Pencils

I have been listening to comments from various pundits regarding the criminal Russian invasion force and two aspects have me intrigued: the Russians are doing poorly and many observers seem surprised. I have some experience with Russian (Soviet) forces from my days in Arms Control and none of this surprises me in the least. All the troops I observed were poorly trained and likewise poorly disciplined. I am not speaking of obeying orders, but rather paying attention to small things like maintenance, cleanliness, hygiene and so on. Armoured vehicles and especially tanks, require roughly two hours of maintenance for every hour of use. You can skip it but then you end up with 60-ton paperweights. In my book Praxis I worry that we have lost the concept of battlefield resupply (the pig in the python). We were good at it. The Russians never were and so have no deep skills to fall back on.

My good friend Greg Taylor wrote an excellent essay on Russian leadership (lack of) and the incredible Ukrainian efforts so I won’t repeat him. Here is the link: https://nationalpost.com/opinion/greg-taylor-how-the-ukrainians-have-managed-to-stand-firm-in-the-face-of-russian-aggression . Read it! As always, Greg has some deep insights.

Why pencils? Let me relate a story. In the first few months at the German Staff College, as we were all getting to know each other, I took a lot of ribbing from my French, German and American colleagues about how tiny my army was. (The Bundeswehr in 1986 had over 500 battalions in the army alone.) One day, one of our instructors, a colonel, overheard some of this friendly ribbing and related a story, which in his mind demonstrated a professionalism that his army had lost.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “I am very familiar with the Canadian Army and yes, they are very small but very professional. We Germans like to say that the Devil is in the details, but we are not good at these details. I have been to conferences where no one has a pen to take notes and we have to borrow paper from each other. I went to a meeting once in NATO that the Canadians were responsible for. There was a sergeant who put a notepad at each chair, with a pencil. He made coffee and everyone was offered a cup – for free – and every possible detail wast considered so that we attendees could focus on the agenda, which he had printed and placed before us. Yes, these are all small details but important. The Canadians are small but all of them are very professional and know how to do their business.” Nice to hear but I was embarrassed.

So what? So the Russians forgot to bring their ‘pencils’. They have vehicles running out of fuel. Not all commanders have maps. There has been no combined arms coordination. Orders have been unclear. The list goes on.

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