Shellback is the pseudonym of someone who started working for a NATO military structure in the Brezhnev years. He does not think that the Cold War was so much fun that we should try to repeat it.
Editor's Note: The author first published this article on Russia Insider in April of 2016. We are republishing it now due to its high relevance to the heightened military tension and possibility of war between the US and Russia. Since writing this article, Russia's armed forces have become significantly stronger. Its weapons systems have been significantly modernized and its Air Force and Navy have invaluable, (and highly successful) battle experience in Syria.
With the hyper-aggressive resolution just passed by the US House of Representatives we move closer to open war. Thus what follows may be apposite. In short, the US and NATO, accustomed to cheap and easy victories (at least in the short term – over the long term Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Kosovo are hardly victories), will have a shattering shock should they ever fight the Russian Armed Forces.
At the beginning of my career, in the 1970s, I spent some years engaged in combat simulations. Most of these exercises were for training staff officers but some were done in-house to test out some weapon or tactic. The scenario was usually the same: we, NATO, the good guys, Blue, would be deployed, usually in Germany; that is, on the eastern edge of West Germany. There we would be attacked by the Warsaw Pact, the bad guys, Red. (The colors, by the way, date from the very first war game, Kriegspiel; nothing to do with the Communist Party’s favorite color).
Over several years of being on the control staff I noticed two things. Naturally both Red and Blue were played by our people, however interesting it might have been to borrow some Soviet officers to play Red. What always fascinated me was how quickly the people playing Red would start getting aggressive. Their fellow officers, on the Blue side, were very risk-averse, slow and cautious. The Red players just drove down the road and didn’t mind losing a tank, let alone a tank company. What was really interesting (we tested this in the office, so to speak) was that, at the end of the day, the full speed ahead approach produced fewer casualties than the cautious approach. The other thing – rather chilling this – was that Red always won. Always. And rather quickly.
I developed a great respect for the Soviet war-fighting doctrine. I don’t know whether it was based on traditional Russian doctrine but it certainly had been perfected in the Second World War where the Soviets carried out what are probably the largest land operations ever conducted. Nothing could be farther from the truth than the casual Western idea that the Soviets sent waves of men against the Germans until they ran out of ammunition and were trampled under the next wave. Once the Soviets got going, they were very good indeed.
The Soviet war-fighting doctrine that I saw in the exercises had several characteristics. The first thing that was clear is that the Soviets knew that people are killed in wars and that there is no place for wavering; hesitation loses the war and gets more people killed in the end. Secondly, success is reinforced and failure left to itself. “Viktor Suvorov”, a Soviet defector, wrote that he used to pose a problem to NATO officers. You have four battalions, three attacking and one in reserve; the battalion on the left has broken through easily, the one in the middle can break through with a little more effort, the one on the right is stopped. Which one do you reinforce with your reserve battalion? He claimed that no NATO officer ever gave the correct answer. Which was, forget the middle and right battalions, reinforce success; the fourth battalion goes to help the lefthand one and, furthermore, you take away the artillery support from the other two and give it to the battalion on the left. Soviet war-fighting doctrine divided their forces into echelons, or waves. In the case above, not only would the fourth battalion go to support the lefthand battalion but the followup regiments would be sent there too. Breakthroughs are reinforced and exploited with stunning speed and force. General von Mellenthin speaks of this in his book Panzer Battles when he says that any Soviet river crossing must be attacked immediately with whatever the defender has; any delay brings more and more Soviet soldiers swimming, wading or floating across. They reinforce success no matter what. The third point was the tremendous amount of high explosives that Soviet artillery could drop on a position. In this respect, the BM-21 Grad, about which I have written before, was a particular standout, but they had plenty of guns as well.
An especially important point, given a common US and NATO assumption, is that the Soviets did not assume that they would always have total air superiority. The biggest hole, in my opinion, of US and NATO war-fighting doctrine is this assumption. US tactics often seem to be little more than the instruction to wait for the air to get the ground forces out of trouble (maybe that’s why US-trained forces do so poorly against determined foes). Indeed, when did the Americans ever have to fight without total air superiority other than, perhaps, their very first experience in World War II? The Western Allies in Italy, at D-day and Normandy and the subsequent fighting could operate confident that almost every aircraft in the sky was theirs. This confident arrogance has, if anything, grown stronger since then with short wars in which the aircraft all come home. The Soviets never had this luxury – they always knew they would have to fight for air superiority and would have to operate in conditions where they didn’t have it. And, General Chuikov at Stalingrad “hugging the enemy”, they devised tactics that minimized the effectiveness of enemy aircraft. The Russians forces have not forgotten that lesson today and that is probably why their air defense is so good.
NATO commanders will be in for a shattering shock when their aircraft start falling in quantity and the casualties swiftly mount into the thousands and thousands. After all, we are told that the Kiev forces lost two thirds of their military equipment against fighters with a fraction of Russia’s assets, but with the same fighting style.
But, getting back to the scenarios of the Cold War. Defending NATO forces would be hit by an unimaginably savage artillery attack, with, through the dust, a huge force of attackers pushing on. The NATO units that repelled their attackers would find a momentary peace on their part of the battlefield while the ones pushed back would immediately be attacked by fresh forces three times the size of the first ones and even heavier bombardments. The situation would become desperate very quickly.
No wonder they always won and no wonder the NATO officer playing Red, following the simple instructions of push ahead resolutely, reinforce success, use all you artillery all the time, would win the day.
I don’t wish to be thought to be saying that the Soviets would have
“got to the the English Channel in 48 hours” as the naysayers were fond of warning. In fact, the Soviets had a significant Achilles Heel. In the rear of all this would have been an unimaginably large traffic jam. Follow-up echelons running their engines while commanders tried to figure out where they should be sent, thousands of trucks carrying fuel and ammunition waiting to cross bridges, giant artillery parks, concentrations of engineering equipment never quite in the right place at the right time. And more arriving every moment. A ground-attack pilot’s dream. The NATO Air-Land Battle doctrine being developed would have gone some distance to even things up again. But it would have been a tremendously destructive war, even forgetting the nuclear weapons (which would also be somewhere in the traffic jam).
As for the Soviets on the defense, (something we didn’t game because NATO, in those days, was a defensive alliance) the Battle of Kursk is probably the model still taught today: hold the attack with layer after layer of defenses, then, at the right moment, the overwhelming attack at the weak spot. The classic attack model is probably Autumn Storm.
All of this rugged and battle proven doctrine and methodology is somewhere in the Russian Army today. We didn't see it in the first Chechen War – only overconfidence and incompetence. Some of it in the Second Chechen War. More of it in the Ossetia War. They’re getting it back. And they are exercising it all the time.
Light-hearted people in NATO or elsewhere should never forget that it’s a war-fighting doctrine that does not require absolute air superiority to succeed and knows that there are no cheap victories. It’s also a very, very successful one with many victories to its credit. (Yes, they lost in Afghanistan but the West didn’t do any better.)
I seriously doubt that NATO has anything to compare: quick air campaigns against third-rate enemies yes. This sort of thing, not so much.
Even if, somehow, the nukes are kept in the box.
(His second rule, by the way, was: “Do not go fighting with your land armies in China.” As Washington’s policy drives Moscow and Beijing closer together.... But that is another subject).