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It is very easy, now that we are observing the results of Russia's BTG system in Ukraine to find all sorts of ways to talk it down.

For reminder: a Russian BTG is 550-750 soldiers, and comprises organic AA, artillery, infantry and armor.

However, until right before 2022 Ukraine war, the consensus was, IIRC, quite different. Russia had re-organized from its Georgia experience and was up for business with tightly integrated, flexible, land combined arms units. Most press coverage I recall, up to 2022, was quite positive (and worried, if Western).

Now, with hindsight, I myself can see one big advantage from BTG: ease of coordinating different unit types, which was always perceived to be a Russian weakness. But also 2 disadvantages:

  • the multiple weapon systems - AA, artillery, logistics, AFV - all require specialized technical and maintenance personnel. On the scale of 550-750 people that risks getting a lot of "tail" for not much "teeth" in direct combat troops (the artillery does provide good firepower at longer range).

  • if systems are distributed so evenly by design, they are difficult to tweak for particular missions. An urban offensive situation may want to go heavy on dismounted infantry, keep slow heavy armor and not bring in much artillery. A blitzkrieg type breakthrough might want to load up on tanks with some mechanized infantry. A static defense may want to load up on artillery.

  • This 2017 paper about countering BTGs: Defeating the Russian Battalion Tactical Group. has a different diagnosis of built-in organizational weakness, which also seems related on size vs over-generality: all that artillery (+AA) leaves not much capacity for maneuver/contact combat troops like infantry (and armor), i.e. a little bit of a glass cannon phenomena, according to this paper.

So, has anything like this been done at scale before?

German WW2 Kampfgruppe seem like an obvious match, but they were adhoc formations, based on what was available. They were not pre-planned, were composed of different units and they scaled up and down the unit sizing - for most of them, they were way over Russian BTGs in size. Early WW2 German combined arms capability was also stellar and still informs US land warfare doctrine.

Another, certainly less fortuitous, historical precedent was the French pre-WW2 tendency to distribute armor throughout standard infantry divisions, which gave up the opportunity of deep battle/blitzkrieg combat tactics envisioned by Tukhachevsky, Guderian, Liddel Hart, De Gaulle and all.

I can't think of anything else equivalent to BTGs in non-expeditionary, peer-enemy, organization in modern Western-style armies aiming for maneuver warfare. But I would also be interested in hearing of cavalry/infantry/artillery combos, at the battalion-regiment level in pre 20th century peer-opponent warfare.

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    The Combat Commands that US armoured divisions used in WWII and Korea are superficially similar, but they're brigade-sized, not battalion-sized, giving them significantly more capability. Oct 19, 2022 at 9:10
  • @JohnDallman I get the impression from reading your link that those combat commands were more similar to Kampfgruppe, i.e. smaller, separate, units brought together to carry out a particular mission. BTGs however are pre-allocated units that exist like this all the time (there's a twist somewhere about each Russian regiment having 2 active BTGs and ramping up a 3rd in wartime - or something to that effect - but that's a somewhat separate consideration). Oct 19, 2022 at 18:33
  • The size of the smallest combined arms force has been shrinking, historically, from armies to corps to mechanized divisions (WW2) to brigade combat teams (modern US). The US has used (and the Marines still do) Regimental Combat Teams in the 20th century. Pre-20th century ad-hoc maneuver combined arms units (infantry/artillery/cavalry) would be called flying columns of various sizes. Look perhaps to the 2nd Boer War.
    – Schwern
    Oct 20, 2022 at 21:48
  • @Schwern the Marine RCT would be a match, except en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regimental_combat_team#U.S._Marine_Corps says they operate at a much larger scale (4000-5000 men) and they consist of at least 5-6 battalions, with 3 of those being infantry + 1 armor. So a lot of what strikes me as odd with BTGs disappears due to the larger size and higher ratio of frontline troops. Oct 21, 2022 at 5:35

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The Red Army dealt a lot with low-level and small-unit tactics during its long war in Afghanistan, as indicated in the preface to The Bear Went Over the Mountain[1]:

[...], the Soviets formulated new concepts for waging war in a non-linear fashion, suited to operating on battlefields dominated by more lethal high-precision weapons. This new non-linear battlefield required the abandonment of traditional operation and tactical formations, a redefinition of traditional echelonment concepts, and a wholesale reorganization of formations and units to emphasize combat flexibility and, hence, survivability.

Even the Frunze Academy said as much:

Combat experience disclosed that the principal types of combat included: company, battalion and regimental raids;...

Summarizing this source, the basic point is that the Soviets were constrained by supply, availability and terrain into small-unit operations. All arms had to be condensed to a smaller package with the command as far forward as possible, if one wanted to have any chance of success in a highly dynamic and constrained battlefield.

The question then is whether it was this experience that led to the latest BTG TO&E. It can't really be confirmed without direct input from the Russian side. However, Russian Army actions since Afghanistan haven't necessarily negated these learnings.

Reading the Ft Benning article that the OP linked, some conclusions may be erroneous. A BTG as described in Ukraine from 2013-2022 appears to me to be simply a deployment unit in a "military option other than war" theater. For Ukraine and Syria, this small-unit bonegruppa/BTG approach is probably sufficient, given the similarity to the Afghanistan experience: there's a lot of tail and a number of small sharp ends, because they do the specialist work and their size is appropriate to the task. Even the American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan suggests this reality: there were lots of troops that moved boxes, some troops that walked around outside the wire, and a few that did the high-maneuver rapid-response work. During my own deployment to Afghanistan, I saw first hand how a stateside unit's TO&E was not appropriate to the nature of the conflict, and thus the deployment was selective to the task at hand.

