The wall-to-wall coverage of the Russo-Ukraine War in the world’s media has brought home the horror of conventional warfare in Europe.
It seems as if anyone who has as much as sniffed a military uniform has an opinion on the conflict, as broadcasters seek out more and more obscure “experts” and allow them to vent their penny’s worth on the airwaves.
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Much of the commentary has concentrated on the tactics – or lack of them – of both the Russian invaders and of the Ukrainian defenders and the weaponry both sides are using. Who can now not be familiar with the success of the Ukrainian hand-held anti-tank missiles supplied by their allies, or of Russia’s use of massed, and generally not too sophisticated, artillery to smash everything in its path?
Relatively little coverage, however, has been given to what might be called the macro lessons of the war so far. Many of these are reiterations of what has been learned many times before, often at great cost in blood and treasure, and has subsequently been forgotten in peacetime. Below is a selection of the more notable ones just as a reminder. There will be others I have omitted and which you may wish to add.
The first of these is that numbers count. “Get there first with the most troops” may well be the fundamental diktat in warfare, and victory usually – though not always – goes to the big battalions. Despite taking a battering from the Ukrainians, the Russians are still able to continue because of their overwhelming superiority in numbers of men and materiel.
Their losses have been high, as no doubt have also those of Ukraine, and their forces are certainly downgraded, but they are still going. Recent comments by Admiral Lord West and General Lord Dannatt on the size of the UK’s armed forces takes cognisance of this, and our politicians would be well advised to take heed.
The second lesson is the need to be able to secure air superiority, even if only temporarily in time and space. He who controls the air controls the battlefield, as proven in every conflict since the beginning of the Second World War. This the Russians have failed to do in Ukraine despite a marked superiority in numbers of aircraft; a combination of poor planning and tactics on their part, the Ukrainian pre-emptive dispersal of their own air assets, and the preservation and use of the defenders’ ground-based air defence equipments.
The end result of these factors is that the Russian air force has lost many aircraft and helicopters and has failed to deny the Ukrainian land forces the freedom of manoeuvre. It has been forced to fly limited missions, many at night, whilst the Ukrainians have still managed to launch sorties of their own, event to the extent on attacking fuel storage facilities inside Russia and being able to supply their besieged garrison in Mariupol right up to the final surrender.
The next major lesson is the need to train and operate in combined arms formations in peacetime so that you can operate competently in war. Whether organised into a battalion tactical group (BTG) of 700-900 troops as favoured by the Russians, or into brigade combat teams (BCTs) as preferred by the US and some of its NATO allies, what matters is that the components of these organisations – tanks, infantry, artillery, engineers, air defence, medical staff, logistics and so on – have trained together and are familiar with each other before being thrown into operations for real.
Looking at the earlier Russian attempts to secure Kyiv, or at their more recent attempts to cross the Siverskyi Donets River in the Donbas, you do wonder whether they have ever attempted such operations before in training. The Ukrainians, on the other hand, seem to be better in their combined arms practices, although perhaps a better measure of their competence will come if and when they make the transition to larger scale offensive operations. Clearly, without integrated and all-arms organisation and the appropriate training you are more or less likely to fail.
We have also been reminded of the very real requirement for deception and camouflage from the strategic down to the tactical level. People sometimes talk about the “transparent battlefield” and this at first might seem to have been borne out in the current war. At the beginning, even before the Russian invasion of February 24th, satellite imagery was showing the build up of forces both in Russia and in Belarus. It was clear then that Putin’s “special operation” was on the cards.
The same satellites then followed the course of the unfolding invasion, as did a bourgeoning number of intelligence gathering airborne platforms from NATO and other western allies, providing accurate and much-needed information and intelligence for Ukraine. Add to this the all-seeing drones and UAVs which constantly patrol the battlefield and it would seem that there is no longer any hiding place for troops manoeuvring on the ground.
Well yes, but not completely so. While nobody has started shooting satellites down, not yet anyway, it can be done. Plus airborne sensors can be jammed and deceived. At the tactical level camouflage is still an effective counter-measure, thermal imaging and IR notwithstanding, and decoy or spoof equipment and positions also play their part. What is most interesting is that the Russians, who have a word for such deception operations – maskirovka – seem to have forgotten how to employ it.
Are we in the west likely to be better at it? There have been successes in the past; think of tanks disguised as lorries pre-El Alamein, or the ghost American army in Kent prior to D-Day, or indeed the famous Operation Mincemeat. These demonstrated subterfuge and deception on a grand scale. Do we practice it nowadays? I don’t know if we do, but looking at the current imbroglio in eastern Europe perhaps we should pay more attention to it.
Another significant lesson from the current conflict is the need for stuff – men, munitions, equipment, medical supplies, you name it – in spadeloads. It’s reported that the Russians area already running short of personnel in just over three and a half months of fighting and have initiated measures to try to rapidly make up the looming shortfall. They may have lost as much as 30% of the ground troops they have committed so far too.
Nowhere is this need for stuff more apparent than in the realm of artillery ammunition. Recently the Ukrainians have been complaining that they can fire only 5-6,000 rounds per day and that supplies of Soviet/Russian era 122 mm and 152 mm shells are running out. The Russians could well be firing several times that and appear to using rounds and fuses which may be well past their sell-by date, with possibly up to 30% of rounds fired being duds. The point here is, of course, that ammunition expenditure rates in modern, conventional land warfare in most cases vastly exceed peacetime planning estimates. We need to ensure that we have sufficient stocks to last the course in any future war of the same nature, and I suspect that currently we don’t.
The above list of lessons learned is hardly exhaustive and, as I said at the beginning of the piece, others will be able to add others from their own areas of expertise. For the UK and its western allies it has come as a timely wake-up call, as fiscal pressures reduce the size and scope of military expenditure, and the size of forces, to an all-time low. It’s not too late to reverse the deficit, but the time to start is now.
© Stuart Crawford 2022