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Military Lessons from the Ukrainian War

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The Ukraine War is the largest conventional war in Europe since 1945, and also one of the first wars between relatively developed, industrialized powers, since then. Since the war broke out its course has often been surprising – well, since even before the war broke out, since many didn’t expect it to happen. Most expected a quick Russian victory, but since the initial lunge into Ukraine at the beginning of the war, Russia has not only failed to win, but often faced a series of major defeats. The war has seen a host of weapons systems trialed, often times for the first time in combat, and both confirmed and denied existing military thought. The war is without a doubt, a great tragedy, a terrible nightmare whose costs should never be diminished, and yet it also has been a great source of information on contemporary military developments.

General Remarks

A huge number of these observations have to be prefaced or provided with the proviso that most military would not suffer as badly as the Russian one, but that the Russian military has proved to have unusually severe failings, with massive corruption, inflexible thinking, poor training, terrible logistics, low morale, and unprofessionalism which have led to constant failure. However, these general failings are in of themselves cause for commentary: these are major issues which have to be addressed by any military. Corruption is disastrous to military readiness and should be confronted, armies today in a day of high mobility operations and rapid tempo affairs have to be capable of quickly reacting to situations, training cannot be skimped upon, morale and motivation has always been known to be of critical importance, and an ethos of service and esprit de corps has to be cultivated, with plagues such as dedovschina (the extreme hazing which is common in the Russian military), alcoholism, corruption, and lack of pride and discipline fought against with all effort.

These are all general principles, but were failed by the Russian military. It shows that militaries are a reflection of society, and Russian society, with its deep seated problems of cynicism, alcoholism, drug usage, nihilism, corruption, inequality, lack of critical thinking, discouragement of initiative, public face over substance, and propaganda, and focus on nostalgia rather than innovative, forward-looking ideals, has proved a particularly ugly mirror. War is a political subject, and the flaws of the Russian military cannot be divorced from Russian society. This isn’t to say that American or Western militaries in general are perfect and doubtless have their own problems that will be exposed come a major war, but they at least tend to encourage critical thinking, crack down on corruption, and honestly talk about their issues rather than hide them under propaganda. Military power is infinitely more complex than simply military budgets or the number of available platforms, and attention must be brought to cultural and societal composition. The disastrous performance of the Russian military, beyond any of its actual tactical or operational failings, provides some clear general areas where danger signs might pop up and what to watch for in order to keep up military proficiency.

Destroyed Russian vehicles

Destroyed Russian vehicles

Ground Warfare

While there has been an important air, and to a lesser extent naval, component to the Ukraine War, by far the most important aspect of it has been fought on the ground between ground troops. Here, the Russian military has been faced by severe challenges, and commonly out-fought by Ukrainian forces. Part of this is due to problems in training with Russian forces: since 2014 and budget cuts to the Russian military it seems to be the case that the quality of Russian ground troops has atrophied, losing the capability to conduct basic tactical drills, even in elite formations, and this in stark contrast to the performance of the Russian army in 2008 against Georgia – where despite major mistakes Russian ground units generally performed more credibly.

This has been a great surprise since generally Russian forces before the war were credited with at least acceptable performances and decent training levels: the Russians had held a large number of military exercises which seemed to show units operating effectively. In actuality however, once the war came, Russian troops catastrophically underperformed. This is a great lesson for future militaries, since the Russian government itself seemed to be fooled by its own military forces and thought they were more competent than they really were: vigorous and constant observation of actual military levels and more realistic training is necessary to ensure that military effectiveness is kept up and can be accurately measured. Projecting an aura of strength to fool outside observers is all very well, but in doing so one cannot oneself be deluded by this picture as the Russian government has been.

As with every single war in the modern era, munitions consumption has time and time again to be shown to be higher than estimates and munitions stockpiles are burned through more quickly than anticipated. Ukrainian consumption of Javelin ATGMs, artillery shells, and guided rockets has been massive, and if it wasn’t supported by the West then it would have collapsed long ago. Russia has been able to rely upon massive Soviet stocks, but it too has burned through much of its modern material and much of its old Soviet stocks.

Long range precision artillery such as HIMARS has been extremely useful to Ukrainian forces, and shows how artillery continues to be a vital military tool

Long range precision artillery such as HIMARS has been extremely useful to Ukrainian forces, and shows how artillery continues to be a vital military tool

Furthermore, the importance and potency of precision guided weapons systems, as with seemingly every modern conventional war, has been shown once more in dramatic fashion. Russia at the start of the war enjoyed a massive superiority in firepower, with crushing superiority in artillery systems particularly, including both howitzers and cannons, and multiple rocket launcher systems. While these proved capable of being able to batter down Ukrainian resistance during the Donbass stage of the conflict, and thus was tactically highly important, operationally it failed to function as a decisive arm: it was not able to interdict Ukrainian logistics, supplies, and troop movements, just to engage in massive storms of steel. By contrast, Ukrainian HIMARS systems proved to be extremely effective at destroying Russian ammunition dumps, which choked off Russian logistics, as well as hitting air defense, command posts, and transport infrastructure. Precision guided rocket and cannon fire is a massive force multiplier.

Russian ammunition dumps are not known for their good safety practices and this has been reflected in wartime

Russian ammunition dumps are not known for their good safety practices and this has been reflected in wartime

Some of this admittedly, may be exaggerated due to the peculiar deficiencies of Russian forces. Even before the war there was some discussion of ammunition handling and ammunition dumps and how they were handled lackadaisically and with insufficient precautions by the Russians: there are loads of pictures of extremely, horrifically, sloppy ammunition handling practices, with old shells just lying out in the open, helter-skelter, and no palletization and other modern logistics systems. Without any attention to safety, it’s logical that HIMARS would more easily ignite Russian ammunition and lead to more explosions. What’s more, other armies have a higher tail to tooth ratio, with more logistics, than the Russians so their ammunition depots can be positioned further away, and most armies are neither so overwhelmingly reliant on artillery, nor on dumb, unguided artillery that depends on mass rather than accuracy. At the same time, it’s clear that the sheer accuracy and deadliness of precision guided modern artillery is brutally effective, and just made worse against the Russians. Russian artillery systems require tens upon thousands of shells to destroy a particular target, while Ukrainian precision guided ones have simply wiped out critical positions accurately and surgically. While old systems like Grads are still probably useful for suppression fire, smart artillery rounds should receive greater emphasis.

