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5 Lessons from the War in Ukraine

mortar operators in Ukraine
The war in Ukraine is the most significant conventional conflict on the world stage in decades. Defense analysts are anxious to learn its lessons. Credit: / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0

February 24 marks the passing of an entire year since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine has captured global attention, not least because it has the potential to significantly alter the world’s geostrategic balance. It is also notable as the first incidence of conventional warfare to take place on European soil in decades.

Defense and security analysts have been watching the conflict unfold with keen interest. A year on, the war provides a myriad of grim case studies, all alluding to the possible future of warfare.

1. The performance of the Russian army has been underwhelming

At the outset of the war, many analysts predicted that Ukraine’s resistance would crumble within a matter of weeks. In fact, the CIA predicted that Russia would overcome Ukrainian resistance in just a few days and that Ukraine would be forced to adopt guerrilla tactics.

The Russian military’s performance in Syria and the swift annexation of Crimea had created the impression of an effective fighting force. At the same time, new hardware like the T-14 Armata tank and the Sukhoi Su-57 multirole fighter jet also generated quite a lot of speculation that Russia had significantly modernized its armed forces.

However, predictions that Ukraine would quickly lose the war were wrong. The embattled country has even scored a number of significant victories against Russia, most notably in Kherson last November.

There are several reasons the Russian army has underperformed in Ukraine. Among them is the lack of non-commissioned officers (NCOs), which form the backbone of most Western armies. The lack of these crucial leaders is sorely felt because NCOs are needed to make split-second tactical decisions and ensure that commissioned officers are not having to micromanage entire platoons. Without them, at the platoon, section, and fireteam levels, the Russian military is lacking in flexibility.

Another issue is a lack of manpower. Ukraine is the second-largest country in Europe and Russia has not deployed enough troops to cover such a large tract of territory. This has had dire consequences for Russia’s operational effectiveness. Most tellingly, Russian tanks and armor have often been observed – and subsequently taken advantage of – moving into enemy territory without infantry escorts, leaving them wide open to attacks by Ukrainian infantry with Javelins and other anti-tank weapons.

2. Manoeuvre is dead… or is it?

One of the most important debates surrounding the war in Ukraine is whether manoeuvre warfare has been supplanted by attrition warfare.

As the name suggests, manoeuvre warfare entails positioning units to take advantage of an enemy’s vulnerabilities whilst avoiding their strengths. Attrition, on the other hand, is the attempt to wear down the enemy to the point of collapse by incurring heavy manpower and hardware losses.

Some military experts like Professor Anthony King have argued that manoeuvre warfare in Ukraine is “dead” because neither side has the opportunity to strike at the other’s unprotected flank or rear.

King’s position is based on the prevalence of urban warfare in Ukraine. He argues that “Once an attacker arrives at an urban objective, which the enemy is determined to hold, the advancing force will be forced to fight a pitched battle for it.” Under these conditions, manoeuvering becomes difficult, and the fighting takes on the properties of a siege.

Not everyone agrees with King. Major Steve Maguire, an officer in the British Army, argues that manoeuvre is still very much alive and well. He draws on the Ukrainian Kharkiv counteroffensive as a case study demonstrating this.

During the Kharkiv counteroffensive, Ukrainian forces prioritized capturing road and rail junctions and bridges to enable rapid manoeuvre. They focused on defeating the enemy rather than capturing terrain.

According to Maguire, “The [Ukrainian forces] showed the tactical confidence to bypass [Russian military] positions, and in particular well defended urban centers, to focus on the operational dislocation of the Russian defensive plan.”

The manoeuvre debate will be likely to continue as the war progresses.

3. “There is no sanctuary in modern warfare”

The Ukraine war has demonstrated that “There is no sanctuary in modern warfare,” according to analysis by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). What this means is that any point can be attacked. For example, a headquarters or artillery position far from the frontline can still be neutralized by an airstrike, drone attack, artillery barrage, or special forces raid.

“The enemy can strike throughout operational depth. Survivability depends on dispersing ammunition stocks, command and control, maintenance areas and aircraft,” say the experts at RUSI.

This may make the dispersal of vital assets paramount, rather than the focus being on their protection via fortification, concealment, or other methods.

As the RUSI commentary highlights, the “Russians succeeded in engaging 75% of static defense sites in the first 48 hours of the war.” It was the dispersed targets that they could not hit.

4. Drones are increasing the lethality of artillery

Since their use by the United States in the War on Terror, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – commonly referred to as drones – have received quite a bit of public and media attention.

Typically, the focus of popular attention is on drones with the ability to launch missiles from the air. However, an even more significant usage of drones in the Ukraine conflict has arguably been their ability to increase the accuracy and lethality of artillery pieces fired from the ground.

This is important because in many respects the war has become a grinding artillery duel, especially when winter conditions have slowed down the pace of operations and made it more difficult to manoeuvre.

Both Russia and Ukraine use a combination of precision and unguided munitions with their artillery. However, Russia has placed a greater emphasis on indiscriminate massed firepower. As noted by RUSI in a recent report, “The generally mediocre performance of Russia’s ground forces has been increasingly offset by their leveraging of massed artillery fires to facilitate a slow and methodical advance… forcing the Ukrainian military to abandon territory after it is devastated.”

Ukrainian forces also use massed firepower but there is a growing emphasis on precision strikes as well, which are greatly aided by the use of drones. To increase the accuracy of artillery, forward observers are often sent ahead to mark enemy positions and coordinate strikes with artillery operators. This is nothing new in warfare, but drones can now be used to enhance or replace the role of the forward observer.

On many occasions, the Ukrainians have successfully used drones to detect enemy positions and enhance accuracy. Drones can be sent to hover over a target and gauge its position and coordinates, sometimes more accurately than a forward observer on the ground.

The drones used by Ukrainian forward observers and artillery units are often cheap and commercially available.

5. The supply demands of conventional war are immense

The importance of logistics, production, and supplies will not come as a surprise to any military analyst but it is worth reiterating: If an army is not supplied it cannot fight.

Vast quantities of equipment have been supplied to Ukraine by Western allies. For instance, in December last year, the United States pledged $1.85 billion in military aid to Ukraine, including the much sought-after Patriot missile systems.

However, keeping a force fighting fit for a war on this scale requires significant logistical efforts and massive production output.

In January, the Center for Strategic & International Studies published a report examining United States military armament inventories and transfers to Ukraine. The report noted that some of the Department of Defense’s (DOD) inventories had begun to run low after a year-long sustained effort to transfer equipment to Ukraine.

Meanwhile, some analysts have projected that Ukrainian ammunition stockpiles could be depleted in the second half of 2023 if production and weapons transfers are not ramped up to meet the immense demands of the war.

Similar assessments have been made of the Russian side. Heavy losses, particularly of tanks and armored vehicles, combined with the effects of sanctions on manufacturing and supplies have reportedly bitten into Russia’s ability to keep up with the supply demands of the war.

Naturally, the capabilities of both sides are largely determined by the continued supply of weapons and armaments.

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