On Human Waves And Mobilization Waves
And what Vladimir Putin Wants
The bulge in the “control lines” around Soledar is smaller than the range of any substantial artillery weapon and enfiladed by fire from three directions. To attack outwards from Soledar in any direction requires going uphill.
No hiding places are left in the town. Russians huddle in buildings shattered by months of artillery fire from their own side. Drone operators observe them billeting in the remaining structures, watch to see where they gather most, and aim precision fire on the ruins holding the largest groups.
To maximize group survival, Russians ought to be dispersing into the smallest groups possible, but this is not what soldiers do. To maximize individual chances of survival, Russians ought to spread out singly, or in pairs, to become as uneconomical a target set as possible. But this is not what soldiers do, and not what Russian soldiers do.
They need “the feel of the cloth” rubbing against their comrades’ shoulders beside them, per the Russian tradition. Density creates confidence, and everyone is desperate for confidence in the open under fire, so humans thrown into such environments are prone to die in clumps.
Survival has its own traumas. The most visceral moments of drone video show wounded being left behind, some crawling towards illusory safety on their own. The most dramatic moments of video from the Ukrainian side show casualties being evacuated. Same war, two different ways of war.
Western partners have weathered the winter and begun to deliver new weapons into the fight. It remains to be seen which ones will actually show up on the battlefield.
Wagner PMC “musicians” have reportedly consumed more than half their available combat power in Bakhmut and Soledar through “human wave” assaults. Descriptions of Wagner “tactics” recalled the First World War in most coverage during the last ten days because that is exactly what they did.
Rather than outsmart the Ukrainians, Mr. Elizarov took a lesson from Zapp Brannigan and “sent wave after wave of my own men at them, until they reached their limit and” withdrew.
At least one Ukrainian unit, the 61st Mechanized, reportedly fell back from its positions in some confusion exactly when elements began running low on ammunition at hand, with Russians on every flank, the very thing a human wave attack aims to inspire. Nevertheless, other units were still reportedly fighting inside the city the next day, and by then the Soledar fire sack was a free-fire zone, anyway.
Historiography of the war a century ago resonates with the scenes of carnage from Ukrainian drones.
In The Somme, a recent work by Robyn Prior and Trevor Wilson which examines each sector of the battlefront as a discrete story, we learn that every trick Wagner has reportedly tried at Soledar was also tried back then, in 1916, with similar results.
The experience of III Corps on the afternoon of 1 July was typical of most sectors. Like Russians today, they could not count on coordinated artillery support and made an effort to improvise solutions.
Even the stratagem employed by the left brigade (70) of 8 Division, of leaving their trenches before zero in order to close on the German line while it was still being subjected to bombardment, proved futile. Most of the leading troops were shot down by German machine-gunners and riflemen who had emerged from their dug-outs as soon as the heavy artillery lifted. One of the foremost battalions of 70 Brigade had been reduced to just 30 per cent of its strength before zero hour and the other probably suffered in equal measure. However, the survivors of these battalions were presented with a brief moment of opportunity. In this sector most of the wire had been cut and many defenders stunned by the bombardment. Further, the enemy were momentarily distracted to the north by the 32 Division assault on the Leipzig salient and to the south by 25 Brigade’s (8 Division) advance on Ovillers. This distraction briefly enabled the survivors of 70 Brigade to penetrate the German front system. But as they then progressed on to the German intermediate system they were shot down in such numbers that the attack lost all coherence and the survivors were forced to retreat. A few, however, managed to hang on in the German front line
Meanwhile the follow-up formations had been trying to reinforce their assault troops. This proved impossible. Just after 9 a.m. the German machine- gunners in the Leipzig salient, having beaten off their assailants from 32 Division, turned their attention to the area of 70 Brigade. One of the unlucky British units described the result:
It was impossible to stand at all in No Mans Land and the Battalion crawled forward on hands and knees to the help of the Battalions in front.
A second attempt by these units failed; a third made by just 50 men met the same fate. In all, out of a strength of 27 officers and 710 men one unit suffered 529 casualties without reaching their comrades holding out in the German front line. The other reinforcing battalion lost 50 per cent casualties and had ceased to exist as a fighting formation even before it had reached its own front line.
From 10 a.m. in the 70 Brigade area all communication across no man’s land had ceased because of enemy shelling and machine-gun fire. All messages instructing the artillery to bring back the barrage were never delivered. Eventually, even the British who had penetrated the German front line were driven out or killed. By the end of the day not a square inch of German territory was held by the brigade. Of the 2,270 men who had moved to the attack, less than 600 could be mustered the next day.