This means that the existence of an accurate, reliable, and widely available system like GPS is absolutely critical. GPS can be jammed, but Russia in Ukraine has been far more dependent on GPS than they should have been, since their own GLONASS system has not worked as well. Alternative GPS systems, like the Chinese BeiDou and European Galileo, once again show that they need to be urgently ensured as being at American levels, or else there is no ability to be able to provide for independent operations. But HIMARS also shows that precision guided weapons have been able to operate extremely effectively in a war against an enemy with capable electronic warfare capabilities: while Russian EW capabilities have been less effective than previously anticipated, perhaps due to their poor communication systems preventing them from using their full jamming arsenal, they have been present as many videos of the destruction or capture of Russian EW systems has shown, and yet they have been incapable of seriously blunting precision weapons used by Ukraine. In a future conventional war, precision weapons will continue to be extremely important.

Part of the reason why Ukrainian strikes on Russian positions has been so extremely effective is excellent intelligence gathering, which has taken advantage of human intelligence, signals intelligence, and aerial/satellite reconnaissance. The special status of the Ukraine War, with Ukraine being aided by the Western powers essentially in all means short of war, but this not being called by the Russians and NATO directly engaged due to Russian weakness, is something which makes it hard to really deal with or predict in future conflicts: few nations have managed to attract as much international hostility as Russia and still being willing to engage in an adventurous foreign policy as the Russians did, and the other big potential flashpoint wars – a Taiwan Straits war, war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, an Indo-Pakistani war, etc. are far less likely to be able to have third party neutrals feeding in constant data to one side.

"Usage of radio emitting devices and personal receivers is FORBIDDEN" and with "Place for your telephone." Unfortunately for the Russians lack of secure communications meant they often used them anyway and promptly were listened in on

"Usage of radio emitting devices and personal receivers is FORBIDDEN" and with "Place for your telephone." Unfortunately for the Russians lack of secure communications meant they often used them anyway and promptly were listened in on

However, human intelligence also shows an important side of the war: here the problem is that the huge proliferation of modern cell phones and communication systems means that there are millions of potential spies behind an army’s front lines, and that they are capable of spreading this information effectively in real time with the enemy. The Ukrainian government even created an app for Ukrainians to report on Russian military movements and sightings. The level of information which is generated by this, and its quality, in open source information, is quite literally without precedent in a major war: a single example of it would be the reporting on losses by military bloggers like Onyx who have been able to establish extremely comprehensive databases of losses on both sides. Partly this has been useful in propaganda terms, and the Ukrainians have been very effective at leveraging this to show their operational effectiveness. But beyond propaganda, this has helped to determine Russian targets to strike – including even some done by the Russians themselves, such as when Wagner Group leaders posted a picture of their headquarters, which was promptly geolocated and obliterated by a Ukrainian missile strike.

Again, this is partially due to the nature of the Russian invasion of Ukraine: the Russians did not expect serious resistance, and thus didn’t jam or block Ukrainian cellular networks, in part at least because their own communication systems were hideously insufficient and they needed Ukrainian communication infrastructure for their own communications. But regardless of the reason, the lessons are clearly that armies need to have their own comms and not rely on civilian communications, and secure ones since Ukrainian SIGINT was capable of simply listening in to unencoded Russian communications, and that there must be a destruction, jamming, or neutralization of cellular networks to prevent civilians from being able to report on military matters. This was already of course well known before the war and communications are understood as vital, but this just shows again how important they are. Any civilian with a phone is a potential spy, and the only alternative to removing the phones is to remove the civilians, and this is morally, strategically, ethically, politically, and militarily unthinkable, disastrous, and unconscionable. The same goes to some extent for telephones kept by troops: troops would prefer to have their cell phones to take photos, but the best way to deal with it is probably to simply remove the SIM card, leaving the camera function alone intact, and preventing potential security breaches.

But while the war has shown the need for a panoply of high tech systems, one of the most singularly important lessons is that infantry simply cannot be economized upon. Infantry, if anything, has become even more important. Tanks and mechanized assets still have a vital role to play on the battlefield and are extremely important for maneuver warfare, but good infantry is needed to support them, to hold terrain, and often to conquer terrain, especially nowadays when landscapes have become substantially more built up and terrain more urbanized, compared to previous wars. Russia during the Donbass stage of the Ukraine was able to assemble massive superiorities in artillery, local air superiority, its normal tank superiority, and had at this stage of the war a functioning logistics system – and yet its advance was measured at a snail’s pace, that if sustained, would have taken the better part of a century to conquer Ukraine. A significant reason for this was that Russia lacked the infantry to conquer ground, and so its artillery had to resort to destruction fires, with massive usage of shells, rather than being able to just heavily suppress and attrite enemy formations for competent infantry units to be able to take the enemy formations and destroy them via shock. This was very inefficient, slow, and prevented real operational momentum from being gained.

What’s more, this deficiency of infantry became even more serious in the Kharkov counter-offensive, when the relatively thinly held Russian lines with inadequate reserves were hit by a Ukrainian offensive and simply melted away – at least in part because a goodly proportion of the troops present were poorly motivated, trained, and probably equipped conscripts. They promptly folded and collapsed. Even in the offensive, these formations have taken heavy casualties and their employment has been extremely cynical at times, such as using them to draw fire and thus expose Ukrainian positions. Good infantry is an absolutely vital force in wartime. It would be easy to take excessive comfort in this, since authoritarian regimes have often seemed to have trouble producing good infantry capable of initiative, independent thought, and aggression: however, this is not a universal feature. The most famous of course is Nazi Germany whose infantry forces managed impressive, if sometimes overrated, feats despite living in an authoritarian and totalitarian government, but the Red Army in WW2 also managed to grow reasonably effective too. But Maoist China and Communist Viet Nam also managed very effective infantry forces.

