“Despite the requirement to achieve mass and concentration for decisive results, the greater lethality of weapons dictated a contradictory need for dispersion. Much of the history of modern warfare can be written as a function of attempts to reconcile these seemingly contradictory elements.”

Bruce Menning

Following Russia’s failed attempt at a coup de main beginning on February 24, 2022 and the subsequent transition to what many believed would be a war of maneuver, the roughly six-hundred-mile Russo-Ukrainian front has transformed into a grinding war of attrition. This has fueled discussions on whether or not the conflict has reached a stalemate, or even whether it signals the end of maneuver warfare. With the exception of Ukraine’s spectacular Kharkiv offensive and the recapture of Kherson—though these succeeded for different reasons—neither side has been able to break the deadlock of positional warfare. Even the highly anticipated and much-hyped Ukrainian summer offensive in 2023 fell far short of expectations, with the former Ukrainian commander-in-chief, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, admitting its failure.

Particularly notable, as Zaluzhnyi pointed out, is that large-scale maneuvers conducted by highly concentrated armored formations and aimed at achieving operational breakthrough have remained conspicuously absent. Instead, small-scale infantry units fighting over elaborate trench systems zigzagging throughout terrain pockmarked by artillery are conjuring images of World War I. Unsurprisingly, comparisons to the First World War’s Western Front have been numerous. Apart from the obvious similarities, however, few have grasped the real dynamics at play and what implications they entail.

Recent publications show that Ukrainian military officials have even accused their American counterparts of not adequately grasping the extent to which technology has changed the modern battlefield. Although US military officials have repeatedly stressed the importance of concentrating a sufficient number of large, armored formations to achieve a breakthrough, the Ukrainians themselves quickly discovered that current battlefield conditions dictate otherwise. As Zaluzhnyi described, “Modern sensors can identify any concentration of forces, and modern precision weapons can destroy it.” This has prevented both sides from concentrating into sufficiently large formations to achieve a breakthrough in the traditional sense. Instead, it forces units to disperse, dig in, or both, further expanding the empty battlefield.

Increases in firepower—in terms of range, accuracy, speed, and lethality—that had begun in the last quarter of the nineteenth century resulted in what became known as the tactical crisis, which in part induced stalemate on the Western Front during World War I. Comparable advances in weaponry are having the same effect today in Ukraine, creating similar dilemmas. Like the initial tactical crisis, it temporarily offers an advantage to the defender. This marks a shift in the offense-defense balance, the measure of relative advantages that offense and defense have over one another, which is determined by factors like geography, troop density, and especially military technology. But if these two cases, separated by more than a century, stem from similar causes and pose similar dilemmas, then the case of World War I can serve as a framework for understanding and seeking solutions to the challenge of breaking the stalemate of positional warfare.

The Tactical Crisis

There exists a photograph taken on September 1, 1870, during the Battle of Sedan, allegedly the first ever taken during an active battle. It displays German soldiers in column formations advancing toward French held positions. The leading company has transitioned into skirmisher lines, enabling the columns to press home the attack. Densely packed column formations eased command and control and increased battlefield mobility, simultaneously providing the physical mass necessary to conduct a successful bayonet charge. Close-order, linear formations provided the necessary concentrated firepower to soften up the enemy. This is basically what the infantry battle had looked like since at least the days of Napoleon, with assault power and firepower together constituting the infantry’s fighting power.

However, up until around the mid-nineteenth century, infantrymen were primarily equipped with muzzle-loading smoothbore muskets, which had a severely limited effective firing range and a low rate of fire. Troops could therefore approach and maneuver across the battlefield largely unhindered, out of the enemy’s firing range. This all changed with the large-scale application of rifled barrels, followed by the introduction of breech-loading and repeating rifles. In just a few decades, both the effective range and the rate of fire increased dramatically, devastating close-order formations, with major implications for the traditional conduct of battle. As assault power gradually gave way to firepower tactics, infantrymen went to ground, searching for cover—walls, ditches, trees, and the like. Illustrative of the effects of dramatically increased firepower was the Prussian Guards assault against the French-held village of St. Privat on August 18, 1870, during which the attacking force lost eight thousand out of its twenty thousand men in a mere twenty minutes’ time. This was one of many similar bloody encounters that took place between different armies across different conflicts during that period.