The story of the remaining two brigades of 8 Division, which contained some of the last units of the British Regular Army, can be quickly told. Almost complete disaster overtook them. On only two sections of the front were lodgements made in the German positions, and these were temporary. In every case the battalions were hit by a hail of machine-gun and rifle fire as they attempted to cross no man’s land. Even the expedient of forming into small groups and rushing the German line availed them little.
Tanks were invented to break this deadlock. As Prior and Wilson explain, however, the first tanks were too unreliable, too few, and their tactics too undeveloped, to achieve the full potential of armored attack. Coordination with other arms was an afterthought. When the combination of arms — infantry, tanks, and artillery — did shake out as success, for example at the legendary Quadrilateral, a German defensive system that had given the British bloody repulses so far, it was by sheer accident, not planning.
Worse, German infantry already had weapons to hurt the tanker. Armor-piercing sniper rounds could easily penetrate the steel plate and injure or kill the crew. Machine gun fire could spall off hot metal bits from the steel inside the tank. Light field guns were turned on them, inventing the anti-tank gun.
Long before man-portable, self-guided tank-killing missiles ever appeared on a battlefield, indeed from its very arrival at the Somme, critics have dismissed tracked armor as a passing novelty. The war in Ukraine has seen it happen all over again.
Indeed, everything invented since 1915 to resolve the basic problem of attacking an entrenched enemy with machine guns and artillery — APCs, helicopters, attack jets etc — has received its obituary since last February.
US Bradley M2/3 IFVs and British Challenger tanks are both reported to be on their way to Ukraine; the first time one of either gets knocked out in combat, we will see this silly commentary cycle all over again even as Ukrainians beg for more, please.
Performance of the HIMARS system has undergone a similar reassessment. For the most part, Russian forces have adapted, however imperfectly, to its presence on the battlefield, as expected. That the battlefield remains shaped by the presence of HIMARS, and does not snap back to previous form, is somewhat less analyzed because it is so obvious. Perhaps everyone is too distracted by the argument about whether to send ATACMS, or why the Biden administration does not do so.
But nevermind. Now comes word that the US may begin sending ground launched small diameter bomb (GLSDB) systems to Ukraine, doubling their rocket artillery range and, not coincidentally, turning almost all the remainder of defendable occupied Ukraine into a HIMARS zone.
Reports that Vladimir Putin may conscript another wave of troops should be understood in this context: that in the months to come, anywhere Russians bunch up, almost anywhere inside of occupied Ukraine, they will die in bunches. Dispersal tactics used near the front line today will be necessary far to the rear by spring.
To stop, or even slow down, the constant storm of steel on Soledar, Russians will need to bring ground-based jamming systems into the town. Because it is surrounded on three sides, any jammers sited inside Soledar can be triangulated quickly and destroyed by HIMARS or other artillery, restoring the drones to service until another jammer can be positioned. One Soledar can potentially eat up a whole EW company before the next one is finished learning their job.
Attrition to Russian electromagnetic warfare (EW) units has been as deep as any other branch, forcing Moscow to turn to Belarus for help building equipment and training troops to use it.
Whatever decision Putin arrives at now on mobilization, he is a year late and a few rubles short to catch up with the quality of the force that Ukraine will field during 2023. Overall equipment quality has declined across the board, along with the attrition of veteran units. Troop training quality has not recovered from the previous “victories” of Russian arms in Donbas last summer, when training cadres were sacrificed to boost deployable forces.
A slow-walk into economic mobilization magnifies these problems. (Not to reductio ad Hitlerum, but this was a key failure of Nazi war planning, that Germany’s leader waited far too long to get serious about putting his society on a war footing.) “The Kremlin is belatedly taking personnel mobilization, reorganization, and industrial actions it realistically should have before launching its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and is taking steps to conduct the ‘special military operation’ as a major conventional war," according to the Institute for the Study of War. Thus the EW equipment built in Belarus.
Sheer quantity of force — meaning pure manpower — is the default Russian alternative when the enemy has better weapons and training. Mr. Elizarov has modeled the necessary command approach, a return to tradition. This will be a year of Russian conscripts attacking in “human tides” to make up for the vacuous leadership that sent them in the first place, along with their T-62s and fake body armor and obsolete radios and cheap tires and slapdash EW equipment and insufficient drones and and and and.
Russian war dead — not casualties, to include wounded, but outright dead — already exceed 100,000, according to most estimates. Putin can reach a quarter-million dead Russians by the end of 2023 if he wants, and he shows every sign of wanting it. Something tells me Ukrainians will be happy to give him what he wants.
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