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.

Russia is short of soldiers for Ukraine; military incapacity seems evident

See Reuters.

Conscripts are being deployed, contrary to Russian law. Quoting, “Vitaly says officers tried to force his son – serving mandatory military service – to change his status to a contract soldier, which would legally allow him to serve abroad. Conscripts in Russia are exempt from foreign service.

Hospitals in Rostov, Moscow, and St. Petersburg have filled to capacity.

Estimates of Russian deaths range from a Ukrainian high of 2000 to a low of 15, by unspecified human rights workers (Reuters). A Congressional Research Service report, “American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics”, provides figures for American conflicts of possible comparative value. An average ratio over recent wars with some similarity of character is roughly  3.5 non mortal wounds per conflict death. With the assumption that every Russian soldier observed to be evacuated from the battlefield is optimistically counted by the Ukrainians as a mortality, an estimate of 600 Russian deaths results. If the Ukrainians observe removal of corpses with equal efficiency and without distinction, the estimate becomes about 450 deaths.

This is an example of open-source analysis that anyone can do with only slight digging. It contradicts the popular notion that Russia has a competent, though small, professional volunteer army, capable of fielding even a small Ukraine incursion with the sophistication of recent U.S. battle doctrine. With the glimpse of medical logistics, it offers the picture of a sclerotically weak Russia. Perhaps this is why Putin keeps up the nuke talk.

But it is hardly a scoop.  An active, international, cooperative framework of open source diggers, with some kind of clearing hub, could have provided the raw material for analysis some time ago.

Start digging and posting.



ISIS & Calls for U.S. leadership & Growing the Ideal Lawn

There have been calls for the U.S. to exercise “leadership”, originating on partisan political lines.  A bias towards passivity , described in part by the phrase “leading from behind”, went badly wrong in Syria, seeding the ground for ISIS. A misdirection of priority for  the political integrity of Iraq further compounded the problem.

It would be a shame if  the idea of leading from behind, which, according to the New Yorker, originated with Nelson Mandela, were a casualty of these recent events. Foreign policy tends to be described by single buzzwords, and here we have a whole phrase of three words, a welcome addition to the sparse palette of buzz-choices.

In Making Plans; Getting Ready; Iraq Mosque Massacre, the argument is made that the problem of ISIS defies the conventional notion of a plan, which tends to have an algorithmic expectation for attainment of the goal.

So ingrained is this in the human psyche that we habitually call our politicians liars when they put forth plans that call for military pacification of millions of people followed by reconstruction of the local civilization (or lack) and erection of a democratic polity — and the plan fails to come off as expected.

If, thinking the better of the above,  politicians propose a plan without the algorithmic element, meaning that no promise of a specific, endpoint-goal is made, the politicians are called indecisive.

Military plans once had a rigidity caused by the difficulties of communication and awareness (the fog of war), and the process of “mobilization.” Driven by the rigid scheduling of railways, this reached a peak with World War I. Each country had an intricate plan to move  military assets to the border in minimum time. Once started, the plan could not be interrupted or modified, because trains run on tracks, and the rest of the transportation was by horses or foot. Perhaps diplomats unconsciously copied this pattern in the rigid framework of interlocking alliances that made the assassination of an obscure archduke a compulsion to war.

In certain fields, humans have been forced, by compelling need, to abandon the legacy of a mental framework. In the Fifth Solvay Conference, in 1927, the physicists received the first intimation that the concepts of truth, as examined by philosophy, are widely invalid in the real world. In physics, compelling need has caused the concept of truth to evolve, diversify, and, in some cases, become non sequitur. And although Ludwig Wittgenstein provides a kind of a gap-filler for anxious liberal arts students, physics continues to outpace. At best, we can claim Wittgenstein is relevant to us, and we are limited.

With those eminently respectable examples in front of us, consider the evolution of warfare, which has been info-centric for a long time. The colorful costumes of Napoleonic and earlier were required to know where the troops were. Orders were originally shouted, then written,  then sent by telegraph key, then typed, then teletyped, then sent by encrypted burst radio; now by micro-cellular radio with heads-up display. This is reflected in the evolution of U.S. battle doctrines. The first evolved doctrine, the product of Vietnam’s junior officers, was AirLand Battle, superseded by Full Spectrum Operations” (  American Army Doctrine for the Post-Cold War). And it keeps going. While political debate tends to have a cyclic, repetitive character, the U.S. Army learns from their mistakes. Experiencing the death of soldiers under one’s command seems to provide collective inspiration, which is why, some have said, war brings out the best in men, though making the kind of history that should have been avoided.

The thinking implied by the article, “Post 9/11 Stability Operations; How U.S. Army Doctrine is Shaping National Security Operations”, could help avoid the painful mistakes of past counter-insurgencies. But part of the avoidance is not getting in the situation in the first place. And a risk of not getting involved is the kind of global malignancy not seen in past Cold-War situations. There is no doctrinal replacement for fluid intellect in calling the shots.

DoD is at the service of public policy, not the originator. DoD doctrines are shaped by the need to connect the dots, in detail, all the way to training the soldier. The need to be absolutely nuts-and-bolts practical and implementable results in great detail at the bottom, and less at the top. There is no DoD manual on when to engage. That’s left to the politicians. The cited document provides methods, but the judgment to apply is left to Wise Men, who are often not that wise.

The nature of partisan politics tends to promote one-word solutions. Phrases of three words are better, though, as recently seen, three might not be enough. Homeowners in the suburbs who are trying to grow nice lawns are acquainted with reading little articles on the side of grass seed bags. You start with red fescue, just to get something down, mulch, aerate, weed, mow, and fertilize, and seed with Kentucky Bluegrass to replace the coarse fescue. Then, after some years, you’re supposed to have a nice lawn. Although I hate yard work, and I have never actually seen this happen, millions of homeowners seem to obtain life  fulfillment in their quests.

That was about 50 words. You don’t exercise leadership to grow a lawn, and you don’t follow it. Sometimes you let it sit, and sometimes you mow and weed like crazy, according to the weather, not some grand plan. Single words and simple phrases don’t suffice. Perhaps we should grow a vocabulary.

ISIS Beheadings

In ISIS Executions & Emotional Reactions, I remarked that it is important not to be captured by emotion. It is natural to be more affected when the victim is culturally one of our own. It is not necessary to offer the opinion that all lives are of equal value. Maybe they are; maybe they aren’t; that is your private affair. But let us not be distracted from the game in which the opponent is ISIS. There is data to be extracted.

Some have suggested that, in the personal address of threat to President Obama, the perpetrators believe that this may deter a U.S. policy of confrontation with ISIS. This is one possible interpretation. Another  interpretation, exclusive of the first, is that the intended audience is internal, to spur other ISIS combatants to competitive acts of savagery. To an audience  of sympathizers, it could be a recruitment pitch.

A third possibility is that the executions stem from nothing complicated;  they are merely physical venting of extreme hostility, or taunts, as appear in the Scandinavian  “blood sagas.”

Which is more correct? The inexperienced analyst may fall into the trap of projecting a made-up mental image, a kind of false empathy, into the problem. Perhaps, having just seen an emotionally charged movie, a complete work of fiction, you have had an animated discussion on the motives of a character. Whatever you think, it is a projection, because the character never existed, not even in the mind of the script writer, who, from personal experience, goes for overall-impression-and-damn-the-details.

There are perhaps four intelligence agencies with the depth of resources for an answer that is more than a guess. One test of relevance of a strategy to counter ISIS is that the answer matters.