Ukraine-Russia War: Lessons for Future of War
Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma (Retd.), Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Debates about the future of war are as old as war itself. Currently, it is normal to reflect on future wars by highlighting the over-arching importance of artificial intelligence, space, quantum computing, block-chain technologies, robotics, and the like. While hasty and sweeping conclusions of the Ukraine-Russia War of 2022 will be counterproductive, there is seemingly a tectonic shift in the character of war. Newer military technologies seem to be altering the balance between offence and defence. Always defensive warfare was advantageous, lately with precision weapons defenders have been exploiting distinct advantages to upset the offensive forces’ apple cart! Interdicting the adversary’s ability to manoeuvre, and making him over-cautious, is the key to defenders battlefield success.

Many military lessons being drawn from the ongoing conflict have some grossly contradictive though with cogent arguments, like ‘The Tank is Dead’[1] and ‘The Tank is Not Obsolete’, and other observations about the Future of Combat.[2] This necessitates analysis by the Indian Armed Forces, which is an ongoing process. This paper attempts to draw out four lessons for the modernising Indian Armed Forces.

First is the all-important issue of air-ground integration in combat. There has been a long history of success by offensive forces, especially the mechanised ones, with effective employment of air power for strategic and battlefield interdiction and close air support. It was taken for granted that ground forces will have the likelihood of success only if integrated air-ground action would facilitate offensive manoeuvre. However tactical air forces and close air support in the Ukraine-Russian war have been conspicuous by their under-utilisation. Apparently, Russian Armed forces did not execute an effective aerial interdiction campaign, for reasons that demand detailed scrutiny.

There were expectations of Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) and missile attacks taking out the Ukrainian air force and air defences. As Russia’s all-important suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) was not effectively conducted and unsuccessful, it became one of the causes of the faltering Russian ground offensives at the initial stages. Insufficient close air support reduced its usefulness in bolstering the ground offensive. The Ukrainian air force continued operating ad lib, and Ukrainian ground-based air defences took their toll of Russian aircraft. This was fairly similar to the operations in the war in Georgia in 2008, when, “Moscow was surprised by the poor performance of its air power, and more importantly the inability of different services to work together. Russia’s 4th Air and Air Defence Army performed quite poorly, and the various services fought entirely disconnected campaigns. ” [3]

It is also apparent that shoot-and-scoot tactics of Ukraine’s S-300 mobile air defence measures became a deterrent for VKS. Again fighter jets operations for close air support below the level of radar detection were made insecure by a large number of man-portable (MANPADS) Stinger missiles and anti-aircraft fire. Ukraine’s air denial strategy made Russian pilots wary of flying into Ukrainian airspace at all, much less loitering and hunting for targets on their own.[4] To add to this, ‘democratisation of air power’ applied in Ukraine through the proliferation of UAVs and autonomous drones, made Russian air forces even temporarily could not achieve favourable air situation.

It has hence become an egg and chicken situation, with ground forces manoeuvre severely limited by non-availability of close air support and even battlefield interdiction, and the air support limited to only areas where ground forces have control. The widespread diffusion of advanced technologies indicates the SEAD missions in future will be harder to achieve than many air forces and defence analysts appreciate. It may be possible to suppress the adversary’s air defences for a while or in a small area, but not to the point of making the airspace operationally useful as in the past.[5]

Especially in case of comparable or stronger opponent Air Forces, favourable air situation may become difficult to achieve in a heavy air-defence environment with plethora of UAVs and loitering ammunitions. There will be immense attrition risk for the Air Forces. Hence in future wars for considerable time into wars, Air Forces support to ground forces will be interdiction against military infrastructure and enemy manoeuvring reserves, if discernable by ISR. Ground operations, hence both defensive and offensive, will require to be undertaken with inadequate air cover. The significant inference is that for warfare, like that akin to India’s Northern Borders, proliferation of MANPADS, counter-drone and close-in weapon systems with the field units, will become a major force-multiplier, and may be a necessity for the campaign. Understandably, the adversary will also be similarly hamstrung.

Second is the efficacy of missiles, rockets and long range precision fire power. Objective lessons of the ongoing war indicate that initial Russian missile strikes (over one hundred in the first 24 hours and about 750 in the first 14 days), cyber attacks, electronic warfare and information operations were much scaled down. Russian inventory had significant numbers of quality missiles and rockets, like the Iskander, cruise Kalibr, hypersonic KH47, 9k79 Tochka and Onyx. What was expected was very large missile salvos with focussed targeting based on best ISR and planning. There was however, no knock-out blow, nor massive destruction of Ukrainian critical infrastructure, known Government and military command and control facilities, transmission stations, rail-road-bridges infrastructure, and the like. Only in later months Russians targeted oil installations, logistics facilities and warehouses and military-industrial complex. At best this remains inexplicable, though political constraints could well have been a rationale.