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Ukrainian Territorial Defense soldiers in front of Shevchenkove. These have been shown to be rather effective given their high motivation, very useful at supporting the regular army and providing the base for future military expansion

Ukrainian Territorial Defense soldiers in front of Shevchenkove. These have been shown to be rather effective given their high motivation, very useful at supporting the regular army and providing the base for future military expansion

This is not however, when discussing the Kharkhov collapse above, to say that conscripts are inherently bad, since the Ukrainian army relies on significant amounts of conscripts, and there are conscript-based forces such as the Finnish military that are of very high quality. The question of conscripts shows a crucial difference between Russia and Ukraine and how they have used their human resources. Ukrainian popular enthusiasm for the war has enabled mass mobilization to be instituted, and the Ukrainian military has carefully husbanded and trained these forces, only putting them into action when they have reached acceptable combat performance. Even early in the war, Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces have been extremely useful local militias, buying time for army units to constitute themselves, slowing down the invaders, helping to economize resources for the regular army, functioning as second line forces that were vital to stopping the Russian advance during the initial days of the war. Since then, conscription has been used to continue the expansion of the Ukrainian army, with broad popular acceptance and enthusiasm.

Again this shows that the political and military sides of war cannot be divorced from each other. The Russians by embarking on a war of imperialist aggression in Ukraine, without genuine popular support – indeed, doing their best to keep the war strictly apolitical and a non-issue at home – have set up the conditions where they cannot form effective, patriotically inspired, conscript forces. The Ukrainians, fighting for their homes and against a foreign invader, have been far better able to employ mass society and to drum up real support for the war, in a way the Russians have not been able to.

Another bread-and-butter issue which the war has once again provided for material to examine is the weight of armored forces. Russia’s army has proven to almost certainly be too heavily weighted towards armored and mechanized assets and with insufficient infantry. In part this is due to the nature of the Ukraine war: Russian units are supposed to have their full strength provided by mobilization and calling up reservists, as well as conscripts providing even regular units a proportion of their fighting strength, but this didn’t happen at the beginning of the war, forcing the Russian military to conduct its operations at only partial strength, without their full infantry complements. The lack of infantry screening cost the Russians dearly, and without sufficient situational awareness the Russians suffered heavy losses to Ukrainian ATGMs, famously Javelins but also more prosaic weapons such as Ukrainian Stugnas. Even in open field operations hence, infantry is an extremely vital tool. In previous conflicts, Russia was able to get local supporting infantry forces that rounded out their units, such as separatist forces in the Donbass warfare, or Syrian auxiliaries during the Syrian military intervention, but it greatly lacked for these in this war. An irony of the late Russian mobilization in October was that by this time the Russians had taken extremely severe losses in equipment: the Russians in the early war lost their equipment because they had insufficient manpower, and now are losing their manpower because they have insufficient equipment.

Ukraine has gotten good use out of their tanks, particularly during the Kharkov offensive, showing that they are far from obsolete: Russia has merely used them badly, relied on them too much, and given them insufficient support

Ukraine has gotten good use out of their tanks, particularly during the Kharkov offensive, showing that they are far from obsolete: Russia has merely used them badly, relied on them too much, and given them insufficient support

Tanks are not obsolete, although the number of anti-tank threats on the battlefield has proliferated. There still is no real equivalent in terms of protection, lethality, and mobility to the tank. Rather, older tanks are clearly seeing much less utility in an offensive war against well-armed conventional forces, and breakdowns of Russian tank losses show that the more modern models suffer increasing losses. In defensive roles by contrast, these older tanks have sometimes proved surprisingly useful, such as Russian T-62s which were instrumental in stemming the initial Ukrainian attack on Kherson during the Donbass operations during the summer months, but in offensive terms tanks need to be modern models with active protection systems, thermal sights, and sufficient armor protection. But above all else they need to be integrated into a combined arms systems (the Russian BMPT concept seems to have been broadly speaking useless and shown again just how vitally important infantry is) and their predominant place on the battlefield has probably decreased: they are a relatively smaller part of the team, a part of affairs but who have to be more carefully husbanded and employed in decisive shock operations, with an excellent example being Ukrainian tank offensives during the Kharkiv offensive where Ukrainian tanks provided the shock and breakthrough potential to shatter Russian lines.

Russian paratroopers were a crucial part of the opening stage of the war, with the VDV allotted the capture of airfields to establish airbridges around Kiev that would then be followed up by ground forces. The VDV largely succeeded in these missions and were able to take the airfields, but were then promptly driven off by ground force counter-attacks, since follow-up ground forces didn’t arrive fast enough and air support was heavily lacking. This seems to have been a severe issue with the Russian military: the lack of cooperation between VDV units and aircraft during the crucial first few days of the war, which denied the necessary firepower and support which the VDV needed to hold their captured positions. Any military which expects to make use of paratroopers simply must also have an air force structure, doctrine, and training that can actually support them. Russia’s combination of highly aggressive paratroopers and a defensively oriented air force proved to be a flawed structure for a war against an enemy capable of fighting back.

