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 from analysing open source material.
Russia, citing claims that many disagree with, recognised two separatist states in the Donbas region of Ukraine on 21 February 2022. Three days later, Russia invaded Ukraine with plans to take over the country.
In the timeframe of the observations, insights and lessons in this article – covering the period 21 March to 5 April 2022 – the following occurred:
- Russian forces destroy a new laboratory at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
- Ukrainian forces push back Russian forces from the frontlines east of Kyiv.
- An explosion occurs on the Russian Navy’s Saratov, an Alligator-class landing ship. Ukrainian forces claim to have hit the ship with a ballistic missile.
- Russia claims the city of Izium is under its control.
- US President Biden delivers a speech in Warsaw, pledging continued support to Ukraine.
- Russia continues missile and air strikes across Ukraine.
- Heavy fighting continues in Mariupol.
- Russian forces de-escalate around Kyiv and Chernihiv, for a planned regrouping of forces, to focus on the Donbas region.
- Corpses are found in Bucha, with allegations of war crimes. Russia accuses Ukraine of orchestrating a false flag in Bucha, calling it a staged performance.
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 based on their opinions and is not necessarily reflective of the US Army position.
SAMS AMSP student Ukraine case studies
Observation: Russians employing: Spetsnatz, conventional forces, separatists, foreign fighters and mercenaries.
Ukrainians employing: special forces, conventional forces, territorial forces, civilian volunteers and foreign legion.
Insight: Large-scale combat operations between states are not exclusively conventional but are inherently hybrid.
Historically true: French resistance in WWII, Lawrence’s tribes in Palestine, Spanish Tercios vs Napoleon all during “conventional” wars.
Current US DOTMLPF-P largely ignores this phenomenon; no doctrine/little training.
Lesson: US Army must expect to confront hybrid combinations of forces in future large-scale combat operations.
Add hybrid to doctrine, not just as threat, but as partners; both the what and the how to defeat or leverage if partners.
Add significant hybrid forces to all Combat Training Center and div/corps warfighters.
SOF/SFAB doctrine, training and operational implications for developing and partnering with hybrid friendly forces.
Information component of drone warfare
Observation: Viral Ukrainian drone videos foster a pro-Ukraine international narrative.
Russia continues to elevate its counter-UAV program, raising drones of all types to the same level of reporting importance as tanks and multiple-launch rocket systems when it comes to battle damage assessment (BDA). Headlines include “Russian Air Defence Systems down 4 Ukrainian Drones,” with a current advertised BDA of over 300 drones destroyed.
Ukraine has employed drones ranging from the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB-2 that gained notoriety in the Nagorno-Karabakh war and can fire precision munitions, down to locally made inexpensive quad-copters capable of only dropping small 3–4-pound bombs or simply providing reconnaissance.
Insight: While the tactical successes of armed drones are limited compared to recent conflicts, the associated information campaign has had strategic implications, including garnering international attention and forcing Russia to publicly address the “drone problem”.
The proliferation of varying drone types limits a nation’s ability to track systems on the battlefield, leading to inflated BDAs, unprotected/exposed units, and the potential to exhaust exquisite counter munitions on systems of limited value but high quantity.
If drones are treated as expendable/consumable substitutes for exquisite platforms like aircraft, cheaper models can be used in bulk and employed with an aggressive strategy that accepts high attrition levels.
Lessons: Maintain an inventory balance of cheap and expendable drones that can offset the potential attrition rates of the Western exquisite systems, forcing the enemy to expend valuable counter munitions.
The IO campaign associated with strikes may prove just as or more valuable than the strike itself. Division staffs should train on exploiting the “strike narrative” at Warfighter exercises and operation orders should clearly articulate release/declassification authority for strike feed.
Sumy – elastic defence
Observation: Ukraine identified and exploited the Russian weakness in logistical sustainment and protection of its lines of communication, while maximising Ukrainian strengths and capabilities with mobile light infantry teams working outside the defensive strongpoints.
