It is only with an operational reserve that strategic choices can be made

Sunday, May 14th, 2023

In “continental warfare”, Edward Luttwak reminds us, each side strives to retain and, if possible, increase its “ operational reserve” — the sum total of trained and equipped combat units that are not in combat:

It is only with an operational reserve that strategic choices can be made: whether to keep forces ready to counter an expected enemy offensive, or to launch an offensive to drive back the enemy, or, better still, to penetrate the enemy front, roll out and encircle enemy forces. It was by a succession of such offensive “envelopments” that the Red Army drove back the Germans from Stalingrad all the way to Berlin. The Allies did the same on a much smaller scale after the 1944 Normandy landings.

Of course, until an operational reserve is built up and offensives can be launched, frontal forces are absolutely necessary, whether to resist an advancing enemy or to keep attacking the enemy, so that it cannot withdraw its frontal forces to build up its own operational reserve. But frontal forces can only fight by attrition, First World War-style, to kill and wound enemy troops in front of them. And an entire war fought by attrition alone must last for years, killing and maiming troops on both sides until one side or the other gives up because of sheer exhaustion.

That is what happened on November 11, 1918, when Germany surrendered, even though not one Allied soldier had entered German territory, which remained almost undamaged in spite of the British and French air raids that hit a few buildings here and there. It was because Germany was neither devastated nor occupied after its surrender that it could go to war again just 20 years later, with catastrophic consequences. In other words, attrition is not only costly in lives, but it is also inconclusive, for it does not exhaust the will to fight.

Why is this relevant? Ever since the failure of the Russian air assault at the Antonov airfield on the first night of its invasion, which was supposed to open the way for the conquest of Kyiv and the country’s surrender, Ukraine has been fighting a war of attrition. At the cost of mounting casualties, Ukrainian frontal warfare has been successful enough to induce the Russians to withdraw from Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, to prevent the seemingly inevitable Russian conquest of Odesa, the country’s premier port, and to limit Russian advances in the most contested Donetsk and Luhansk regions, lately by holding Bakhmut in a house-by-house, street-by-street fight, in spite of relentless attacks by Russia’s Wagner mercenaries.


  1. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Mr. Luttwak needs to get out more often. That assessment of Russia’s intervention in the long Ukrainian civil war/genocide is the conventional wisdom in the DC Swamp, but there are better interpretations.

    Remember that most of the Ukrainians are Slavs — people whom Russia would clearly rather not harm. The initial thrust towards Kiev was intended to be a demonstration which would lead the Zelensky regime to the negotiating table. And it almost worked! Then US/UK/NATO intervened and twisted Zelensky’s arm to make him walk away from the negotiations in Turkey and instead commit to fight to the last Ukrainian.

    From a purely military perspective, the probability that WWI would also have ended in stalemate & negotiations was high. But then the US intervened, providing fresh forces to the exhausted colonialists in England & France — leading to German surrender and the travesty of the Versailles Treaty which in turn made WWII inevitable.

    Some have interpreted Russia’s current approach in the Ukraine as being to allow the Zelensky regime to keep beating its face into the Russian fist. Certainly, if it does devolve into a war of attrition, then the side with the smaller population & resources will lose. That would be Zelensky.

  2. Phil B says:

    There is another, alternative explanation.

    Putin could, if he wished, finish the war in a few weeks IF HE WANTED TO. But does he want to and if not, why not?

    Looking at the kit he is using to fight, then the western news agencies are crowing that he’s scraping the bottom of the barrel and even a historian is doing so:

    But the reason is, Ukraine does not have any armour so an obsolete, 70 year old tank is more than adequate (similarly using obsolete BTR 8 wheeled APC’s rather than their latest kit).

