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How would US troops fight a numerically superior enemy today?

Quantity vs. quality.
Jeff Schogol Avatar
Russian troops
Russian military cadets march on Dvortsovaya Square during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade in Saint Petersburg on April 24, 2018. (Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images)

Former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin is credited with saying that “quantity has a quality of its own.” The Russians appear to be putting that axiom to the test in Ukraine by throwing mercenaries for The Wagner Group into wave after wave of suicidal frontal assaults against Ukrainian defenses.

As a result, Russian casualties have been heavy in recent months. One picture posted on social media in January purportedly shows dozens of Russian bodies clustered close together, indicating they were mowed down by the Ukrainians.

In Bakhmut, Ukraine, the Russians continue to use Wagner mercenaries to make incremental gains despite heavy losses. Of the 40,000 Russian convicts who have joined Wagner, 80% have been killed or seriously wounded, András Rácz of the German Council on Foreign Relations told National Public Radio recently.

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While Wagner mercenaries continue to carry out these frontal assaults as cannon fodder, the private military company is using this tactic much less in recent months, said Karolina Hird, a Russia Analyst at the Institute for the Study of War think tank in Washington, D.C.

“The Wagner Group likely experienced significant losses in attritional offensive operations in eastern Ukraine over the past few months,” Hird told Task & Purpose. “The high number of casualties — convicts and otherwise — is likely constraining the Wagner Group’s ability to continue offensive operations that accumulate casualties at such a high rate.”

Nonetheless, Russia’s use of mercenaries as cannon fodder raises the question of how well the U.S. military would perform against an adversary that fought to win by attrition.

The Wagner Group
FILE – Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin attends the funeral of, a fighter of the Wagner group on Dec. 24, 2022. (AP)

In the Korean and Vietnam Wars, U.S. troops had to defend against numerically superior enemy forces, which launched “human wave” attacks that attempted to overrun American defenses.

But it is unlikely that Russia, China, North Korea, or Iran would launch such attacks against U.S. forces in a future conflict, said Matthew Cancian, a former Marine Corps captain and artillery officer.

“I believe that ‘human wave attacks’ of hundreds of soldiers advancing without attention to cover have been mostly a myth since the early stages of World War I,” Cancian told Task & Purpose. “Even a squad of U.S. soldiers supported by air and artillery could defeat an attack like that. Furthermore, most countries do not field a fraction of the manpower that they did when these ‘human wave attacks’ were alleged to occur.”

It is also unlikely that China would launch the type of human wave attacks that it used during the Korean war because Chinese military doctrine has evolved since then, said Timothy Heath, a senior international defense researcher at the RAND Corporation.

Draft dodging has become a major problem for the People’s Liberation Army, which has also been unable to meet its recruiting quotas, Heath told Task & Purpose.

The mentality of young Chinese adults is also much different than it was in the 1950s, he said.

China War
Members of the Communist Party of China (CPC) review the oath of joining the party in front of the party flag on April 13, 2021 in Luoyang, Henan Province of China. (Photo by Jia Fangwen/VCG via Getty Images)

“China is recruiting heavily from educated, urban professionals,” Heath said. “These educated young people are not interested in throwing their lives away for futile attacks of any kind. If they join the military at all, it’s professional development and patriotic reasons, like Americans who join. There’s no widespread expectation that they are eager to go and die for their country.”

However, Retired Army Col. Keith Nightingale, who had to defend against human wave attacks when he led soldiers in Vietnam, said U.S. troops should not assume that such attacks are a thing of the past.

“To remove that as a likely option for the infantry to deal with, I think, would be a huge mistake, particularly when you look at how the Russians are operating today in Ukraine, where they — as a matter of course and basic tactics — just sent waves of people against a position to overcome it,” Nightingale told Task & Purpose on Thursday.

Artillery is the most important weapon needed to break up human wave attacks, said Nightingale, who is a member of the Ranger Hall of Fame and helped plan the U.S. military’s ill-fated 1980 mission that attempted to rescue Americans held hostage in Iran.

“You can put a large volume of fire on a fairly large area very quickly, and that’s key — particularly when you use a time fuze or VT [Proximity Fuze], where you can get an airburst, ” Nightingale said. “You add to that the capabilities of, say, mortars, drones, tactical air, all of the above, and that can make a difference. But I would say the key discriminator here is fixed artillery.”

At the battle of Suoi Tre in March 1967, U.S. troops lowered their howitzers to zero elevation, which meant the barrels were aimed directly at the attacking forces, and fired shells that sprayed the enemy attackers with steel darts known as flechettes, Nightingale said.

“The flechettes definitely made a huge difference,” Nightingale said.

Currently, the U.S. military is retiring the types of weapons systems needed to break up mass attacks, including tube artillery and A-10 close air support aircraft, said retired Marine Col. J.D. Williams, a defense policy researcher with the RAND Corporation. Doing so sacrifices the U.S. military’s ability to generate a high volume of fire in favor of longer range and more precise weaponry, he said.

“That isn’t wrong if your theory of victory is predicated on destroying a small number of critical targets, but if your theory of victory doesn’t work, you are potentially vulnerable to attrition styles of ground combat,” Williams said. “You also need large quantities of ammunition to sustain mass fires, which all militaries are realizing is an ongoing vulnerability in their logistics.”  

Since World War I, militaries have attempted to find ways to avoid launching frontal assaults into prepared defenses by developing new capabilities, including precision-guided ordnance, unmanned systems, and cyber warfare, Williams said.

But when warring sides decide that taking or defending a piece of territory is worth the cost in lives, there is no way to avoid bloody combat, as seen in Stalingrad, Chechnya, and Fallujah, he said.

“So, while the U.S. or China would go into a conflict with plans to conduct operations primarily in the air and at sea (or in space and cyberspace) using long-range precision weapons in an effort to destroy critical components of the adversary’s capabilities, at some point, it will probably be necessary to engage in ground combat at some level of intensity,” Williams said.

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