No one wants to talk about war until it comes.
Every individual in a democracy is personally responsible for the nation’s defense. At the national level, failing to plan for national defense – and failing to train and equip the totality of the nation’s available military manpower for the execution of that plan — is inexcusable. Preparation is relatively inexpensive; it also buys crucial time in an unforeseen emergency. The focus here is not on strategic deterrence nor civil preparedness, but on the tactical goal of area defense.
The challenge is political. No one wants to talk about war until it comes. This is why in America the draft has been such a dead letter. Military funding is a grab bag of service wish lists and not part of an integrated strategy.
America has her own unique issues with preparedness. On the one hand, she is blessed with oceans and (now, at least) peaceable neighbors, allowing a focus on things other than territorial defense. On the other, while a fair proportion of red-blooded American men and women already have a pick-up truck, some body armor, and a passably appropriate infantry rifle lying around the house, none of this lays a foundation for national military preparedness in any real sense (although some think it does). The better organized your population is, the more effective it will be when mobilized in the nation’s defense. Training and preparation are the materials from which the “moral construct” that is an army is built.
Events in Ukraine validate that even ad hoc planning, mobilization, and training may have value. The Ukrainians have succeeded wildly beyond expectations in part by conducting a last-minute mobilization of its population to combat and combat support functions and enabling all different types of ad-hoc support. Although the military has developed with renewed vigor since 2014, there are lessons to be learned from Ukraine’s underwhelming history of military preparedness.
The Swiss model may be a useful guide here, even if not every country can replicate Switzerland’s geographic gifts (mountains). Notable is the Swiss’ commitment to training their population in advance of conflict. As one travel website put it:
Switzerland requires all able-bodied men to serve in the armed forces for at least 260 days, which can be served three or four weeks a year until they reach the required amount of time or turn 34. For those who are eligible but have moral objections, there is an option to apply for weaponless or civil service instead. Though Switzerland has about 150,000 active military personnel, if they are invaded, they have nearly 4,000,000 citizens immediately available for service with an additional 3,000,000 who have been deemed fit for service. Basically, if you’re going to pick a fight with Switzerland, you’re going to pick a fight with A-L-L of Switzerland.
Switzerland also invites eligible Swiss females to serve. Norway obliges both males and females to register for conscripted service, although only a percentage of eligible females (alongside a percentage of eligible males) are then invited to actually don the uniform. Further, the Swiss accept some risks in the cause of national preparedness (“[m]en on active service in Switzerland’s militia army are allowed to keep their army-issue weapons at home but most are not allowed to keep army ammunition….”). This is precisely how even a small nation can achieve the force ratios necessary to effectively defend against attack. Nevertheless, conscription has spent decades falling out of favor.
Equally impressive in the Swiss example is the network of structures (“70 medium-size citadels plus more than 10,000 smaller bunkers and command posts”) blocking positions, and planning that went into building Switzerland’s National Redoubt. Although now deactivated and re-purposed, this fortress network reflected an admirable focus on taking the concrete steps needed to adequately defend the nation’s land territory from attack. The plan—which involved trading lowland areas to advancing German troops for time to consolidate behind fortified, defensible mountain passes—demonstrated an investment in preparation and planning. Not the fixed and easily bypass-able fortifications of the Maginot Line, this no-joke plan to defend what must be defended displays a clear-headed willingness to make early, difficult decisions to ensure national survival. The Swiss followed up—the Armee61 reforms—by generating a ready reserve in addition to the personnel and equipment required for full mobilization.
Finland’s model of “comprehensive security” may be just as potent. In addition to robust military reserves based on strategic stockpiles, universal conscription, and a massive civil defense network of bomb shelters, “[d]etailed planning is in place for how to handle an invasion, including the deployment of fighter jets to remote roads around the country, the laying of mines in key shipping lanes, and the preparation of land defences such as blowing up bridges.” Indeed, the Finnish experience suggests that how well a country manages conscription may be a good indicator of overall national cohesion and citizen support for the nation (we will leave for another time the discussion of what America’s last—markedly unfair—foray into conscription revealed about its national character).
Enabling national preparedness way, way to the left of bang through defensive planning, training personnel, and the acquisition and prepositioning of materiel is an efficient solution that cannot be ignored. The costs are far from prohibitive—especially compared with the costs of liberating and rebuilding a country after invasion. Reversing an invasion is probably the most difficult military task imaginable. An ounce of preparation is, indeed, better than a pound of cure.
How a nation prepares for war reflects a mindset. Anyone who has watched Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky rally his people and the world, or anyone with an understanding of the Swiss commitment to national defense (“[t]his includes the tens of thousands of Swiss servicemen who take part in voluntary rifle competitions, ski maneuvers, and cross-country marches, etc., which they do without pay”), understands this. An effective mindset begets greater national cohesion as well as martial efficacy in the best kind of virtuous circle a threatened nation could desire.