    The overwhelming opinion of the politicians is that we should support Ukraine (not my circus, not my monkeys) but if Putin wants to defang NATO, all he needs to do is keep feeding obsolete 70 year old tanks into Ukraine while the latest high tech NATO kit is used to destroy them without him even bothering to use his latest tanks etc. If he wants to invade Western Europe and reincorporate the Eastern Bloc countries into Russia again, then NATO will have so little kit that the only option NATO will have is to use their nuclear weapons because they will have nothing left to oppose him. I know Britain is useless as a force to oppose any Russian invasion:

    From here ( this is what Russia has available :

    Model	In Service Reserves		
    T54			     35000	
    T55			     27500	
    T62		800		
    T72	2030	7000		
    T80	480	3000		
    T90	417	200		
    T14	130			
    Totals	3057	11000	     62500  Total of all tanks = 76557

    There were no figures for T54/T55 in service and reserves hence the bald figures for those models. Still an effective tank, though. The 76,557 is the total number of tanks he has available THAT WE KNOW ABOUT.

    Note that at approximately 8 to 10 year intervals, Russia produces a new model of tank and the Western Intelligence Services only find out about them when they parade them on May Day in Red Square. The T14 is their last generation tank and I am certain that there will be a T22 or similar that we know nothing about.

    As Mark Felton says, there are only about 230 Challenger tanks in existence and half of them are out of service, needing repair. But it is proposed that Britain sends all of its Challenger tanks to Ukraine and there are Ukrainians being trained to operate the Challenger in the UK right now. Before America gets too smug, they only have just over 2500 Abrams tanks to oppose them too. We can ignore Germany as they have allowed the Bundeswher to be run down so that they do not have enough rifles to issue to their infantry.

    I bet that the same can be said for aircraft and the weaponry needed for them too.

    I know that thanks to America supplying Ukraine with Javelin anti tank missiles, stinger shoulder launched anti aircraft missiles etc. that they now have such low stocks that it will take the manufacturers a reported 13 years to replenish the javelin, 5 years to replenish the stingers back to pre-Ukraine levels of stocks. Plus they have supplied over 1 million rounds of 155mm ammunition. Guess what both the javelin and stinger rely on to function? Computer chips which are supplied nowadays by China and while you are in a guessing mood, guess who is nowadays bosom buddy pals with China? Ask yourselves if it is likely that China will supply their enemies with this technology.

    Putin called up 300,000 reservists. Yay! We are winning (no we are not, Ukraine is losing about 7 soldiers for every Russian) and he must be (again) scraping the bottom of the barrel … but he has 25 million reservists to call upon. So, no big deal and the resrvists are getting real life refresher training. If he did call up all 25 million reservists, he could finish the war within a week of committing them to the battle.

    Why would Putin want to end the war when he is emptying NATO armouries and getting NATO to use its latest high tech kit up with little chance of replenishing it when he has vastly more kit to play with? Let the west send all its equipment to Ukraine (only about 1/3 reaches the front line – the rest is sold on the black market) and I am 10000000% convinced that the Russians have enough samples of the latest high tech supplied kit – either sourced from Ukraine or from the Taliban – that the research laboratories and his military know to the exact thousands of an inch what NATO has/is capable of and more importantly how to counter it.

    So let the war grind on – it distracts the population in the west and they can virtue signal all they like while Putin plans for the invasion of Western Europe and regain the Baltic states, Poland and however much he wants of the rest. NATO will have nothing to oppose him. Throwing rocks at a tank is not conducive to a long and comfortable retirement, in my opinion at least.

  3. Jim says:

    You may safely disregard any Anglo-American article concerning the dispute in the Ukraine of Russia not beginning, “This war is a U.S. war, and its goal is the destruction of Russia.”

    Edward Luttwak, it goes without saying, despite his impeccable credentials from the London School of Economics and Johns Hopkins University, is neither Anglo nor American. :^)

  4. Phil B. says:

    Oops! The comments screwed up the table.

    The figures for the T54/55 should be aligned with the 62,500 (the totals for those two types) on the bottom line and the other figures should read (1st Figure) = In Service, (2nd Figure) = In Reserve so 3,057 tanks in service, 11,000 in reserve with an additional 62,500 T54/55′s as a secondary reserve.

  5. Jim says:

    How useful are tanks when we’re no more than five years away from inexpensive and terrifying robot kamikaze bomb dogs?

  6. Gavin Longmuir says:

    “How useful are tanks …”

    But, but. but — latest Western tanks will make proper provision for pregnant gunners and transgendered tank commanders. Their pink armor will put the fear of death into those backwards Russians!

