The Russian bear in Ukraine is suffering from a people problem, attempting to fight a costly, prolonged conflict with a pickup team of replacements while suffering from severe battlefield leadership attrition. These reconstituted forces’ poor performance reflects a failure to properly integrate and regenerate cohesive, effective combat forces in a timely manner. The result has been tactical failures and operational setbacks, with strategic implications for Russia’s military future. And it stands as an object lesson for the US Army in the importance of force reconstitution in large-scale combat operations.
Russia was unprepared for many aspects of this war; however, its lack of preparation for integrating extensive numbers of replacements into degraded units with severe leadership losses has had a growing cumulative battlefield effect. Russia has been unable to prove it can effectively integrate new forces into damaged formations or build cohesive teams from ad hoc groupings of scattered unit remnants while maintaining operational tempo and significant forces along the line of contact. In short, Russia’s military manpower bench has been unable to cope with the operational demands and costs of the scale of war it started in Ukraine.
While extensive casualties are not surprising given this scale of warfare, the numbers are stark—especially when viewed from the perspective of a military force, like the US Army, that has mostly contended with prolonged insurgency since the end of the twentieth century. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley has indicated that both sides have suffered one hundred thousand casualties or more since the war began eleven months ago. And this is from only the best information gathered, not from exhaustive, analytical work conducted in a safe, postwar environment with access to open archives and detailed accounting. The numbers may be higher, and the war is not even over yet.
While an examination of the problems with force (re)generation at the theater and national level is important—Russia’s bungled mass mobilization, conscription, and recruit training issues is a case in point—there are particular lessons to be learned about integrating replacements and reconstituting forces with the creation of ad hoc formations to continue the fight while suffering heavy casualties. The US Army should be actively learning lessons and adapting its preparation of units, leaders, and staffs. By doing so, and with proper focus on the science and art of reconstitution, the Army can best equip itself to avoid the pitfalls, setbacks, and failures created by Russia’s reconstitution problems.
Russia’s Reconstitution Problems
Russia’s difficulty with reconstitution and force regeneration—especially given the comparison between Ukraine’s total mobilization and Russia’s seemingly ad hoc mixture of professional forces and conscript mobilization—is instructive. While there are reports Russia embarked on its invasion with insufficient manpower to draw on, particularly in mechanized infantry, this only emphasizes a vulnerability of small, professional armies—which Russia has sought to build—in sustained contact. The Russian army began modernization efforts following the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, yet as it sought to become a professional contract force of volunteers, it has responded to battlefield struggles in Ukraine by turning to its past model of fielding a large conscript force. In some ways this mirrors the tension between Russia’s pursuit of a technologically sophisticated way of war and its longstanding bias for simple, rugged mass. The “New Look” reform effort has not produced the expected results in Ukraine at the scale Russia desired, in part because some reforms were not completed prior to the invasion, while others were only half measures.
In response to its extensive losses, Russia has continued breaking up and mixing of cohesive units into ad hoc battalion tactical groups, creating mixed combat formations. Operational demands have forced Russia to keep these ad hoc formations on the contact line in Ukraine. These reformed units built from the surviving remnants of previous combined teams have demonstrated inferior results compared to the capabilities of the initial forces that had a background of preconflict exercises. This is expected, both as a function of the quality of the replacements’ training and because of the cohesion that only comes from repetitive and habitual training together. The reduced and reconstituted units’ condition and performance contributed to the successful Ukrainian Kharkiv counteroffensive—the remaining, understrength Russian formations collapsed after Russia shifted its more cohesive and stronger units south to Kherson in response to Ukrainian military deception efforts.
While the integration of new, unfamiliar, and likely less trained replacements into bloodied units is challenging enough, there is also a leadership element of this problem. Much has been made of the Russian leadership style and the striking number of general officers that have been killed. The loss of these senior officers affects the operational and tactical performance of Russian units, but the heavy losses suffered among colonels and lieutenant colonels has an even more immediate and deleterious effect. As of late November, Ukrainian armed forces accounting listed among Russian officer deaths at least ten generals and 152 colonels and lieutenant colonels—in addition to more than a thousand officers at the rank of major or below. While the exact numbers and ranks may be exaggerated, the fact remains that Russia has taken extensive leadership losses across the ranks in a relatively short amount of time.
The losses among colonels and lieutenant colonels are especially impactful for several reasons. First, leaders at this level are integral in the effective integration, training, and cohesion of reconstituted and ad hoc formations. This was made clear in the performance drop among Russian reconstituted and reformed units during the Kharkiv counteroffensive. Second, officer casualties are more likely among leaders who adopt an aggressive and personally engaged style, typically the best, most capable, and most influential on the battlefield. Lastly, while the losses of generals in the twilight of their careers or junior officers who are comparatively quicker and easier to replace has a battlefield impact, the substantial numbers of deaths of lieutenant colonels and colonels will have a more significant long-term effect on the Russian military’s professional effectiveness. These are not only the commanders of battalion tactical groups, but the future senior leadership of the Russian army. It takes years of education and training and cumulative life experiences to form effective field-grade officers, an unavoidable, time-intensive aspect of creating senior leaders.
