A Modern-Day Frederick the Great? The End of Short, Sharp Wars

How would the high-tech U.S. army fare in a warfare towards China or Russia? The ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War could present some solutions. It could name into query some deeply held U.S. army axioms. Two of these are notably necessary. First, is the perception that future wars shall be brief, decisive affairs. Second, the complexities of trendy warfare demand skilled forces in being. The second level is a corollary of the first: If wars are brief, then solely the forces accessible at, or shortly after, their inception have utility.

As we will see, this has grow to be a self-fulfilling prophecy that, if confirmed false, has probably disastrous penalties for the United States. Specifically, if future wars with friends are protracted and contain vital attrition, can nations with comparatively small, all-volunteer armies and no prepared and sturdy personnel alternative methods prevail?



Although it’s too early to inform what the warfare in Ukraine heralds, the West could also be witnessing the finish of brief wars between states by skilled armies. A related transition final occurred in consequence of the French Revolution. This was an actual revolution: Power preparations had been endlessly modified in France, most clearly by the regicide of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. The guillotine was the ultimate political arbiter. Killing the Aristocracy was clearly a nasty precedent for European monarchies they usually mobilized to revive the French monarchy and eradicate the revolution lest it unfold. To meet this risk, the French instituted the levée en masse that mobilized the totality of the French nation.

The Frederick the Great Model

The Frederician system of warfare relied on extremely educated skilled armies made up principally of paid volunteers that had been augmented by conscription relying on the practices of the nation. These had been the days of soldiering for the king’s shilling. The prices of armies coupled with the undeniable fact that they had been financed by the king meant that they had been small. In 1772, Frederick’s peacetime military was the third largest in Europe at 190,000, behind these of Austria (297,000) and Russia (224,000).

Losses in battles, given the techniques and weapons of the day, had been excessive and may very well be equal on each side. At the April 1741 Battle of Mollwitz, Frederick’s 21,600 troopers confronted 16,000 Austrians. Despite their victory, the Prussians suffered 4,850 casualties to the Austrians’ 4,550. Frederick’s directions to his officers present why fight in his period was such a lethal affair:

battalions should assault when they’re inside twenty paces, or higher nonetheless, inside ten paces (at the commander’s discretion), and provides the enemy a robust volley in the face. Immediately thereafter they need to plunge the bayonet into the enemy’s ribs, at the similar time shouting at him to throw away his weapon and give up.

In Frederick’s day, the answer to sustaining costly, onerous to exchange armies was to constrain the calls for of warfare. As Gregory Fremont-Barnes writes, the wars of the anciens régimes had been deliberately restricted, a “quest for territorial spoil or economic advantage without radically upsetting the existing balance of power between great empires.” Given the restricted means of the varied monarchies, this was unavoidable. Even so, armies had been always scouring Europe for brand spanking new recruits — overseas mercenaries at one level made up over one-third of the Prussian military. Like right now’s modulated recruiting bonuses, the supply-and-demand dynamics of the market in Frederick’s day decided how a lot it took to rent troopers.

A Real Revolution in Military and Political Affairs

The French Revolution modified all the things. Within a yr after the August 1793 National Convention issuance of the levée en masse, the French military swelled to an unprecedented 1,500,000 residents underneath arms. The Republic was the mannequin of a nation of arms with a citizen-based and self-sustaining army, supported by a mobilized inhabitants and industrial base.

Napoleon wielded this instrument ferociously, rampaging throughout Europe till different states adopted his strategies, if not the empowerment of their citizenry, to outlive his onslaught. Ironically, responding to France ultimately ended the absolute monarchies kings had been endeavoring to protect and adjusted politics in Europe, in addition to army and mobilization strategies, endlessly. Importantly, the levée en masse meant casualties may very well be changed yearly as a brand new class of younger males got here of age. This was the that means of the chorus in La Mareillaise recognized by each French citizen: “If they fall, our young heroes, will be produced anew from the ground.”

Conscription enabled Napoleon to regenerate his military regardless of horrendous casualties. The well-known Russia marketing campaign is the starkest instance. In June 1812, though correct numbers are nonetheless elusive, some 600,000 males of the Grand Armée marched into Russia. Roughly 120,000 made their manner out in December. Nevertheless, the levée en masse responded. By 1815 France had a reconstituted military of 300,000 and Napoleon took 73,000 troopers into the fateful Battle of Waterloo.

