This article contains observations from the US Army Combined Arms Center School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) Advanced Military Studies Program (AMSP) students. They are effectively opinions on Ukraine war experiences obtained after analysing open source material. The tips within this articles are not necessarily reflective of Australian practices.
When the Soviet Union disbanded in 1991, Russia and Ukraine signed a treaty. In 2013, the Ukraine president at the time, Viktor Yanukovych, wanted his country to be loyal to Russia. He decided not to sign a trade agreement that would have brought Ukraine closer to Europe. This caused many Ukrainians to protest and resulted in Yanukovych leaving the country. Subsequent elections provided governments that were pro-Europe.
Moscow claimed that many in Ukraine would prefer closer ties with Russia, rather than with Europe. The Russians were also concerned that Ukraine might forge an alliance with the West, and become part of NATO. In 2014, Russia took control of Crimea, in southern Ukraine, held a referendum and then annexed the peninsula.
After more pro-Russian unrest, Russia sent troops into the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, to support the separatists. This conflict was settled by a ceasefire in 2015, with Ukraine identifying the Russian-occupied land as ‘temporarily occupied territories’.
Russia, citing claims that many disagree with, recognised two separatist states in Donbas on 21 February 2022. Three days later, Russia invaded Ukraine with plans to take over the country. However, all did not go to plan for the Russians, and a month into the invasion Moscow changed its goal to ‘liberate’ Donbas.
Learning from others
It is a smart army that learns from the operational experiences of others. This is certainly the case for the Australian Army when learning from the US and UK forces in the Middle East. Some also learned lessons from the USSR’s experience in Afghanistan and Russia’s experience in Chechnya. Lessons from these and other campaigns can be found online or in many publications.
The US Army Combined Arms Center had SAMS AMSP students, as part of a Ukraine-Russia case study, review and analyse open-source material. This article provides some observations, insights and lessons they have drafted as a part of their study, early in the Russian invasion. Please note that the information they provide is their opinions, and not necessarily reflective of the US Army position.
SAMS AMSP student Ukraine case studies
Russian narrative: conflict publicity
Observations: On 2 March 2022, the Russian military published casualty figures for the first time in the conflict (498 KIA), which were well below non-Russian estimates.The Russian Ministry of Education announced that on 3 March 2022 that Russian schoolchildren would watch a taped video outlining why Russia had to take action in Ukraine. Google reviews of Russian restaurants are being used to spread information about the war.
Insights: The Russian Government is changing tack on publicising the war in Ukraine, instead of keeping it largely quiet, they are increasingly forced to acknowledge it. The Russian narrative is largely the same as at the start of the conflict: a ‘special military operation’ against the ‘Nazi’ regime in Kyiv to stop ‘genocide’ in the Donbas. This might be an indicator that Russia is starting to prepare its population for a longer war in Ukraine.
Lessons: In the information age, it is extremely difficult for governments to keep news from reaching their populations. However, governments can attempt to reframe their populations’ interpretation of events. It is almost impossible to hide information from the public. However, the meaning can be shaped ahead of time. Information Operations should take advantage of priming to influence future interpretation.
Russian logistical gaps
Observations: Photos depicting a shredded tire on a Russian vehicle appear to show the failure of a solar-damaged tire, consistent with the vehicle being parked for an extended period of time. A 30-60km long convoy was documented along the Russian axis from Belarus north of Kyiv.
Insights: Tire failures and other mechanical issues are commonly found in poorly exercised fleets. The stress of prolonged movement, especially over terrain or secondary road surfaces, will result in declining operational rates. Russian ground forces are designed for rapid movement and support by rail. As an expeditionary force, a recent Rand study estimates Russian sustainment can support a 145km line of communication at peak capacity. Supporting ground movements beyond the 145km range becomes increasingly difficult, as available line haul assets are attrited due to maintenance issues and combat losses.
Lessons: Denying Russian access to rail and targeting logistics trucks will likely disrupt offensive operations. Friendly assessments of combat readiness must include anticipated declines in operational rates in low use fleets, or when operating underdeveloped transportation networks.
Drawing the wrong conclusions (Russian logistics)
Observations: Russian forces appear to have fallen short of their manoeuvre objectives leading many to assume that sustainment failures are at fault. If this were true, one would expect evidence that Ukranian forces are able conduct some limited offensive operations affecting the forward line of own troops (FLOT) against a culminated enemy. To date, there has been no reported retrograde of Russian forces, suggesting that the limited operational reach of Russian logistics is understood and incorporated in the Russian scheme of manoeuvre.
