I love Twitter. It is a great source of easily accessed, easily consumed information that can be tailored to present the exact topics the viewer wants to see. Twitter is bite-size updates with images and short videos that can almost instantly beam from anywhere in the world onto a device of your choosing. During the early stages of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, checking my Twitter feed was one of the first things I did each morning as locals and organisations in the conflict zone provided real time updates on the progress of the battles – complete with occasionally accurate claims about casualties.
But let’s not be fooled into thinking that Twitter and its bite-size updates, images, and short videos are a replacement for actual research and analysis. Within weeks of the invasion I was alarmed to see a whole crowd of supposedly smart and well-educated individuals begin to draw some far-reaching conclusions about the Australian Army, with little more evidence than a scroll through Twitter. Often these individuals were using the Twitter examples to confirm their previously held beliefs.
The Ukrainian Government and Army, supported by their populace, have used Twitter as a powerful information operations tool. They have used social media to reinforce their narrative and build support in the West. This has led to more and more significant weapons being provided to their Army. These weapons are then featured heavily on social media to continue the cycle of their narrative which leads to more support. The Ukrainian Army has done this, while also managing the Operation Security (OPSEC) risk, by being very selective about what they show the world and what they don’t.
When we make decisions about the Australian Army’s force design, capabilities, or tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs); a Twitter feed is not a replacement for actual research and analysis conducted with a proper understanding of the context. So, as a professional and learning organisation, how does the Australian Army take the right lessons from the Russian invasion of Ukraine without being distracted by our easily accessed and consumed – but carefully curated – Twitter feeds?
I will provide one example. Operation Z: The Death Throes of an Imperial Delusion is a Special Report by Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). In writing the report, the authors conducted engagements with combatants, independent reporters, intelligence staff, senior Ukrainian officials, and conducted fieldwork in addition to using open source information and Russian government documents.
In this article I will examine some key points raised in the report, and comment on their relevance to the Australian Army. The report includes not only the military campaign, but also economic effects and geopolitical fallout. Given the focus of The Cove, I will concentrate solely on the military sections, in particular the Battle of Kyiv and the lessons applicable to the Army, rather than including any strategic comments. I will start with some areas where the Army can use the lessons from the Battle of Kyiv to continue to improve our warfighting capability. I will then finish with some lessons that validate our current approach and doctrine.
Artillery – King of Battle
“anti-tank missiles slowed the Russians down, but what killed them was our artillery. That was what broke their units”
The RUSI report makes clear that the weapon that allowed the Ukrainian defenders to succeed in the Battle of Kyiv was artillery. A scroll through Twitter would have one think that NLAW and Saint Javelin had achieved this feat, but it is the superior use of Artillery that the authors repeatedly site as being decisive. The Ukrainian use of artillery was aided by the terrain and several other aspects discussed below, but it is a key lesson that we should take on board. Australia has now provided 6 of our M777 guns to the Ukrainian Army for use in future battles. This adds to the nearly 100 provided by the USA and Canada. This is a good step, but the move comes with some risk to our own force structure. The AS9 Huntsman Self Propelled Guns being acquired to supplement our M777 will allow the Australian Army to better employ offensive support to manoeuvre forces, conduct counterbattery fire, and apply lethal effects.
Time Spent in Reconnaissance is Seldom Wasted
“As the Russians moved through towns, local residents began to report on their movements, while Ukrainian Special Forces and UAVs marked targets for artillery. Although the Russians had heavier artillery, they lacked a good picture of where the dispersed Ukrainian positions were.”
Of course, the Russians had artillery too. What made the Ukraine artillery more effective was their superior Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR). Because they used roads, Russian artillery also found itself out of range to conduct counterbattery fire while Ukrainian artillery decimated the forward Russian units with accurate fire. Below I will comment on the poor quality of Russian troops, which resulted in Senior Officers moving forward to coordinate troops close to the front line. As soon as they moved forward, they became vulnerable to accurate artillery fire.
While the ADF can’t always rely on sympathetic local residents to provide us information to inform targeting, we can ensure we have sufficient layered ISTAR assets to enable us to employ our fires to best effect. The future capability delivered by the Boxer Cavalry Reconnaissance Vehicle (CRV), which includes a Joint Fires and Surveillance variant, and the AH-64E Apache are both part of achieving this effect. However, they should be combined with a whole raft of modern Uncrewed Aerial System (UAS) options of varying size. For example, the WASP AE UAS has served our surveillance units well, but its endurance, range, and optics are now outdated and there are far better products, which Land 129 Phase 4B will deliver. At the other end of the scale, the cancellation of the MQ-9B Sky Guardian has left a capability gap for larger UAS with a strike capability.
The Army also needs the network and software to be able to communicate information rapidly to connect ISTAR assets to fires. This needs to include fires specific applications such as the Next Generation of Digital Terminal Control System. We also need the Battle Management Systems to connect other ISTAR and Command and Control (C2) assets.
“Shelling inflicted heavy casualties on Ukrainian units while the volume of 30mm cannon fire proved devastating in the close fight.”
The Ukrainian Army’s success in employing ISTAR and Artillery should not take away from the fact that they fought a very hard fight and endured a significant amount of lethal effects. Apart from artillery, the weapon singled out most for its effectiveness in the RUSI report was the 30mm autocannon. This weapon is fitted to Russian armoured vehicles such as the BMP-3 and BTR-82A. It proved to be very effective, and combined with sheer weight of numbers, allowed the Russians to advance despite stiff Ukrainian resistance.
