Discover more from The Tactical Notebook
Battalion Tactical Groups
The War in Ukraine (2022)
In the course of the century that passed between the battle of Waterloo (1815) and the start of the First World War (1914), many European countries adopted what might be called “the school of the nation” approach to military organization. Under this system, the peacetime army of a state consisted of a relatively small number of teachers - most of whom were career soldiers who ranked as officers or non-commissioned officers - and a large number of students - nearly all of whom were privates. Each year, a new class of students would enter this school and each year a fully trained class would graduate into the reserve. What was true for armies also applied to individual units. Each consisted of a cadre (from the French word for “frame”) and two or three classes of conscripts.
In the event of war, the “alumni” of each regiment would report for duty, often to the same barracks where they had trained. The youngest of these recalled reservists would reunite with their former instructors to form first-line units. (These were expected to do the bulk of the marching, maneuvering, and fighting in the first few months of the war.) The older reservists joined second line units, which would be given less demanding tasks, particularly at the start of a conflict. (The names of second-line units often included the word “reserve.”) The oldest alumni joined territorial defense organizations of various kinds, and thus expected to guard fortresses, lines of communication, and prisoner-of-war camps.
The great weakness of the “school of the nation” approach to military organization was the difficulty of providing forces for situations that, while requiring the deployment of forces, fell short of full-scale war. In the absence of recalled reservists, peacetime units were much smaller than their wartime counterparts. The men in their ranks, moreover, were only partially trained. This was particularly true of armies where conscripts spent one or two years in uniform, rather than three or four.
One approach to solving this problem calls for the forming of the professional personnel of a relatively large unit into a microcosm of that organization. Thus, a brigade composed of infantry, tank, and artillery battalions might become a battalion-sized formation made up of infantry companies, tank companies, and field artillery batteries.
In such a “battalion tactical group,” each leader would be overqualified for the billet that he held. The commanding general of the brigade would command the battalion. Battalion commanders would lead companies and battalions. Captains would serve as platoon commanders.
As long as each leader commanded three or four subordinates, this system could work reasonably well. However, when the ratio of leaders-to-led was higher, the arrangement would fall apart. Thus, when a rifle platoon led by a lieutenant, a platoon sergeant, and three squad leaders took leave of its twenty-five or so conscripts, the squad that resulted had but five members. As one of these would be required to drive the squad’s vehicle and another to man the vehicle’s machine gun, the result would be a dire shortage of “dismounts.”
This may well have been the situation faced by the “battalion tactical groups” taking part in the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the late winter of 2022. While fully capable of operational maneuver, they lacked the ability to engage in sustained combat that can only be provided by large numbers of well-trained foot soldiers. At the same time, with lots of empty space in the troop compartments of their armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles, they would have been able to carry much more in the way of fuel, ammunition, and food than would otherwise have been the case.