The levée en masse turned a common mannequin throughout European nations. They needed to undertake the system or be woefully outmanned and unable to exchange their appreciable losses in a well timed and predictable method. These strategies of warfare, organizations, and means of mobilization continued to develop after the Napoleonic wars. Mass armies manned with conscripts and armed by sturdy industrial bases had been the new regular. On the eve of the Great War, armies had been of a dimension Frederick and even Napoleon would have had problem imagining. In 1914, France had 4,000,000 males underneath arms; Germany 3,800,000; and Russia 5,971,000. These armies, whose monumental losses may very well be changed with annual lessons of new conscripts, would feed the near-insatiable appetites of two protracted world wars.

When the State Is Not in Jeopardy

Until the Vietnam War conscription was considered as needed in the United States — given the threats residents that had been being drafted to discourage or struggle. That warfare didn’t pose an existential risk, and sending Americans’ sons off to be killed or maimed in an more and more unpopular warfare misplaced the help of the U.S. folks. The warfare and the draft additionally ignited public unrest and protest turned a political legal responsibility till it led to 1973.

Relatively small (by Cold War requirements) volunteer armies now represent the norm in the United States. Following the finish of the Cold War, most Western states have additionally ended or restricted their conscription practices. This contains China and Russia, who’re additionally transitioning to skilled forces, though each preserve lively conscription methods. China has not needed to depend on conscription, filling its ranks with volunteers. Russia nonetheless registers its residents that come of draft age twice a yr, however is shifting (inconsistently) towards a contract-based lively pressure to extend professionalism. Draftees, after a yr of service, enter the reserves to offer a mobilization capability if wanted.

Could the U.S. army keep in the struggle with related losses? The first logical place to search for personnel replacements in the occasion of a nationwide emergency can be the Selective Service System. Since the finish of the draft in 1973, the U.S. selective service infrastructure has atrophied. First, there is no such thing as a demand from the Department of Defense for a draft. A 2018 Government Accountability Office report famous, “There are no operational plans that envision mobilization at a level that would require a draft.” Those supporting the all-volunteer pressure consider that “it is far more experienced, motivated, disciplined, and committed than the draft army during Vietnam. It is also considered the most effective fighting force the world has ever seen.” Thus, a return to the draft would cut back army effectiveness.

Furthermore, in its present state, the Selective Service System principally manages the registration of eligible males, as a result of, regardless of occasional efforts to incorporate girls, they’re at the moment exempt. Indeed, laws is often put ahead in Congress to utterly abolish selective service, together with even registration by eligible males. More importantly, even when the system works as supposed, it can’t start conscription till Congress and the president authorize a draft. The first inductees wouldn’t report for processing till day 193 following the passage of the authorization regulation. It is price noting that as of the date of the drafting of this essay, the Russo-Ukrainian War at day 125 is brief of that 193-day mark by 68 days and changing casualties educated personnel is already a difficulty for each nations. Finally, troopers aren’t prepared for service till they’ve efficiently accomplished their preliminary coaching. In the case of an infantry soldier, One Station Unit Training is a 22-week program. In a greatest case, the first group of infantry troopers can be accessible in roughly one yr to ship out to fight.

There are additionally those that doubt whether or not the system might really accomplish even this modest effort. The providers are answerable for coaching inductees. During interviews for a 2018 Government Accountability Office evaluate of the Selective Service System, army officers expressed doubts about the availability of ample “training facilities, uniforms or funding to receive, train, equip, and integrate a large influx of inductees in the event of a draft.”

What is the Russo-Ukrainian War Showing?

A first-order statement popping out of the warfare in Ukraine is that trendy main fight operations could not essentially be brief. Even although this warfare has gone on lower than 5 months, it’s nonetheless brief by the requirements of any main large-scale battle between comparatively equally matched adversaries. This means that what must be essentially reexamined is the new American manner of warfare that has emerged since the finish of the Cold War: that overwhelming American high-tech capabilities, wielded by very good professionals, will lead to unstoppable offensives that may make wars “short, decisive, and accomplished with a minimum of casualties.”

What if that is flawed? Might future great-power wars appear to be Ukraine, or worse?