Insights: Availability of Russian logistics trucks is a known constraint on operations. Gaining access to rail nodes adjacent to areas that support supply dumps (basing) must be operational objectives. Application of combat power outside of Kyiv and Karkiv indicate that the current campaign does not prioritise seizing built-up areas, rather, it favours gaining and defending space. Bypassing major population centres could indicate that strategic objectives do not align with a Grozny-like destruction and occupation of population centres.
Lessons: Assuming that a belligerent has done a poor job of understanding their means may lead to poor conclusions about the ways that they intend to achieve their operational objectives and strategic ends. Assumptions about adversarial failures can skew operational analysis and hamper efforts to discern among enemy courses of action.
Democratisation of air defence
Observations: NATO/EU have donated thousands of man-portable air defence systems (MANPADs) to Ukraine. Russian planes and helicopters have been shot down by military, police and civilians. Formal Ukraine Air Defence remains operational.
Insights: Air defence has been ‘democratised‘ in that the mission/tasks are not conducted only by air defence units. Air defence has had significant effects against the many and varied Russian desant operations, close air support and fixed-wing interdiction. Ukraine is adapting operations ‘on the fly’ without rigid doctrine, organisation or training.
Lessons: US should radically alter air defence to make STINGER a unit of issue to all platoon-size units regardless of MOS and doctrine, organisation, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, facilities, and policy (DOTMLPF-P) accordingly. Develop and employ an air early warning app. Future opponents of US and allies may take the Ukrainian approach affecting MDO. Special forces should extend training in MANPADs to all conventional, national guard and police forces; ADA must be added to SFAB maintenance training organisation exposition (MTOE).
Observations: Several videos have shown Russian troops raiding commercial stores in Kherson, Melitopol, Berdyansk and Ivankiv, among others. In the formation of Russian New Generation Warfare, Battalion Tactical Groups were developed to operate independent of higher-echelon support for about 72 hours. The Russian high command may have authentically assumed Ukrainian resolve would collapse quickly, and a Russian total mobilisation to endure over space and time was not required. Russian manoeuvre elements were seemingly ill-prepared to execute combat operations in Ukraine; according to Russian POWs, formations weren’t informed that they would attack until 72 hours before execution.
Insights: Foraging may have been planned. While the US Army associates foraging with contracting, foraging throughout history has been by force. Russian forces are ceding the initiative in the information space by looting. This reinforces the idea ‘Russians are unwelcome invaders who leech from the people’, but also risks their own narrative of being an advanced military, because it seems to be incapable of sustaining itself. Food security is on display here in the micro-sense; in the macro, food security is likely to soon be at risk far beyond the borders of this conflict.
Lessons: Tactical leaders must appreciate that local unit indiscipline can have operational and strategic effects. This must be directly tied to US and allied/partner non-commissioned officer corps professional education. Operational planners can incorporate local sourcing through appropriate means, but only as a supplementary effort (often tied to local economy support); military supply systems must be established, responsive, and flexible to enhance operational reach and avoid culmination. Our own information operations must be responsive enough to exploit our adversaries' IO errors, demonstrated here.
Crowdsourced offensive cyber
Observations: Ukrainian government officials have crowdsourced offensive cyber, directing efforts to mass cyber operations: the IT Army of Ukraine is a 40K+ strong hacktivist group. Insights: Distributed operations afforded by social media allow users to find, share and exploit vulnerabilities while limiting risk. An example of a supposed Russian strength overtly used against them. US enemies and partners will do this. Is this the first major LSCO operation supported by a virtual insurgency?
Lessons: Controlling grand-strategic narratives incites or enables non-military actors to support or hinder tactical actions. Moral/value alignment with the digital community writ-large determines level of support. This complicates the law of armed conflict (LOAC) and identification of combatants. Proxy targeting of civilian organisations could violate laws of war. The US needs to clarify its position, policies and regulation towards this operational approach.
Russian medical source
Observations: On 25 February 2022, Russia’s Ministry of Health demanded reports of physicians capable of moving to a ‘Medical Emergency’. On 1-2 March 2022, dissidents in Belarus reported on movements of Russian medevac buses to a hard stand hospital in Gomel and a field hospital in Naroulia. Other photos shows buses at the Mazyr train station 40 minutes north of Naroulia. Russian ratios in the first Chechen War were ~5 WIA: 1 KIA. According to the Kyiv Independent, Russia had 5,840 KIA as of 2 March 2022. Russia claims 498 KIA as of 2 March 2022. On 3 March 2022, Twitter (Oryx) showed Russian ambulances moving D30 Howitzer munitions, voiding Geneva Convention protections.
