“IDON’T BATTLE ANYTHING is always as good or as bad as the first reports of horny men would have it,” remarked William Slim, a famous British Field Marshal of World War II. From the moment Russian troops entered Ukraine on February 24 this year, experts have made sweeping statements about the future of the war. The tank was declared dead based on tearout video footage. Turkish drones have been hailed as unstoppable game changers. Western anti-tank weapons were propelled into a leading role. Now, nine months into the war, more thoughtful thoughts are emerging. Western armed forces have a lot to learn.
On November 30, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a think tank in London, published a detailed report* on the lessons of the first five months of the war, a period when Ukraine was largely on the defensive. The authors, including Mykhaylo Zabrodsky, a Ukrainian lieutenant general, and a pair of RUSI analysts – benefited from extensive access to Ukrainian military data and decision-making. Their findings paint a more complex picture than the popular notion of a Russian horde going head-to-head with nimble Ukrainians.
The invasion failed, but it was not predestined to do so. The Russian army had 12 soldiers north of Kyiv for every Ukrainian, and Russia attacked 75% of Ukraine’s stationary air defense sites from the air in the first 48 hours of war. A Russian cyberattack successfully disrupted Ukraine’s satellite communications. Ukraine endured this initial blitz largely because it had the foresight to disperse its ammunition stockpiles from major arsenals a week before the invasion, with those efforts accelerating three days before the war. Aircraft and air defense systems were dispersed within hours of the attack. As a result, only a tenth of mobile air defense sites were hit.
If Russian targeting had been more precise and agile, even these might have been hit. Fortunately, it took two days, and sometimes much longer, for Russian military intelligence to send targeted intelligence to a command center in Moscow and for a strike to happen, according to another. RUSI paper. In a war against Taiwan, America could not rely on the People’s Liberation Army of China making the same mistakes. “There is no sanctuary in modern warfare,” the report concludes. “The enemy can strike to full operational depth,” that is, well behind the fictitious front lines.
This means armies must fight differently. Concealment is an option, but it is “extremely difficult to maintain”, concludes RUSI, because different types of sensors, such as optical cameras that detect motion, thermal cameras that detect heat, and electronic antennae that pick up radio broadcasts, can be “layered” on top of each other to spot even the well hidden troops. Another solution is to use hardened structures, such as pillboxes and concrete bunkers. But these tend to fix soldiers in one place. The best way to survive is to simply spread out and move faster than the enemy can spot you. Even Ukrainian special forces, which tend to operate in small teams, are spotted by Russian drones if they stay in one place too long.
Contrary to popular wisdom, Javelot and NLAW anti-tank missiles supplied by the United States and Britain did not save the day, although they feature heavily in video footage from the first week of the conflict. Turkey either TB2 drones, which struggled to survive after the third day. “The propaganda value of Western equipment…was extremely high early in the war,” noted Jack Watling of RUSI, one of the report’s authors, recently spoke on “The Russia Contingency,” a podcast on Russian military issues. “It didn’t really have a substantial material effect on the course of the fighting…until…April.” The deciding factor was more prosaic, he added. “What blunted the Russians north of Kyiv were two artillery brigades firing all their guns every day.
“The central role of artillery is a sobering reflection for armies in Western Europe, whose firepower has declined dramatically since the end of the Cold War. From 1990 to 2020, the number of artillery pieces among major European armies has fallen by 57%, according to a tally by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, another think tank in London. Ukraine’s arsenal was formidable. It began the war with over 1,000 cannon artillery systems (those with long tubes) and 1,680 multiple rocket launchers – more than Britain, France, Italy, Spain and Poland together, and the largest artillery force in Europe after Russia. The main constraint was ammunition.
Ukraine maintained “artillery parity” for about six weeks, far longer than almost any Western army would have managed under the same circumstances. Then it began to run out of shells, giving Russia a ten-to-one advantage in the volume of fire in June, an imbalance that persisted until Ukraine received an influx of Western artillery systems. advanced, including the American HIMARS. “[C]consumption rates in high-intensity combat remain extraordinarily high,” the authors note. Few Western countries have the capacity to build new weapons, spare parts and ammunition at the pace required. “NATO members other than the WE are not in a strong position on these fronts.
Drones have played a vital role, albeit largely for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance rather than strike missions. Russian units that had their own drones, rather than relying on those from higher headquarters, could rain “very reactive fires”, says RUSI, hitting targets within three to five minutes of detection – a remarkably fast sensor-shooter loop by historical standards. The figure for units without their own drones was around half an hour, with lower accuracy.
But a key lesson from Ukraine is that armies need more drones than they realize. About 90% of all drones used by the Ukrainian Armed Forces between February and July were destroyed, notes RUSI. The average life expectancy of a fixed-wing drone was around six flights; that of a simpler quadricopter a derisory three. Such attrition would eat away at the fleets of European armies within days.
He favors simple, cheap systems, which can be treated as quasi-disposable, rather than tiny fleets of bulky, expensive drones with large liquid-fueled engines and advanced sensors. This, in turn, requires more trained personnel capable of flying them and a more relaxed attitude towards their use in peacetime. “Currently, there are fewer administrative restrictions for [Britain’s] The Royal Artillery will fire live 155mm howitzers on civilian roads,” snorts RUSI“only for them to steal a [drone] over the same airspace to monitor what they hit.
The war also shows how drones can be defeated. One approach is old-fashioned deception. Ukrainian forces discovered that when Russian reconnaissance units marked their positions with laser callsigns, they could respond by launching smoke grenades to mask their location. But it also tended to blind the defending unit. The most important way to counter drones, says RUSIis to use electronic warfare (EO), a weapon whose invisibility left him languishing in the shadows.
Russian EO forced Ukraine to restrict how it uses its drones. In theory, they can be flown over Russian targets remotely and send live footage back to an artillery unit. In practice, the radio emissions necessary for navigation and communications, both from the drone and from the ground station, can be detected, and in some cases disrupted, by an electronic attack. Ukraine therefore had to fly many of its drones on predefined routes, with data downloaded on the way back. This is often hours later, by which time the target may have moved. Ukrainian data suggests that only a third of drone missions prove successful.
The Russian military, since Soviet times, is said to be at the forefront of the field and extensively practicing electronic warfare in Syria, often wreaking havoc on civilian airliners in the region. This is undoubtedly a serious challenge for Ukraine. But it’s not always easy to use, and fratricide is common. Mr Watling tells the story of two Russian pilots who were overheard complaining that their radars were jammed. They quickly realize that their own EO the pods—small, missile-like attachments that can fool radars—each target the other’s radar. The pods are duly turned off, forcing planes to fly without electronic protection in a dangerous area
It is easy to tell such tales of fratricide to uplift the unfortunate Russians. But would Western militaries fare much better in a similar situation? Mr. Watling is skeptical. “We don’t have a lot of exercise areas where we can really turn all of our EO equipment on,” he says. “We can do that in niche contexts. We haven’t tested doing this on a large scale. ■
* “Preliminary Conventional Combat Lessons from the Russian Invasion of Ukraine: February-July 2022” by Mykhaylo Zabrodskyi, Jack Watling, Oleksandr V. Danylyuk and Nick Reynolds, Royal United Services Institute, 30 November 2022
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