The Russian Ministry of Defence issued a manual on the conduct of assault operations based on the experiences of the Russian Armed forces in Ukraine. The manual titled “Особенности ведения боевых действий в городе (населённомпункте) и лесозащитной полосе в составе штурмового отряда (роты, взвода) методические рекомендации” – which can be loosely translated as “features of conducting combat operations in a city (settlement) and a forest protection zone as part of an assault detachment (company, platoon) methodological recommendations”.[i] This document aims to outline how to assault defensive positions that appear frequently on Ukrainian battlefields, namely urban fortification as well as forest strips that cut through Ukrainian farmland and steppes. The aim of this report is to provide a cohesive overview of the assault manual and of the capability of Russian assault detachments, and their influence on the frontline.
Consideration from the Russian assault manual
The discovered Assault Manual seems to be a very comprehensive training and guidance material, meant to supplement, or potentially even build from the ground up the ability and knowledge of Russian commanding officers. This is potentially very useful due to the shortages of experienced officers, as well as numerous losses among the officer cadre, which cannot be as easily or quickly replaced. This manual can bridge this gap for the Russian armed forces, either providing guidance to freshly graduated officers or knowledge to the commanders promoted in the field.
Firstly, the entire introduction section of the manual serves both as an overview and a reminder of the abilities of the Ukrainian armed forces in defensive operation. It also encourages Russian commanders to comprehensively study the area of operations, meaning terrain, enemy forces, enemy weak- and strongpoints, as well as the capabilities of their own units. What is probably one the most important takeaways from this introductory part is that the Russian forces have a well developed understanding of Ukrainian defences, both in terms of utilised equipment as well as tactics.
The author of the text goes into detail about the organisation of Ukrainian defences and especially their strengths and how they are used against attacking Russian troops. The level of Russian intelligence on the topic seems very extensive and if applied correctly could prove very problematic to Ukrainian defenders. Some experts doubt the ability of this document to improve Russian assault tactics, stating that as per Russian doctrine such texts will be applied to the letter without any potential variations, making Russian assaults rigid and attack plans ignorant of the realities of the battlefield. However, the text is written in a guiding manner, aiming to equip its readers with knowledge and ability, rather than a strict set of rules to follow. This can be seen in the opening statements where the author claims that success of combat operations is based on a thorough understanding and study of the battlefield, where those combat operations will take place. The manual thus, aims to give Russian commanders guidance on how to conduct assault operations against typical Ukrainian defensive positions, subject however to battlefield circumstances. This could potentially result in greater flexibility and effectiveness of Russian assaults.
Secondly, the composition of the assault detachments provides great flexibility for the Russian forces, though potentially at the cost of specialisation. The assault detachments, as mentioned previously, are created on the basis of mechanised infantry battalions reinforced by additional assets from other formations. The standard Russian mechanised battalion consists of roughly 539 men on 44 BTR vehicles or 461 men on 37 BMP vehicles. The manual suggests the use of BMPs, though BTRs can also probably be used.
Each BMP battalion has roughly 303 men mounted on 33 BMPs as its frontline primary fighting force, which translates to 3 companies, each with 101 men and 11 BMPs each. In the assault detachments each company has 4 BMPs, supported by a single T-72 tank, with 2 – 3 assault platoons, each consisting of 12 – 15 men. Thus, roughly a single mechanised company can be transformed into roughly 3 smaller or 2 larger assault companies. Or this could allow Russian forces to mount assaults without compromising their battle lines to Ukrainian counter attacks. The point is that these formations can be created spontaneously without the need for vast amounts of resources or manpower, or extensive prior planning. This is similar to the idea behind Russian Battalion Tactical Groups, smaller formations meant to be readily available, quick to muster, and very flexible to the task at hand. The core of mechanised infantry (or airborne/air assault troops), readily available everywhere along the frontline, with involvement of locally available heavier assets, such as tanks, or artillery, which can be temporarily borrowed from other formations.
Third, the reason for the smaller number of heavy assets, tanks, and armoured infantry vehicles in particular, is the characteristics of the battlefield. The combat operations in forested and urban areas using heavy assets, tanks and infantry vehicles especially, oftentimes results in the loss of said assets. The characteristics of the battlefield are very unfavourable to the use of armoured vehicles. The forest strips are difficult to traverse for such vehicles, forcing them to operate by the woodland edges or in the open fields in between them. In both cases the vehicles are very susceptible to anti tank weapons, artillery, or pre-placed minefields. In urban areas vehicles have an easier time advancing, due to the existence of streets, but can be very susceptible to anti armour fires. The vehicles can be engaged by AT armed infantry from above, targeting the weakest points in the top armour. At the same time artillery strikes can target the vehicles easily as they cannot manoeuvre easily out of the line of fire due to the surrounding buildings. The loss of armoured combat equipment oftentimes leads to the loss of the trained crew as well.
