On strategic depth and the need to take a blow

As militaries have developed since the end of the Second World War, they have generally displayed a tendency to shrink in size and increase in value, resembling less the forces of the levee en masse championed by Napoleon than the elite forces of the pre-Napoleonic European aristocracy; dazzling equipped and perfectly drilled, but capable of only fighting one or two battles per campaign.

The genie that the French revolution unleashed was that of enormous forces that could not only take a punch, but withstand a fusillade of attacks and keep fighting; it was this ability of state armies to persist in the field that was to lead to the carnage of the Great War. The resilience of the opposing armies was yet to be fully appreciated, leading to attritional warfare until tactics could mature.

The manoeuvre tactics that broke the trench deadlock and were to mature in the Second World War demonstrated that the great powers had learned how to truly maximise the advantages of their forces, and enabled warfighting to an extent never before seen. Central to the successes of the campaigns in this war was the ability of armies and nations to recover from setbacks; the retreat from Dunkirk, the see-sawing of North Africa, and the initial rout of the Red Army were all turned into victory through the resilience of the combatants.

As armed forces have contracted – a process that has accelerated alarmingly since the fall of the Soviet Union – their ability to sustain losses has likewise atrophied. The Continental European armies of today may field equipment far in advance of anything their commanders of a century ago could imagine, but their capacity for sustained combat is crippled by a lack of personnel; the Belgian army of 1914 (whose surprising resistance to the German invasion so galvanised the Entente, given its comparatively small size) numbered something in the region of 220,000 men, today the entire Belgian military consists of around 25,000 personnel.

This piece is not intended to embody Stalin’s famous quip of quantity having a quality all of its own, sheer volume in military terms is not an end in itself and this reality was evidenced by the far more numerous forces of Germany in 1914 being so drastically blooded by the Belgians. However, success in war is most often bought with blood; Belgium was indeed badly beaten by the German ability to continue in spite of such losses, and the Germans in turn were defeated by the means of the Entente to outlast them in both attritional warfare and the large manoeuvre battles of 1918.

Commanders in every war have known the value of staying power; appreciating the advantages of the nation in arms Napoleon famously announced to the Austrian Klemens von Metternich: “You cannot stop me, I can spend 30,000 men a month”, knowing that his opponent could not hope to face so resilient a force. Such callousness doubtless appears distasteful to a modern reader used to low intensity conflicts such as the Gulf Wars, in which the loss of one Western soldier is presented as a national tragedy, but in wars of national survival the ability to face crushing losses and continue is a priceless capability.

The cashing in of the peace dividend at the end of the Cold War saw many European nations slash military budgets to an eye watering degree, dropping many front-line and reserve units and relegating many capabilities to mere rump units or entirely scrapping them. Further rounds of cuts have seen more progressive downsizing, covered by a mantra of improved training making up in skill what is lacked in mass, but such reasoning defies logic.

Try as they might, no military force can be in two places at once, and both machines and men must rest, recuperate, and repair. Even in an ideal campaign where losses were virtually negligible, forces must be rotated to keep them fresh, but this cannot be achieved without adequate personnel. The general rule for shipping is that ‘two equals one’ – whereby two ships must be possessed to keep one on station (as the other is rested and repaired), the same may be said for soldiers: the average British soldier in the Great War only spent one week in four on the front-line in order to spare his nerves, modern deployments could hardly offer such considerations.

When losses begin to be factored in the picture becomes bleak; against a competent opponent even the most elite forces would begin to take casualties. The steady trickle of losses to IEDs and ambushes in the Middle East in recent years would become a flood in the face of a peer opponent, and there are few Western forces that could sustain a campaign beyond a few weeks; this is symptomatic of decades spent failing to invest in munition stockpiles, vehicular reserves, and a pool of skilled manpower with which to replace combat losses.

It is unfortunate that many once mighty institutions have been reduced to mere glass cannon; defence spending across Europe has reached a crippling low, and even within the framework of NATO many European nations would struggle to deploy a brigade, let alone an army. The Cold War peace dividend has been cashed in, and many nations have found that all it has bought is a fragile defence infrastructure that could no longer deploy forces into asymmetric warfare, let alone face a peer opponent.

As tensions escalate in the face of sabre rattling from both Russia and North Korea the possibility of Western forces facing a major conflict becomes more real, making this issue more pressing than it has been since the fall of the USSR. Whilst the nuclear deterrents in NATO are championed as being a flawless shield against any aggression, the actions of states such as Iran and North Korea have easily demonstrated that the last resort cannot also be the first response; conventional forces must also present a viable threat in order to support policy.

Aside from the need for a large front-line force, complete with reserves, a military must also be supported by a robust logistical backing. The logistics chain must have the same resilience and capacity to absorb losses as the front-line; support forces such as tankers present a potent target to a skilled opponent, and overreliance on a few prized units would make them a major Achilles Heel for any force – advanced warships and fighters are only as versatile as the large and cumbersome craft which keep them moving. Over-centralisation of logistics and materiel are likewise a false economy; there are certainly efficiency savings to be made by avoiding duplication, but placing every strategic egg into one basket could well court disaster; whether by design or accident, a military campaign could be quashed at its outset if the entire munition stockpile were to be destroyed.

In peacetime it is easy to forget the confusion and unexpected disasters that can ensue in war, but such thinking should not be allowed to permeate military planning; several decades of peace have allowed many Western militaries to turn their focus to low-intensity conflicts, and structure themselves accordingly. Such planning has, however, justified the formulation of military forces so small and tokenistic as to no longer even present a speed bump to a more organised foe. Without the depth to suffer losses and setbacks, many of these forces could be swiftly brushed aside or rendered entirely combat ineffective by a single surprise blow. With the mounting tensions in the world many Western governments would be well advised to bite the financial bullet and begin a major re-investment in their military manpower.

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