No Time For Sergeants: Why The Russians Fail
The world watched in terror as the supposedly mighty Russian military machine poured into its much smaller neighbor, Ukraine. Virtually every expert called this as a quick Russian victory, one that would be secured within days, perhaps even hours. A replay of less than ten years ago when Russian forces easily seized Crimea.
Now the world watches in awe as the Ukrainian David stoutly battles the Russian Goliath to a stalemate while inflicting heavy casualties on its invaders. The Russian military machine, incapable of defeating the much smaller Ukraine Army, seems competent only at attacking and killing civilians from long range with indiscriminate bombardment.
But why? There are likely many reasons, some already discussed by pundits extensively. Russian morale is poor, their logistics a disaster and the Ukrainians have craftily exploited their home field advantage and knowledge of the terrain. Ukraine has also fought with innovation, courage, grit and a love for their own independence inspired by a national leader turned from actor/comedian to the Winston Churchill of Eastern Europe.
However, I present an additional explanation, one that helps explain many of the above noted faults of the Russian military. At the heart of it is a Russian military culture with no time for sergeants.
It’s difficult to explain this to those who have not served, but in our military the non-commissioned officers, or NCOs (basically the sergeants), are in many ways the real leaders at the levels that matter most. Our military generally recognizes that, including most officers (only the poor and likely to be unsuccessful officers don’t) and we afford NCOs considerable respect. Our military emphasizes their training and professional education, and gives them the authority to act with independence.
At most levels NCOs are more experienced than the officer actually commanding the unit. A Platoon Sergeant is far more experienced that the Lieutenant Platoon Leader. The First Sergeant more experienced than the Captain Company Commander. This is true at least up through the brigade level.
Good NCOs, and our Army is full of them, are confident and professional and willing to take charge and act independently in the absence of officers to accomplish the mission. They will tell generally tell you, and they genuinely believe, and they may often be right, that if the officers would just get out of the way that they can get anything done.
I get the impression that this is not true in the Russian military. Rather, their NCO equivalents, lack confidence and are indecisive and unwilling to act independently when they can’t get orders from officers.
I suspect this is a large part of the Russian command & control problem. Russian C&C needs to be better because NCOs are not willing to act on their own initiative, and their C&C is not better. The result is dithering as everyone is waiting for the next order from above.
In our system operations are driven by Operations Orders (Op Orders). In my day these were five paragraph statements that started with “MISSION” followed by a brief statement of the mission. For example: MISSION: Move East from your current location and through superior firepower and maneuver, seize and hold hill 246 designated on map coordinates [coordinates provided]. Be prepared to exploit further offensive operations against retreating enemy forces.
The Op Order then goes on to identify friendly forces in the area capable of assisting the mission, enemy forces resisting the mission, and state coordinating instructions for units, and what deeper units (artillery and air support etc) might do to support the mission.
The point being that mission is shared with the unit’s NCOs, who know and understand what it is, and are willing and capable of acting independently to get that mission accomplished in the absence of being able to communicate with officers. For the American NCO just tell them what you want done, and they pride themselves on cleverly finding a way to do it.
That reduction in the need for command and control may be our strength, and the Russian Achilles Heal. The Russian NCO likely does not know the mission, and would not improvise to accomplish it if he did. Rather the Russian NCO would stay in place, and await orders on what to do.
In the Army, we had a saying, “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” So when the plan goes to Hell, from the bottom up (and not so much the top down) our military innovates and adapts to get the job done. In the Russian military, when the plan goes to Hell nobody knows what to do, and so they do nothing.
Perhaps it ultimately comes down to their entire economic/political/cultural system structure of communism where the emphasis is on centralized control, so everyone is looking up for answers. By contrast Americans are ingrained with the value of the individual and the power of the individual, via capitalism, to on our initiative succeed in accomplishing the “missions” in our life.
But what of Ukraine? I have read a variety of sources that after the 2014 humiliation where the Russians easily annexed Crimea new commanders in the Ukraine military worked hard to reform their military, starting with an emphasis on creating a professional and capable NCO Corps. That decision, and its effective implementation, may save the Ukraine nation. NATO helped in building the Ukraine NCO Corps, a contribution perhaps more valuable than any number of Javelin Missiles.