November 29, 2022

Op-Ed: Rewriting war as we know it — The Ukraine war is burying military dogmas


Russian tanks have been widely ridiculed in internet memes – Copyright AFP/File Anatolii Stepanov

Even allowing for Russia’s astonishingly talentless, utterly stupid use of armor and materials, the war in Ukraine is truly changing the whole structure of warfare. This is happening at the most basic levels.

Let’s start with the obvious

A lot of fundamental changes are happening in Ukraine:

Infantry are no longer “cannon fodder”. They’re far more valuable and far more effective, than ever before. Armor is having to become much more agile, adaptable, and tactically aware at much longer ranges. Artillery has reinvented itself as a versatile, highly efficient strike capability far beyond its previous roles.

Drones have proven to be a huge asset in both active combat and passive roles. The Bayraktar drones in particular are tough, efficient, and able to strike extremely hard at longer ranges, freeing up airpower from “laundry duty” in tactical ground support.  This is the first time drones have been used in this type of environment, tactical context, and scale. The evolution of drones has just hit top gear.  

Logistics are now far more dynamic mainly because many of these systems are much easier to manage. The Ukrainians are using logistics that work extremely well in a very demanding situation. The Russian problems with vast amounts of cumbersome logistics and ponderous setups for operations are the best possible contrast to the new systems.

In the air, air superiority is no longer a pre-ordained matter of numbers and statistics. The Russians initially had air superiority and had no idea how to use it. They’ve now effectively lost air superiority at a hideous cost to their air force. You could even say that their blasé assumption of air dominance was suicidal, flying blithely and ineffectively over virtual forests of anti-air defenses.  

Ukrainian volunteers are apparently able to work well with relatively little training, provided they’re with experienced troops. This is important because it means they can be effective with less lead time before deployment. That’s very new, particularly with modern weapons systems which used to be notorious for too much tech complexity. This is a “maturation” of the evolution of combat systems over the last 60 years.

There’s another important thing to note here. The Russians and Ukrainians are using tanks. The Russian tanks are getting slaughtered in numbers not seen since 1943. (The fighting in Ukraine in WW2 is a critical study in just about all Western armies, but obviously not in Russia.)

The Russians have taken about 10 times the tank casualties of the Ukrainians. They have similar anti-tank and drone systems, but they’re achieving almost nothing by comparison. The Ukrainians also aren’t putting their tanks in far-beyond-ridiculous combat situations. Every time you see a tank unsupported or on its own, you can be sure an absolute idiot put it in that position. That is simply NOT and never has been how to use tanks, and particularly in an environment where anti-tank weapons are everywhere.

Systems and combat realities

The weapons systems used in Ukraine are no great mystery in themselves. How they have utterly redefined combat realities in the Ukraine theatre is definitely new, and important. This is Cheap Kill in overdrive, in so many ways.

The net effect is that the very sloppy version of Soviet WW2 tactics and operational dogmas has failed utterly. Blazing away with old-style artillery doesn’t work. Idiotic tactical movements and absurd, futile assaults are simply killing more Russians. This really IS the old style of warfare, and it just can’t possibly work anymore against these systems.

New thinking vs old thinking

This war is also where obsolete thinking is killing so many people. In the past, huge masses of armor and artillery with air dominance were a surefire recipe for success.  In Ukraine, it doesn’t matter how much material you have if you just keep losing it.

At the tactical level, another very clear message is being sent to the world’s military forces. The Russians are also taking on massive tactical liabilities in the process of invariably making a mess of their own plans.  So you’ve “taken” somewhere. So what, if you can’t hold it and have to be able to control that space? It’s a no-brainer which seems to have left the Russians with no ideas.

Ironically, much older thinking does contradict and easily beat the way the Russians are operating in one significant way. Guderian said in the 1930s that the engine is as much a weapon as the gun. German tactics in Russia were focused on maneuver. That’s important here because there’s a lot of room for maneuver.

That’s not happening at all for the Russians. Even with thousands of kilometres to work in, they are hopelessly bad at maneuver in any form.  In WW2, that blind spot cost them about 40,000 tanks in 4 years. In Ukraine, it’s even worse in terms of total operational failures. Whatever they learned, they’ve forgotten, and it’s one of the main reasons they’re losing so badly and so often even in basic firefights.