The ensuing tactical crisis that would trouble militaries all the way up to 1914 and beyond involved all three arms—infantry, artillery, and cavalry—although it primarily concerned the infantry assault and its premature culmination in the face of rapidly mounting losses. The tactical crisis fueled discussions about whether it was still possible to approach the enemy using close-order formations, especially when executing the final, often frontal, assault. Skirmisher lines with wider spacing in between soldiers and laterally dispersed across a linear front—like those captured in the photograph from the Battle of Sedan—limited casualties but were less suitable for offensive action. Wider dispersion made it much more difficult to manage forces in battle and sacrificed the ability to concentrate fighting power at the decisive point. Cooperation with the artillery therefore intensified in order to suppress the enemy during forward movement. However, without the means to communicate with the necessary speed and clarity across large distances, this cooperation faced a similar dilemma, being unable to mass fire from dispersed positions.

Consequently, the battlefield not only expanded significantly in scale, but also became empty as troops disappeared out of sight, trying to blend into their surroundings. The battlefield’s expansion beyond the relatively small, open, and carefully selected sites optimal for set-piece battles increased its diversity, adding complicated terrain features and obstacles, while the pace of the fighting accelerated, creating rapidly changing circumstances. While obstacles provided cover during movement, they also limited visual contact and reduced command and control. Managing an attack, that was spread out over a much larger and diversified area, therefore, became much more difficult. In Germany, two opposing views emerged, with advocates of the conservative Normaltaktik stressing the need for a limited number of standardized drills and formations. This simplified cooperation between infantry and artillery, but also reflected a belief that, with limited time available, it was impossible to bring conscripts up to the level of training necessary for independent action.

Proponents of the more progressive and innovative Auftragstaktik believed that modern battlefield conditions necessitated independent judgment on the part of lower tactical commanders in determining the appropriate tactics and formations, which would depend on circumstances. Their leading spokesman, Sigismund von Schlichting, also recognized the emergence of the meeting engagement. The increased effective range of weapons meant that fighting now began the very moment armies came within visual range of one another and combat commenced straight from the march. The assault, therefore, had to be conducted across much larger distances. Schlichting also cautioned that modern mass armies, with ever-widening frontages, would ultimately result in what he called “the parallel battle,” wherein two linearly deployed armies would be permanently engaged, lacking the ability to either conduct an envelopment or achieve a breakthrough, resulting in a tactical stalemate producing extraordinarily high casualties. As opposed to the speed that was essential during meeting engagements, Schlichting believed that attacks against prepared positions would become the dominant form, necessitating a more deliberate approach.

The Parallel Battle

By the summer of 1914, firepower had again increased significantly. As armies clashed all across Europe, many prewar assumptions were shot to pieces. While on the Eastern Front, due to a lower troop density, maneuver warfare would remain possible to a certain extent, maneuver on the Western Front, with its higher troop density, quickly became stalled. Within three months’ time the maneuver phase ended and Schlichting’s parallel battle became a reality. Consequently, with no open flanks left to envelope, the only remaining option was a frontal assault, in turn expanding the defense in depth. The next chapter of the tactical crisis thus not only involved breaking the forward enemy trench lines, but carrying the attack all the way through. Because field guns, using direct fire, were equally vulnerable to the increased range of infantry weapons, the importance of howitzers using indirect from concealed firing positions increased accordingly.

Forward enemy defenses could be effectively targeted by artillery because observers were able to adjust their fire using line-of-sight observation. Following the initial penetration of the enemy’s forward lines, however, direct visibility of target was lost, and fire support quickly became less effective and primarily used for general suppression. The next problem arose the moment the infantry attack exceeded the range of its own artillery support altogether, with the artillery itself often unable to advance. Additionally, coordination between infantry and artillery occurred at the divisional level, while machine guns were allocated to battalions and regiments in very limited numbers. Communications technology at the time was simply not advanced enough to coordinate fire and movement between different tactical levels during offensive actions. So, in order to enable maneuver and concentrate fighting power, the infantry remained dependent on their organic firepower, which was still based upon individual riflemen.

All warring factions began searching for new methods, tactics, and technological solutions. This led increasingly toward combining direct and indirect fire as mutually complementary effects and establishing combined arms warfare across different tactical levels. The role of artillery, applying predictive fire, increased significantly, as did its cooperation with infantry, employing a creeping barrage at a predetermined rate of advance. The tank combined firepower and protection by adding armor in an attempt to facilitate maneuver. Poison gas was used as a means to inflict mass casualties or paralyze defenders. Airplanes even began conducting air support and air interdiction, establishing joint cooperation at the tactical level. Ultimately, while all belligerents developed specialized assault detachments, none did so to such an extent as the German Army.