Ukrainians form strongpoints in deliberate defence in a non-contiguous front with small, mobile forces roaming the open areas conducting raids on Russian lines of communication and spoiling attacks against convoys.
Insight: Ukrainian resistance near Sumy from 21-29 March 2022 reflects adaptation of German “hedgehog” or “elastic defence” from the Second World War.
These attacks disintegrate Russian attempts at logistically massing troops for deliberate movement and manoeuvre to sustain the encirclement of Ukrainian strongpoints, resulting in limited Russian operational reach, interrupted tempo, and demoralisation of the Russian forces.
Strongpoints alone are vulnerable to Russian preferred tactics of exploitation of gaps in lines and encirclement of isolated forces and disruption of rear area operations. The mobile light infantry forces are critical to this aspect of the elastic defence.
The elastic defence is an ideal economy of force defensive methodology when increased frontage is assigned with limited manpower for overlapping strongpoints.
Lessons: Flexibility, coordination, and synchronisation are required between defensive strongpoints and mobile light infantry.
The Combat Training Centre’s (CTC’s) opposing forces should continue to learn and refine lessons on the application of small, light infantry forces against an attacking armoured force to train Armoured Brigade Combat Teams (ABCTs) and Stryker Brigade Combat Teams (SBCTs) against elastic defence, while the rotational units should practise employing the mobile infantry formations in the defence.
Light infantry formations should train using the elastic defence at CTCs focusing on light, mobile infantry force activities outside of the deliberate defensive positions.
Current force organisation for ABCTs lack the number of infantry dismounts to organically conduct elastic defence to the degree effectively demonstrated in Ukraine. A study to review the current modified table of organisation and equipment (MTOE) of ABCTs for methods to increase infantry dismounts in US armoured formations is worthwhile for the implementation.
Increasing the combat centre rotation's balancing light/heavy formations also provides a measure to maximise realistic training of elastic defence in the manner demonstrated by Ukraine.
Implications of captured Russian equipment (tactical)
Observations: Ukrainian forces, recognising Russian logistical problems and potential battlefield opportunities, began capturing/using Russian equipment instead of just destroying it.
Kyiv-area junkyard solely focused on repairing Russian equipment for Ukrainian use.
Insights: Forces with a numerical disadvantage may prioritise capture over destruction.
There are advantages to owning/using the same equipment as your adversary.
Lessons: Prioritise and train capturing enemy equipment at home station training and combat training centres.
Incorporate battlefield seizure into the risk calculus of exceeding operational reach and culminating.
Message local security as a much more strategic risk than being caught unprepared and embarrassed.
Operational counterattack by fire
Observation: Russian withdrawal enabled Ukrainian pursuit, such as in Bucha and Irpin.
Russian forces then attacked Ukrainian forces with long range artillery, rocket, and missile strikes.
Insight: Counterattacks by fire are considered to be a tactical operation.
It appears that the Russian military has incorporated counterattack by fire into their operational (campaign) approach.
Russians are employing long-range reconnaissance patrols in lieu of combat forces for counterattack.
Lessons: US observers of the war should examine the operational approach of counterattack by fire.
From a doctrinal perspective, US and NATO should prepare to counter such an approach.
This means that during a pursuit (in which the northern forces of the Ukraine are currently engaged) it is necessary to protect the pursuing forces with counter-rocket and counter-air capabilities. This ensures that the momentum of the pursuit can be maintained, and that forces are not lost unnecessarily.
Logistics package (LOGPAC) protection
Observation: Tactical Ukrainian forces created operational level impacts by disrupting/destroying Russian LOGPACs with anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) and drones.
Russian LOGPAC protection capability is limited to conscription forces and crew-served weapons ill-equipped to combat small team elements armed with ATGMs or loiter munitions.
Insight: In the US Army – other than armoured HMWWVs, crew-served weapons, and ring mounts – protection assets are not MTOE in sustainment formations, increasing the risk of operational culmination because of adversarial small teams armed with ATGMs, loiter munitions, and drones.
