the Cold War was reasonable. To decide to treat Russia as an enemy was not necessarily a disaster provided you understood the consequences. But to run down your defence forces, treat Russia as an enemy, and then not understand the consequences, must rank as the most miserable, brain-dead foreign and security policy decision since 1945.