When the West discovers that its war is ineffective

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By ALEX VERSHININ*

The West is losing the war in Ukraine because it does not have the economy, doctrine and military structure best suited to this form of conflict, which occurs through friction and not movement.

Wars of attrition require their own “Art of War” and are fought with a “force-centric” approach, as opposed to wars of maneuver which are “terrain-centric.”.[I] They are rooted in enormous industrial capacity to allow for the replacement of losses, in geographic depth to absorb a series of defeats, and in technological conditions that impede rapid land movement. In wars of attrition, military operations are shaped by the state's ability to replace losses and generate new formations, rather than by tactical and operational maneuvers. The side that accepts the exhausting nature of war and focuses on destroying enemy forces rather than gaining ground is more likely to win.

The West is not prepared for this type of war. For most Western experts, the attrition strategy is counterintuitive. Historically, the West would prefer the short “winner takes all” confrontation of professional armies. Recent war games like the CSIS war (Center for Strategic and International Studies) over Taiwan, covered a month of fighting. The possibility of the war continuing was never discussed. This is a reflection of a common Western attitude. Wars of attrition are treated as exceptions, something to avoid at all costs, and generally the product of leaders' ineptitude. Unfortunately, wars between analogous powers are most likely to be attritional, due to the considerable pool of resources available to replace initial losses.

The exhausting nature of combat, including the erosion of professionalism due to casualties, levels the battlefield regardless of which army started with better trained forces. As the conflict drags on, the war is won by economies and not by armies. States that understand this and wage such war through a strategy of attrition that aims to deplete the enemy's resources while preserving their own are more likely to win. The quickest way to lose a war of attrition is to focus on maneuver, spending valuable resources on short-term territorial objectives. Recognizing that wars of attrition have their own art is vital to winning them without suffering devastating losses.

The economic dimension

Wars of attrition are won by economies that allow the mass mobilization of military personnel across their industrial sectors. Armies expand rapidly during such a conflict, requiring enormous quantities of armored vehicles, drones, electronic products and other combat equipment. Because cutting-edge weaponry is very complex to manufacture and consumes vast resources, a mix of forces and weapons across the entire military spectrum is imperative to win.

State-of-the-art weapons perform exceptionally well but are difficult to manufacture, especially when needed to arm a rapidly mobilized army subject to a high rate of attrition. For example, during World War II, German Panzers proved to be excellent tanks, but using approximately the same production resources, the Soviets produced eight T-34s for every German Panzer. The difference in performance did not justify the numerical disparity in production. Cutting-edge weapons also require cutting-edge troops. These take significant time to train – time that is not available in a war with high attrition rates.

It is easier and faster to produce large quantities of cheap weapons and ammunition, especially if their subcomponents are interchangeable with civilian goods, ensuring mass quantities without expanding production lines. New recruits also absorb simpler weapons more quickly, allowing for the rapid generation of new formations or the reconstitution of existing ones.

Reaching the masses is difficult for the most sophisticated Western economies. To achieve hyper-efficiency, they eliminate excess capacity and struggle to expand quickly, especially as lower-tech industries have been moved to other countries for economic reasons. During war, global supply chains are disrupted and subcomponents can no longer be protected.

Added to this impasse is the lack of a qualified workforce with experience in a given sector. Such skills are acquired over decades and, once an industry closes, it takes decades to rebuild it. The US government's 2018 interagency report on North American industrial capacity highlighted these problems. The bottom line is that the West should take a hard look at how to ensure peacetime excess capacity in its military-industrial complex, or risk losing the next war.

Force production

Industrial production in times of war focuses on channeling the replacement of losses and generating new formations. This requires appropriate doctrine and command and control structures. There are two main models: that of NATO (most Western armies), on the one hand; and the old Soviet model, on the other; with most states showing something in between.