What seems to have been a Ukrainian Su-24 bombing Russian paratroopers at Hostomel: the incapability of the Russians to seize full air superiority during the crucial opening days of the invasion brutally hurt their chances for success

What seems to have been a Ukrainian Su-24 bombing Russian paratroopers at Hostomel: the incapability of the Russians to seize full air superiority during the crucial opening days of the invasion brutally hurt their chances for success

Airborne forces probably aren’t obsolete, since they offer a capability which is next to impossible to replicate otherwise. If the VDV had succeeded and held the airfields around Kiev and reinforcements were ferried in and Kiev taken quickly in a coup de main, then Russia might very well have won the war on the spot, or at least confused and disrupted Ukrainian command and morale to the extent that its severe issues would not have been as problematic. Russia’s problem rather was that it failed to adequately support the VDV, and that it had no back-up plan in event that they failed. This should clearly be something that should be considered: Russia drew too much from the 1968 in Czechoslovakia, with the assumption that once paratroopers were around the capital, things would all fall into place, or in Afghanistan in 1979: both ignored the significantly more cloudy political situation. It isn’t that paratroopers are useless, but rather that the Russians used them too ambitiously and without any support. In a future war, such as China against Taiwan, then paratroopers could again be a simply invaluable force: if they could seize key positions, presumably in conjunction with a naval invasion, then the presumably heavy casualties would be more than worth it.

But Russia’s status of the VDV as an entire separate military branch, of elite infantry and which drained them from the regular forces, probably was an inefficient usage of military forces. Beyond the sheer cost of the VDV and the need to build an entire second line of military vehicles, the BMDs which are lighter than the regular BMPs, the VDV helped make Russian infantry into the morass of poorly motivated and indifferently trained soldiers that it is, by concentrating good infantry soldiers into its formations. It would have been far more efficient if these could have been simply used by regular, conventional infantry forces to stiffen them instead of draining them off to the elite VDV units. To some extent this is what happened, since the lack of capable and motivated infantry forces led the Russians to press spetsnaz, naval infantry, and VDV units into assault groups, but this is inefficient as compared to just having a good, solid army. Of course there are cases historically where the presence of key, elite units at vital points in the battle made all the difference with probably the most famous being Germany in WW2, which had elite tank units on top of an army of significantly less motorized and capable infantry units, which permitted decisive victories over France and significant victories over Russia through rapid forward shock action, however this did not work out in Ukraine.

The VDV seems simply too bloated and large for its role. It should serve as an example for other militaries with similar second services and their potential to drain away elan from the regular army, and these elite and special forces should be studied carefully to see if the resources and potential devoted to them is actually in line with what role they have. This seems to have happened with the United States and its marines, who have lost duplicate capacity vis-à-vis the American army such as its tank forces, and instead have been specialized for role in garrisons and defensive forces in the Pacific theater. Apparently the VDV had too many men to actually airlift in one drop, so it should have been reduced in size. A smaller VDV could still have permitted Russia to engage in expeditionary warfare throughout Central Asia and politically sensitive operations, such as when the VDV was deployed to Kazakhstan just before the Ukraine War to stabilize the Kazakhstani government against internal protests, but mass paradrops in war are clearly extremely risky and costly. The same logic can go to other militaries: the cult of the paratrooper needs to be put into its proper place and its limitations recognized.

Despite relatively advanced fighters, large numbers, and previous experience, serious problems have prevented the Russian air force from having much effect in Ukraine

Despite relatively advanced fighters, large numbers, and previous experience, serious problems have prevented the Russian air force from having much effect in Ukraine

Aerial Warfare

Most American wars, and indeed Western wars in general, have been fought with overwhelming air superiority. It was thought that this would be the case early in the invasion of Ukraine, with Russian strikes on Ukrainian air bases, Ukrainian air defenses and command and control, and Russian reports that the Ukrainian air force had been destroyed. Quickly however, this proved to be wildly exaggerated: although Ukrainian air defenses were weakened or suppressed sufficiently for the Russian helicopter drops near Kiev, the Russians manifestly failed to knock out the Ukrainian air defenses, and even the Ukrainian air force survived mostly intact as was shown by the fact that Ukrainian air craft are still flying to this date.

This is in fact, probably more the standard for most wars, and the American way of war with gaining air superiority the exception. The Americans have huge amounts of resources to devote to their air forces and are capable of gaining huge quantitative and qualitative overmatch, maintained by constant training and experience, won at the cost of punishing losses in Vietnam and employment in Iraq and Serbia. Even in Serbia, determined, resolute, and resourceful Serbian air defense operators were able to survive constant American SEAD operations and constrain American usage of airpower, and while unable to really challenge American airpower, they did inflict some notable prestige victories such as the shoot down of an F-117 stealth fighter. The most decisive victories for American airpower were won largely against Iraq, against opposition that incompetently deployed their air defense. While in a war against other nations, such as perhaps against Russia itself, America would doubtless win but it would probably take more time than Americans are used to.


Ukrainian S-300 heavy anti-aircraft missiles have been crucial in keeping Russian aircraft low to the ground, where they are vulnerable to MANPADS and other low-level threats

Ukrainian S-300 heavy anti-aircraft missiles have been crucial in keeping Russian aircraft low to the ground, where they are vulnerable to MANPADS and other low-level threats

Substituting the Americans for the Russians, and air superiority would be gained in time, but it would still require time to destroy, suppress, and annihilate Ukrainian air defenses. Most air campaigns are not an all-out blitz, but from WW2 to the present, rather a slow, grinding affair that depletes and attrites enemy forces and grinds down their capacity to resist. The war in Ukraine shows this to some extent: the Russians are winning, gradually at least, the air battle, as their vastly higher airframe numbers and the limited resources available to extent Ukrainian air defenses in missiles, fighters, and production capacities is grinding down Ukrainian forces. What is so surprising is not that this is happening, but rather how dramatically Russia has underperformed in this regards.

