Is the Defense Now Dominant?

As of this writing (March 19), the Russian invasion of Ukraine is stuck in the mud.  That is bad news for Russia, because time favors Ukraine.  As Western military aid pours in and Ukraine mobilizes all its resources, the correlation of forces shifts in Ukraine’s favor.  With the typical Russian logistical collapse, it is hard to see how it can regain the initiative.  This is a problem with Blitzkrieg-type offenses: if they fail, the next move is not obvious.

Russia’s failure to date raises a broader question: is the defense now dominant? If it is, that would come as no surprise to Clausewitz: he argued that the defense is inherently stronger than the offense.  Were not that the case, we would routinely see the weaker side in a conflict take the offensive.

What we’ve seen so far in Ukraine makes it tempting to think the defense is now generally stronger.  The ability of Ukrainian forces armed with anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to stop Russia’s armored offensive appears to suggest that is the case.  Broadly, the packaging of firepower in smaller containers has historically helped the defenders.  In World War I, where the defense was dominant, developments such as land mines, barbed wire, and machine guns enabled individual soldiers or small groups to lay down firepower or create fortifications that previously would have required much larger units.  In 1914, a German infantry regiment was armed almost exclusively with rifles.  By 1918, it had many machine guns, trench mortars, and hand grenades, plus a few artillery pieces (Sturmartillerie).  This pushing down of firepower to lower levels made the 1918 regiment far more powerful than its 1914 counterpart.

A hypothetical situation allows us to see the same phenomenon: what if at Stalingrad Germany and its allies had Panzerfausts in large numbers?  Would the Soviet armored forces that created the encirclement still have been able to break through the Romanian, Hungarian, and Italian units holding the flanks?

But there is another side to this coin.  Before we jump to the conclusion that the defense is now dominant, we need to factor out the elements that are unique to the current situation in Ukraine.  First, Russia committed the common mistake of underestimating its opponent.  That in turn led to Russia attacking with second and third-class units that mirrored Russian units throughout history: conscripts with low morale, poor training, and, again, logistics that quickly collapsed.  In the 1970s, I visited Professor John Erickson, who wrote the definitive history of the Soviet Army in World War II, at his university office in Scotland.  One of the things he said to me was, “Do you want to understand the Russian army today?  Ask yourself what it was like under Czar Nicholas I.”

My information is that Russia has four first-class divisions, manned by well trained, long service volunteers and given Russia’s best equipment.  It held these in reserve until it’s offensive failed.  Now it has committed two of them, but, again, once an armored offensive has failed, it is challenging to get it moving, especially with weak logistics.  All those failed Russian units still have to be fed, fueled, and given ammunition, plus the new units.  In addition, March means the Rasputitsa, the dissolution, where the roads all turn into bottomless mud holes.  Russian logistics are heavily rail-based, but the Ukrainians still hold cities near the Russian-Ukrainian border through which the rail lines pass.  As a German military historian, I have to say this is deja vu all over again, in all the same places, but with the boot now on the other foot.

Yet another factor particular to the situation, but certainly not historically unique, is that the Russians’ operational plan demanded more of the tactical units than they could deliver.  This was to some extent true of Germany’s Schlieffen Plan in 1914, although she was actually winning on the Marne until the fatal order to withdraw was given (over Kaiser Whilhelm’s objections).  Max Hoffman wrote in his memoirs of the Austrian chief of staff, Conrad, that his plans were brilliant but his army could not execute them.  But is a plan good if the army it is written for can’t do it?  This was a dilemma for the Soviet Army throughout the Cold War, and it seems like it still is.

These factors particular to the situation make me hesitant to declare that the defense has once again established its dominance over the offense.  During and after the 1973 war in the Middle East, the vulnerability of Israeli tanks to Egyptian Sagger anti-tank missiles, supplied by the USSR, led many experts to declare the days of the Blitzkrieg were over.  But Sharon’s classic operational maneuver, crossing the Suez Canal and taking Egyptians from the rear, showed it still had a great deal of life in it, despite some Egyptian victories at the tactical level.

A higher level trumps a lower.  At the tactical level, the Ukrainian defense has defeated the initial Russian operational plan.  But that plan was defective, in that the units ordered to execute it could not.  As to whether the defense can now prevail over a good operational plan for an army that can execute it, I think the jury is still out.