Understanding Planning, Orders and Troop Movements in Ukraine

PATTON, the movie, was a masterpiece of entertainment. It is not historically accurate on many points and that is a problem with respect to Ukraine. What? I suspect some of you believe I have really crossed over to crazy land, but hear me out. Remember that scene when the Germans launched the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 and Patton saved the day by “immediately” diverting his Army 90 degrees to head north and rescue the beleaguered paratroopers of the 101st and 82nd airborne regiments (note, the paratroopers insisted they did not need to be rescued, but that’s another story for another day)?

That cinema account of how Patton planned and shifted the axis of attack of his troops is presented as something hastily put together. The German offensive started on 16 December and Patton met with Eisenhower on the 19th of December and received orders to relieve Bastogne. Patton’s troops moved out on the 22nd of December and reached Bastogne on the 26th. What the movie account fails to convey is that the planning for moving his Army north began on December 9, ten days before the emergency conference with Eisenhower.

Patton’s J-2 (i.e., his intel chief) briefed the following on 9 December:

  1. By the end of October four panzer divisions had been identified refitting near Paderborn, far north of the Third Army’s left boundary.
  2. By November 10 the Germans had pulled five more panzer divisions out of the line.
  3. Of the fifteen panzer divisions in the west, only five remained in contact in mid-November.
  4. Starting November 17, aerial reconnaissance detected huge German rail movements to the north of the Third Army’s projected zone of advance—226 trains on November 18 alone.
  5. By November 23 Koch had identified the newly established Sixth Panzer Army, including five of its reconstituted panzer divisions.
  6. On December 2 the U.S. Seventh Army, to the south of Third Army, reported that the formidable Panzer Lehr Division was out of the line.
  7. By December 7 the Germans were holding at least thirteen divisions in reserve.

(I encourage you to read the whole article about the real story of Patton’s rescue effort at the link above.)

So why is this important? The process any first world army (e.g., United States, Russia, Ukraine) follows in moving troops and equipment from one point to a distant location follows a well-defined planning process.

The planning process Patton followed is similar to what the U.S. military uses today. The current system is known as the Joint Operation Planning and Execution System aka JOPES. I have been involved in scripting and executing over 240 crisis response exercises. I worked for 23 years for the man who wrote JOPES, so I have some insight to the process. He beat it into me. It starts with an Alert Order (e.g. Be Prepared to Act) usually followed Warning Order (e.g., Houston we have a specific problem, tell us how you plan to solve it). The military command that receives the warning order immediately tasks it staff to prepare Courses of Action aka COAs.

Those COAs are then sent back via a written message laying out what forces would be used, what resources (i.e., air support, artillery, vehicles, medical, etc.) are required to carry out the COA. The COA for organizing and deploying a Special Operations unit is much easier and less time consuming than that required to organize and deploy battalions and regiments of soldiers.

Once the COA is approved the relevant military units receive a Deployment Order. It means what it says. The military units identified for action start moving via train, truck or plane. Depends on the operation. But they are moving into place and do not initiate action until they commanders receive an Execution Order.

Since the United States and NATO are involved directly with Ukraine’s military planning, I am certain they followed the JOPES process. That means the planning for the Kharkov offensive probably started the first of September, perhaps even earlier, i.e. July or August. Assembling and moving the men and equipment to deployment points took some time. It was not done overnight.

I am not familiar with the Russian planning system, but I am pretty sure the Russians follow a similar procedure to JOPES. It is important to understand this with reference to the offensive taking place around Kharkov. The Russian forces started moving into the area on Thursday, 8 September. And we are talking about hundreds of trucks, tanks, towed artillery and troops.

So, was Russia caught by surprise? No. They had at least one week’s warning of the impending Ukrainian attack. If you want to believe that Russia’s intelligence service is incompetent or was deceived in this operation, enjoy the fantasy. The Russian planners had a couple of choices. They could have moved their forces into position earlier but that would have tipped off the Ukrainians and west that the planned offensive was compromised.

Alternatively, the Russian planners may have decided to mask their movements and made choices about which villages and cities to defend and which to abandon. If Russia had moved preemptively to reinforce Izyum that would have raised warning flags for the Ukrainian and NATO planners.

I agree with Andrei Martyanov’s take–the Russians knew it was coming and chose to let the Ukrainians flood the zone in order to eventually hit the Ukrainian forces with a massive counter attack. The Ukrainians are no longer in fortified defensive positions and their lines of communication to support the forward troops are now defined precisely. The Ukrainian attack has not destroyed nor disrupted Russia’s air, artillery, rocket and missile assets. Attacking the Ukrainian units is an easier task, not more difficult.

I am not privy to the Russian plan. But what I do know is that the planning process required to deploy the troops and equipment moving into Kharkov was not a panicked response. Hollywood can create the illusion of rapid movement of military troops, but the real world requires alerting units, making sure they are properly supplied and then undertaking the logistic task of moving those units into combat. This means the planning was deliberate, not a crisis response.


Thanks for sharing!