We are witnessing a grinding warfare of attrition going down totally on land over territory that each side covet. This solely strengthens the resolve of each combatants. Furthermore, the longer the warfare continues, it seems the deeper the dedication of each Russia and Ukraine to victory turns into. And the extra casualties every will undergo. Ukrainian Brig. Gen. Oleksiy Hromo instructed ABC News on June 17 that his army is shedding 1,000 casualties per day in the heavy preventing in Donbas, with 200 to 500 of these killed on common in motion day by day. Ukrainian sources (which will not be dependable) maintain that 35,000 Russians have been killed between the invasion and June 27, with many extra wounded.

Consequently, pressure preservation, reconstitution of items, and casualty alternative are turning out to be essential as each side struggle to endure and outlast the different. Accordingly, each Russia and Ukraine are combining depleted items and reaching again into their much less nicely educated reserves and can certainly look to its conscripts if the warfare continues.

Although it’s past the scope of this present essay, the ongoing excessive ranges of materiel wastage and the insatiable demand for munitions are additionally daunting challenges in a high-intensity protracted warfare. Conrad Crane’s article in these pages about the fragility of the U.S. army in attrition warfare is a crucial warning.

Furthermore, given the geostrategic realities in NATO, may U.S. forces, like the Ukrainian forces, must function on the defensive slightly than offensive? If so, none of the rising service and joint warfighting ideas emphasize defensive operations, nor are capabilities being developed to create a U.S. anti-access and area-denial functionality. This is clearly at odds with the principal U.S. mission in NATO: to discourage aggression. I’ve instructed that such an method would demand a technique of deterrence by means of denial and supporting ideas and capabilities, which conflicts with the elementary desire of the U.S. army for offensive operations.

As Crane notes, “When I walk the halls of the Pentagon today, I still hear discussions about the importance of winning the first battle decisively.” More importantly, he believes (as I’ve additionally written) that there’s a perception “that nothing like that [what is happening to the Russians] could ever happen to them.” This is a poisonous combine of hubris and denial that might lead to shedding not simply the first battle, however the warfare.

Thus far, as I’ve written in these pages, there appears to be a consensus that the central trigger of Russian failures is attributable to a scarcity of professionalism, ensuing from their untrained troops, lack of noncommissioned officers, and incompetent officers. If that is appropriate, then the U.S. army is in nice form. Move alongside, nothing to see right here.  These assessments aren’t solely untimely, however they’re additionally exceedingly harmful. There is a motive the U.S. army loses its first battles. It is just not as a result of it deliberate to take action. It is as a result of it was ready to struggle the warfare it needed, not the one which the enemy visited upon it.

That first battle could also be protracted and the just one of a warfare if the United States can’t preserve ample forces in the struggle. Politically, one can solely think about what the NATO response can be to shedding wherever close to what the Russians or Ukrainians have in simply in a couple of brief months of a warfare that also reveals no indicators of lessening its depth. It is a battle the militaries modeled after Frederick the Great couldn’t win till they woke as much as the necessity of changing into Napoleonic.

Consequently, we’ve to look critically at the classes from Ukraine as a catalyst to make the needed adjustments to allow us to prevail towards nations who’re getting ready to defeat us in the subsequent first battle, banking on our incapacity to proceed past that preliminary failure. The incapacity to maintain items in the struggle after vital attrition and to exchange massive numbers of casualties quickly are for my part the Achilles’ heels of the all-volunteer skilled U.S. army.

What to Do, Absent a Modern-Day Levée en Masse?

If actually the chance of protracted wars with vital personnel attrition are a chance recognized by the warfare in Ukraine, then the Department of Defense wants to grasp methods to meet the calls for of pressure preservation, unit reconstitution, and personnel alternative. Putting one’s hopes in the renewal of the draft is sort of certainly not, given present nationwide perceptions of the threats dealing with our nation, a practical near-term answer.

Although there are often calls to institute a system of nationwide service, the aim is to create higher residents and instill nationwide unity, not meet the potential calls for of changing mass casualties. Regardless, these efforts have all failed to realize traction. Even in the face of a rising risk, it’s an open query whether or not U.S. residents would help conscription. It is price recalling that the August 1941 invoice to increase selective service to start getting ready the U.S. Armed Forces for World War II handed by just one vote in the House of Representatives. This was after Germany had conquered most of continental Europe and was driving deep into the Soviet Union. One might fairly ask if Congress would authorize conscription earlier than NATO was really attacked.