Currently, almost the entire ADF vehicle fleet of all types are armed with only Machine Guns (MG), with the 12.7mm MG being the largest. Only the ASLAV and the newly introduced Boxer CRV have Autocannons, with calibres of 25mm and 30mm respectively. The Ukraine experience facing Russian 30mm Autocannons indicates that every fighting vehicle in the Army should carry these weapons as a minimum. Land 400 Phase 3 is the project that will deliver a new Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV) to replace the M113AS4. While the focus of this project is frequently on the (much) better protection that these platforms offer, the upgrade of the primary weapon system from a 12.7mm MG to a medium calibre autocannon will likely prove to be a more significant change.
Loose Lips Sink Ships (and Kill Paratroopers)
“The VDV [Russian Airborne Troops] assault units received the plan three days before the invasion and started excitedly talking in anticipation of their daring operation. VDV commanders started discussing their primary objective at Hostomel in clear. When they landed, therefore, they were met with Ukrainian artillery and a coordinated counterattack, quickly being driven from the airport. Meanwhile, to the north… Russian motor rifle and Rosgvardia troops had received their orders less than 24 hours before the invasion… With little opportunity to prepare, psychologically or practically, many Russian units broke when they met serious resistance.”
The Ukrainian Army and Government have used both traditional and social media to their advantage in the campaign so far. They have driven their dominant narrative and information operations campaign, both in country and overseas, and have achieved this while balancing OPSEC requirements. This is likely why a lot of the early footage showed irregular and small dismounted teams, rather than giving away the location of their armoured and mechanised Brigades which would have been vulnerable to geo-location.
Russia has seemingly done the opposite, achieving the worst of both worlds. Their poor OPSEC allowed the Ukrainian Army to know the objectives of their attack before it was launched. They have also failed to present a coherent information narrative to the outside world. Within Russia itself, it is only through authoritative rule and brutal laws to limit speech that they maintain control over the information environment.
The Australian Army has generally had a high level of OPSEC, yet our use of social media and relationship with traditional media has been mixed. Much of Army’s social media posts are bland (with some exceptions such as 7 Brigade Facebook page), most likely due to a risk-adverse social media policy that tolerates no room for negative publicity. Army would be able to achieve a greater information operations effect if it accepted more risk through engaging in social media.
“The Ukrainian military had concluded that its centre of gravity was the capital and had prioritised its defence for artillery systems, air defences, anti-tank weapons and reserves. Even in this it had been forced to reinforce the west bank of the Dnipro River at the expense of the east. Troops in Donbas and Mariupol were ordered to buy time but found themselves short of key munitions. In the south, the Ukrainians knew they were vulnerable.”
The Australian Army utilises manoeuvre warfare as our way of defeating adversaries. Two of the key areas of manoeuvre theory are the concept of a centre of gravity, defined as “Characteristics, capabilities or localities from which a nation, an alliance, a military force or other grouping derives its freedom of action, physical strength or will to fight” and the tenet of manoeuvre; to identify and prioritise a main effort.
The Ukrainian strategy exemplified how effective these concepts are in modern war by allocated their scarce resources to the defence of Kyiv, their most strategic location. This came at a cost and the Russian invaders were able to make substantial gains in the south and east, particularly out of the occupied Crimea. But this loss of territory was acceptable to the Ukrainians as it allowed them to successfully defend their capital.
The Ukrainian Army’s successful application of manoeuvre warfare to achieve a significant victory validates our doctrine. It also reinforces the need to continually train our NCOs and Officers on these concepts.
Junior Leadership on the Battlefield
“The Russian equipment works as effectively as we feared, but it was incompetently employed... senior Russian officers began to be drawn forwards, where like everything else in the Russian Army they became targets for snipers and artillery strikes.”
During the Russian invasion of Ukraine both the FSB (Russian intelligence service) and the military have failed to achieve their objectives. As we have seen above, the lack of preparation for many conventional Russian units meant that when they encountered significant resistance they culminated and were not able to continue the advance. Senior leaders then moved forward to exercise C2. This made them vulnerable to targeting by Ukrainian forces and further compounded the issue.
The Australian Army spends extensive resources training our junior leaders through formal courses and other opportunities. Our doctrine highlights the use of mission command, which empowers junior leaders to “identify and seize opportunities, to turn the situation in our favour.” My own experience is that Australian Army junior leaders, both NCOs and Officers, are exceptionally capable. This provides the Army with a capability advantage over potential adversaries. As with manoeuvre warfare, this lesson validates our current doctrine. It reinforces the need to practice mission command at all levels, as often as possible. This will ensure our junior leaders continue to develop the skills required to make and execute decisions at their level.
This article has demonstrated the value of conducting a deeper level of research and analysis to identify lessons learnt from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It has done this through a review of the RUSI Special Report, Operation Z: The Death Throes of an Imperial Delusion. There are no doubt many other appropriate sources that could be utilised to identify other lessons applicable to the Australian Army. It has also made the argument that while social media sources such as Twitter are great for accessing easily consumed information, it should not be used to make decisions about the Army’s force design, capabilities or TTPs.
The lessons identified from the Special Report are only covered briefly, however they draw out some key considerations. These have applicability from force design and capability management through to training for junior leaders. The Army should look to maximise its acquisition of artillery, ISTAR assets and platforms with autocannons. These capabilities have proven decisive during the battle for Kyiv. It should balance OPSEC against the effective use of social media to drive an information narrative. We should continue to train our JNCOs and Officers on manoeuvre warfare and mission command.
After their victory in the Battle for Kyiv, the focus for Ukrainian Forces will now move east. It is hoped they can employ the same tactics and strategy to achieve a decisive victory in the Battle for Donbas.