The 21st Century Red Army That Never Was

By Colin Salt

British Sovietologist Charles J. Dick passed away last year from Covid complications. He was known primarily for writing about the Soviet Military and one of his works deserves to be looked at for describing the type of army that never was-but which, in a different world, could have been. In the mid-1990s, he authored an opposing forces for exercises manual called the "Generic Enemy: Mobile Forces", a 700+ page magnum opus describing what would have been the ultimate Soviet-patterned army in detail.

First, it's worth describing in brief the path the actual Russian armed forces took. This is incomplete and oversimplified, but here goes. It attempted to make a standing reaction force similar to the "mobile forces" in the manual, but such efforts were soon swamped by the Chechen Wars and economic collapse. From there until 2008 and the war with Georgia, it mostly just clunked along with the previous Soviet system. Then during the four-year reign of reformist defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov, the past mass-mobilization system was dynamited completely and replaced with an army built around smaller brigades. Serdyukov was forced out and replaced by incumbent (as of this writing) Sergei Shoigu, whose efforts seemed to be reducing reforms to box-checking-ie, increasing the number and portion of professional volunteer contract soldiers without actually seeing if their training was up to par. The result was a force that could "succeed" as long as handpicked and small elements were sent, but which failed its stress test in the recent invasion of Ukraine.

Anyway, the GENFORCE (thinly veiled "Eastern" opponent based on the CIS/former USSR) described managed to create a tiered system designed specifically to avoid this. To quote from the manual itself:

The Basic Forces perform the less demanding wartime missions. In defence, they absorb, disrupt and slow down or halt the enemy attack, shaping the battlefield and winning time for counter-moves. In the offensive, they pin and wear down the enemy and provide protection for the flanks of major offensive efforts and for quiet sectors. (Generic Enemy: Mobile Forces, Chapter 1 A-1)

The Mobile Forces perform the strategically and operationally decisive missions, supported by the Basic Forces. In the defensive, they conduct the major counterattacks and offensives. In the offensive, they conduct deep operations with decisive goals. (ibid)

The conscript-dominated Basic Forces were either the same or slightly smaller versions of Cold War motor rifle and tank divisions, with a few more bells and whistles. The professionalized Mobile Forces adopted the same "brigade/corps" terminology of WWII Soviet mechanized formations and included more diverse organizations, with brigades of large mixed battalions and "corps" that were essentially large divisions by foreign standards.

Thus the mass mobilization force (Basic) remained for great contingencies, but there was a large high-quality standing reaction force (Mobile). Particularly in the high-level fire support units that served both formation types, GENFORCE also was lavishly equipped with precision weapons. But the simple presence of high-tech weaponry was not as important as the commanders and planners knowing what units were mechanically capable of doing what. The certainty that was present in GENFORCE (and in the Cold War Soviet Army, for that matter) is a far cry from trying to seize Kyiv with the worst-equipped Eastern Military District units and shuffling personnel to the point where infantry fighting vehicles were crewed by meteorologists because they weren't conscripts.

In an alternate timeline, something like the Basic/Mobile Forces could have been implemented. The enemies of the USSR or its successor state(s) would have been much worse off for it. Besides additional wargame-friendly Fuldapocalypses like a Mobile Corps facing an American Force XXI division, the more realistic possibilities include intervention in (former?) client states. Here the historical tale of Afghanistan can illuminate. That was fought with a combination of local "basic forces" and central reserve "mobile ones". The 40th Army, a low-tier formation that was unlikely to be dragged out for a continental war, fought alongside high-end airborne forces.

To simulate a comparable contingency, take the central airborne, special and Mobile Forces units, see which basic/legacy ones are closest to the area of operations, how big a force is necessary, and combine them.


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Colin Salt reviews other genres at his blog: Fuldapocalypse Fiction and has written The Smithtown Unit and its sequel for Sea Lion Press