NATO armies are highly professional, supported by a strong corps of NCOs with extensive training and peacetime military experience. They are based on this professionalism so that their military doctrine (fundamentals, tactics and techniques) emphasizes individual initiative, delegating a large margin of maneuver to junior officers and sergeants. NATO formations enjoy enormous agility and flexibility to exploit opportunities on a dynamic battlefield.

In warfare of attrition, this method has a disadvantage. The officers and NCOs needed to execute such doctrine require extensive training and, above all, experience. A sergeant in the United States Army takes years to graduate. A squadron commander[ii] a platoon sergeant generally has at least three years of service and at least seven. In a war of attrition characterized by heavy casualties, there is simply no time to replace lost enlisted men or form them into new units.

The idea that civilians can receive three-month training courses, sergeant badges and then expect to perform as well as a seven-year veteran is a recipe for disaster. Only time can produce leaders capable of executing NATO doctrine, and time is something that the enormous demands of war of attrition do not provide.

The Soviet Union built its army oriented toward large-scale conflicts with NATO. It was intended that it would be able to expand rapidly, through the mobilization of massive reserves. All men in the Soviet Union underwent two years of basic training right after high school. The constant turnover of enlisted personnel prevented the creation of a Western-style sergeant corps, but generated a huge pool of semi-trained reserves available for wartime. The absence of reliable NCOs created an officer-centered model of command, less tactically flexible than NATO's but more adaptable to the large-scale expansion required by warfare of attrition.

However, when a war passes the one-year mark, front-line units gain experience, and an improved corps of sergeants is likely to emerge, which gave the Soviet model more operational flexibility. By 1943, the Red Army had developed a robust corps of sergeants, which would disappear after World War II as combat formations were demobilized. A key difference between the models is that NATO doctrine cannot function without high-performing NCOs. Soviet doctrine was reinforced by experienced sergeants, but did not necessarily require them.

Rather than a decisive battle achieved through quick maneuvers, warfare of attrition focuses on the destruction of enemy forces and your own ability to regenerate combat power while preserving it.

The most effective model would be a mix of the two, in which a state maintains a medium-sized professional army, along with a mass of recruits available for mobilization. This directly leads to a mix at all levels. The pre-war professional forces constitute the top of this army, becoming combat brigades and moving from sector to sector on the ground to stabilize the situation and conduct decisive attacks. Low-level formations hold the line and slowly gain experience, increasing their quality until they acquire the ability to conduct offensive operations. Victory is achieved by creating massive formations of the highest quality possible.

Transforming new units into combat-capable soldiers, rather than mobs of uniformed civilians, is done through training and combat experience. A new formation must train for at least six months, and only if it is made up of reservists with previous training. Recruits take even longer. These units must also have professional soldiers and sergeants brought in from the pre-war army, to increase professionalism.

Once initial training has been completed, they should only be included in battle in secondary sectors. No formation can fall below 70% of its combat capacity. Retiring from training early allows experience to proliferate among new replacements as veterans pass on their skills. Otherwise, valuable experience is lost, requiring the entire process to be restarted.

Another rule is that resources must prioritize replacements over new formations, preserving the combat advantage of both the pre-war army and newly created formations. It is advisable to disband several pre-war (higher level) formations to spread professional soldiers among the newly created lower preparedness formations in order to increase initial quality.

The military dimension

Military operations in a conflict of attrition are very different from those in a war of maneuver. Rather than a decisive battle achieved through quick maneuvers, warfare of attrition focuses on the destruction of enemy forces and your ability to regenerate your own combat power. In this context, a successful strategy accepts that the war lasts at least two years and is divided into two distinct phases. The first phase runs from the start of hostilities to the point at which sufficient combat power is mobilized to permit decisive action.

She will show little change in position on the ground, focusing on favorably exchanging losses and building combat power in the rear. The dominant form of combat is fire rather than maneuver, complemented by extensive fortifications and camouflage. The peacetime army initiates war and conducts containment actions, providing time to mobilize resources and train the new army.

