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Tactical lessons from Ukraine                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Mar/21/2022 : Posted by: Mel

Related Category: Historical Insights, Politics & Gov, World Watching,

For anyone not aware, the Russian army after spending months building up their forces along the Ukrainian border, ultimately invaded Ukraine on Feb 24 of 2022. This has devolved from a military action to genocide and humanitarian crisis. While I don’t wish to ignore the scale of human tragedy that is unfolding, there are some serious lessons to be learned about the Russian military and its tactical capability based on their actions over the last 3 weeks.

For the sake of full disclosure, I should not be considered a military expert. Nevertheless, I might be considered by some to be a knowledgeable observer. While I don’t glorify war, I have read a lot of military history from the American Civil War to the present. I like to believe I understand the implementation of various types of equipment and strategy in warfare. Then again, maybe I just read too much and want to see if my observations amount to any meaningful conclusions.

When the Russian military finally rolled across the Ukrainian border, the expectation was a David v Goliath situation, but without the biblical ending. Most observers felt that the Russian war machine was going to be an unstoppable force, but that has not been case. Russian casualties are estimated to be at 21,000 – 24,000 with 13,000 of those deaths. That represents a minimum 12% casualty rate. In military terms a “casualty” is any death or injury sufficient that the soldier can no longer fight. In contrast, the Ukrainian military has lost approximately 1400 soldiers as of 3 weeks in.

As the war unfolds it is unclear if the Russians actually have enough forces to take and control the major cities of Ukraine.

The Ukrainian force is composed of special ops, conventional forces, territorial forces and a growing corps of private citizens, all of whom are determined not to allow Russia to achieve its objectives. The Ukrainians military is showing they are exceptionally determined and capable. They are fighting for their national survival, their homeland and their way of life. Most important, they have home-field advantage with the support of the local communities. In a similar way in the US Civil War, Lee’s Army experienced a lot of success in their own states because every local farmer provided them with intelligence on enemy troop movements, along with food and basic support.

In contrast, the Russian invaders have displayed a host of weaknesses: flawed planning; overly optimistic intelligence projections about how the conflict would play out; underestimation of the Ukrainian forces and people; inadequate maintenance and logistics; unimpressive equipment; a reliance on poorly trained conscripts and, perhaps most surprisingly, an inability to mount effective cyberwarfare.

The Russian military has a substantial percentage of conscripts. Estimates vary depending on the article used for reference, but it is likely in the range of 20-25%. By most accounts these conscripts are not warfighters, but nearly every job in an effective military is critical. In the Russian Army, conscripts serve for a one year rotation. After basic and advanced training, that generally means 6-8 months of service from unmotivated troops. Putin recently announced a mandatory extension of their tour for all active service members’ which is not something that will motivate them to work harder. In western armies the model is 5-7 effective rear area personnel for every forward facing fighter. These rear area roles include supply, transport, food, laundry and a host of other tasks you would not necessarily consider critical, but do matter. Having poorly trained and unmotivated troops in these roles affects the capability of your fighting force.

In Western armies such as ours, we train privates to become corporals, corporals to become sergeants, and sergeants to become lieutenants. On the battle field this means that when someone is killed or injured, others can step into the role. In western militaries we also devote a great deal of training to the development of our sergeants to create a professional noncommissioned officer corps (NONCOM). In application this means that officers create the strategy for battle, but the NONCOM’s are tasked to solve the problems that unfold during active conflict. For decades the Soviet system, now the Russian system, has stayed away from creating a strong NONCOM corps. In the 1970’s when I was in the Army, all of our gas masks had a voice box. This afforded some level of communication and the ability to assume command in critical situations. The Soviet era masks of the same decade only had voice boxes for officers. Clearly, only officers could lead and everyone else must follow. The lack of ingenuity shown by the Russians on the battlefield indicates that very little has changed in 40 years.

I served in an Army Construction Engineer Battalion, the more commonly known equivalent is the Navy’s CBs. We had a mix of jeeps, transport trucks and heavy equipment. I know that every time we stopped, everyone was out checking equipment, pumping grease, topping off fluids and inspecting the road ahead. If you were not doing preventive maintenance, your equipment was going to break down at the least opportune time. Beyond poor maintenance, it is clear from the videos that the Russians have relatively unimpressive equipment. Considering the investments they made over the last decade to replace and modernize their equipment this result is surprising. The poor maintenance has led to a great deal of mechanized equipment being abandoned.

In a similar vein, it appears that Russian precision munitions aren’t really very precise. In the first 48 hours a lot of precision weapons were fired long range at airports with the obvious intent of cratering runways. Virtually none of these arms found their target allowing the modest Ukrainian Air Force to keep flying.

