I was going to do a thread today on the implications of Ukraine’s offensive around Kharkiv. Instead, I have pushed that to tomorrow in order to discuss the Russian river crossing operation over the Severskyi Donets this week in #Ukraine
1/Ukraine’s 17th Tank Brigade reportedly targeted a Russian pontoon bridge crossing with several destroyed tanks and BMPs. ДвіЩ
2/ This Russian river crossing has gained attention because it resulted in the loss of (probably) a battalion tactical group and some critical engineer equipment. The reality is, it is worse than that.
3/ Before examining why, let’s explore these types of operations. Assault river crossings are one of the most difficult combined arms operations possible. Not only do all the elements of the ground team need to come together in a tightly orchestrated series of events.
4/ The combined arms team also needs to deceive the enemy about crossing site and timings. And, the combined arms team is quite vulnerable while it waits to cross once the crossing site is established - regardless of how much dispersal and camouflage is conducted.
5/ I had a Brigade commander once who had us focus on these operations because if we could successfully undertake assault river crossings as a Brigade, we could do any other combined arms mission. He was right.
6/ These operations are generally conducted in 6 phases. First is recon and planning. Why is it needed, where will it be done, what is the follow-on mission on the other side of the river, and what info is needed to bring it all together?
7/ Of course, the defender on the other side of the river has also probably done an ‘engineer appreciation’ to find likely crossing sites. These will be high priority areas to cover in their recon and surveillance plan. Here is a good example of this:
8/ Second is ‘suppression’. This means to suppress the enemy in the vicinity of the crossing site. This includes denying them close recon, surveillance or direct / indirect fire onto the crossing site (both sides), exit routes on the far bank, and assembly areas on the home bank.
9/ Next is ‘obscure’. You don’t want the enemy to see what you are doing. This can including doing things at night, smoke, electronic jamming, feints at other sites, etc. And of course, you want to destroy as much of the enemy in the vicinity of the crossing site before crossing.
10/ Fourth, is ‘secure’. In this phase, friendly forces secure routes to the crossing site, assembly areas, as well as home and far banks of the crossing. Forces are also pushed across the ‘gap’ to secure the far back and ensure the enemy can’t interfere with bridging operations.
11/ Fifth, and the part combat engineers love - ‘reduce’. Reducing obstacles means the obstacle (in this case a river) is crossed and negated as an obstacle to friendly maneuver. Normally, a brigade would have at least two crossing sites with a 3rd in reserve.
12/ The final phase is ‘assault’. The ground maneuver force (supported by army aviation and Air Force assets), artillery, electronic warfare, etc crosses the bridges and shakes itself out on the far side of the crossing in preparation to continue the advance.
13/ I would add that Military Police are really important in this endeavour. There is a lot of directing traffic. This is particularly important to ensure the units prioritized by higher commanders cross first. This can get emotional at times - everyone wants to be first across.
14/ Of course, once the crossing site is established, it needs to be protected - on the ground, from air attack and from other sources of threat. In Australia, during training exercises, we often had to protect against crocodile attacks.
15/ The crossing site (regardless of how many bridges or ferries there are) is normally controlled by a regulating headquarters to ensure it is used in accordance with the wider scheme of maneuver leading up to the crossing, and the operations planned after it.
16/ And it would be remiss of me not to mention logisticians. Each site needs them to refuel vehicles, recover bogged vehicles, repair bridge equipment and boats, etc.
17/ An important aspect of assault river crossings is that they are only undertaken if absolutely necessary. The resources needed - engineers, bridges, artillery - are closely husbanded by commanders. As I already mentioned, they are really hard, especially when being shot at.
18/ Therefore, such operations normally only occur on an axis of advance that is a main effort (or about to become the main effort). This has been missed by many commentators - the Russians clearly intended to invest in this axis and throw a lot of combat power down it.
19/ Consequently, this is probably a larger set back for the Russians than some have speculated. Yes, they lost a lot of vehicles - but they are used to that now. It has likely resulted in not just a BTG but probably an entire Brigade losing a large part of its combat power.
20/ Importantly, the Russians lost scarce engineer bridging equipment (and probably combat engineers too). These resources are neither cheap nor available in large quantities. And these are in high demand during an offensive.
21/ But perhaps most importantly, defeating this assault river crossing has probably denied the Russians an axis of advance they clearly thought was going to be productive for them in their eastern offensive. This is a significant set back for them.
22/ This was just a quick look at assault river crossings, how they are done, and what this week’s disaster on the Severskyi Donets river means for the Russian Army in eastern Ukraine. I hope it was useful. End