The full-scale invasion of Ukraine has provided an invaluable opportunity to assess the implications on a range of issues for modern warfare. The media is full of many publicly made judgments on these matters, but assumptions have mainly lacked supporting data or insight into operational planning and decision making. It is therefore imperative to ensure that those drawing lessons from the conflict do so from a solid foundation.
There were many analysts who offered sweeping pronouncements about the future of war. The death of the tank was celebrated on the basis of video game footage. Drones were hailed as unstoppable game-changers. Anti-tank weapons were thrust into an early lead role.
Debates about the relative merits of armour, anti-armour weapons, electronic warfare (EW) and air power have been raging among observers of the conflict and these abundant debates touched upon the ‘utility’ and ‘obsolescence’ of various military systems. However most have lacked grounding in data. Much of the discourse on the war has been drawn from online videos that show specific activities detached from a wider tactical or operational context. A great many definitive statements have been made based on misinformation and disinformation.
Now, nearly ten months into the war as the winter sets in, more considered reflections are emerging. There is much that armed forces across the globe can learn. The need is to understand how new capabilities not only offer opportunity in themselves, but also enable and magnify the effects deliverable by legacy systems.
The initial Russian plan hinged on speed, and the use of deception to keep the Ukrainian forces away from Kyiv and enable rapid seizure of the capital. The plan nearly succeeded, as the Russians achieved an overwhelming force ratio advantage North of Kyiv.
However, the very operational security that enabled the successful deception, also led Russian forces to be unprepared at the tactical level to execute the plan effectively. When speed failed to produce the desired results, Russian forces found their positions steadily degraded as Ukraine mobilised, held on and fought back.
Despite early setbacks, Russia refocused on Donbas and, since Ukraine had largely expanded its ammunition supply, it proved successful in subsequent operations, slowed by the determination – rather than the capabilities – of Ukrainian troops.
However, the tactical incompetence of the Russian military at levels ranging from NCO’s to senior commanders based on the various images and reports surprised most military professionals.
RUSI, the world’s oldest defence and security think tank whose mission is to inform, influence and enhance public debate has now come out with a report on the conflict up to the period prior to the Ukrainian counter offensive which highlights five issues that have implications for all Armies.
No sanctuary in modern warfare
The foremost of these is that there is no sanctuary in modern warfare. The enemy can strike throughout operational depth with long-range precision fires. Moreover, both countries had networks of agents in place to observe key targets and to update their command on the movement of troops and stores. The integration of human intelligence (HUMINT) with long-range precision-fires kill chains is critical.
Survivability depends on dispersing ammunition stocks, command and control (C2), maintenance areas and aircraft. Ukraine successfully evaded Russia’s initial wave of strikes by dispersing its arsenals, aircraft and air defences.
Conversely, the Russians succeeded in engaging 75% of static defence sites in the first 48 hours of the war.
Large initial stockpiles and significant capacity
Despite the prominence of anti-tank guided weapons in the public narrative, Ukraine blunted Russia’s attempt to seize Kyiv using massed fires from two artillery brigades. The difference in numbers between Russian and Ukrainian artillery was not as significant at the beginning of the conflict, with just over a 2:1 advantage: 2,433-barrel artillery systems against 1,176; and 3,547 multiple-launch rocket systems against 1,680.
Ukraine maintained artillery parity for the first month and a half and then began to run low on munitions so that, by June, the AFRF had a 10:1 advantage in volume of fire. The war in Ukraine has demonstrated that consumption rates in high-intensity war fighting remain extraordinarily high and that resilience demands a capacity to build new units, produce spare parts and ammunition, and have sufficient stockpiles to remain competitive in all phases of fighting.
At the height of the fighting in Donbas, Russia was using more ammunition in two days than the entire British military had in stock. At Ukrainian rates of consumption, British stockpiles would potentially last a week.
Apparently, no country in NATO, other than the US, has sufficient initial weapons stocks for war fighting or the industrial capacity to sustain large scale operations. This must be rectified if deterrence is to be credible.
In our context the focus has to be on Atmanirbhar Bharat to build up and sustain our stocks be it of ammunition or spares.
Un-crewed aerial systems (UAS) and counter-UAS (CUAS) are essential
Although critical by providing situational awareness, 90 percent of UAS employed are lost. For the most part, UAS must therefore be cheap and dispensable. For land forces, they must be organic to units for the purposes of both situational awareness and target acquisition. The primary means of CUAS is EW.
