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Is Newer Always Better? The Fetish Harming Western Militaries

 

 



We all like nice things. Especially new, nice things. New things tend to have that “new” smell and/or touch. They “feel” better, and give us all a certain sense of accomplishment – after all, “new” tends to be expensive, in comparison to older things, and “buying new” gives us a feeling of accomplishment, because the new thing is a physical representation of our hard work paying off.

But – is “new” actually “better“?

In the realm of consumer products, the reality of new items hitting the shelves (literally or figuratively) is very much hit or miss. Many times – perhaps even most times – the new stuff offers new features, or is lighter, or does things more efficiently than what it is replacing. Conversely, many times, the new product – while looking very snazzy or streamlined on the outside – is actually flimsy, cheaply made and has a very good chance of failing if you look at it sideways, usually the day after its warranty expires (if it even came with a warranty). This can lead the frustrated consumer to try and return the product for a replacement or a refund (which sometimes, they are actually able to receive), and often going out and buying a similar product from a more reliable and trusted brand.

 

 

But in reality, buying a “new and improved” coffee maker on sale and having it fail on you after three months, while frustrating, really isn’t a monumental problem; annoying, certainly, but no one is dying over it…In the military realm, however, the consequences of untested tools – and worse, untested structural models – can be catastrophically disastrous.

Let’s look at two examples, one a matter of hardware, the other, a matter of organization.

 

Boom Sticks

First, with the rise of the AK-47, militaries around the world began to clamor for a rifle chambered in an “intermediate cartridge“, in short, something more powerful than a pistol-caliber submachine gun, but not as massive as a full-power cartridge. The path to the intermediate cartridge idea is one of those dark secrets of firearms history, that will make for a good, more in depth article down the line, but here, it will be sufficient to outline a brief overview.

Intermediate rounds are, on average, smaller and lighter than their larger cousins, which equals less use of materials (i.e., gunpowder and various metals); while the savings are tiny, per cartridge, when you are producing billions of rounds at a time, those tiny figures become very significant, very quickly. On the side that really matters to a land army – infantry combat – the “field experiment” of the last sixty or so years, initially seemed to validate the idea of the intermediate cartridge: the intermediate class of round seemed to be perfectly effective at its intended role. But looks, as usual, can be deceiving.

 

Comparison of Pistol, Rifle and Intermediate cartridge.
From left:
9 × 19 mm Parabellum (Pistol cartridge)
7.92 × 33 mm Kurz (Intermediate cartridge)
7.92 × 57 mm Mauser (Rifle cartridge)

 

While fine at ranges out to 300 meters or so (the intermediate’s intended range), when ranges moved out past that, the rifles rapidly became very ineffective, more so because – since the “maximum effective range” was accepted worldwide as 300 meters – the militaries of the world saw little reason to train the average recruit to shoot any further than that…and besides, the few times where the ranges opened up, military forces had General Purpose Machine Guns (GPMG’s), Heavy Machine Guns (HMG’s), mortars, artillery, sniper rifles and even air support to deal with anything “out there.”

And then…9/11 happened.

The resulting twenty-plus year long series of wars and interventions around the world began to show cracks in the armor of the intermediate cartridge idea. As infantry combat moved out of jungles and cities, and into vast deserts and mountain ranges, combat ranges opened up considerably, well outside the range (pdf link) of intermediate cartridge weapons. And this is where the US military hit a wall.

After going “all in” on the intermediate cartridge during the Vietnam War, the US military was stuck with an entire ensemble of weapons, equipment, training foundations and doctrines that revolved around the intermediate M-16. But now, they were finding themselves being engaged by guerrilla’s firing near century-old rifles, shooting at ranges well beyond 1200 (YouTube link) meters  (pdf link). In those instances, US troops generally only had a few GPMG’s and HMG’s to respond. The US military’s response was to develop a completely new (and, inevitably, very expensive) rifle and light machine gun combination, along with a completely new type of cartridge that is best described as “intermediate plus“, that had longer range and better “hitting power” than the 60+ year old 5.56x45mm rounds.