The second phase may begin after one side has met the following conditions: [i] the newly mobilized forces have completed their training and acquired sufficient experience to become combat-effective formations capable of quickly integrating all of their resources in a cohesive manner; [ii] the enemy's strategic reserve is depleted, leaving it unable to reinforce a threatened sector; [iii] superiority in rate of fire and reconnaissance is achieved, allowing the attacker to effectively concentrate mass fire on a key sector, while denying it to the enemy; and [iv] the enemy's industrial sector is degraded to the point of being unable to replace battlefield losses; and in the case of fighting against a coalition of countries, their industrial resources must also be exhausted or at least their days numbered.

Only after these criteria have been met will offensive operations begin. They must be launched across a broad front, seeking to subdue the enemy at multiple points with superficial attacks. The intention is to remain within a layered bubble of friendly protection systems, while amplifying the depletion of enemy reserves, until the front collapses. Only then should the offensive extend to deeper objectives in the enemy rear. The concentration of forces in a main effort must be avoided, as it gives an indication of the location of the offensive and an opportunity for the enemy to concentrate his reserves in defending this key point.

The Brusilov Offensive of 1916, which resulted in the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian army, is a good example of a successful tactical and operational attrition offensive. By attacking along a broad front, the Russian army prevented the Austro-Hungarians from concentrating their reserves, resulting in a collapse along the entire front. However, at a strategic level, the Brusilov Offensive is an example of failure. Russian forces were unable to establish conditions against the entire enemy coalition, focusing only on the Austro-Hungarian Empire and neglecting German capabilities. The Russians spent crucial resources that they could not replace, without defeating the strongest member of the coalition.

Emphasizing the key point once again, an offensive will only be successful when the key criteria are met. Attempting to launch an offensive sooner will result in losses without any strategic gains, delivering it directly into the hands of the enemy.

Contemporary warfare

The contemporary battlefield is an integrated suite of systems that includes several types of electronic warfare (EW), three basic types of air defenses, four different types of artillery, numerous types of aircraft, drones attack and reconnaissance, construction engineers and sappers, traditional infantry, armored formations and, above all, logistics. Artillery became the most dangerous in the history of warfare, thanks to increased range and advanced aiming, expanding the depth of the battlefield.

In practice, this means that it is easier to concentrate fires than forces. Deep maneuver, which requires the concentration of combat power, is no longer possible because any concentrated force will be destroyed by indirect fires before it can achieve success in depth. Instead, a ground offensive requires a protective bubble tuned to ward off enemy attack systems. This bubble is produced through the overlap of counterfire, air defense, and EW capabilities.

Moving numerous interdependent systems is highly complicated and unlikely to be successful. Surface attacks along the forward line of troops are more likely to be successful at an acceptable cost ratio. Deep penetration attempts will be exposed to mass fires the moment they leave the protection of the defensive bubble.

Integrating these overlapping assets requires centralized planning and exceptionally well-trained militaries capable of integrating multiple capabilities in real time. It takes years to train such officers, and even combat experience does not generate such skills in a short time. Mandatory checklists and procedures can alleviate these deficiencies, but only on a static, less complicated front. Dynamic offensive operations require rapid reaction times, which semi-trained officers are unable to accomplish.

An example of this complexity is the attack of a platoon of 30 soldiers. This would require EW systems to block the drones enemies; another EW system must block enemy communications, preventing the adjustment of its fires; and a third EW system must jam space navigation systems, denying the use of precision-guided munitions. Additionally, the fires require counterbattery radars to defeat enemy artillery. Further complicating planning is the fact that enemy electronic warfare will locate and destroy any friendly radar or electronic warfare emitter that has been emitting for too long.

Engineers will have to clear paths through minefields, while drones provide ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) weather sensitive and fire support if necessary. (This task requires a lot of training with support units to avoid dropping ammunition on friendly attacking troops). Finally, artillery needs to provide support both toward the objective and behind the enemy, targeting reserves and suppressing enemy artillery.

