By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor, Edge
Not since the end of World War II has one nation lost so many senior military leaders in such a short amount of time.
The Ukraine Ministry of Defense reports the number of Russian generals killed at 12. However, U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s (DIA) Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier said this week that the U.S. can only confirm 10.
Regardless, ABC News contributor and retired Col. Steve Ganyard said losing this many high-ranking officers in war is “quite extraordinary”.
The loss of so many Russian generals tells us two things:
First, it shows that, for Russia, this war is more than just a “special military operation.” For Putin, this conflict is important enough to sacrifice numerous officers on the alter of achieving his objectives.
But perhaps more insightful is what this tells us about Russian military structure.
In the United States military, Uncle Sam spends a great deal of time and money in the professional development of enlisted fighters. These are called Non-Commissioned Officers or NCOs.
Advancing to the NCO corps requires completion of some sort of basic leadership course. The more senior the NCO, the more professional development courses one must take to advance in rank.
In most career fields in the U.S. military, NCOs are given a significant amount of responsibility and decision-making authority. This, in turn, frees up mid-to-senior-level officers to focus on the “big picture” of strategic theater operations.
In short, the U.S. entrusts leadership to its NCOs
In Russia, their version of NCOs are primarily troops who may have performed exceptionally well in the past, but who do not have a well-defined leadership role or manage lower enlisted troops. Russian officers handle all of the decisions and tactics that an NCO would otherwise be tasked with.
This makes the Russian military “officer heavy” and requires Russian military officers to lead much farther forward than their western counterparts. As you can imagine, this makes Russian officers particularly vulnerable.
In addition, this also makes the Russian military rigid at the tactical level. In the absence of orders, Russians may take defensive positions and not advance to achieve objectives that may have been previously assigned.
To illustrate, an American officer may order a unit to secure an airfield. American NCOs work out how to accomplish the task and execute. If there is an unplanned roadblock stopping the unit, lower enlisted fighters will look to the NCOs to adapt to the new operational parameters and overcome the roadblock.
It’s the difference between needing to micromanage a unit versus giving a unit the flexibility to solve problems they encounter on their own.
In the U.S., NCOs are also responsible for the wellbeing of their troops, including handling issues that may impact combat readiness.
For instance, as a young infantry Private First Class, I was once walking through the swampy woods of Fort Campbell, Kentucky’s back forty with my unit. At a brief stop, our platoon sergeant walked by and barked orders for us to change our socks.
Change my socks? I’m a grown man. I’ll decide when to change my own socks!
But after removing my boots, I saw what 10 kilometers of wet, uneven terrain had done to my feet. Our platoon sergeant was looking out for our combat readiness by tapping into his experience as a soldier.
Our NCOs knew that trench foot, or immersion foot syndrome, can make a unit combat ineffective. Trench foot killed an estimated 2,000 American and 75,000 British soldiers during WWI.
Which Russian generals have been killed?
- Major General Magomed Tushayev – Commander of the Chechen units of the National Guard of Russia; killed during an SBU Alpha Group ambush at a convoy around Hostomel, northwest Kyiv.
- Major General Andrey Sukhovetsky – Deputy commander, 41st Combined Arms Army. Shot by a sniper at Hostomel on 28 February 2022.
- Major General Vitaly Gerasimov – Chief of staff of the 41st Combined Arms Army. Allegedly killed outside Kharkiv.
- Major General Andrei Kolesnikov – Commander of the 29th Combined Arms Army.
- Major General Oleg Mityaev – Commander of the Russian Army’s 150th Motorized Rifle Division. Killed somewhere near Mariupol.
- Lieutenant General Andrey Mordvichev – Commander of the 8th Guards Combined Arms Army. Killed in a Ukrainian artillery strike on the Chornobayivka airfield in the Kherson Raion according to “preliminary information” from the Ukrainian authorities.
- Lieutenant General Yakov Rezantsev – Commander of the 49th Combined Arms Army.
- Major General Vladimir Frolov – Deputy commander of the 8th Guards Combined Arms Army of Southern Military District.
- Major General Andrei Simonov – Simonov, a senior leader of electronic warfare units, was killed during an artillery strike on a command post of the Russian 2nd Army, in the vicinity of occupied Izium.
The names of two generals have not been released at the time of writing.
The impact on command and control cannot be overstated
Communicating with and coordinating massive amounts of ground units, not to mention combined arms, is hard enough without NCOs. But when the Russians are relying on direction from officers, and those officers keep getting killed, it’s no wonder the Russian military is performing as poorly as it is.
Historically, Russia has completed its military objectives in WWII with this officer-led system at great cost in Russian soldiers’ lives. But as the saying goes, often falsely attributed to Joseph Stalin, “quantity has a quality all its own.”
Still, NCOs keep troops alive and performing at their peak.
Russia may yet prevail in Ukraine without NCO leadership – but at what cost in Russian soldiers’ lives?