Another critical tactical requirement is to be alerted to the presence of UAS. CUAS is critical for protecting vessels operating beyond the protection of a task force at sea.
For the Air Force, the provision of look-down sensing to locate UAS to contribute to air defence is critical. This allows defensive resources to be prioritised on the right axes.
UAS should be split into three broad categories for land forces. The first are rotary-type UAS able to maneuver close to the ground and in complex terrain, fielded across all maneuver formations for the purposes of route proving, reconnaissance, situational awareness, target acquisition, fire correction, and a wide range of other tasks.
The second are fixed wing UAS able to fly at medium altitude into operational depth and perform a single task, whether that be target acquisition or direct effects. Where multiple effects are required, this can be achieved by flying complexes of multiple UAS of this type. These should be used by units able to affect what they find, either reconnaissance units or artillery. Both the first and second category of UAS must be cheap and available in quantity.
The third category comprises platforms carrying higher (1) echelon sensors. Best employed behind the forward troops and tasked with standoff sensing. Countering UAS has proven no less important across all domains.
For land forces, units must have the means of detecting the presence of hostile UAS. Frontages must be covered by the means of defeating enemy UAS. Defeating UAS does not mean kinetically destroying them. It simply means denying the UAS the ability to achieve its mission. This could be done through the dazzling of sensors, or denial of navigation or control. The most efficient protection against UAS is EW and ensuring that electronic attack and electronic protection is available at all echelons.
The force must fight for the right to precision
Precision is not only vastly more efficient in the effects it delivers but also allows the force to reduce its logistics tail and thereby makes it more survivable.
Precision weapons, however, are scarce and can be defeated by EW. To enable kill chains to function at the speed of relevance, EW for attack, protection and direction finding is a critical element of modern combined arms operations. Sequencing fires to disrupt EW and create windows of opportunity for precision effects is critical and creates training requirements. In modern warfare, the electromagnetic spectrum is unlikely to be denied, but it is continually disrupted, and forces must endeavour to gain advantage within it.
The experience in Ukraine clarifies some of the critical effects of a contested EMS. Military discourse has focused on the problem of EMS denial. The war provides a better canvas to assess the impact of EW on armies with appropriately resilient systems, and tactics, techniques and procedures.
Denial can be achieved for a short period, or across a limited geographic area. However, any kind of targeted denial of bands of the EMS can be evaded through altering frequencies.
Left uncontested, EW slows kill chains and most importantly, degrades precision. The inability to determine accurate locations, let alone transmit timely data on target locations, or for munitions to achieve precise impacts against targets, all risk a force losing competitiveness against an opponent.
As General Raj Shukla wrote in Russia – Ukraine War: The Conflict and its Global Impact; “Precision fire systems are the future and the critical role of long – range fires is instructive”. He also said, “the Indian military needs to evaluate the entire challenge of precision weaponry and upgrade its capacities”. However, for precision munitions to function properly, it is essential to actively contest the EMS.
Pervasive ISTAR for land forces
For land forces, the pervasive ISTAR (Information, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) on the modern battlefield and the layering of multiple sensors at the tactical level make concealment exceedingly difficult to sustain.
Survivability is often afforded by being sufficiently dispersed to become an uneconomical target, by moving quickly enough to disrupt the enemy’s kill chain and thereby evade engagement, or by entering hardened structures.
Hasty defences can increase immediate survivability but also risk the force becoming fixed by fire while precision fires and specialist munitions do not leave these positions survivable. Forces instead should focus only concentrating mass under favourable conditions, with an ability to offer mutual support beyond line of sight – and should give precedence to mobility as a critical component of their survivability.
But what remains paramount is what General Hasnain mentioned while speaking at a book launch of Russia – Ukraine War written by Colonel Ajay Singh (Retd). He said, “While technology may have taken over, the human element has not been eliminated.” The delivery of results lies in human resources and the war has been marked by the usual miscalculations, uncertainties and human failings.
The war in Ukraine though a watershed moment but is far from over and the conclusions have been limited to the consideration of conventional operations.
Definitive lessons will emerge, and debates will reign regarding technology versus mass which will be settled differently by different nations based on their threat perceptions and comprehensive national power.
What is material in the Indian context is the answers that emerge need to dictate our decisions to decide where to invest to ‘deter’ and ‘defeat’.
-The story earlier appeared on www.firstpost.com