December 9, 2023

The slow progress of the counteroffensive Ukraine launched in early June led to criticism that Ukrainian troops were failing to properly apply the training they received from Western militaries.

But what if the problem isn’t with the Ukrainians but rather with Western tactics? Ukraine’s woes may be an omen of what might happen if NATO armies have to fight without ample air support and logistics.

Ukraine’s counteroffensive was never going to be easy. Russian forces spent months building up their defenses, using a long-standing and still effective Soviet-era approach to fortifications and adapting new tactics, such as bigger and more concentrated minefields.

The notion that Ukrainian troops would be able to replicate Western-style tactics after a few weeks of training — and discard decades of rigid, top-down Soviet-style command and control — was always a stretch. Learning a new way of war is tough enough in peacetime, let alone in the midst of an offensive against some of the most formidable fortifications on Earth.

Yet that Western training, while not bad in terms of teaching basic soldiering skills, doesn’t appear to have been well-suited for the war in Ukraine, as Ukrainian soldiers who trained in Britain told the UK-based media outlet openDemocracy.

In particular, their instruction didn’t address how to deal with obstacles such as trenches, minefields, barbed wire, antitank ditches, and dragon’s teeth. While Ukraine has made progress in penetrating the first and deadliest of Russia’s three fortified lines, these defenses have slowed the advance and caused heavy casualties.

In the early days of the counteroffensive, Ukrainian assault units went in NATO-style: Armored columns equipped with German-made Leopard 2 tanks and US-made Bradley armored troop carriers were supposed to breach Russian defenses quickly and penetrate into rear areas. Instead, they were pinned down in minefields and picked off by Russian artillery and attack helicopters.

Ukraine eventually junked those Western tactics in favor of a playbook from the Western Front circa 1917. Methodical advances by small units of soldiers on foot to grab a few dozen or a few hundred yards at a time in “bite then hold” attacks while artillery hammers trenches to keep Russian heads down and interdict Russian reserves and supplies.

Some argue Ukraine lacks the equipment to implement Western doctrine properly, but Western militaries themselves would probably struggle to implement that doctrine under such conditions.

European nations — such as Germany, which had a powerful army during the Cold War — have reduced their defense budgets over the past 30 years, leaving their militaries with tanks and aircraft that can’t function and munitions stockpiles insufficient for more than a few days of intense combat.

The US military is shifting its focus to competition with powerful rivals, namely Russia and China, but is doing so with aircraft and ships facing maintenance backlogs and parts shortages that leave officials worrying about whether they’re ready for that kind of fight.

Critics point to the failure of Western military thinkers to adapt training and tactics to a changing world. For example, breaching minefields with explosive charges and mine-clearing vehicles was a technique that worked in World War II but may not work in an era when an enemy can quickly put a minefield in place using artillery shells and drones and then cover it with drone-guided long-range munitions that disrupt breaching operations.

Behind all this is a deeper worry: The West is prepared for the wrong war, lingering on its experiences during the two decades its militaries fought insurgencies and terrorists. Indeed, Ukrainian trainees told openDemocracy that their instructors frequently taught them lessons based on their experiences in the Middle East, such as how to identify insurgents among civilians.

The commander of a Ukrainian marine battalion told The New York Times he had argued with his US trainers whose opponents in Iraq and Afghanistan were “not like the Russians.” The marines even repainted their US-provided Humvees, covering the desert camouflage with green paint better suited for Ukraine.

The Pentagon has belatedly realized its focus on fighting low-tech insurgents has led the skills it needs for large-scale mechanized warfare to atrophy. For years, highly trained tank and artillery crews were relegated to checkpoint duty. In Iraq and Afghanistan, US and NATO forces could count on support from aircraft operating with near impunity against foes whose heaviest weapons were IEDs and small arms.

During those campaigns against terrorism and insurgents, many resources were focused on developing equipment, such as counter-IED systems, that would have limited utility in the kind of mechanized warfare the US military is likely to face in the future.

Should the US and its allies battle Russia or China, it would be a large-scale conventional clash against a well-armed adversary with comparable or superior equipment — from one-way attack drones and field artillery to thickets of surface-to-air missiles and hypersonic weapons, not to mention jamming, cyber warfare, and information operations.

Are Western armies adequately trained to function if their communications are blocked, their command posts are knocked out, and their movements are under constant surveillance by drones? Can they breach a fortified line if their combat engineers have been destroyed by artillery?

Most important, how well will NATO troops perform if their airpower is neutralized by enemy interceptors and antiaircraft missiles or if they face attacks from enemy aircraft, which the US military hasn’t endured at scale since World War II? Already, the US Air Force is contemplating how it will fight when it cannot achieve sustained air superiority.

Short of fighting a major war, it’s not clear how the US and its allies can answer those questions, but the indications are that preparation for this future will be difficult.

Despite the success of cheap drones and modern cruise missiles, the war in Ukraine has shown that old-fashioned weapons — armor, artillery, mines, and mine-clearing systems — are still the backbone of mass warfare. The lethality of these weapons and the attritional nature of the conflict suggest nations will have to accept heavy losses in equipment and personnel.

Of the many lessons Ukraine’s experience offers, perhaps the most valuable is being able to adapt. Many experts expected Russia to conquer Ukraine within days of invading, but Ukraine defied those expectations by finding ways to use its limited resources — and to exploit Russian vulnerabilities — so well that it not only halted the invasion but recaptured swathes of territory and forced Russian troops to hunker down as it counterattacks.

The price has been brutal, and victory is uncertain, but it shows that those who best adapt — by shifting tactics, embracing new technology, and doing it quickly — are most likely to prevail.

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Kirilo Sakhniuk