  7. Phil B. says:

    Gavin Longmuir May 14, 2023 at 9:31 pm:

    “And don’t forget, those tanks will go into battle fully supported by the 127th Intersectional Dildo Brigade (78 genders and still counting). The sight of that lot advancing will surely cause the Russians to surrender to the inevitable.”

    Look on the bright side, though. The Russian women will be freed from the worry of being raped by their conquerors …

  8. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    Russia has a huge stock of old 105/115mm ammunition sitting in storage and no contemporary platforms to shoot it with, so all the old T-55s also sitting in storage are being surplussed to artillery units to serve as mobile fire support.

    A simple concept but one which is impenetrable to the purposefully disingenuous.

  9. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    Putin expected that if he showed how Serious he was about These Serious Matters, such as maintaining Russian sovereignty against the Nuland/Soros/Blinken/Ron Klain crew’s ancestral hatred of Russia, that ‘the adults in the room’ would come to the table and put a stop to the constant attempts at subversion and instigation and ‘low intensity’ killings and massacres in the border regions.

    This of course was a grave miscalculation. Because there are no ‘adults in the room’ in the GAE anymore, they are all dead or half dead in retirement like Kissinger now; because it was also those same men who worked to the utmost to create a world where there could be no competent men who would take their place. Their ultimate achievement, to undermine their own ‘legacy’, by their own natures.

  10. Jim says:

    Pseudo-Chrysostom: “This of course was a grave miscalculation. Because there are no ‘adults in the room’ in the GAE anymore, they are all dead or half dead in retirement like Kissinger now; because it was also those same men who worked to the utmost to create a world where there could be no competent men who would take their place. Their ultimate achievement, to undermine their own ‘legacy’, by their own natures.”

    What you say is very appealing indeed, and I want to believe it, but it cannot be denied that they successfully rammed a masked man into the White House. How do you explain that?

    The prior tenant fled in a panic. What was he running from?

  11. Jim says:

    Gavin: “But, but. but — latest Western tanks will make proper provision for pregnant gunners and transgendered tank commanders. Their pink armor will put the fear of death into those backwards Russians!”

    Imagine, if you will, a fully autonomous, perhaps roving, perhaps ambushing, AT mine with legs.

  12. Bob Sykes says:

    The important thing about this war is the continual tit-for-tat escalation. Unless the Western governments wake up, we will get a nuclear war in both Europe and North America.

    A secondary, but important long-term thing, is the revolt of the Global South against the West. No country in the Global South supports US/EU sanctions, and in fact several American allies don’t, Turkey, Hungary, Japan, and South Korea, for example. Rather many countries are openly aligning with Russia-China, and joining BRICS, SCO, EAEU, BRI/OBOR, et al.

  13. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    “How do you explain that?”

    The same thing that makes pozholes invincible against internal enemies is also what makes them powerless against external enemies; the poz itself.

    Functional demographics are schelling points that the invidious can use to organize dysfunctional demographics around in opposition too; coordination facilitated by mutual spite, hatreds, and insecurities.

    The ability of any men to organize over anything in general can potentially mean organizing against a defective underlord class in particular; therefore, defective underlords destroy all ways, means, and traditions of social capital that are not converged by themselves, leaving an atomized mass of singletons powerless to do anything to stop them.

    Which as a consequence also means powerless to do anything in general.

    It is a system that has lived and died within the span of a single lifetime; then men who instantiated it would cynically make unprincipled exceptions in order to keep the wheels on the bus rolling; but none of their replacements get the joke; they cannot get the joke, because getting the joke would devalidate the very basis of their rationalizing justifications in the first place.

    “The prior tenant fled in a panic. What was he running from?”

    The fear of taking steps that would demonstrate in reality the fact that the world he grew up in is over, has been over for decades, and arguably never really existed in the first place even. It is fear of taking steps that acknowledge what the world you are living in now is what it already is. It is the fear of taking those fateful steps outside the lines of Normality – even though what is Normal has become astoundingly Abnormal at an ever astoundingly accelerating rate. It is fear of victory, and acting out the familiar role of ‘gee shucks we’ll get em next time’, regardless of how flagrantly egregious your counterparts are themselves flaunting ‘propriety’, regardless of even if it means death.

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