All of these systems need to work as an integrated team just to support 30 men in multiple vehicles attacking another 30 men or less. The lack of coordination between these assets will result in failed attacks and terrible losses, without ever seeing the enemy. As the size of the formation that conducts operations increases, so does the number and complexity of assets that need to be integrated.

Implications for combat operations

Deep fires – more than 100-150 km (the average range of tactical rockets) behind the front line – aim to wear down the enemy's ability to generate combat power. This includes production facilities, ammunition depots, repair depots, and energy and transportation infrastructure. Of particular importance are targets that require significant production capabilities and are difficult to replace/repair, as their destruction will cause long-term damage.

As with all aspects of warfare of attrition, such attacks will take a significant amount of time to take effect, with lead times lasting years. Low global production volumes of long-range precision-guided munitions, effective deception and concealment actions, large arsenals of anti-aircraft missiles, and the enormous repair capacity of strong and determined states combine to prolong conflicts. Effective layering of air defenses must include cutting-edge systems at all echelons along with cheaper systems to counter the enemy's massive base attack platforms. Combined with large-scale manufacturing and effective electronic warfare, this is the only way to defeat the enemy's deep fires.

Victory in a war of attrition is assured by careful planning, by developing the industrial base and developing mobilization infrastructure in times of peace, and, finally, by even more careful management of resources in times of war.

Successful warfare of attrition focuses on preserving one's combat power. This generally translates into a relatively static front, interrupted by limited local attacks to improve positions, using artillery in most of the fighting. Fortification and concealment of all forces, including logistics, are the key to minimizing losses. The long time required to build fortifications prevents significant movement over the ground. An attacking force that cannot entrench itself quickly will suffer significant losses from enemy artillery fire.

Defensive operations buy time to develop low-level combat formations, allowing newly mobilized troops to gain combat experience without suffering heavy losses in large-scale attacks. The establishment of experienced low-level combat formations produces the capacity for future offensive operations.

The initial phases of warfare of attrition range from the outbreak of hostilities to the point where mobilized resources are available in large numbers and ready for combat operations. In the case of a surprise attack, a quick offensive on one side may be possible until the defender can form a solid front. After that, the combat solidifies. This period lasts at least one and a half to two years. During this period, major offensive operations should be avoided.

Even if major attacks are successful, they will result in significant casualties, often with meaningless territorial gains. An army should never accept a battle under unfavorable conditions. In a war of attrition, any terrain that does not have a vital industrial center is irrelevant. It is always better to retreat and preserve forces, regardless of the political consequences. Fighting in disadvantageous terrain burns units, leading to the loss of experienced soldiers, who are essential to victory. The German obsession with Stalingrad in 1942 is a prime example of fighting on unfavorable terrain for political reasons. Germany burned vital units it could not afford to lose, simply to capture a city named after Stalin.

It is also sensible to force the enemy to fight on disadvantageous terrain, through information operations, exploiting politically sensitive enemy objectives. The aim is to force the enemy to spend vital material and strategic reserves on strategically meaningless operations. An important trap to avoid is being drawn into the same trap that was set for the enemy. In World War I, the Germans did just that at Verdun, where they planned to use surprise to capture important and politically sensitive terrain, provoking costly French counterattacks. Unfortunately for the Germans, they fell into their own trap. They were unable to gain important, defensible ground early on, and the battle turned into a series of costly infantry attacks on both sides, with artillery fire devastating the attacking infantry.

When the second phase of a war of attrition begins, the offensive must be launched across a broad front, seeking to overwhelm the enemy at multiple points using superficial attacks. The intention is to remain within the layered bubble of friendly protection systems, while increasing the depletion of enemy reserves, leading to the collapse of the front. There is a cascade effect in which a crisis in one sector forces defenders to transfer reserves from a second sector, in turn generating another crisis there.

As forces begin to retreat and abandon prepared fortifications, morale drops and the obvious question arises: “If we can’t maintain the megafortress, how can we maintain the new trenches?” The retreat then turns into defeat. Only then should the offensive extend to deeper objectives in the enemy rear..[iii] The Allied offensive in 1918 is an example. The Allies attacked along a broad front, while the Germans did not have sufficient resources to defend the entire line. Once the German army began to retreat, it was impossible to stop this movement.

