Three key statistics

31Civilian casualties each day resulting from explosive remnants of war

50Russian ammunition depots destroyed by the Armed Forces of Ukraine

60 – Percent failure rate (UXO) on Russian guided missiles and weapons

The war in Ukraine is far from over but as the conflict shifts into new phases there will be a continued focus on returning life back to normality. Massive quantities of failed munitions now litter the cities, countryside, and waterways; providing dangerous explosive remnants of war (ERW)[i] and explosive hazards to the people of Ukraine.

The clearance of ERW is a heavily resource intensive operation that involves a synchronisation across multiple support organisations; governmental, civilian, military, and international. Australia has an opportunity to observe, learn, and – depending on the outcome – to contribute. The Australian Army can use this as an opportunity to change; pivot its explosive threat capabilities to be future focused and domain aligned while employing agile support systems and consolidated within learning organisations.

Understanding the threat

The term improvised explosive device (IED) became synonymous with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their use had a tremendous cost in national blood and treasure which influenced people and policy, shaped the Defence organisation, and forced a rapid acquisition of technology. To counter this legacy threat, the ADF developed a range of capabilities that are generally aligned to the functional domains. Army has the majority of assets focused on the mitigation of explosive hazards at brigade level and sustainment of the joint theatre.

The war in Ukraine, between near peer countries has highlighted that the issue is more than the IED of the previous decade. Unexploded ordnance (UXO) and other ERW continue to have a detrimental effect on communities long after the conflict phase has ended. In almost all current and post-conflict situations, a hazard to the population exists in the form of destroyed and abandoned systems or damaged ammunition stockpiles.

This constitutes a major risk in a post-conflict scenario, with the risk coming in three forms: the inherent danger posed by ammunition, deterioration in the ammunition or the conditions under which it is being stored, and the security of the site. Although the ADF has a mix of force elements within the capability, the ammunition technical trade is the only element that is trained to manage the entire spectrum of explosive hazards: captured enemy ammunition, battle damaged platforms, conventional munitions, and non-conventional improvised threats.

There is a significant risk to communities in the close presence of abandoned or damaged ammunition in the post-conflict environment. Analysis from the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining outlines that that the ratio of fatality to injury in the post-conflict environment is in the order of 1 to 3.7. The UN reported 41 casualties resulting from legacy explosive hazards in August alone.

It has been assessed that Russia has experienced a failure rate as high as 60% with the precision guided weapons used in the war. For example, Russia has been seen fielding two types of air-launched cruise missiles in Ukraine, the Kh-55 and Kh-101. Coupled with unexpended propellants and battery hazards, the deliberate clearance of these munitions in urban areas is a complex, technical, and dangerous endeavor. Due to the indiscriminate use of guided weapons and explosive ordnance in urban areas, there is already a significant number of ERW that presents a future hazard post-conflict.

Considering the reliance on artillery and the difficulty in maintaining logistics distribution, it is expected that large ammunition stockpiles have been created throughout Ukraine to enable Russian manoeuvre. Ukraine is disrupting Russian operations through the deliberate targeting of these stockpiles, degrading their overall safety. Depending on the conflict's trajectory, these ammunition stockpiles will require significant assets to remediate.

Furthermore, these stockpiles will degrade in the Northern European weather, impacted by large fluctuations in temperature and other environment conditions, leading to more sensitive ammunition and unstable UXOs. However, these stockpiles may still be a viable resource for the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Through a deliberate inspection and assurance program, these resources could be salvaged and used to support future operations.

Finally, destroyed and abandoned platforms may contain damaged and unstable ammunition. NATO estimates that 1,477 tanks and 3,588 armoured vehicles have been destroyed by Ukrainian forces so far in the conflict. These systems will require a multi-skilled team consisting of maintenance engineers and ammunition technical personnel to conduct battlefield clearance on them post-conflict. This type of clearance operation is a deliberate and resource intensive task that requires the elimination of explosive reactive armour and depleted uranium, inclusive of access denial and removal of surrounding UXOs.

A future approach?

Any future capability system must be aligned to the domains. This is not to disempower the Joint force, but to ensure the right expertise is developed and maintained to counter the future threat. Munitions and the operational environments are more complex, and the current ADF capability system must employ a more agile support system. Current force elements must be consolidated into a single learning organisation, with our capabilities being too disaggregated to manage and integrate into a cohesive capability system.

The consolidation of these organisations into a single-focused unit would allow for the maintenance of a future focused workforce. The Land Force Support Capability Establishment Review is currently considering this course of action; however, entrenched legacy thinking has impeded the open rationale for change.

The future explosive threat is enduring and will continue to present challenges for those performing counter UXO operations into the future. Although ERW and the IED are not new threats, Australia and its coalition partners have historically not been prepared for the hazards, and there are lessons from Ukraine to be learned. Whether spending on acquisition, standing up dedicated organisations, creating new doctrine, or developing technology to counter the threat; advantage must be taken to posture for the future threat.

It would be folly to neglect the advantages that have been gained over the last decade or the lessons that are being identified in Ukraine.  Williamson Murray reminded us of this in his Thinking about Innovation article: “…The result is that more often than not, militaries have to relearn in combat–and usually at a heavy cost–lessons that were readily apparent at the end of the last conflict.” Let us learn.