The situation in eastern Ukraine might best be described as “World War I with technology.” Venturing to the front line today, you would quickly learn the two greatest threats facing Ukrainian soldiers are snipers and Russian artillery. Unlike in 1915, however, soldiers on 2018’s “Eastern Front” receive text messages on their phones telling them their cause is hopeless and they must regularly attempt to avoid being spotted from an unmanned aerial vehicle.
The fighting in Ukraine during the past 2½ years provides great insight into the types of threats facing the U.S. Army today and sheds light on what a war with a near-peer enemy—or an enemy sponsored by a near-peer—would look like.
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What’s Old Is New
Electronic warfare. Russia has deployed a wide range of electronic warfare systems in Ukraine, using them to jam communications, locate headquarters and subsequently target them with long-range artillery. Few active U.S. Army members grew up in an age worrying about the signals their antennas and radios produced. After visiting a battalion tactical operations center at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, a senior Ukrainian officer observed that the headquarters would not last long in eastern Ukraine. With its antenna farm located only meters from the tactical operations center, it would basically have been sending an “aim here” message to the Russians.
We have returned to an era where communications must be short and infrequent and tactical operations centers must run their antennas hundreds of meters away. Ultimately, this will make command, control and communications more difficult, and commanders will have to get comfortable in an environment where they don’t have information dominance and don’t know the exact status of each of their units at all times. Additionally, with a force largely reliant on GPS technology, it is time for soldiers to go back to being expert navigators using only a map and compass.
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CAMOUFLAGE. Largely forgotten over the past 17 years, camouflage is back in vogue. With the proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles that can serve as ISR platforms for artillery, an element spotted by a UAV may only have minutes to move before a rain of artillery fires falls. After witnessing Ukrainian and NATO units in training, it is clear the Ukrainians take this seriously while NATO units only go through the motions. Ukrainian vehicles look like giant, mobile vegetation clusters, with camouflage netting put up if a vehicle is stopped for any length of time. NATO vehicles, by contrast, are too often operated on the assumption that speed alone provides sufficient security during movement, and netting (often substandard) is more slowly put up after stopping.
There’s more at the link.
I was very interested to read this article, having seen at first hand what it’s like to fight without air superiority, in an electronic warfare environment, with camouflage an essential survival tool. That was back in the 1980’s, in Angola. The tools and equipment we used were, of course, considerably less sophisticated than those in use today; but the lessons we learned align very closely with those described by Col. Collins.
Even given such restrictions, it’s still surprising how much can be achieved by simply “thinking outside the box”, and turning what appears to be an enemy advantage into a millstone around their necks. It also helps to consider non-technological solutions to a seemingly technological problem. A few examples from Angola:
- You can’t buy sufficiently advanced radar equipment, and/or can’t position what you have far enough forward, to monitor enemy air traffic landing at or taking off from an important air base? Put human observers in the bush nearby, with scrambled satellite communications. A radio call that a flight of MiGs are taking off, and turning towards the area of operations, is as good as a radar display, and just as accurate. As a bonus, the observers can also direct artillery fire if you can get your cannon into range.
- The enemy has spent billions constructing a supply corridor from the coast, across hundreds of miles of trackless bush, to supply their forces operating against yours. Are the enemy’s air defenses so strong that your own aircraft can’t interdict the route? Then interdict the ships before they’re unloaded. A few limpet mines, strategically placed by frogmen on the hulls of Soviet and Cuban freighters, can sink an awful lot of weapons and electronics and other things before they move even one mile down the trail. As a bonus, while the enemy might be able to dry out, de-rust and re-lubricate AK-47’s, electronics take less kindly to salt water.
- Location, location, location. If the enemy’s area of operations can be determined beforehand, get to know it before they arrive. Plot every significant terrain feature, know where they will have to go to get water, understand how terrain will affect their advance . . . then prepare your artillery fire plans and air interdiction operations beforehand. If they can’t advance a yard without taking damage or casualties, they’ll advance a lot more slowly. In many cases, the human cost will make their troops very, very reluctant to follow orders, knowing that those orders are going to get a lot of them killed. A discouraged, fearful soldier is a lot easier opponent than one who’s having it all his own way.
- If the enemy has local air superiority, learn to camouflage your units and movements so well that he can’t bomb you. He may know the general area where you are, he may even have a reasonably good idea of your location, but if he can’t pinpoint your actual position, he can’t drop a bomb right on top of you. He can only crap all over the area in the hope of getting lucky. Sometimes he will . . . but most of the time, he’ll convert trees and bushes into matchsticks. This is expensive for him, and good for you.
There are many time-honored lessons of war that probably have to be re-learned in our technologically sophisticated environment.