It shows that SEAD operations are extremely difficult to pull off, and require constant training, thought, and practice. Russian SEAD operations have apparently declined in effectiveness from Soviet era operations, which were already rigid and rote, but videos of Russian SEAD employment indicates that missiles are fired almost at random and with abysmally low probability of kill, and that above all else, beyond just DEAD (destruction of enemy air defense), Russian air operations have proven crucially bad at actually suppressing enemy air defense, which has forced them to operate lower, making them in turn highly vulnerable to MANPADs. What’s more this limits them to striking targets close to the front, and thus although Russian forces have been capable of launching a large number of airstrikes, their actual effect on the ground has been rather mediocre, and haven’t really had much of an impact on Ukrainian logistics, supplies, or rear area targets.

Thus the Ukraine war shows that any future war between large conventional powers will probably take some time for air superiority or dominance to be established, there will be significant contestation of the air, and that air defenses continue to be effective and capable of, when well used, denying some enemy air operations, although to do so they need to be integrated in a combined integrated air defense system, capable of being highly mobile, and backed up by their own fighters.

A Russian Ka-52 helicopter shot down in Ukraine: losses have been high and Russian employment of their helicopters has failed to deliver decisive results. Helicopters, like tanks, are not obsolete but face more risks.

A Russian Ka-52 helicopter shot down in Ukraine: losses have been high and Russian employment of their helicopters has failed to deliver decisive results. Helicopters, like tanks, are not obsolete but face more risks.

Helicopters were widely used by the Russians at first during the opening weeks of the war, and arguably served their role reasonably well here: they permitted the VDV to get to Kiev after all, and provided valuable fire support. But since then they have been far less visible in Ukrainian skies, due to the widespread deployment of MANPADS and other short-range air defense systems. The offensive, long range use of helicopters in a conventional future war, as the Americans also learned during attempted raids in Iraq in 2003, is a costly affair, and helicopters seems more useful as a defensive tool to respond to enemy break throughs as dedicated tank destroyers, and in combat against less well equipped armies. Russian pop-up dumb rocket barrages from helicopters has been cost ineffective, compared to just using Grads or other basic area rocket launchers. Helicopters aren’t obsolete, but their reconnaissance role is becoming less important in the era of drones, and they need to have longer ranged ATGMs, preferably fire and forget, and be more capably linked into a battlefield network. The days of the helicopter gunship against a first-rate enemy, if they ever existed, are coming to a close.

One of the most commented features of the Ukraine war has been the widespread utilization of drones. This has been a matter of much discussion for the past 8 years or even more in relation to the Ukraine conflict, since the Russians were credited with the usage of their Orlan drones against Ukrainians in 2014. While some of the impact of this has been exaggerated, such as the idea of Russian deployment of drone-guided fires against mobile Ukrainian forces which in fact were most probably static units, the Russians in 2014 did gain valuable intelligence with their drones, and since then kamikaze and suicide drones have been sporadically deployed.

Ukrainian Bayraktar Song

In 2022, this was further amplified, but rather on the other foot: Ukrainian Bayraktar drones, purchased from Turkey, were one of the great stars of the early war, being highly effective in both reconnaissance and strike roles, blowing up over-extended Russian convoys whose air defense was not effectively deployed. They also proved useful in sea reconnaissance roles, such as over Snake Island off the coast, and potentially in their distraction work against the Russian cruiser Moskva. Following this they seem to have been significantly less effective, as the front became more static and Russian air defense solidified, and while the Bayraktars were never shot out of the sky, their impact was reduced. Some greater effectiveness of their role as a strike platform however, came about when the Ukrainians were able to get HARM missiles mated to their Migs and used them on the Kherson front.

The Bayraktar isn’t a decisive, war changing weapon, but it does seem surprisingly effective. It’s proven to be impressively survivable against air defense and more difficult to detect than one would expect, and capable of quite effective tactical air support, as well as reconnaissance. While the middle stages of the war, when the Russians managed to largely neuter the Bayraktar threat, is probably a look at a war between any first rate powers with decent air defense, at the same time even in this situation the Bayraktars were able to perform valuable reconnaissance roles. When Ukrainians gained HARM missiles, and Russian air defense was suppressed more, Bayraktars also became more important once more. Of course, not every nation has perfect air defense, and the fact that they are so expendable is a huge boon: the Bayraktars and other drones offer small and medium nations a way back into effective airpower. Also their cheapness and disposability can offer a way for ground forces to have directly available CAS integrated right into their OOB, giving brigade level formations their own organic air support. They might in the long run if Russia manages to build up a better drone industry be very useful for Russia in particular, since Russia has traditionally had problems with providing sufficient training for its pilots, and being able to rely on drone operators removes pilot attrition.

Drones do show that there will be need for more broad based air defense, since large numbers of small drones are inefficient for regular jet fighters to shoot down. This is already in the works for defending against with new generations of anti-aircraft defense systems and SHORAD being deployed by Western countries. Just having these systems alone however, doesn’t guarantee defense against them: the Russians have one of the most formidable anti-air networks in the world but still experienced extremely embarrassing losses against Ukrainian drones during the beginning of the invasion, probably due to lack of professionalism, discipline, and appropriate caution. Air defense must have high standards and be aware of drone threats, and rapid offensive operations have shown that air defense can struggle – both during the Russian lunge into Ukraine in February, and later on during the Ukrainian Kharkov offensive, although in the latter case the Russian air force was less able to exploit the problems that Ukrainian anti-air units had in keeping up with the rapidly advancing mechanized spearheads.

Cheap and capable of attacking distant civilian targets, Shahed drones won't change the course of the war but have inflicted pain on the Ukrainian civilian population

Cheap and capable of attacking distant civilian targets, Shahed drones won't change the course of the war but have inflicted pain on the Ukrainian civilian population

The deployment of Iran’s Shahed drone by the Russians is interesting in that the theoretical idea, that of a slow, but long ranged drone that is sufficiently cheap to be deployed en masse and made from cheap civilian components, so cheap that shooting them down with a missile is often more expensive than the cost of the drone, is attractive in some circumstances. The Russians have used them effectively to target Ukrainian infrastructure behind the lines, striking power infrastructure in particular – and it isn’t economically feasible to protect all of these positions. At the same time, the limited performance of these drones makes them ineffective against actual military targets, and they have trouble against field units. Furthermore they have limited warheads, and above all else extremely poor penetration characteristics: against targets with even a modicum of defense it is unlikely that they will get through. Their cost has been reported as low as $20,000, but it is possible that they are more expensive, which negates much of their cost benefits.

