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5 Hard Lessons From the War in Ukraine Many Don’t Want to Hear

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There is no shortage of commentary on the lessons to be learned from the war in Ukraine.

There is an understandable debate unfolding given the tremendous amount of sacrifice, human loss, and suffering.

The stakes are high and learning needs to occur.

War is, and has always been, the best teacher. It has been nothing short of incredible what David has been doing to Goliath on the Steppes of Ukraine.

There are indeed valuable lessons to learn from all sides. Yet, for Western militaries, it is more about the lessons they may not want to hear that will prove to be the most valuable in deterring, preparing, and if necessary, fighting the next war. Much of the West has over invested in other domains (e.g., maritime, air) and niche capabilities, at the expense of combat power on land. The war in Ukraine has validated the need for decisive land combat power to win large-scale wars. These types of wars are far from extinction and finding the right balance of capabilities to wage war in appropriate fashion, remains a fundamental security challenge for Western nations.

Historically, military organizations have been known to cling to capabilities long past their ability to offer decisive returns. Put simply, there is a continual sin to fight the way one might wish rather than the way one should, and equally important, one might not know exactly where they might have to fight and in which domains. Conversely, there are continuities in war that do not change, and therefore, an alignment of military concepts and associated capabilities in a dynamic environment remains key.

Ukraine is a harbinger of future warfare, and the world is paying close attention. In the face of adversity came extraordinary innovation.

The following five lessons bear consideration for changes that need to occur today, not tomorrow, to create advantage in future war.

1. Mass Matters. Attrition warfare is not dead.

This mode of warfare emerges when neither side can achieve a clear asymmetric advantage. Standing armies are the only instrument nations can use to prevent, deter, and fight invading aggressors. Mass is required in a war of attrition. Funding and maintaining land power may seem like an expensive insurance policy but doing the opposite is to risk state collapse. Wars can only be won on the ground where nations exist, and people live. Land power is an indispensable capability, even in the Pacific.

A lack of appreciation for emerging threats over time has eroded land capabili ties in the West. Power withers when it proves frail, and a perceived weakness invites aggression. Key capabilities such as armor, artillery, and engineers cannot be replaced by cyber, space, or any other information-related capabilities. The Ukraine conflict proved they were less decisive than expected.

2. Maritime Operations Are Vulnerable.

Expensive naval forces are threatened by inexpensive weaponry. Ukrainian attacks have minimized the impact of the Russian Black Sea fleet and little by little the Russian Navy drifted further back toward the mainland.  

Naval experts proclaim this is “an unmistakable warning — that today’s run-of-the-mill missiles and commercial data systems can knock even the world’s top warships out of a fight.” China seeks this competitive advantage in the Pacific with “carrier killer” missiles.

3. Deep Attacks by Themselves Are Ineffective.

There is a desire to employ rotary attack aircraft – and to some extent, fixed-wing aircraft – deep behind enemy lines for strategic effect. This tactic is practiced routinely in exercises, but it has been proven futile in past wars. In Ukraine, soldiers operating short range anti-aircraft defensive equipment and using small arms fire, have been taking out multi-million-dollar aircraft. Control of the air remains contested and this will be a continual feature of future conflict.  

Neither side was able to use aviation in a game-changing role. Russian attack regiments had to change their tactics and use aircraft in a combat support role. Likewise, the Ukrainians had to do the same to preserve combat power and support ground maneuver forces.

Rather than pursuing deep attacks, the West would benefit more from the development of counter-unmanned aerial systems (UAS) tactics and technologies. Additionally, decades of experience from combat and modern gaming finds “the output of an entire joint force is amplified when synergistic integration across components increases.” Joint capabilities must work together, and in an allied context, strategic lethality can be achieved with the improved integration and interoperability of battle networks.

4. Airborne and Amphibious Warfare Has Been Minimized. 

These modes of warfare have their place in specialized units but the conduct of these methods at a large-scale, using thousands of soldiers and marines, is resource intensive, high risk, and perhaps even anachronistic. 

The Russian’s hesitance to execute an amphibious operation is for good reason. The potential gain from such operations is not worth the cost. This painful lesson was learned by Russia’s elite airborne forces, the VDV, at Hostomel airport last year. Their forces were decimated.  

Ukraine Convoy Attack. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Ukraine Convoy Attack

Russian T-72 on Fire in Ukraine. Image Credit: Twitter Screenshot.

Russian T-72 on Fire in Ukraine

It might not be time to write an obituary for these types of operations but their use on a large-scale in peer warfighting is limited with contested air space and ubiquitous stand-off weaponry. It might be worth Western nations evaluating their efficacy and determining whether it is time to repurpose these types of units for a role that has increased survivability and lethality. This leads to the next lesson.

5. Artificial Intelligence Has Arrived.  

It has been said that advanced algorithmic warfare systems equate to having a nuclear weapon. Ukrainian forces have compressed their “kill chains,” and used software engineers on the frontlines to calibrate algorithms for devastating effect.

A.I. is not tomorrow’s problem. This enabling technology is being used today and will be more and more prevalent tomorrow. Western nations will need to induce a greater rate of digital transformation to make use of their data and build battle-winning algorithms.   

U.S. Army Futures Command is forward thinking in this space. The commander, General Rainey, proposes “formation-based lethality.” The future is about integration. In a past RCD article on Project Convergence, we proposed this could be accelerated through the use of experimental units. The Army could profit from emulating past examples like the 11th Air Assault Division (Test) which gave birth to air assault operations. Could a present day experimental unit do the same with manned and unmanned systems teaming, leveraging A.I.? And by possibly adding software engineers to unit formations, could this spark greater collaboration, integration, and testing of concepts?  These are the questions to ponder when examining lessons from Ukraine.

Conclusion

The West can ignore these lessons at their own peril or use them to transform existing capabilities into future war-winning advantages. The danger of dominant military organizations is that, short of lessons learned in the unforgiving crucible of combat, they tend to fall back on comfortable assumptions and ignore any signals of change that contradict their most-cherished strategic beliefs. We can do worse than to listen and learn from the incredible innovation happening in the Ukraine.

Matthew Van Wagenen is a major general in the U.S. Army currently serving as the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations (DCOS OPS) in the NATO Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE).

Arnel P. David is a colonel in the U.S. Army completing a PhD at King’s College London. He is the cofounder of Fight Club International.

This first appeared in RealClearDefense. 

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