What Can Western Armies Learn from the Conflict in Ukraine?

As the initial shock of the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine has begun to wear off, Western analysts have begun to look at how this war is fundamentally changing how wars are to be fought in the 21st century. The preeminence of modern technologies and the use of new tactics in a dynamic battlefield situation have upended many preconceptions not only of the strength of the Russian army, but also how Western armies will wage war in the future.

If the war in Ukraine has taught us anything, it is that many of our preconceptions about modern warfare appear to be somewhat out of date, and require a fundamental rethink at strategic, tactical and operational levels. The war has profoundly changed how wars will be fought in the future. Simple, reliable, agile and easily deployable combat-proven equipment is what really helped the Ukrainian defenders gain the upper hand over the Russian aggressors in and around Kyiv, and what could yet turn the tide in the Donbas.

The era of the tank appears to be over. The reputation of drones, anti-tank and laser-guided anti-aircraft weapons systems is on an exponential rise. And what about close air support? The unsustainable loses of attack helicopters by small tactical units armed with stingers, or even laser-guided anti-tank weapons, has been nothing short of a disaster for the Russians. The vulnerability of $18 million dollar helicopters has been laid bare.

Perhaps most surprisingly, artillery seems as important as it did on the Western Front back in 1918, or in Chechnya in 1999. NATO and its Western allies have been providing the Ukrainian army with an arsenal of howitzers, MLRS, artillery shells and more. Even more sophisticated artillery has been promised by Western leaders, not least French President Emmanuel Macron

The end of the tank?

One of the starkest, most transcendent phenomena to emerge from the battlefields of Ukraine has been the vulnerability of Russian tanks and armored vehicles to assaults from small tactical units armed with NATO-provided hand-held anti-armor weapons such as British-made NLAWs or American-made Javelins. As of mid-May, it was reported that the Russian army had lost around a third of its original invading force, including around 600 tanks, destroyed or captured (the Ukrainian army put the figure nearer 680).

The Russians are thought to have up to 10,000 tanks in storage, although their battle-readiness has come under question. “Given that the tanks they have in operations have not demonstrated a high level of serviceability and engineering and maintenance, it is reasonable to assume in a corrupt and cored out military and ramshackle military infrastructure that the tanks that are in storage are not well kept,” said Frank Ledwidge, a barrister and former military officer.

Absurdly comical images of Ukrainian farmers towing away Russian tanks have come to encapsulate the incongruous performance of the once omnipotent armored battalions. Moreover, each tank destroyed means yet more dead Russian soldiers, and the sheer number of casualties suffered by the invading army has led analysts to question the wisdom behind using large numbers of tanks that can be easily spotted using drones, putting so many lives at risk. A trend towards unmanned vehicles both in the air and on the ground seems inevitable.

Artillery rules the battlefield

Stalin famously referred to artillery as “The God of War,” and Russian military doctrine has stuck to this line in modern times. Its strategic decision to destroy cities is a paradigm of prolonged attrition. Russia was not expecting a long war in Ukraine, but its surprising defeat in the north of the country back in February and March has led it to return to artillery as a primary offensive weapon, used to terrorize towns and cities into submission. It has been using a plethora of different MLRS systems, 2S7 “Pion” 203mm heavy artillery and TOS-1 220mm thermobaric rocket systems, among other.

The Ukrainian army has therefore had to adapt to this utterly destructive, deadly form of warfare, and its NATO allies have begun to step up, providing modern artillery to replace its often out-of-date Soviet-era weapons supplied by ex-Warsaw Pact countries such as the Czech Republic, which has donated DANA 152mm wheeled self-propelled howitzers, BMP-1 IFV armored vehicles and T72-A battle tanks.

The Czech government, aware of the fact that its DANA howitzers are somewhat obsolete, recently signed a contract with French company Nexter to acquire the CAESAR, a 155m wheeled self-propelled howitzer. The CAESAR itself is perfectly adapted to the battlefield in the Donbas due to its agility, ease of deployment and firepower. CAESAR canons have also been sent in Ukraine on the frontline and have already proven crucial.

The renaissance of intelligence

It would seem that the Ukrainian army would not have achieved so many critical tactical victories without the constant feed of Western intelligence systems that have been able to precisely track Russian troop and armored vehicle movements, allowing its artillery to precisely target those units, causing high casualties. This has even resulted in a number of Russian generals being killed.

Hybrid warfare, the close collaboration of intelligence, close-air support, precision artillery and drones are proving effective against a disorganized Russian military machine that remains on top simply due to its sheer numbers and disregard for the lives of its own soldiers. According to Admiral Stavridis (Ret.), the 16th Supreme Allied Commander at NATO and Vice Chair, Global Affairs at The Carlyle Group and Chair of the Board of the Rockefeller Foundation, “the lesson is that by providing real-time, highly precise targeting to forces in the field, a belligerent can help undermine one of the true centers-of-gravity in combat: a coherent command and control system anchored by capable senior leaders.”

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