Furthermore, elevated recruiting efforts aren’t possible the reply. The providers are already having problem assembly present objectives peacetime targets. The Army has met solely 40 % of its annual aim and not too long ago introduced that it could settle for recruits with out a high-school diploma or a General Educational Development certificates. This comes after already enjoyable its tattoo requirements.

How the American folks would reply to a brand new draft as a hedge towards great-power warfare is unknowable. In any case, it’s not a viable course of motion for the U.S. army to depend upon absent its establishment by authorization in regulation. Therefore, the Department of Defense must take steps to cut back its vulnerability to mass casualties. Below are a number of options that, though actually not complete, are a needed starting.

Systems of rotational readiness ought to be deserted and the particular person alternative system and tiered-unit readiness reinstituted. As Robert Rush convincingly argues in his pathbreaking examine Hell in Hurtgen Forest: The Ordeal and Triumph of an American Infantry Regiment, the particular person alternative mannequin enabled the U.S. Army to maintain items in motion. German forces didn’t have the same system and their items ultimately suffered attrition to the level of fight ineffectiveness. This will as soon as once more elevate the argument that unit alternative methods lead to extra cohesive items. That is appropriate, all issues being equal — however they aren’t. In a protracted warfare of attrition the place battalions are being decimated as they’re in Ukraine, the means to man, practice, and equip items will quickly fall behind the calls for of the warfare. Finally, replacements may be despatched the place they’re most wanted.

The most quantity of forces accessible always at a deployable stage of readiness ought to be the aim for U.S. forces. This had been the enduring mannequin in the Army with the exception of the choice to “modularize” into brigade fight groups to maintain the unending deployments to protracted counterinsurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Forces ought to be completely primarily based in key areas in Europe and the Pacific. Where there may be not ample infrastructure for households, army members ought to be assigned on brief excursions, as they had been in Korea for many years.

The focus of fight medical care ought to be on returning troopers as quickly as potential to the struggle. The U.S. army additionally wants to come back to grips with two realities. First, its capability is woefully insufficient for the numbers of casualties being sustained by both facet in Ukraine. I led a RAND effort that got here to the same conclusion about typical fight operations earlier than the Sept. 11, 2001, assaults. Second, in an setting with a major air protection risk, evacuation by air will possible be unimaginable. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, praising the heroism of Ukrainian helicopter pilots flying provides into Mariupol and evacuating wounded, confused, “We lost a lot of pilots.” As David Barno and Nora Bensahel not too long ago famous in these pages, “The war in Ukraine raises very serious questions about whether and how helicopters can be used effectively — or even survive — on the modern battlefield.” Consequently, there could also be no “Golden Hour,” the present U.S. commonplace for getting wounded to medical therapy in a warfare, until main advances are made in unmanned casualty evacuation.

Finally, the American folks must be ready for the realities of a warfare like that in Ukraine. We could assess we’re higher, however we should always settle for the actuality that the capability to inflict massive casualties at vary from Russian methods may be very a lot current.

None of these choices can be more likely to maintain adequate replacements for casualties in an extended warfare of attrition. Nevertheless, they’re measures the Department of Defense might start taking motion on in the close to time period that might present time for the resuscitation of the Selective Service System in response to a disaster. They may purchase the yr wanted to begin the movement of replacements into the warfare zone.

The long-term calls for of a protracted warfare with China or Russia will demand a modern-day American levée en masse with implications far past reinstituting conscription. As we’re seeing once more for the first time since World War II or Korea, the canines of warfare have insatiable appetites for folks, munitions, and materiel. We are additionally witnessing in actual time the sacrifices this has demanded from Ukraine and Russia. The ultimate query for us as a nation, as we ponder the realities of great-power competitors and battle, is that this: Are we up for the similar?



David Johnson is a retired Army colonel. He is a principal researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the creator of Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the U.S. Army, 1917-1945. From 2012 to 2014 he based and directed the Chief of Staff of the Army Strategic Studies Group for Gen. Raymond T. Odierno.

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