Reconstitution in US Army Practice
The Russian army is not a peer to the US Army, but that should not preclude an examination of the lessons from the ongoing war. First and foremost, the US military cannot avoid the fact that in sustained large-scale combat operations it will absorb significant casualties. As such, the Army should take steps to improve its reconstitution, regeneration, and ad hoc unit and personnel integration capabilities during field training exercises, culminating in combat training center rotations. While exercising the replacement process is already practiced by the rotational unit personnel staff, changes should be made to the scenario management to make reconstitution harder. Adapting scenarios to force units to practice creating and employing ad hoc formations up to battalions, composed of the remains of other units, would pay dividends in training leaders and staffs in preparation for expected large-scale losses. Both tactical field training exercises and higher-echelon simulations should intensify the manner in which they test reconstitution and integration.
A way to mirror the difficulties of integrating new replacements is to deliberately send “replacements” from one battalion to a completely different one, forcing leadership and staff at all levels to integrate and plan operations with unfamiliar personnel. The gaining unit would know nothing of these replacements and the replacements would know nothing of the gaining unit’s standard operating procedures or have existing relationships in the new unit, imitating some of the major issues associated with large-scale replacements in warfare with large casualty figures. To an extent this could even include mixing military occupational specialties (accounting for safety requirements and necessary qualifications) to further imitate the stress of receiving less trained and less proficient individuals. For example, some soldiers from the brigade support battalion or the brigade engineer battalion could replace combat arms soldiers, with combat arms soldiers moving to support jobs. An additional benefit to this is that it would also create a deeper appreciation of different occupational demands and increase opportunities for cross-training in austere environments while under pressure.
This would stringently test the replacement and integration systems for brigade combat teams and the command and control of these regenerated or ad hoc, combined units. Scenarios could also introduce a penalty for planners and leaders when they lose troops to the opposing forces: the formations must not only go without forces during the personnel replacement cycle, but even when replacements do arrive, they now have less prepared soldiers for the next missions and continued operations. This forces leaders to make decisions: Should they create ad hoc formations to keep well-trained forces together in the main effort? Should replacements be limited to supporting efforts? Or should replacements be sent to the unit in greatest need when they arrive? These same rules should also be applied to the opposing force, as well, as a system to reward the rotational unit for inflicting casualties on the opposing force, replicating real-world conditions in which the unit subsequently faces a more disorganized enemy struggling to regenerate and integrate unfamiliar and new soldiers.
At higher-echelon training events for division and higher headquarters like simulations, command post exercises, and the capstone Warfighter Exercise, this is equally important but requires different methods to test replacement and force regeneration systems. The challenge is to come up with a way to apply an algorithm-based reduction of combat power of reconstituted forces within the simulation. This should challenge leaders and planners to manage the fight tempo by considering the limitations of regenerated and reconstituted units’ performance. This takes the problem beyond the personnel staff and spreads it across the simulation by affecting personnel, logistics, operations, and plans. This is a people problem, but it needs to be transitioned from solely a headache for the personnel directorate to something that impacts the whole system.
Fighting with a Pickup Team Matters
Initial stumbles at the onset of hostilities are costly but should not become decisive. Adaptability, flexibility, and resiliency in systems is critical to winning. The ability to recover from unanticipated and early setbacks to reform and reengage quickly is critical. Armies in sustained, high-intensity conflict must be able to fight effectively with what amounts to a pickup team—to possess the adaptability and resiliency necessary to win in a complex and dynamic operational environment. While Russia stumbled in its initial invasion, its inability to properly reconstitute, regenerate, and integrate mass replacements and build cohesive warfighting teams has turned a stumble into a fall that it is struggling to pull itself up from as the conflict goes on. The US Army must not take the same risks in its next large-scale combat. It must prepare its battlefield leadership and staffs for the stresses and demands associated with forming ad hoc units. And it must be able to maintain operational momentum and rapidly integrate new personnel into bloodied formations. Anything less invites disaster.
Michael G. Anderson is an US Army infantry officer with four overseas deployments, a 2022 graduate of the School of Advanced Military Studies, and currently assigned to Forces Command G-35 Plans. He has published over a dozen articles, including in the Journal of Strategic Security, Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, and Military Review, and is the author of Mustering for War (Army University Press, 2020).
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Council of ministers of Crimea, via Wikimedia Commons