There are some clear failures of what is considered basic tactics for any modern military. One of those is “combined arms” where there is a coordinated effort involving armor, infantry, engineers, artillery, and mortars. There also appears to be a poorly planned resupply and logistical effort. The German blitzkrieg of WWII had a very coordinated supply effort to keep it pressing forward. The Allied forces emulated this with the Red Ball Express to keep pressing towards Germany after the Normandy invasion. Even Napoleon understood the importance of supplies vs foraging and commissioned his scientist to come up with a means of preserving food for transport.

Staying dispersed is a key tactic in modern warfare, especially with the advent of drones. A highlight of recent news reporting was the 40-mile traffic jam we saw outside of Kyiv. Much of what the cameras captured would be considered incompetent by a modern strategist. Trucks driving 3 abreast may look impressive, but is folly. When one truck runs out of gas, gets a flat tire, or is attacked there is nowhere to go. With muddy fields on both sides of the road there is no way to bring up fuel trucks or repair equipment. Ultimately, only a few vehicles need to be attacked or fail before the entire convoy is stymied.

Considering the time of year the campaign was initiated, planners should have configured their vehicles for muddy fields. Even their tracked vehicles seem to have struggled with the mud. The long column eventually dispersed into the woods in small groups, but many vehicles remain abandoned along the roadside. Video indicates some of these losses are due to battle damage, but others only have flat tires or empty fuel tanks according to reports.

Intelligence and planning matter and in that area this has proven to be an unimpressive campaign. Russian intelligence should have included how much local support they would have, what defenses the Ukrainians had, and the limitations of their own equipment and manpower. Prior to the invasion Ukraine was very accessible for garnering firsthand intelligence by the Russians. If they had multiple intelligence reports, they clearly ignored all but the most favorable. We won’t know for years, but the strategy could have been entirely planned by Putin based only on what he believed or wanted to believe. For the United States, much of our military failure in Vietnam can be traced back to nearly all strategic decisions coming out of the Oval Office as mandates and objectives for our generals.

While it is hard to know what is “truth,” and what is “filtered truth”, some captured Russian soldiers claim they were told they would be welcomed as liberators. If true, then clearly the entire campaign was based on very flawed assumptions about how they would be received, how quickly they could take the capital of Kyiv, and particularly how quickly they could topple the government. Even the “separatist” regions of Donetsk and Luhansk have shown significant resistance.

The Russian army has clearly lost any initiative they might have started with, but they are still a substantial force.

The level of resistance that the Ukrainian forces have shown makes it apparent that capturing any major urban areas is not practical. When the United States military cleared and then held cities during the Iraq War, including Ramadi and Fallujah along with portions of Baghdad, a very labor intensive strategy for urban warfare was used.

For big-city battles you are required to take every building and clear every room, and then you have to leave forces behind in each building or else the enemy will come back behind you and reoccupy them. So, it's incredibly soldier-intensive. Failure to take and hold every building provides a resistance with windows and roof tops to attack the occupying force from. The Russians have nowhere near enough soldiers to do that even for Kyiv, much less all of the other cities in Ukraine.

Clearly, lacking enough forces to take and control Kyiv they have resorted to other tactics. They do have missiles, rockets, artillery, and bombs and an apparent willingness to use them in a very indiscriminate fashion. This may explain why they have reverted to the same approach they used in Chechnya, Grozny, and in Aleppo, where they depopulated the cities by indiscriminate use of bombs. And it is going to be an endurance contest between the Russians' willingness to destroy cities and the Ukrainians' ability to survive such destruction. This Russian strategy is sometimes called “rubble,” as that is all that is left of a city.

The notion of how grounded in reality that Putin is or isn’t is fodder for another time. Clearly, whatever strategic assessments and assumptions the Russians based their invasion plan on were grossly misguided. The caliber of their training and reliability of their equipment is also clearly in doubt. This is clearly going to be a bloody quagmire for Russia, whose losses after 3 weeks exceed 10 years of American losses in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian forces and people have shown they are determined, capable and resourceful, I hope they can last long enough.

For most watchers, Russia is considered a “Global Super Power” and there was an expectation that their military capability would align with this category. This is the same reason many countries held off early support; the expectation it would be over before support got there. Instead, after many tactical failures by Russia their strategy has devolved to total destruction. Now the contest is; how much loss can the Russians absorb vs how much destruction can the Ukrainians tolerate? The Russians have not shown the tactics and capabilities of a perceived Super Power. If the Russians win, will there be anything left to proudly claim as a prize?

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