 

U.S. Soldiers with the firing party with the 69th Infantry Regiment, New York Army National Guard prepare to fire a rifle salute during the Pearl Harbor Day ceremony in New York Dec. 7, 2012. US Army photo.

 

For those who might be scratching their heads and wondering why the US military went this route, congratulations – many other people have been doing the same thing: Why not simply adopt an older cartridge, specifically the 7.62x51mm M80, that was already in the system (such as the M240-series), and any of a number of older-pattern rifles of proven design…after all, new manufacturing techniques and materials would surely make those older designs very competitive, weight-wise, right?

The answer for the US military was, simply put, politics: with a Congress facing a public tired after twenty years of inconclusive war, and massive budgetary issues, there was no way that the military could go to Congress and ask them to fund a step “backwards”. On the other hand, they could ask Congress to fund something “new and improved” – they just had to put the right “bells and whistles” on it…or, to be peckish, a nicer ribbon.

In contrast, stands India: Faced with a rifle that just wasn’t working, no matter what they did, India bit the bullet, admitted defeat, and inked deals to both purchase and manufacture the AK-203 rifle in 7.62x39mm (a total of 670,000 – 70,000 directly from Russia, with the remainder to be manufactured under license) in Uttar Pradesh, while also purchasing slightly modified SIG 716 G2 Patrol rifles in 7.62x51mm.

 

Indian Army soldier armed with a modified AK-type rifle. Indian Ministry of Defence photo.

 

The bog-standard 7.62x51mm M80 cartridge has been standard for most western GPMG’s since at least 1983 – it just works.

Whether switching to a “new and improved” weapons suite is a good idea for the US military or not, remains to be seen. Hopefully, it will work.

Hopefully. Troops’ lives depend on it.

 

Misusing An Organizational Idea

The current war between Russia and Ukraine brought into focus the Russian idea of the “Battalion Tactical Group” (Russian: Батальонная тактическая группа, batal’onnaya takticheskaya gruppa). The BTG is one of those oddities that is rather hard to define, primarily because it only works in a very narrow area of military operations, that being as a “cadre force.”

On paper, a BTG is a combined arms formation that is technically a “battalion” of mechanized infantry, with a number of smaller specialist units (i.e., engineers, medical, air defense, etc.) being assigned as needed, and kept in a high state of readiness. Conceptually, a BTG is similar to the Western “task force” at various levels…except in artillery, where the BTG – with fewer than 1,000 troops assigned – has more long-range firepower than a US Brigade Combat Team (BCT).

There are, however, problems.

The first, is a lack of infantry support. One of the mistakes many civilians make in studying modern warfare, is the idea that tanks can do everything on their own. They cannot. A tank crew is seriously restricted in seeing what is happening around them, specifically in that they cannot see enemy infantry armed with lightweight anti-tank missiles that are more than capable to turning a tank into burning scrap metal. This is not a feature unique to Russian tanks – it is a feature of all main battle tanks in the world, in general. The only viable solution to this problem, was training specialist infantry to escort and guard the tanks against enemy infantry.

Obviously, this requires a lot of infantry…Yet Russian BTG’s, on average, have about 250 infantry escorting them, somewhere between 1/3 and 1/4 of what they actually need. Why?

The BTG dates from the end of the Soviet era, when the Soviet Army was refining its plans for invading Western Europe, and were carefully studying how to deal with Western company, battalion and brigade task forces. BTGs were deployed as an experiment in Afghanistan, before the final collapse of the Soviet efforts in that country in 1989, and worked well enough in that level of fighting that they were kept on, until the Soviet Union dissolved. At that point, the rancid Soviet economy that Russia inherited simply could not support the expense of permanently established combat units that required careful tactical training to work effectively. Worse, the necessary reforms to make all of this happen required a long-serving, professional corps of non-commissioned officers (NCO’s, i.e., Corporals and Sergeants), which was something the Soviets had never really tried to build. This, coupled to the political upheavals of the day, and the general Russian attitude towards their military as a barely-necessary evil (unless the enemy is literally inside the gates…and sometimes, not even then) which made an “all-volunteer” force of the likes of the United States or Great Britain an impossibility, made mass formations and a rigid conscription system moot points. While the Russian army retained the idea of brigades and divisions, at their hearts, they were really just a collection of sketchily-trained, down-market BTG’s.