Military thinkers in the United States ponder the differences between the Ukrainians and the Afghans, given how well the former resisted takeover and how poorly the latter’s efforts to resist the Taliban proceeded. Of course, history matters here and no program can instantly recreate, say, the Ukrainians’ historical unwillingness to serve Russian masters or the Afghans’ experience with weak central government. Both have experience with venal corruption and share strong martial traditions. Perhaps the difference is this: the Afghans considered the return of the Taliban inevitable in the face of repeated abandonment, while the Ukrainians neither expected help nor view a Russian victory as foretold.
You don’t have to be the best military in the world to be successful. You just need to be the best military currently operating in your country.
Perhaps the most instructive comparison is not between Ukrainians and Afghans but between Ukrainians and Russians. You don’t have to be the best military in the world to be successful. You just need to be the best military currently operating in your country. Leverage the advantages of the defender to the utmost.
Nowhere can the Swiss and Finnish experience—as augmented by both the good (mindset) and less good (preparation) of the Ukrainian example—be a more timely than in the Baltics. This is especially the case given the dire predictions regarding the first moments of any Russian invasion (two of the three Balkan countries already have mandatory military service of some kind and all conduct joint planning and exercises with NATO partners). The Ukrainian example, to include the effective employment of man-portable anti-armor and anti-air systems, demonstrates a viable military alternative to being overwhelmed early on and merely transitioning to sustained insurgency.
How, exactly, to implement this?
Mindset starts with education. Conscription can be considered the most democratic and equitable form of national defense, but a willingness to fight to defend one’s nation starts with an understanding of the nation’s history, as well as what the nation aspires to become. In the midst of Ukraine’s defense against Russian aggression, it may have minted itself a whole new sense of nationhood, transcending linguistic and religious differences. Moreover, no Ukrainian (or Pole, or Lithuanian, or Finn) with any knowledge of history could fail to appreciate the costs of foreign domination. Similarly, the will to defend the nation must begin in the classroom—not with domestic propaganda—but with a realistic portrayal of the national project and a pitch as to why it deserves to continue.
Right-size stockpiles, integrate obstacles into a defensive plan, and preposition equipment. Again, winning is about more than just conscription. There is no substitute for a well thought-out defensive plan. Where will the enemy attack? How and where will the defender kill the advancing forces to gain time and space for a decisive counterattack? After watching Russia’s initial bid for Kyiv stall, no one can deny the importance of the logistics plan.
Take training seriously; everyone needs to serve. Surprisingly, Ukraine already has a mandatory military service requirement for males. From the many, many interviews with newly-minted Ukrainian Territorial Defense soldiers who declare they have never picked up a weapon before, we know this did not work as planned. Deferments, loopholes, and exceptions undermined the necessary national mindset that the defense of the nation is everyone’s responsibility. The Dutch—among others—let everyone slide; few countries insist on universal service.
Improve conscript training programs. Most nations in the world have abandoned military conscription. There were concerns that the programs were a waste of time and did not offer participants skills commensurate with the time invested. Obviously, proximity to invasion would have the effect on focusing a nation’s collective mind on the utility of a trained and ready military manpower pool. But a better program would itself give rise to fewer objections.
Focus on training. Generating a trained and ready pool of military manpower does not entail a need to include a period of mandatory service after the initial training period. Indeed, it may be this dreaded period of mandatory military service which has turned most societies against universal conscription. Russia’s reputation for hazing and the use of conscripts as a substantial part of its regular military forces is the ultimate example of what to avoid. The goal isn’t to create an army of conscripts sitting around painting rocks, but to create a pool of trained military manpower to call upon in extremis. A shorter—and therefore more palatable—service obligation is called for; just enough to complete training and no longer. The Israelis tailor the length of their various basic training programs to accommodate the future role of the individual, varying from one week (non-weapon carrying volunteer) to several months.
Switzerland and Finland have many lessons for military planners and policy makers around the world. The foremost is a commitment to implementing programs to enable the fighting power of the nation to be efficiently employed at a calamity’s onset. This is especially valuable in smaller countries with problematic neighbors, even those within regional alliances with the United States, as America’s shrinking military power and evaporating overseas engagement should make clear. While we should all look forward to a Ukraine within NATO, there is another aspect of the Swiss model which may be useful when Ukraine sits down to its well-earned seat at the negotiating table: the notion of permanent, armed neutrality. Finland (until very recently) also provided a useful precedent: an EU country outside of NATO.
Not training and equipping the totality of a nation’s available military manpower for the tactical goal of area defense is a strategic error no country should risk. The heretofore neutral nations of Switzerland and Finland provide the clearest examples of what it takes to fight like no one is coming to save you. It requires planning, preparation, and a relatively modest investment in training. The costs involved in forgoing the necessary preparations are far greater still.
Garri Benjamin Hendell is a major in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. He has three completed overseas deployments to the CENTCOM area of operations, three overseas training missions to Europe, leadership and staff positions at the platoon, company, battalion, brigade, division, and joint force headquarters level, as well as having served both in uniform and as a civilian branch chief at the National Guard Bureau. Among other things, he is a graduate of the Army’s Red Team course.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.
Photo Description: Dormitory in a Swiss Civil Defense Bunker. It’s all ready and clean for an emergency. Berneck, Switzerland, Nov 19, 2014
Photo Credit: Kecko from Switzerland (Rheintal SG)