Insights: Russia was unprepared for the number of casualties, resulting in the civilian medical system being stripped of doctors. Assuming a 5:1 wounded to killed ratio, Russia likely has 2,490-29,000 WIA as of 2 March 2022. Mid-point estimate: 15,745 WIA. Russia’s 30-year demographic decline may hinder an attritional approach with high casualties and poor medical care. There is no “REDFOR” sustainment handbook to support reverse warfighting function IPB or identify critical vulnerabilities.
Lessons: Underestimating enemy resistance leads to shortfalls in support requirements. Failure to provide sufficient medical support not only results in more combat deaths but may result in stripping the civilian medical system of physicians. This could impact public perceptions within Russia. Failure to comply with the law of war may void protection to medical vehicles, but targeting medevac assets would likely be an IO loss for Ukraine (reflexive control). There is currently no ‘Sustainment Force Structure Handbook’ for adversaries, making reverse warfighting function analysis difficult.
COSINT-enabled targeting: social media enters the kill chain
Observations: Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are reporting movement of convoys and aircraft on social media. General location or geo-location often accompanies this reporting. It is possible to queue radar systems to enemy unit locations or anticipated avenue of approach.
Insights: Every soldier and civilian can be a sensor. Foreign fishing vessels present a modern risk, like the coast watchers in WWII. Targeting of capabilities may increase with the incorporation of publicly available information and social media proliferation.
Lessons: Social media has entered the kill chain. Targeting includes the information dimension. Increase training of OSINT cells at tactical echelons IOT leverage publicly available information and other collection assets to enable targeting.
Water as a weapon
Observations: Russia and Ukraine both manipulated water features to their advantage. There have been unconfirmed reports that Ukraine either destroyed a dam or released excess water to flood the plains IVO Kyiv. Russia destroyed a dam during the early portion of the conflict to increase water flow into Crimea (for consumption). Several dams also serve as hydroelectric facilities and/or provide a way to cross a wet gap mounted or dismounted. Several complex water systems with dams and large reservoirs exist elsewhere in Europe such as in the Baltics. Ukraine has expressed concern that the destruction of certain Dnieper River dams may cause major floods of residential areas.
Insights: Destroying dams creates a dilemma for both defenders and attackers far beyond the decision to destroy bridges due to the potential flooding impacts. Many dams can be manipulated to flood downstream areas without destroying the dam. Historically, flooding has been used in support of a defence (against Operation MARKET GARDEN or against the Japanese during the Sino-Japanese War in 1938) or offense (against power generation in North Vietnam).
Lessons: Planners should map out flood zones downstream from dams when planning operations. Maximum flood extents should be printed on maps or overlays. Detailed analysis should be conducted to determine the benefits and costs of manipulating or destroying dams during both offensive and defensive operations, considering both the short-term tactical and the long-term strategic impacts. Planners should be prepared to pre-emptively seize dams during operations to mitigate impacts.
Military applications of civilian technology
Observations: Combatants becoming increasingly reliant on civilian technology and infrastructure to execute military operations at the tactical level. Due to effective EW and assumed lack of proficiency with encrypted systems, Russia and aligned forces have employed unencrypted communication methods (mobile phone communications from HQ to pilots, commercially available GPS/GLONASS units). Destruction of civilian infrastructure has effects on military capabilities (destruction of commercial cell phone towers disabled Russian encryption). The Ukranian Government submitted call for civilian drone operators to assist with reconnaissance.
Insights: The Ukranian ability to intercept Russian tactical communications allows disruption of the Russian decision cycle and anticipation of Russian movements. Military elements with commercial equipment in single point of failure role are susceptible to deliberate and accidental interruption of service.
Lessons: Increased familiarity with military systems needs to be emphasised, even if they do not provide the most ‘cutting-edge’ technology. Planners should be sensitive to partner dependence on unsecured or commercial networks when seeking an EW effect on the enemy. Blurring of boundary between civilian infrastructure and military infrastructure can result in second and third order effects – interruption of non-combatant evacuation operations (NEOs) or humanitarian assistance disaster relief (HADR) services in pursuit of denying enemy capabilities).
This article provides a snapshot of some observations, insights and lessons that were derived by the US Army Combined Arms Center SAMS AMSP students, as part of a Ukraine-Russia case study, using open-source material in early March 2022. They provide an interesting perception of some lessons being learned in combat, and illustrate how it is beneficial to maintain knowledge of current affairs and to develop an awareness of what this may mean from a tactical point of view.