Fighting by wire – The new way of war has arrived.

“Fight by wire” is the unavoidable new way of war. The Ukrainians have been extremely quick to adapt and use their new systems extremely effectively.

Somebody there in Ukraine definitely knows their stuff:

  • Net cost and risk to troops using new systems is far lower.
  • Training is much quicker.  
  • Ukrainian troops and systems are multiple times (at least 5 times) more effective than Russian on the basis of casualties alone.
  • Returns on systems investment are so much higher in combat for Ukraine.
  • Standoff weapons and Big Bang tech aren’t solving anything for the Russians. Long-range Russian systems aren’t very adaptable, or very effective in real terms. Even the much-hyped hypersonic systems and gruesome thermobaric weapons aren’t delivering much in the way of results by comparison to Ukrainian tactical systems.  
  • Private armies don’t seem to work too well, either. The infamous Wagner Group is achieving nothing of note. Outside volunteers aren’t doing much at all but making absurd videos of fighting where there’s no counterfire. Pay for garbage, and you get garbage, perhaps?

Thinking matters, a lot.

It’s often the way that the side which needs to innovate to survive eventually wins. This seems to have taken root at an absolute baseline for Ukraine. Since 2014, the Ukrainian military has become far more capable, but they didn’t know what sort of war they’d be fighting.

They figured that out in the first week or so. That’s a huge accomplishment for any military to be able to adapt so quickly to a war originally dictated by the enemy.  It indicates good mental flexibility, and a strong focus on what works. This is as opposed to any sort of stagnant, constipated doctrine like the one the Russians are killing themselves with.

Obsolete strategy and brain-dead intelligence don’t work, either.

The idea of taking a capital city has been obsolete since 1805. Napoleon said he thought taking Vienna would win that war, and it didn’t. The fighting got much worse, resulting in two major, extremely expensive battles for the French. The initial Russian attack on Kyiv was never going to work, either. One look at Ukraine’s capital city and its environs should have been enough. Kyiv and Kharkiv were always going to be impossible, incredibly costly, objectives.

(Never mind the theory that the Russians “thought it was going to be easy” as any sort of excuse. That’s perhaps the most utterly irresponsible possible mindset for any military operation. This is apparently systemic in the Russian military. As it turned out, the Russians couldn’t even survive their own logistics, never mind a tough and extremely determined enemy.)

Whatever is said about the Russian intelligence services, one thing seems to be being missed entirely. There is no possible excuse for any modern intelligence system to be so wrong, so often, about absolutely everything. They had people on the ground, top quality surveillance, etc., and couldn’t get even the most basic facts straight.

This is supposedly the newest part of new warfare, but the point has been driven home with a sledgehammer in this war. “If your intelligence doesn’t work, nothing else will” is the message, and the Ukrainians are winning that campaign easily too.

Russia has inflicted itself with a ridiculous multi-level strategic nightmare. Repositioning to the east was time-consuming and costly. It also gave the Ukrainians a month to prepare for an attack that has failed dismally on all levels. They can’t even think of a way out.

Simply maintaining these bogged-down, useless, so-called “troops” in Ukraine is also doomed to fail. The only possible result is a rising death toll and massive equipment wastage.

The point here is that command failure is so obvious from top to bottom that even calling this unholy indecisive mess strategy is fraudulent. This isn’t strategy in any possible sense of the word; it’s idiocy pretending to be able to think.

Ignoring the world isn’t such a great strategy, either. The sanctions could go on for 20 years. Russia has a very long-term, very large bill to pay. That’s as well as paying their own costs for the war. How that works out we’ll see, but it’s in the trillions of dollars if it goes on for about 3 years.  

So – This is the new script for war; fast, effective, cheap, extremely cost-effective, and very, very agile. Forget the world wars, forget the turgid guerrilla wars. This type of fighting can go anywhere and fight anything. This is what the world’s militaries are looking at for the future.

…And now, a question for the professionals: How do you win one of these wars?

Interesting thought, isn’t it?

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Disclaimer
The opinions expressed in this Op-Ed are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Digital Journal or its members.