The defense-centered strategy of attrition is counterintuitive to most Western military officers. Western military thought sees the offensive as the only means of achieving the decisive strategic objective of forcing the enemy to the negotiating table under unfavorable conditions. The strategic patience required to establish the conditions for an offensive goes against even their combat experience gained in counterinsurgency operations abroad.

Conclusion

The conduct of wars of attrition is very different from wars of maneuver. They last longer and end up testing a country’s industrial capacity.[iv] Victory is assured by careful planning, the development of the industrial base and the development of mobilization infrastructure in times of peace, and by even more careful management of resources in times of war.

Victory is achieved through meticulous analysis of one's own and the enemy's political objectives. The key is to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of competing economic models and identify the logistics strategies that are most likely to generate the most resources. These resources can then be used to build a huge army using a mixture of strength and weapons of different qualities at all levels.

The military conduct of war is driven by global political strategic objectives, military realities, and economic constraints. Combat operations in this type of war are superficial and focus on destroying enemy resources rather than conquering terrain. Propaganda is used to support military operations, not the other way around. With patience and careful planning, a war can be won.

Unfortunately, many in the West have a very arrogant attitude that future conflicts will be short and decisive. This is not true for the same reasons described above. Even middle global powers have the geography, population, and industrial resources necessary to conduct a war of attrition. The idea that any great power would retreat in the event of an initial military defeat is, at best, an illusion. Any conflict between great powers will be seen by opposing elites as existential, and will be conducted with all the State's available resources. The resulting war will become exhausting and will favor the State that has the economy, doctrine and military structure most suitable for this form of conflict.

If the West is serious about a potential great-power conflict, it needs to take a hard look at its industrial capacity, its mobilization doctrine, and its means of waging a protracted war, rather than holding war games that cover a single month of conflict and hoping May the war end after this. As the Iraq War taught us, hope is not a method.

*Alex Vershinin He is a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army Reserve and has a master's degree in simulation and virtual modeling from the University of Central Florida..

Translation: Ricardo Cavalcanti-Schiel.

Originally published on the website of Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

Translator's notes


[I] Published last March 18th on the old website think tanks military of the British monarchy (founded by the Duke of Wellington in 1831), this article originally contains a single mention of the conflict in Ukraine, exactly in the original title (which may have been chosen by the editor, and not by the author). Reading it, however, makes it clear that the author is continually referring to the lessons of this conflict, as they were already advanced in an article published here, written by this translator, a few weeks earlier.

For example, when reporting on the battle of Verdun, one can easily subsume that the author is looking at Bakhmut; In describing the “second phase” of the war of attrition, it seems evident that the author is looking at the Russian takeover of Avdyevka. Despite not being interested in highlighting which complex of meanings would have produced the current conception of NATO's operational art (which this translator, in that article cited, had called “war of the West”) – an effort that we can leave to anthropologists –, this article, in the form of a programmatic proposition, seems to implicitly reach the right conclusions about why the West finds itself at a large military disadvantage in the current geopolitical context, implicitly insinuating that this disadvantage will not be overcome anytime soon, which also poses serious problems for the Western geopolitical ambitions, supported by military forces, in the Indo-Pacific. Going further, however, it is not just about operational art, but about what is behind it and what produced it as an idea. Only then would we begin to enter the nebulous zone, still completely opaque to the late capitalist West.

[ii] In Brazil, this position is held by corporals, not sergeants.

[iii] It can be said that this is where Russian efforts in the Ukrainian conflict now find themselves. The “megafortress” to which the author refers is evidently equivalent to Avdyevka.

[iv] Emmanuel Todd: the war always takes us back to the real economy, and not to the virtual (financial) economy of a country. See also the article by former British diplomat Alastair Crook translated here.


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