One Year in the Russo-Ukrainian War: the Big Pixels
Last Friday we looked at the seven points we discussed a year earlier the day the Russo-Ukrainian War broke out. As promised, today we look at seven points a year in everyone needs to hoist onboard.
Though I nibble on the edges a bit, these are not detailed, tactical “lessons learned.” Land combat details simply are not my bag. No, these a big pixel items. Mostly land centric like the war, but are directly transferrable to the maritime and other domains.
1. Short-War Snake Oil Salesmen are Worthy of Little but Scorn: a bit more muted than a year ago, even in winter of 2023, American short-war salesmen continue to push the WESTPAC 72-hour victory concept. In the run up to the start of the war in the winter of 2022, Russia’s leadership was sold a quick victory in Ukraine. As we’ve discussed in prior posts, their decision making process was a classic case of multi-layered optimism filtering. Political leaders like shortcuts. They like hearing things that confirm their priors - and like flies around a barnyard, yes-men (and women) surround such personalities. Smart leaders ensure they are not surrounded by yes-men. Unwise leaders create organizations where only the obsequious rise.
Short wars are seductive and brief well. They are easy to wargame. Unless you are off Zanzibar or Grenada, they never really work out. They are products of the delusional, corrupt, or criminally incompetent - uniformed and civilian.
If you desire a short war, you have to be positioned to fight a long war. You need to clearly plan, train, man, and equip your military to wage a long war against an adversary and win. The extra added benefit to this posture is that if done right, such a war may never come. Then in peace, you can safely argue with the peaceniks why we don’t have war, just a bloated military, as opposed to burying our children and waiting in lines with ration cards. If it does come, it ends quickly. Plan for a short war and you will probably get a long war with better than average odds you’ll lose it.
Since WWII, what are the larger wars and imperial policing actions we’ve been involved it? Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and the aggregated Iraq campaigns. That is, what, two losses (Vietnam & Afghanistan) and two draws (Korea and Iraq)? OK, if you squint you can say Iraq is a “little w” – but that is an arguable point.
2. You Must Have a Sovereign Military-Industrial Complex: forget efficient in peace, you need to be effective at war and there is no long ramp-up if you get surprised. You go to war with what you have. At peace, wise policy makers must fight a hard battle against the green eye-shade accountants who spent too much time in MBA school and not enough studying the profession of arms. If a nation cannot produce the weapons its forces need, it must rely on the grace and mercy of other nations. If you are the USA, there are no other nations who have the capacity – even if they have the will and political ability to support us – to supply more than a fraction of what we would need if we found ourselves at war west of Wake. Ukraine could look to the USA and some of her allies for significant help against a larger opponent. For the USA, we’re it.
3. Deep Magazines, Running Production Lines, and Distributed Risk: If you wonder if prior and present leadership were serious in their responsibility to prepare the nation to fight and win a war against a top-tier competitor, look at the depth of your magazines and robustness of your stockpiles. Have your planning staff examine what it would take to win against the conventional “Red Most Dangerous Course of Action.” Have them include how many months, weeks, or even days of supply there are for your most important weapons systems for that fight. Where are these magazines located? What percentage are located in each area? How long can you fight if you lose the inventory of 10%, 30%, or 60% of your magazines through enemy action?
For your highest demand weapons, is there an active production line open? Is it scalable for larger production numbers? Can you produce in a year more than what you expect to expend?
The Ukrainian experience underlines a requirement I've yet to see get traction; if the USA expects a WESTPAC conflict in the next 10-years, there is one bold-faced requirement; under no circumstances should any production line of weapons systems be allowed to go cold until its replacement achieves initial operational capability. Once those lines – and its equipment and craftsmen – are lost, they are almost impossible to get back.
4. Range Matters: If your opponent has land-based, mobile anti-ship weapons, and the ISR to support them, you will be kept at distance from shore until that threat is eliminated. If not, be prepared to lose your capital ships in number.