During the Vietnam War, the 8th Transportation Corps helped prevent LOGPAC ambushes by arming general cargo trucks with additional firepower and assigning combat troops operators.
Loiter munitions, drones, and ATGMs present modern risks for American LOGPACs and require the Army to codify its protection capability in sustainment formations.
Lessons: Protection vehicles, dedicating ISR capability, and operators trained to defeat small teams armed with ATGMs, loiter munitions, and drones must be organic to Sustainment Brigades, BSBs, and FSCs.
UAS organic to sustainment formations are required to identify threats (especially Level II) to LOGPACs.
Leveraging partner nation protection capabilities in LOGPACs can help prevent capability gaps during the DOTMLPF process.
Ethics and morality
Observation: Potential war crimes in Ukraine have sparked an international narrative about what is acceptable conduct in a modern urban war.
Recent events in Bucha highlight what combatants and non-combatants may be exposed to in an urban conflict. President Zelensky noted to the United Nations: “They killed entire families, adults and children, and they tried to burn the bodies … They cut off limbs, slashed their throats, women raped and killed in front of their children. Their tongues were pulled out only because the aggressor did not hear what they wanted to hear from them.”
In addition to the legal aspect of war crimes, these incidents raise issues concerning ethics and morality.
Russian atrocities are perceived as both the actions of individuals and more holistically as units, making it a potential systemic approach to the Russian operation. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken notes that atrocities are not a “random act of a rogue unit,” but a “deliberate campaign to kill, to torture, to rape, to commit atrocities”.
Insight: The systemic use of morally and ethically unacceptable behaviour in Russian operations stands out against generally isolated events of previous conflicts in the modern era. Additionally, these previous and isolated events were uniformly punished and condemned.
The lack of Russian accountability at the highest levels suggests that these actions are not only condoned but likely an aspect of the Russian way of war.
The way the atrocities are sensationalised exposes all parties to the graphic details, potentially weaponizing them and fuelling a need for vengeance. Importantly, this can dehumanise combatants and lead to “revenge” war crimes on Russian prisoners.
While potentially isolated in nature, the accusations of Ukrainian soldiers mistreating Russian prisoners of war fit this “revenge” narrative.
Lessons: At echelon, military service members and Defence Department civilians must be prepared to confront and overcome individual unethical acts as well as operate against an adversary who takes a more systemic approach to violations. This type of training cannot be relegated to a “check-the-block” event or 350-1 training but must instead be integrated into all activities from training to professional military education.
For dealing with isolated incidents, this includes case study analysis of historical events and scenario-driven events at training centres that put small units in ambiguous situations (detainee operations, insider threat of partner nation, non-combatant non-lethal escalation, etc.) to allow experimental learning and potentially entice “easy” answers to complex problems that make the training audience question the ethical nature of their decisions. This challenge forces leaders to assess their subordinates’ actions and potentially prepare to de-escalate the situation before crossing a particular threshold.
At the more systemic level, this training can focus on Army values, the law of war, and professional development in ethics and morality. This training must address two critical aspects of this broader problem:
- The role of the adviser. US service members may find themselves deployed with partners who may act in a morally ambiguous manner. Alternatively, like in the Ukraine conflict, a partner who is the victim of atrocities may be tempted to conduct revenge actions or simply operate in a similar “tit-for-tat” way. US advisers must understand how to coach and mentor these forces on the impact of their conduct and the importance of operating morally/ethically. If that fails, they must have a best practice for raising their concerns to their chain of command without fear of compromising the mission.
- The unlawful/immoral order. The excuse of “just following orders” is unacceptable and not valid. However, in a hierarchical system like the military, the ability and willingness to challenge a superior’s order is a complicated matter. This takes training and education, but the military must foster the moral courage of its junior leaders to, at a minimum, question the morality of a decision with the potential to say “no, that order is immoral”.
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 from late March to early April 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.