Leading from the front: why are Russian generals being killed in Ukraine?

Losing generals on the front line is rare in modern warfare

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A month into the Ukraine war, there have been increasing reports of Russian generals being killed in action.

By some counts, Russia might have lost as many as seven senior commanders, with reports that several were killed by snipers and artillery after revealing their positions using unencrypted communications.

Other reasons for the death toll given by western officials include a need for these officers to be present on the front line to boost flagging morale or micromanage stalled operations, bringing them dangerously close to the fighting.

In modern warfare, losing generals is rare.

“US generals died at a decent rate in Vietnam, but that was frequently connected to the vulnerability of helicopters to ground fire,” says Wayne Hsieh, associate professor of history at the US Naval Academy.

“In recent wars where the US has complete air superiority and its opponents have no direct ability to target command posts, it’s not surprising that it’s much harder to kill an American general.”

Craig Whiteside, an associate professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College, says Russia’s forward deployment of commanders is unusual.

The US did not need its generals on the front during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and of Iraq in 2003, he notes.

“We had well-trained junior officers that could make decisions and able mid-grade officers. Plus our command and control tracking and communications are top notch. Russians are struggling with both — it is pushing leaders forward and it is costing them.”

Generals are not expected to “lead from the front” in modern warfare because their role involves detailed planning operations, co-ordinating logistics, communications and the movement of friendly units.

This requires command facilities, ideally out of the range of enemy artillery, and secure bunkers or mobile command posts.

US generals now use an array of systems to co-ordinate troop movements, such as the Global Command and Control System (GCCS), a network of devices that gives a real-time picture of the battlefield.

Once given orders from above, lower-ranking officers are expected to use their initiative in commanding men in the field.

There are important historical reasons for this.

The fighting generals

Six generals died on the front line in the American Civil War battle of Antietam in 1862, one of the bloodiest battles of the conflict.

In the same war, Union commander Maj Gen John Sedgwick was famously killed by a Confederate sniper, with his last words reportedly being “they couldn’t hit an elephant at that distance".

Sedgwick's death was recorded as a major blow to Union forces, given his extensive experience in planning operations, but would not have been considered unusual at a time when the idea that generals should work from secure command posts was relatively new.

Modern US military doctrine notes how “losing key officers in some forces is such a major disruption to the operation that forces may not be able to co-ordinate for hours”.

Until the First World War, when massed artillery and new machine guns made the front lines a lethal killing ground, there was a long tradition of generals leading men into battle to boost morale.

The tradition goes back to Alexander the Great, Hannibal and, more recently, Napoleon Bonaparte, who led his men into battle at Arcole in 1796.

Napoleon eventually realised that such an approach was not practical.

At the time, entire battlefields could be observed by commanders from high ground — unlike modern wars, which are fought over vast distances.

“Napoleon recognised that a headquarters that provided the planning and analytic capability for a campaign was too large to use in battle,” US army doctrine on command posts observes.

At Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington surveyed much of the sprawling battle from his command post, which was by an elm tree on a ridge position later known as the Tree of Observation.

Nazis on the front

The role of the general was changing following the Napoleonic Wars, but this did not curb the instinct of some commanders to evaluate battle conditions up close — even if only for short periods.

“Leaders of all types have had to get what [Carl von] Clausewitz described as the feel of war — ‘fingerspitzengefuhl’ or 'fingertip feeling',” Mr Whiteside says, referring to the famous Prussian strategist.

The Nazi general Erwin Rommel “was infamous for it, often way too close to the front”, he says, as was fellow general Heinz Guderian, leading his panzers on the attack.

The Nazis are thought to have lost more than 200 generals in the Second World War, including five in the weeks after the Allied invasion in Normandy.

Deaths of Allied general were less frequent, but some still took huge risks at the front, notably Gen Norman “Dutch” Cota who joined the US second wave at Utah beach in Normandy.

Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr, the highest-ranking US general to die in battle, visited the front lines during the battle of Okinawa and was told that a nearby US unit could clearly see the silver stars on his helmet, identifying his rank.

He changed his headgear but a Japanese artillery piece had pinpointed his position and killed him.

American generals do battlefield circulation quite frequently but subordinate units usually go to great pains to ensure visiting generals’ security
Wayne Hsieh, associate professor of history at the US Naval Academy

In modern armies, measures are taken to protect senior commanders.

“American generals do battlefield circulation quite frequently but subordinate units usually go to great pains to ensure visiting generals’ security,” Mr Hsieh says.

A US Army field manual offers advice for reducing the threat from snipers.

“Remove rank from helmets and collars. Do not salute officers. Leaders should not use authoritative methods,” the manual says.

Such advice could have been useful to Sedgwick in the US Civil War, who would have been wearing gold trim on his uniform.

The problem now is that in the age of drones, it is easier to locate enemy officers.

“We have been watching and thinking about how dangerous large command posts with large electronic signatures will be in an era of satellite and [unmanned aerial vehicle] constant surveillance,” Mr Whiteside says.

War among the people

Until the Ukraine war, most modern conflicts had been between government forces and insurgents. In these wars without front lines, insurgents or terrorists have in some cases been able to kill generals through pure luck or by pretending to be friendly forces.

The Taliban used this tactic in 2014 to kill US Maj Gen Harold Green, the highest-ranking officer to be killed in wartime since the Vietnam War.

Other generals facing insurgency dropped their guard, believing they were not in imminent danger.

In December 2013, Iraqi Maj Gen Mohammad Al Karoui and at least 10 other officers were killed by ISIS in an ambush in Anbar, a sign of the coming partial collapse of the Iraqi army.

“Whether it is technical [sigint, elint] or old school [couriers], leaders need to be disguised or risk identification as an high-value target,” Mr Whiteside says, referring to signals intelligence, or intercepted communications, and electronic intelligence, which looks for enemy electronic signals.

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Updated: March 28, 2022, 4:04 PM