The war in Ukraine and its lessons

Courtesy of a link at Cdr. Salamander’s place, I came across this article by Col. Liam Collins.

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.

. . .

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.

. . .

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.



  1. It does seem like we have to re-learn everything we learned from the last time we learned it.

    Maybe it is due to getting rid of all the fighting officers and ncos and promoting the administrative officers and ncos.

  2. Don't overlook the obvious:
    Russia can do that to Ukraine, because they face no threat of reprisal.

    Yes, a NATO TOC would get vaporized. Once.
    Then the airfield that launched the strike would get B-2ed, the artillery that fired would get MLRSed, and things begin to rapidly escalate until you're trading "special" weapons, and next thing you know, Major Kong's riding a B-83 into the target.

    If Moscow was faced with trading the Kremlin for Kiev in a game of dueling mushroom clouds, they'd de-escalate things in a hurry, and pull back to the status quo ante. Absent that, they have no need to even consider the possibility.

    And if/when Ukraine decides to start targeting Russian HVTs asymmetrically, it won't be nearly as funny to Vlad The Terrible.

    The lesson isn't to fight a bush war as a better bushman, it's to get out of the box, and take things to a different level.

    When we began to fight the Vietnam War in this country under the latter paradigm, it was over in 90 days, and they signed a peace treaty in short order.
    Iraq lasted almost a month and a half, the first time.
    The second time was days.
    Afghanistan was essentially conquered by the remnants of SAC, the CIA, and about a battalion of SF on horseback leading native tribesmen.

    The lessons Ukraine is learning are called "learn to run with the big dogs, or else stay on the porch".

  3. Camouflage is tricky stuff, some is radar reflective, which hides vehicle outlines from radar but makes for very odd looking trees if that is what you are trying to imitate. The radar transparent stuff is only good for visual observation but it is the best you can do if you need to put systems under it that need to radiate or collect RF.

    Camo screening is heavy and bulky too, carrying one set big enough to hide your vehicle takes a significant percentage of your cargo capacity. Having to carry multiple colors of screen, foliage and snow for instance, is even more inconvenient. Taking a crew of three (all it can seat up front) most of an hour to decently cover a 2.5 ton truck and almost double that for a two man crew doesn't give you a warm fuzzy in a UAV infested environment either.

    One thing our collection operators loved, outside of high summer temps, was to switch to infrared mode, all the vehicles that had run recently warmed their camo screening enough to be visible, systems with running engines/generators stood out like a bare light bulb in a dark room.

    All of the above tends to support the use minimal camo and move fast type operation. Hiding is a lot harder today than it was a few years ago and the ability to find you and put fire on your location has gotten both far better and a lot faster than in the not too distant past.

    The Russians understand escalation very, very well hence the recent publicity given to the submarine tidal wave causing nukes. The Russians want to be sure the American public understands that escalation is a two way street.

  4. "Submarine tidal wave"-causing nukes were old news circa 1960. They're only news to the baby ducks in the media.

    Get a copy of Martin Caidin's When War Comes.
    It's a cold war primer, from its peak.
    Apocalyptic fiction and techno-thriller prose before it was trendy, a decade or so before Michael Crichton came along, and a generation ahead of Tom Clancy.
    You might know Caidin as the guy who wrote the book that became The Six Million Dollar Man.

  5. The Russians are only beginning to plumb the depths of asymmetric warfare, and are not going to like what comes rising out of the metaphorical deep.

    It's one thing to strike at a corrupt and similarly-incompetent foe like Ukraine; still another to tackle someone who is both not in your league in terms of military power, but who is your superior in technology and personnel. Russia may make great inroads into Ukraine, but when trying to take that success and export it to, say… The Baltics? The experience may not work out so well, for them.

    I expect that the next "general war" like WWI in scale is going to have a shockingly similar set of dynamics in regards to failure to comprehend or prepare for the new conditions of war. Someone is going to weaponize all those cute little mass-market drones, and develop the mesh cellular intelligence systems we're only beginning to see the outlines of. When your infantry patrol is moving through a wooded area late at night in what you think is full safety, only to find out that some kid meshed in with a bunch of game cameras has spotted you and reported your presence to a networked fire support system that drops a half-dozen mortar rounds on your ass, completely out of the blue…? And, you never see them? Yeah; that. As well, you're going to have people outside your theater of operations offering to "man" those semi-autonomous battle systems via the network, and do unto you and yours. The next "Abraham Lincoln Brigade" may never leave it's comfy chair in a third country, where you can't touch them. Or, you may be in that third country, providing RPV support as a free-lance pilot/operator, only to have the local cell of the KGB come knocking at your door, once they identify your location. Spoofing things like that will probably drag in third countries to the conflict…

  6. War is gonna get really "interesting", for a certain value of that word, over the next few decades. If you thought WWI was "transformational", you ain't seen squat. I think there's a really good chance that the massive military structures we're used to thinking about may indeed be going the way of the dodo, and that the future is going to be mostly what they're calling "crowd-sourced", and anarchic as hell. What are you going to do, as a terrorist operating against Israel, when the Israelis turn the border into a weaponized video game and sell the rights to running the robots as part of it all…? You want a bunch of human eyes-on surveillance? Network the feeds, sell them, and let little old lady Jewesses in Paramus, NJ do their bit for the IDF over the internet. Build connectivity for your war robots into the next iteration of Call of Duty, and enable blasting live Hamasniks, so that the worldwide Jewish community can take part in Israel's defense…

    One wonders what the Islamic fatwa is going to say about deaths inflicted by robots… Will you still be entitled to your virgins, if there's just an algorithm and a set of solenoids killing you?

    Frankly, the Obama administration was just ahead of the curve, with all the RPV kills. And, as time goes on, it's not going to be just the President of the United States who has access to all the toys. Consider a future where terrorists act, and one of the responses is for a modern-day Ross Perot to finance and enable a freighter full of remote-launched drones to park off of Pakistan's coasts in international waters, and then who sells the access rights to the drone controls to go killing Pashtun terrorists to the families of victims in India or other countries…

    All I can say is that all y'all out there who believe in killing for your causes had best consider that all this may end in a vastly different place than you're imagining, and when you piss off someone smart and creative like an Elon Musk, well… Don't expect it to end well. The rest of us will be over here, watching, and eating popcorn while y'all do the hammer dance under the threat of aerial death delivered by the same kind of drones Amazon is using to deliver goods in the major cities.

    I can honestly see a situation arise where there will be an essentially open market on vengeance, and you have the opportunity to hire a drone strike on the terrorist jackass who killed your kids. Say that Amazon does build its drone delivery network… Add in some facial recognition software, a few surreptitious hacks, and the next time Abdul Abdullah is getting his shipment of goat porn in, it is instead a nice little box filled with high explosives and ball bearings…

  7. As a pointer towards an interesting book that explores aspects of "the coming way of war", take a look at this:

    The title is "New Model Army", and it's a couple of years old, written by Adam Roberts. I don't think it's completely prescient, and has some fundamental things quite wrong about conflicts and armies, but there are a lot of interesting ideas in there about what war will look like in an age of networks and "crowd sourcing".

    Worth a read, in any event–I spent a couple of weeks gnawing through the implications he raised, and considering what I found flawed about his ideas. Some of what he has imagined in this work is frighteningly prescient, particularly with regards to the idea of weaponizing an entire population via consensual networking and instructional things enabled by what we're terming "smart phones". Someone is going to do this, or something very like this, and then someone else is going to pull back a bloody stump when they try to use and older-model army on them…

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