The resources needed to replace both the highly advanced vehicle along with trained personnel is much higher in comparison to the loss of infantry. It is much cheaper, and easier for the Russian Federation to train and equip infantrymen than armour troops, even if the infantry is lost at a much higher rate. Furthermore, infantrymen can advance across the forest strips and engage enemy positions while in cover. Similarly, infantry is also much more mobile in urban areas, as it can traverse across buildings, and take cover in them. Foot personnel is also much more preferable due to the ability to clear buildings and occupy enemy positions. Thus, the assault manual allows Russian forces to reorganise themselves into detachments more suitable to the tasks at hand, while minimising losses of valuable equipment and personnel.
Fourth, the assault detachments allow Russian forces to engage in coordinated combined arms operation on small organisational levels. The assault detachments are based on reinforced battalions, but their structure allows even single companies to conduct combined arms manoeuvres. This allows Russian forces to plan and execute highly effective operations in a relatively short time. At the same time the manual provides guidelines and sample plans, that allows even lower lever, or inexperienced officers to carry out much more complex operations. While such commanders might be less effective in dynamic situations, the manual also provides a number of contingencies and emergency plans that can mitigate such difficulties.
The additional option to further bolster company sized formations by heavier assets and direct subordination of these assets to company commanders, also allows for a greater flexibility and effectiveness of the assault detachments. The direct subordination of heavy assets, such as artillery pieces or tanks, enhances the detachment’s ability to engage the enemy by creating a smoother chain of command. In this case, instead of requesting support from the battalion commander, which takes time and complex coordination, the company commander issues orders directly to artillery and armour units embedded into his detachment. Such a configuration allows company sized assault units to respond to a plethora of enemy threats, even capable of taking the fight to formations of technically larger size. This also grants commanders greater operational freedom, and capability of crafting dynamic and favourable engagements. This closely resembles the characteristics of the Battalion Tactical Group – an independent detachment of combined arms forces tasked with objectives and granted operational freedom.
One key difference that should be noted here is that the assault detachments are only semi-independent. They are not formed as a permanent self-sufficient force but are created dynamically from units readily available in the area in order to fulfil specific objectives. The assault detachments are created, disbanded, and reformed on a dynamic means to an end basis. This ensures that the unit can be continuously supplied and reinforced from the parent formation (i.e. a mechanised or an airborne/air assault battalion). This also allows the parent formations to conduct offensive operations on a smaller scale, with limited involvement from higher echelons. This in turn allows Russian forces to maintain initiative and continue offensive operations along the frontline. Such limited offensive operations find success due to their small size, attracting limited attention before the attack starts. These assaults also enjoy a limited response from Ukrainian forces, other than the present frontline forces, due to their small size and simultaneous similar sized engagements in other sections of the front. This forces Ukrainian defenders to divide their available resources and reserves among many different engagements, or even save reinforcements for the more major operations. Thus, Russian forces are able to pierce Ukrainian lines in many different places across the frontline and achieve small gains, which can later be developed into further, potentially major offensive operations. Bakhmut is a good example of this, where Russian forces used smaller tactical operations to threaten Ukrainian lines and continuously advance deeper into the city.
The Russian Assault Manual provides a great overview of the Russian approach to offensive operations in Ukraine. First of all, it suggests that the Russian officer corps is lacking, and requires further preparation to conduct successful offensive operations. It also shows that Russian forces are struggling with their losses and struggle to circumvent them by employing ad hoc formations, patched together to form a fighting force. On the other hand, it shows a degree of ingenuity, making Russian formations more flexible and adaptable. This also results in more organised combined arms operations, with clearly indicated objectives, manoeuvres, and actions. This might be an important step in Russian operations, due their previous struggles with coordinated action. If Russian forces continue to develop in such a manner and start applying similar philosophy to larger formations they could become a much more cohesive and effective fighting force with advanced battle tactics and access to vast amounts of men and resources to execute them.
To read the full report download the PDF version via the link below.
Author: Sebastian Czub, analyst Casimir Pulaski Foundation
[i] “Ministry of Defense of Russia issued manual on assault operations based on experience of war against Ukraine. DOCUMENT”, Censor Net, December 12, 2022,https://censor.net/en/news/3386414/ministry_of_defense_of_russia_issued_manual_on_assault_operations_based_on_experience_of_war_against.