German stormtroopers abandoned linear formations and instead operated in small, mutually supportive groups, enabling them to utilize the terrain to maximum effect for cover while searching for weak spots in the enemy’s defenses. Instead of relying on firepower of individual riflemen, these forces were assigned heavy weapons down to the lowest tactical levels. This equipped stormtrooper detachments to provide their own fire support, without the need to deploy in long and vulnerable skirmisher lines. This, in turn, required independent decision-making and initiative, which was delegated down to the lowest tactical levels accordingly. Fire planning was coordinated at higher levels, while artillery was concentrated against targets located throughout the enemy’s tactical depth using aerial observation and was increasingly used for counterbattery fire. Although coordination between artillery and the advancing infantry remained crucial, beyond the range of effective artillery support the availability of direct and indirect heavy weapons at the squad, platoon and company levels provided the necessary speed and precision to take out enemy strongpoints.

The Tactical Crisis Today

Fast forward just over a hundred years and it becomes apparent that the pendulum of the offense-defense balance has once again swung over to the defensive side. As for geography, much of the Donbas generally consists of relatively open terrain, providing clear fields of fire favoring the defender. Troop density, in contrast, is relatively low. Although engaged along a roughly six-hundred-mile front, both the Russian and Ukrainian armies are still relatively small historically speaking. This, however, is offset by the widespread application of drones, creating a transparent battlefield wherein it is very difficult for movement and any sizable presence to remain undetected—and once located, forces can be easily targeted. These trends have once again introduced a tactical crisis, much like the one driven by advancements made in the nineteenth century.

Modern sensors can now locate any concentration of enemy forces far beyond the forward positions occupied by ground troops, long-range precision strike systems can effectively target them, and the sensor-to-shooter cycle is greatly accelerating. Sophisticated kill chains and effective reconnaissance-fire and reconnaissance-strike complexes are revolutionizing large-scale combat operations. When General William E. DePuy made his famous 1974 statement—“What can be seen, can be hit. What can be hit, can be killed”—advancements in reconnaissance, surveillance, and target-acquisition capabilities were still in their infancy, and advancements were being made in the deep-strike capabilities necessary to engage Soviet rear echelons as part of the US AirLand Battle doctrine and NATO’s associated Follow-On Forces-Attack concept. Now that this technology has reached adulthood and come into widespread use, it has eliminated the traditional advantage of direct over indirect fire and no longer requires a clear line of sight during battle. This represents similar increases in the range, precision, speed, and lethality of firepower that induced the original tactical crisis around one and a half centuries ago.

Just like breech-loading cannons and repeating rifles expanded the nineteenth-century battlefield, forcing infantry columns to disperse and adopt open order formations at far greater distances, modern deep-strike capabilities also expand the battle zone to an unprecedented depth with similar consequences. The impact of these capabilities therefore goes far beyond the actual front line and not only concerns combat formations. Key enablers for sustaining an offensive, like headquarters and logistics, have become equally vulnerable, reducing the ability to scale offensive operations. With the empty battlefield thus continuing to expand, it is reviving the issue of how to concentrate fighting power from dispersed positions during offensive actions. It also raises the question of how to command and control sizable formations during attacks across extended areas. Because dispersion increases a commander’s span of control, it reduces the ability to command and control the overall battle and in turn, raises the need for independent action of subordinate commanders.

The Return of the Parallel Battle

Russian defenses do not constitute an uninterrupted front line, but rather consist of unconnected company- and platoon-sized fighting positions. Nonetheless, at the lower tactical level, assaults against vulnerable flanks have become exceedingly difficult. Like barbwire during World War I, extremely dense Russian minefields canalize attackers and force them to remain exposed to defensive fire for longer periods of time. Meanwhile, Russian artillery is able to mass fires from dispersed positions, thwarting every Ukrainian attempt to concentrate and advance. Even though Ukrainian defenses are much more rudimentary and are faced with Russian superiority in both materiel and fires, they are still able to inflict tremendous losses, slowing down Russian advances to such an extent that gains are measured in yards rather than miles. So, while the defense is generally bolstered by these developments, it erodes the ability to take offensive action, requiring movement and mass rather than concentrating effects.

