Russian Casualties estimate; a technique note

In “Russia is short of soldiers…”, the estimate of 400-650 Russian deaths is provided. It may eventually join the pile of  published wrong guesses. But it is an example of how disparate bits of apparently unrelated information can come together to provide an intelligence estimate. Some of these bits are “general knowledge”, while others would be noted by the amateur military historian while reading the news.

The Vietnam war was caught between old military paradigms and those in the process of invention.  Unlike the wars that followed, there were situations in which American units were actually slaughtered. This created pressure from the top to show great damage to the enemy, with inflated “body counts”. Subsequent wars, even Afghanistan, have had been more favorably asymmetric. And as the value of the body count as raw material for the intelligence estimate became appreciated, the culture moved in the direction of precision and lack of bias.

The Ukrainian Army inherited  the old Soviet military doctrine. Particularly since the flat terrain of Ukraine is “good tank country”, whatever changes in doctrine have occurred are the results of small forces operating in vast territories and the occasional appearance of modern weapons. It seems likely that, in some cases, battlefield radar has been used, allowing the Ukrainian forces to locate Russian mobile columns and attack them with some success.

But although the Ukrainian forces have sometimes demonstrated good local awareness, they lack situational awareness on the scale of the entire “front.” This is has been shown by frequent encirclements of Ukrainian units. In World War II, similar gaps in situational awareness were exploited by talented generals on both sides to create “pockets”, sometimes entrapping hundreds of thousands of enemy troops.  Encirclements have not been a prominent feature of warfare since, because when one occurs, the echelons of an advanced army quickly acquire complete situational awareness, and concentrate forces to break the encirclement, or even use the situation against a less advanced enemy to provoke their forces to concentrate.

The observation that the Ukrainians have poor situational awareness bears on their casualty estimates. The inability to clearly see the hostile forces means that casualty estimates rely on subsequent inspection of the battlefield and rude estimates of retreating convoys and the capacity of the constituent vehicles, provided by discretely hiding spotters. As with Vietnam, there is a need to generate optimistic estimates, because optimism keeps them going.

Suppose, having lived on Mars since the beginning of the year, and knowing nothing of this conflict, you are presented with a white sheet of paper on which are printed, in bold letters:

  • Russian casualties: 15 – 2000

  • Ukrainian situational awareness: poor

  • Demand: Generate number now.

What would you do? If your inclination were to roll it up into a ball and try to hit the trash basket, you’d probably be right. Based upon the white sheet of paper, the knowledgeable estimate is, “somewhere between 15-2000. ” Those boundaries, serving as “almost facts”, are the factual fence of the problem.

But you’ve absorbed something from the news. Intuition, fueled by both conscious and unconscious impressions of their behavior,  is  used to posit that the Ukrainians have generated the maximum possible number, by summing nonlethal and lethal casualties.

This biases the estimate downwards from the neutral, no-knowledge number of 1007.5.  In counter-bias, quoting Reuters, “The battle, the soldiers said, killed more than 100 Russian soldiers serving in the 18th motorized rifle brigade of military unit 27777, which is based outside the Chechen capital of Grozny.

Now there is a choice. It is tempting to guess that 3 to 5 times this number have been successfully hidden by the Russians. But it would be just a guess, masquerading as insight. The efficiency of the media at ferreting is unknown.

Resorting to “American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics”, for a ratio of lethal to nonlethal, has both intuitive and factual elements. The factual part is that the document is available. The intuitive is to select the basis for the ratio, but the range of ratios that can be generated from the report is not large.

The intuition used here is formally  expressible as a few “dumb rules.” As an argument requirement, the “dumb rule” is a form of Occam’s Razor, a beneficial distinction from thought processes that are not sharable in any form. That vague kind of intuition should be avoided.