Shaheds are effectively a harassment weapon. They have some use in forcing enemy point air defense to be relocated behind the lines, but as a military strike weapon their role is poor. Furthermore, even extremely poor countries with poor air defense are probably capable of coming up with reasonable counters: consider some old Soviet ZSU 23-2 anti-aircraft guns, with a few pedestal mounts on buildings being a reasonably good defense mechanism. More advanced upcoming measures, such as laser air defense, will further limit their effect. They’ll be a useful weapon for small and medium nations – say, 2,000 of them, presuming they really can be made for just $20,000, would only cost 20 million dollars, well within the budget of even smaller air forces, and would be an extremely serious deterrent. But their actual strategic impact will be limited: their main benefit will be to divert enemy resources and to function as a strategic weapon via their ability to threaten massive devastation to enemy infrastructure. Microdrones will be useful on the tactical level, but the deployment of US drones like the Switchblade don’t seem to have been decisive in Ukraine given the lack of news stories about it compared to other systems like HIMARS, Javelin, French CAESAR artillery, and German Gepard SPAAGs.

The usage of Shaheds principally against static enemy positions and infrastructure targets also shows another problem in Russia’s strike capacities: that it lacks severely for real-time ability to track and target mobile enemy forces and even to respond promptly. It’s hard to say why exactly the Russians have such lethargic response times, but presumably it is linked to an inefficient, overstressed, and top-heavy command structure. Militaries with cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and other long-range assets need to make sure that they have not only the surveillance, intelligence, reconnaissance to make effective use of them, but also that their command and control is capable of actually employing them. This is something which is hard to do, since drills inherently show formations at their best level, and it seems likely that it would require constant employment in real situations to get used to this level of operations, and this is hard to do. Even when this happens, such as the Russians in Syria, it is entirely possible for whatever lessons learned to not be passed through to the rest of the force or for them to not even really apply on the ground: in Syria it seems that the Russians were not really engaging in a strategic air campaign as we would think about it, but rather were just bludgeoning cities, and that this didn’t actually teach the Russians to engage motion targets, just to shoot munitions at cities and drop dumb bombs on civilians. This turned out to be useless against an enemy with air defense and fighters.

While nuclear weapons have not been used, the state of the war also shows that their deployment has severe operational limitations, in addition to political limitations. At this point in the war, in November 2022, both sides have taken significant casualties and deployed most of their forces: the Ukrainians have been far more successful in breakthrough operations as shown at Kharkiv and Lymun, but if they had more breakthrough assets would probably have used them, while the Russians are stretched dreadfully thin and their combat power is much reduced: they are ragged and would have extreme difficulty in operating on an atomic battlefield. In all but extreme circumstances, the initial period of a war will not see nuclear weapons deployed starting out, and following this, in many circumstances both armies will be heavily damaged and far less capable of dramatic breakthrough moves, which will make the usage of nuclear weapons less tempting since their use won’t entail significant advantage. While there are circumstances where nuclear weapons can be used, in a military sense the war in Ukraine provides further support against their tactical employment.

Russia's Black Sea fleet massively overmatched the Ukrainian navy, but has been mostly impotent after the initial weeks of the war

Russia's Black Sea fleet massively overmatched the Ukrainian navy, but has been mostly impotent after the initial weeks of the war

Although naval conflict has had a relatively limited role compared to the rest of the war, it has continued to show that naval forces face severe issues dealing with land-launched anti-ship missiles. There is continued controversy concerning the sinking of the Moskva, the Russian flagship that was sunk on April 14th by the Ukrainians – with this even extending to the claim that it wasn’t sunk by the Ukrainians but rather suffered an ammunition explosion and sunk in a follow-up storm. Although Russian ammunition handling practices are apparently dreadful, this is comically easy to reject as a cause: pictures of the Moskva sinking afterwards show a flat sea without any storm, Russian actions afterwards don’t speak to fear of ammunition explosions but rather to avoiding Ukrainian actions, and an ammunition explosion for no reason sinking the ship seems unlikely.

The sinking of the Moskva has been one of the most dramatic moments of the war

The sinking of the Moskva has been one of the most dramatic moments of the war

Rather what is the controversy is related to three subjects 1)Whether the sinking was due to Russian inattentiveness that enabled the missiles to slip through the Russian defenses without even being detected or engaged 2)Whether by contrast the Russians were distracted by a Ukrainian Bayraktar drone which let the missiles, again slip through, or 3)Whether maintenance and repair status of the Moskva, per alleged reports on its conditions, was so bad that it was effectively unable to detect and engage incoming missiles. All of these are legitimate topics for speculation, but in any case they point out to some essential points – that a warship on extended patrols off of an enemy coast has trouble being constantly active, dealing with multiple threats, and that all it takes is a single mistake for it to potentially be sunk or at least heavily damaged, for much less resources than it takes.

The complicating factors in this war are two main features: the first that it is, like admittedly many other contemporary wars, not fully engaged by one side, in this case NATO and particularly the US which is supporting Ukraine but not formally at war with Russia. This means that NATO surveillance planes, particularly over the Black Sea in international waters, are fully capable of monitoring the Russians and giving a constant stream of intelligence to the Ukrainians, but the Russians cannot do anything about them. Naval warfare, s with many elements of modern warfare, is not simply a question of firepower and deleting targets: it is finding, tracking, and engaging these targets. NATO support for Ukraine neatly solves these issues and leaves the Ukrainians only having to deal with the missile launching side of the equation. The second is the state of the Russian navy, which like problems with Russia’s army and air force, leaves the question open of whether a more competent and effective military would still run into the same problems.