The Ukrainian army came to these conclusions just a few weeks into its 2023 summer offensive, when it first sought to penetrate Russian defenses by concentrating at the intended breakthrough locations. After suffering considerable losses during the initial phase, Ukrainian troops quickly switched to more time-consuming, but less costly, small-scale dismounted infantry assaults. Only through a temporary dominance in artillery were they able to locally establish the necessary preconditions to advance. The Russian army made similar adaptations following the costly fighting around Bakhmut, Vuhledar, and more recently Avdiivka. While its reconnaissance-fire complex continues to evolve, it has largely abandoned large-scale attacks with concentrated armored and mechanized formations and when it still does conduct such attacks, it does so with predictable consequences. Instead, both sides now primarily employ tanks from a standoff distance or in an assault-gun role in direct support of infantry units operating in platoon or company strength.

Although the term human wave attacks conjures a certain image, in reality Russian infantry assaults are no longer concentrated in a single mass. Additionally, the Russians revived the concept of storm groups and storm detachments—specialized assault formations for operating in urban terrain and fortified areas—originally developed during the Battle of Stalingrad and used again during both of Russia’s wars in Chechnya. Much like the German stormtroopers of World War I, these units are designed to be more flexible and self-supporting as breakthrough formations. They are smaller and more simply organized than regular infantry companies, with higher-echelon heavy weapons and the decision-making authority for their employment delegated down to subordinate commanders.

The shortage of physically fit and well-trained troops, led by experienced and able commanders, serves as an additional constraint on scaling up operations. Similar to the German Army during the latter stages of World War I, the Russians now differentiate between offensive and defensive formations, with line battalions manning trenches and specialized storm detachments conducting assaults. Likewise, Ukrainian brigades as a whole usually deploy only two to three companies capable of offensive actions. The ability, on both sides, to conduct dispersed offensive actions on a larger scale is further hampered by a shortage of competent battalion- and brigade-levels staffs to provide the necessary coordination and integration of assets and their effects. As US Army Major Rick Chersicla so adequately put it in a recent article:

Increased dispersion increases the need for disparate tactical actions to be synchronized in time, space, and purpose for their individual outcomes to register as cumulative operational effects.

On a dispersed and sensor-saturated battlefield, the role and impact of electronic warfare has increased significantly. But besides communications frequently being hampered, there are other constraints. Contrary to popular belief, most Ukrainian commanders do not usually promote personal initiative. This is especially true regarding higher-ranking reserve officers, who still adhere to the Soviet method of top-down, centralized decision-making. Unsurprisingly, the same applies to most Russian commanders. Besides cultural limitations, heavy attrition on both sides has aggravated the shortage of experienced commanders even further. So, while the German Army a century ago was able to conduct dispersed attacks on a grand tactical scale, current actions by either side in Ukraine remain limited in scope and duration.

There are those who argue that the return to trenches on the battlefields of Ukraine is in itself an indication that, despite technological advances, the character of warfare has essentially not changed—not realizing that these technological advances are actually the driving force behind the return to trench warfare. Now, as in World War I, increases in firepower force troops to once again disperse, dig in, or both, in order to be able to survive. The casualty-intensive, attritional nature of World War I encouraged the search for new tactics and technologies. Above all, it led to the development of combined arms warfare on different tactical levels, which attempted to combine effects in order to substitute for mass and reestablish conditions that enable maneuver.

With low troop density being offset by technologically advanced sensors and indirect fires, current conditions are again favoring the defender. Due to increased dispersion, the span of control of individual commanders is expanding, especially at lower tactical levels. This complicates command and control, while reducing the ability to concentrate fighting power from dispersed positions to establish a main effort during offensive actions. The war in Ukraine has currently entered a phase of attritional and positional warfare, characterized by small-scale assaults on prepared positions. While the weapons and technologies are dramatically more advanced, the challenge remains the same as it was during World War I: establishing combined arms formations at the lowest tactical levels, providing them the right fire support to enable maneuver, and reestablishing conditions that enable massed and concentrated fighting power. Ukrainian forces did not have the means of overcoming that challenge—the right mix of tactics and technology—during their 2023 counteroffensive. Whether either side’s forces have made progress toward solving this tactical crisis will influence the shape of the war in 2024.

Captain Randy Noorman MA is an officer in the Royal Netherlands Army and currently working as a military historian at the Netherlands Institute for Military History, part of the Netherlands Defense Academy.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Oles_Navrotskyi, via depositphotos.com