The author, CPT Fiore, seems to gloss over that Russian units tend to have more units per commander, a precedent from WW2 times[2]. In other words, they are like fingers on a hand - the more the better. In a big war scenario, which Fiore seems to allude to, I would argue that you would not be facing one BTG but many (so long as the Russians are able to do so). So the question is not how to handle the one BTG, but the ten that are being worked by one commander against you with a singular purpose.

In other words, examining a Russian BTG from Ukraine circa 2013-2021 or Syria may cause one to draw some misleading conclusions, or at least misunderstand the scope of the BTG. And finally, often things go awry in the field that are worth study - just because a BTG flubbed a mission doesn't mean it was the fault of the TO&E, and the whole Grau book is built on those instances.

[1] The Bear Went Over the Mountain. Lester Grau.

[2] History of the Second World War. B. H. Liddell Hart.

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  • OK, so maybe the BTG come from the Soviet Afghanistan experience but the Afghanistan experience is also not that of a maneuver warfare army fighting a peer maneuver warfare army. Just because in counter insurgency operations, with often static, smaller, garrison points you have a certain complement does not mean it translates well to high intensity peer on peer warfare. And that's why I asked: have permanent BTG-like organizations been done before in modern Western armies fighting each other? The answer so far is: not really. Oct 21, 2022 at 5:16
  • While I agree with your point about 10 BTGs being a very different nut to crack than 1 BTG and the Ft Benning study seeming a bit dismissive, the point they might be making is that a BTG doesn't have much of a screen of first-line combat troops available - the artillery in the back is great to fire from a distance, but if no one is defending it and its supply & maintenance assets it will get in trouble and it also doesn't take territory on its own. Oct 21, 2022 at 5:22
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica I think it might help to realize that the BTG is a finger on a hand, and that hand is connected to an arm. The hand and arm provide supply, coordination, support, etc, so that the sharp end - the BTG - can do its thing with focus and with as little tail as possible. If it seems to be light on the front-end combat power, perhaps it is, but modern mechanization and lethality compensate in some ways.
    – Smith
    Oct 21, 2022 at 15:44
  • For your original question, it's tough to say. Informal small-group organizations have been very common. It's been less common to codify them into the bureaucracies. As mentioned by Dallman, the Combat Commands in American armored divisions is the closest example off the top of my head. Also TO&E's tend to be written up with certain considerations in mind, which then don't line up well with any given deployment. Maybe the only reason the Russian BTG is small because of manpower issues, and is meant to be a shell that is filled in the Big War.
    – Smith
    Oct 21, 2022 at 15:48
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Pre-Modern Examples

So I can't think of any modern battalion/regiment-sized forces of similar all-arms makeup, but since you also were interested in pre-20th century examples I've got a couple that come to mind.

Sonae, Sengoku Jidai "Warring States Period" Japan

The Sonae was the basic maneuver unit in Japanese warfare of this period and was normally between 300-800 men strong. It was a feudal unit where the commander called up his retinue, which called up their retinue, etc. However unlike Feudal armies of medieval europe, the called-up troops fought together as a single unit rather than be grouped with similarly-equipped troops. So a Sonae would contain pike (ashigaru, which were peasantry but could also be professional troops depending on the exact time), teppo (matchlock ashigaru), bowmen (ashigaru, ideally 1 for every 2 teppo), along with mounted and dismounted samurai. A breakdown I've seen No two Sonae were identical of course because of the feudal nature of their formation. But all the various tactics of the time assumed that an all-arms formation was the tactical maneuver unit a general was working with. I think this is the best example, as it contains all the arms the culture fought with and was 100% planned to be the standard tactical unit of the army amid a larger battle against peer opponents.

The British Legion American War of Independence

The British Legion consisted of approximately 250 cavalry and 200 infantry at its height, along with a few small field pieces. This was mostly an anti-partizan force that operated independently, but it participated as a unit in multiple pitched battles. There were other examples on the American side, (Lee's Legion comes to mind. It had 300ish men, 2:1 infantry:cavalry but I can't recall if they had organic artillery) but as this wasn't the "normal" formation for units in the war and therefor might not totally suit your question I didn't look too deeply at other potential examples in the AWI.

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I figured out two of the closest examples of units similar to the BTGs in the pre-modern world:

Under Napoleon: Artillery mixed with division

While most of units operated independently during the Napoleonic era, some did mix units under the pressure of the circumstances or in the prevision of a battle on a large front that would lead to difficulties in communication.

Those "augmented divisions" could be compared to BTG to the point that there were not permanently mixed, and that their autonomy was limited in time.

A comparison that could be made therefore is that when Napoleon created the "Grand Battery", he triggered a concentration of fire that could counter-strike enemy units. This could be compared to the use of long-range artillery against adverse, tactical formations.

American Civil War: Artillery mixed with cavalry

During the Civil War, Nordist units of cavalry were accompanied with artillery batteries that help them to hold strong points against enemy cavalry and more important, against enemy infantry. These units were autonomous in their maneuver and mix different weaponry, so they could be compared to BTGs.

Note that these units were often successful, and that their resistance against Lee's infantry initiate the battle of Gettysburg.

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  • I love being downvoted with no comments^^ Oct 23, 2022 at 11:35

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