Regardless, it’s clear that the Russian navy has broadly failed in its roles as an actual naval force. It might have held some Ukrainian forces pinned to Odessa to protect it from a naval landing in the initial period of the war, but after the sinking of the Moskva the threat of a Russian amphibious landing evaporated. It did provide some blockade capacity over the summer time, but when the grain transfer agreement that Russia had agreed to was pulled out of following Ukrainian attacks on the Russian Black Sea Fleet by naval drones, the Russians pulled out, and yet the grain flow kept up, even accelerating, and the Russians were humiliatingly forced to re-enter shortly thereafter. It has failed to provide an effective air defense umbrella, as shown by Ukrainian drone attacks on the Black Sea Fleet headquarters. It failed to be able to supply Snake Island, which did much to remove its blockading capacity when it was surrendered to Ukraine in a “gesture of goodwill,” and added insult to injury following the loss of Moskva.

A huge plume of smoke comes up from the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kutnezov: it isn't sinking, just operating normally. Untold sums of money have been plunged into a prestige project of little real use to Russia's military

A huge plume of smoke comes up from the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kutnezov: it isn't sinking, just operating normally. Untold sums of money have been plunged into a prestige project of little real use to Russia's military

With all of this said, what sort of lessons can be drawn from the war? The first is that maintaining a navy is an expensive and costly endeavor. Ships must be kept up to date and in good operational readiness, or they will be horrendously vulnerable. If budgets are stressed or technical capacity to repair and keep them in status is lacking, such as Russia with its struggling post-2014 military budgets, and with the problematic military-industrial base following the loss of cooperation with Ukrainian shipyards, then losses should be cut. There is no use in throwing good money after bad: a few Russian frigates would have been just as useful for a distance blockade as the large Russian Black Sea Fleet, and significantly less expensive.

The second is that land-based anti-shipping capabilities should not be underestimated, and that a fleet should only operate in these regions at their own risk, even against nations with limited navies and relatively small anti-ship missile stockpiles Its vessels need to operate in groups, with escorts, and preferably with air cover – by aircraft, helicopters, drones – to at least give extended warning. This is already elementary enough, and it shows the severe arrogance and incompetence of the Russian military in ignoring this.

Among all of these problems however is that it shows that even second rate, or even third rate naval power – as Ukraine was and is, with a single, solitary frigate in commission, a few gunboats, and heavily lacking in naval aviation and with at least at the start of the war only a small number of anti-ship missiles – can still pose a dangerous challenge to more powerful navies in littoral environments. The Russian navy, in line with the disastrous state of Russian military power as a whole, probably exposes this weakness more than other navies, but it raises the question of how trying to contest the littorals will go against a regional power for the less powerful but still capable navies. If only a distant blockade is possible and naval support becomes almost infeasible, then much of the capabilities of a naval force is removed.

To solve this are two approaches: limiting the losses that fleets take in coastal regions and reducing the costs of it. Drone warships might exist at some point but will be difficult to realistically achieve, but perhaps increased utilization of small, unmanned drones for coastal patrol and light combat operations would help to enable naval blockade against smaller enemy ships and merchants without risks of losing more expensive warships. Ukraine has already used unmanned suicide drone vessels against the Russians, and this could be expanded on a greater scale.

Electronic and Cyber Warfare

Given how much focus and attention has been placed upon cyber and electronic warfare, it has been far less present in the Ukraine War than was imagined to be. Russian cyber attacks in the opening hours of the war did succeed in knocking out Ukrainian communications and command, but these were rapidly restored. Since then Russian cyber attacks have been unable to seriously disrupt Ukrainian communications, command and control, and the functioning of the economy and government.

This is despite Russia being known for active cyber operations prior to the war - and because of it. Russia’s regular cyber attacks on Ukraine since 2014 meant that the Ukrainians became extraordinarily good not necessarily at cyber defense, but system robustness and responsiveness, so that although Russian cyber attacks have happened, the Ukrainians have been able to quickly get their systems up again and restore functionality. They have also become very innovative, such as going back to analog control systems for the rail network. In such an environment, Russian cyber attacks are simply nuisance-level threats, and certainly are far less effective than say, NATO passive signals intelligence gathering.

As a suggestion for future conflicts, it shows that cyber warfare capabilities are best kept in reserve until crucial moments. If Russia really wanted to practice its cyber capabilities, there are doubtless various third party states that were less important that it could have targeted, such as Georgia, in addition to its regular meddling in American and European elections. Constant cyber attacks on Ukraine honed Ukrainian defensive capabilities and meant that when the crucial time came, the Ukrainians were far better able to withstand Russian the Russian offensive. The same principles would go in other future conflict zones, such as Taiwan, where a Chinese cyber offensive in conjunction with conventional military forces could be very useful, but if preceded by low-level electronic skirmishing would leave the Taiwanese adapted to resisting it.

Russia's initial invasion of Ukraine failed to coordinate mutually supporting axes of attack, concentrate forces, and realistically assess Russian logistics, throwing away previously high estimations of Russian operational military art

Russia's initial invasion of Ukraine failed to coordinate mutually supporting axes of attack, concentrate forces, and realistically assess Russian logistics, throwing away previously high estimations of Russian operational military art

Operations and Strategy

The last several decades of war have mostly been waged against irregular forces in asymmetrical conflicts, and when wars have been fought they have most often been against fragile and weak states in the Middle East. The Ukraine war shows that modern industrial countries, even poor ones like Ukraine, can be very hard to crack. Russia catastrophically underestimated Ukrainian resistance and assumed that Ukraine would simply collapse when paratroopers landed in Kiev and the Ukrainian government would surrender and Ukrainian soldiers would simply run away. Thus the Russians made no serious plans about fighting the Ukrainians, simply planned a paradrop on Kiev and assumed it would work and the war would be over in days.

