How So Many Were Wrong Assessing Russia's MilitaryBreaking News
tags: military history, Russia, Ukraine
Phillips Payson O’Brien is a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He is the author of How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II.
Let me tell you a story about a military that was supposedly one of the best in the world. This military had some of the best equipment: the heaviest and most modern tanks, next-generation aircraft, and advanced naval vessels. It had invested in modernization, and made what were considered some of Europe’s most sophisticated plans for conflict. Moreover, it had planned and trained specifically for a war it was about to fight, a war it seemed extremely well prepared for and that many, perhaps most, people believed it would win.
All of these descriptions could apply to the Russian army that invaded Ukraine last month. But I’m talking about the French army of the 1930s. That French force was considered one of the finest on the planet. Winston Churchill believed that it represented the world’s best hope for keeping Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany at bay. As he said famously in 1933, and repeated a number of times afterward, “Thank God for the French army.”
Of course, when this French army was actually tested in battle, it was found wanting. Germany conquered France in less than two months in 1940. All of the French military’s supposed excellence in equipment and doctrine was useless. A range of problems, including poor logistics, terrible communications, and low morale, beset an army in which soldiers and junior officers complained of inflexible, top-down leadership. In 1940, the French had the “best” tank, the Char B-1. With its 75-mm gun, the Char B-1 was better armed than any German tank, and it outclassed the Germans in terms of armor protection as well. But when the Battle of France started, the Char B-1 exhibited a number of major handicaps, such as a gas-guzzling engine and mechanical unreliability.
Having good equipment and good doctrine reveals little about how an army will perform in a war. To predict that, you must analyze not only its equipment and doctrine but also its ability to undertake complex operations, its unglamorous but crucial logistical needs and structure, and the commitment of its soldiers to fight and die in the specific war being waged. Most important, you have to think about how it will perform when a competent enemy fires back. As Mike Tyson so eloquently put it, “Everyone has a plan until they are punched in the mouth.”
What we are seeing today in Ukraine is the result of a purportedly great military being punched in the mouth. The resilience of Ukrainian resistance is embarrassing for a Western think-tank and military community that had confidently predicted that the Russians would conquer Ukraine in a matter of days. For years, Western “experts” prattled on about the Russian military’s expensive, high-tech “modernization.” The Russians, we were told, had the better tanks and aircraft, including cutting-edge SU-34 fighter bombers and T-90 tanks, with some of the finest technical specifications in the world. The Russians had also ostensibly reorganized their army into a more professional, mostly voluntary force. They had rethought their offensive doctrine and created battalion tactical groups, flexible, heavily armored formations that were meant to be key to overwhelming the Ukrainians. Basically, many people had relied on the glamour of war, a sort of war pornography, to predict the outcome of Russia’s invasion of its neighbor.
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