Your sea-based weapons systems must have the range to enter the fight outside that threat distance plus the additional distance to get to target. If not, be prepared to lose your capital ships in number.
Your land-based weapons systems that are inside the range of the enemy – especially in small, isolated and difficult to defend locations, cannot be considered more than a D+0 capability. To expect to use them for any length of time under the enemy’s multiple vector extended fires is a waste of personnel and resources. From 1941’s Wake Island to 2022’s Snake Island, this is a known reality the new generation need to be reminded of. Only when you own the air and water around them are they of use. EABO call your office.
5. Cutting Edge is a Mirage: Technology (tools) are always evolving, but they are not magic beans. For every Manhattan Project there is a ME-262. The USA and her allies would have defeated Imperial Japan without the nuclear bomb – slower and with a larger butcher’s bill, but Japan's defeat was inevitable. Nazi Germany would have lost WWII even with triple the number of ME-262 – though they would have lasted a little longer and the Red Army would have penetrated much further in to Germany as a result.
Yes, the video of 2023 quad-copters dropping grenades on hapless Russian conscripts in WWI-era trenches is exciting for those raised on video games, but they are a marginal supporting system, not supported. This war will be won or lost because of artillery, armor, infantry, logistics, and intelligence. War is as it was. There are no short cuts. There is no offset. There are no easy answers. Mass, power, will.
6. Diversity Matters: …in weapons systems, that is. At peace, “one stop shopping” briefs well - where one weapon system or system of systems will be your war winning platform – but that is only true if the salesman, and that is what these people are, can see the future and have perfect knowledge of the enemy, geography, terrain, weather and even psychology. They don’t; no one does.
To succeed in war, you need to make sure that you have the correct weapons mix that gives you flexibility. You don’t need only a multitool – though these are nice to have – you need a diverse box of tools at your side.
Let's just look at one area of Western supplied equipment for example: HIMARS is not the answer to all your indirect fire problems. The 105mm towed artillery is much better in some areas. 155mm towed and self-propelled are the better tool for others. 120mm mortars and 40mm grenade launchers are the only thing that will work for another set. Could you try to fight with HIMARS alone? Sure. Will you win? No.
Messy, inefficient, logistically complicated as they are, an effective military force – land, air, and at sea – must have a diverse set of weapons systems. No one can predict what will work best across the spectrum of possible conflict. Diversity in weaponeering options is the only way to hedge against technology, industrial, and future risk – not to mention it gives local commanders better options on how to address challenges as they present themselves on the battlefield – challenges those in a briefing room thousands of nautical miles away cannot even comprehend.
7. Your Military May be Lying to You: In every military there is the temptation to not send bad news up the chain. Bad leaders let it be known that they want a green circle or up arrow - and don't care how they get it. No yellow - and unquestionably no red. They don't want to hear that your equipment is broke because there are no spare parts. Say you are fine. They don't want to hear that your personnel are not properly trained because there wasn't time or money to do it. Do the job anyway. They don't want to hear that things were not in proper condition when issued. You were issued what you were supposed to be issued. They want to know you are ready to go. That is how you got the FITZGERALD and MCCAIN in the summer of 2017, and that is how you got the Russian invasion a year ago.
When war comes, it won't care that you didn't CASREP your broken ESM gear. It won't care that you haven't tested your air search radar properly in months because the previous CO didn't think it would work properly and didn't want to have to ask for support. It won't care that you have no functioning ASW weapons unless your PMC helo carries one. It does not care that half your watch team does not know how to properly run their equipment and none are cross trained. It does not care that you are headed in to a heavy air threat environment with most of your VLS tubes filled with TLAM because there was no place to change the load out when the mission changed.
War does not care that the command got by with minimal manning, questionable maintenance, and thin supplies. It only knows that it will find where you have failed to do your job, and will kill you and everyone around you for that error ... as that is the nature of war.
Photo Credit: RadoJavor