 

A farewell ceremony for the 331st Airborne Regiment of the 98th Airborne Division withdrawn from Chechnya. www.kremlin.ru

 

As a result, while the concept of the BTG was retained after the Soviet Union became Russia again, the training of the troops in those formations was very haphazard. As the Russian economy began to rebound in the late-1990’s, training and readiness began to improve, and combat experience in forming ad hoc BTG’s during the wars in Chechnya showed that the concept was a viable way of fighting minor forces and guerrillas. This culminated in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, where the BTG idea seemed to work very well against the Western-trained Georgian Army (yet another article for the future). All of this led to the 2008 Russian military reform, an all-out attempt to revamp the Russian military establishment into something like a 21st Century force.

When Russia began its “intervention” in Ukraine in 2014, the BTG finally seemed to find its niche. While it had glaring weaknesses against comparable Western formations, Russian BTG’s being sent into eastern Ukraine were able to augment themselves with swarms of thousands of local anti-Kiev insurgents who, while poorly armed and scarcely trained, were able to advise and guide Russian units through local terrain, and were also able to help screen the BTG’s against Ukrainian anti-tank teams, backed up by the more professional Russian infantry and artillery. And, when Russia intervened in Syria in 2015, the Russian commanders on the scene quickly duplicated this model with local Syrian auxiliaries. The concept worked there, as well.

It seemed that Russia had found the perfect balance: BTG’s were simultaneously long-service soldiers, not conscripts, and – not being manpower-intensive – thus would not unduly upset the Russian population when they were sent out. At the same time, they seemed to be able to get the job done, and were very cost-effective in comparison to the older-model, mass formations of past wars.

This led, perhaps inevitably, to “Victory Disease“.

 

“Scene of Gen. Custer’s last stand, looking in the direction of the ford and the Indian village.” Unknown author, ca. 1877. From the US National Archives.

 

Unless carefully controlled, Victory Disease can rapidly infect a population with the idea that their forces are nigh-invincible. If left alone to fester, this breeds an arrogance that the nation can take on any opponent, anywhere, anytime, without too much effort or thought.

Which brings us back to Ukraine, 2022.

Whatever the causes of the current war may be, this is not the article to discuss them. The Russian leadership clearly assumed that their forces would overrun Ukraine with relative ease, and would allow them to accomplish limited objectives that would not be too onerous on the Russian population. While this was mostly true in the southern sectors, it only appeared to be so, initially, in the northern theater. There, the BTG’s showed all of their glaring faults, as stalled convoys strung out along roads (an inevitable consequence in armored warfare – just ask the US Army and Marines about the advance on Baghdad in 2003) were suddenly cut to pieces by Ukrainian infantry and partisans operating behind the Russian advance. Without the mass of infantry that a more conventional organization would have had, the Russians were unable to defend those convoys as US forces had in 2003, as there was no way that the razor-thin film of infantry the Russians had access to could adequately protect the long columns of vehicles packed tightly into ready-made kill-zones. It was never that the Russians were “running out of infantry” – they simply never had the necessary numbers plugged into their organizational combat unit structures. The disastrous results of this oversight have now greatly lengthened the war, and have led – as of late-September, 2022 – to the Russian leadership calling for a “partial” national mobilization.

What impact this may have on the war, remains to be seen.

For the purposes of this article, Russia took a low-impact approach to military organization out of harsh necessity, and allowed it to become a dominant aspect of its military and – dangerously – its political psychology. When it then applied that approach to smaller wars, and saw that it worked, they made the assumption that it would work against larger opponents. With the inevitable failure of the model when it stepped outside its boundaries, Russia is now in the position of being forced to escalate the conflict to avoid defeat.

This is a lesson the United States Marine Corps should pay attention to, because its own reforms look an awful lot like the BTG-model.

 

 

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