To some extent, this actually has a weird sort of logic: after all, if Ukraine intended to fight back, then invading it would just cause Ukrainian opposition and deepen Ukrainian anti-Russian sentiment, and thus defeat the entire purpose of the Russian policy, to gain a friendly government in Ukraine or to directly annex them. If you accept the precepts, it makes perfect sense to invade and not plan for Ukrainian resistance, while if the Russians expected the Ukrainians to fight back, invading would be nonsensical. And there was some validity to Russia reading the intelligence reports and thinking this: a good percentage of Ukrainians said they wouldn’t resist the Russians, around a third, large numbers agreed with the proposition that the Ukrainians and Russians are one people, and Ukrainian security officials were reported as saying that they were largely indifferent to serving with the Russians or Ukrainians. Most importantly, the Russians had been for years attempting to undermine and turn Ukrainian figures and to create collaborationists and traitors. This apparently had two problems, 1)The Ukrainian officials simply took the money and didn’t do anything, and 2)More speculatively, the Russian intelligence agencies embezzled the money themselves.

This has some clear antecedents in a previous conflict that has been remarked as similar to the Ukraine War: The Italian Invasion of Greece, where Mussolini had been bribing Greek generals prior to the invasion. It suggests that while bribing officials can be helpful to secure influence networks and shift policy in favor of yourself, and maybe to undermine enemy cohesion and confidence, when war comes these are often useless: there’s no real hold that you possess over the enemy leadership, and they are often better served by resisting than giving in.

The most logical conclusion to draw is that the Russian invasion shows that any war which is predicated upon how the enemy will react must be carefully thought about and logically, reasonably, discussed. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 was based upon the idea that the Iraqis would welcome the Americans with open arms and would quickly prove willing converts to democracy and embrace the American way of life. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 had the belief that the Ukrainians would surrender and would be unwilling to resist the Russians. In both cases, a war plan based upon the enemy cooperating with you quickly fell apart: the Americans at least had a far better conventional military and conquered Iraq shortly, but their projections of Iraqi resistance were hopelessly optimistic and quickly Iraqi resistance flared up and plunged the country into a bloody and confusing war of resistance against the Americans and an internal civil war. The Russians have failed in even the conventional stage of war. In any war, the enemy being weak and simply surrendering should be a helpful and pleasant bonus, and NOT a necessary condition for success. This has obvious implications for the next most likely great power confrontation, Taiwan, where presumably the Chinese have learned from the Russian experience and if they invade Taiwan will do so with a military plan that isn’t based upon the Taiwanese simply surrendering after a quick blow, and a recognition that the political situation in Taiwan will change to their disfavor if they do invade and pre-war surveys cannot be taken at face value.

Equipment abandoned by the Russians and on display in Kiev

Equipment abandoned by the Russians and on display in Kiev

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was never going to go as smoothly as the Russians, or indeed, the world thought it was going to, due to the dramatic inferiority of the Russian army compared to projections, and how much more capable and cohesive Ukrainian forces and civil society have turned out to be than was assumed before the war. But even with these handicaps it could probably have won a reasonably clear victory with a capable operational plan and serious planning for the war. As shown by Donbass stage of the conflict, when Russian artillery superiority enabled the Russians to pummel Ukrainian positions and advance relentlessly, even if at a very slow pace, Russia did genuinely enjoy a massive fire superiority. This was achieved furthermore, after major losses and attrition of combat capability from the north.

A Russian campaign that had focused specifically on the Donbass and taking the Ukrainian coast to Odessa, with only limited forces along the rest of the front to tie down Ukrainian forces by forcing them to position troops to defend Kiev and Kharkhiv, would have enjoyed far more troops, especially the better Russian infantry formations such as VDV and Spetsnaz who were annihilated in the early lunge to take Kiev. Russia could have used their overwhelming firepower advantage to fight a war of firepower in the Donbass, and with far more capable, intact, and higher morale formations made far more effective use of this firepower superiority. With proper preparation and seriously telling troops that war was going to happen, then some of the worst effects of corruption, such as Russian troops supposedly selling their fuel to buy supplies in Belarus, would have been prevented and troop preparedness higher, and arrangements for communications actually employed.

A clear and decisive Russian victory at the early stage of the war, with the Ukrainian forces either annihilated in place under Russia’s massive firepower advantage and more competent follow up troops, or forced to withdraw, or encircled by pincer movements coming out of Crimea and from Kharkiv south, would have also depressed Ukrainian morale, which surged to sky-high after the defeat of the Russian Kiev offensive. Furthermore, international sanctions would have been less, and the Russian narrative of the inevitable defeat of the Ukrainians intact. A Russian capture of Odessa, achievable given more troops and logistics on the offensive and the early difficulties of the Ukrainians resisting the Russian breakthrough from Crimea would have both crippled Ukraine economically and secured crucial Russian war goals. While at least partial Russian mobilization would have been preferable, even without this Russia could probably have won the war, since at this stage they would have been placed to continue multiple stages of operations in Ukraine building off the destruction of the Ukrainian conventional army. Such a war wouldn’t have been over in days or weeks, and given how much better the Ukrainian army was than was assumed and how much worse the Russian army was would probably have appeared often frustratingly slow and with some Russian reverses, but the Russians would have won.

Of course, the problem with this, as mentioned above, is that Russia would almost certainly not have invaded in the first place if it seriously expected the Ukrainians to resist, and that Putin and his government has thought in terms of intelligence and subterfuge, intending to undermine the Ukrainian government from within and take it down in a coup de main. Due to the conditions, expectations, and world-view of the Russian government the Russian military was forced to undertake a campaign which it was completely unsuited to fight. However, what it does show as an example for future operations is that wars should be calibrated to military capabilities and careful thought should be put into what will happen if political gambles fail.

Russian logistics are oriented defensively, around railroads, but their plans in Ukraine were heavily offensive: serious thought needs to be put into what military objectives are and how they line up with capabilities