The Russian lack-lustre missile/ rocket campaign notwithstanding, missiles and rockets remain a weapon of choice, viewed as relatively cost-effective symbols of power. Compared to other types of conventional weapons, vast repertoire of missile inventories, be it ground, air or sea/ undersea cruise missiles will uniquely challenge different domains. Missiles are also attractive as they can be used effectively against formidable air defence system, where an attack with manned aircraft would be impractical or too costly. Missiles also have the advantage of fewer maintenance, training, and logistic requirements than manned aircraft.

China, with its PLARF on the other hand, is rapidly building largest and most diverse missile arsenal, to include hundreds of new silo-based ICBMs and road-mobile ICBMs that reportedly can carry 10 warheads, theatre-range and short to medium-range conventionally armed and precision missiles. It has rapidly modernized its missile force, with its formidable precision-guided ballistic and cruise missiles, loitering munitions, and hypersonic weapons. The Chinese concept relates to ‘system confrontation and system destruction’ which constitutes the PLA's theory of victory. Systems confrontation is waged in the traditional physical domains of land, sea, and air, and in outer space, cyberspace, electromagnetic spectrum and cognitive domains. It implies degrading or disrupting that operational system’s essential factors, which include, command and control (C2), reconnaissance intelligence, and firepower capabilities. [6] It can be inferred hence that there would be an onslaught of missiles/ rockets at the initiation of campaign to take out ‘systems’, and a steady continuation thereafter against manoeuvring forces. Hence, in planning defence and offense, hardening and recuperability of targeted ‘systems’ will be critical.

It is also essential to examine the use of artillery. Artillery is one of the most important components of Russian operations, and in terms of lethal capabilities, in the initial campaign; it had become Russia’s force multiplier. The mediocre performance of Russia’s ground forces was increasingly offset by their leveraging of massed artillery fires to facilitate a slow and methodical advance in Luhansk region of Donbas. However, in later months, availability of long range artillery to Ukraine like the Lockheed Martin-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) (US had not as yet approved MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile Systems), Norwegian-American Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS) and Switchblade drones, turned the tables. HIMARS nearly made Russian Armed forces immobile, and their logistics pushed out of range!

In a future war, the defender’s ability to resist will depend heavily on his ability to degrade the attacker’s operational mobility by precise firepower. To be cost-effective and disrupt the adversary’s operational mobility, the Indian Army should acquire a good mix of short and long range missile/rockets and long range precision artillery. It is also time that Army creates a specialist Rocket/ Missile Force by amalgamating the available assets.

Third, Russia in campaigns in many other countries had exhibited paralysing cyber attacks, electronic warfare, more effective targeting of long-range precision missiles and strong influence operations. When Russian forces invaded Ukraine, many observers believed that the conflict would be marked by overwhelming use of cyber weapons, which will cause immense disruption in Ukraine. Possessing a technically sophisticated cadre of hackers and toolkits to attack digital infrastructure, concerted cyber attacks would have crippled the Ukrainian government and Armed Forces and delivered a decisive advantage on the battlefield.

Russia had launched cyber attacks against the computer systems of the Ukrainian government, military, and critical infrastructure, causing some systems to malfunction. The KA-SAT used by Ukraine’s military and intelligence agencies also ceased to function due to cyber-attacks. The actual experience of cyber-war in Ukraine has been far more mixed. It is however true that measuring defensive victories in cyberspace is a significant challenge. While Russia has used its cyber capabilities, these have been far less successful or aggressive than many observers had predicted. Russia did not gain a strategic advantage from cyber warfare. The war in Ukraine shows that cyber warfare does not achieve a strategic impact on its own but is best used as a tool to support land, sea, and air operations.

Four is the critical issue being currently faced by Russian Armed Forces –paucity of manpower. The war in Ukraine has demonstrated the importance of mass. Quantity has a quality all of its own. Very substantial numbers of Ukrainians fighting in the current war are not regular soldiers, and are reserve units like the Azov battalion or the Territorial Defence Forces. Indeed regular soldiers are expensive, and all managers of defence finances remain anxious of the burgeoning salary/ pension budget. It is also a given that ill-trained military manpower will be of limited use in times of war. Indian Armed Forces need to institutionalise a system of reservists for a fixed period say five years after superannuation. These reservists need be annually retrained and can be called for service, thereby offsetting large standing Army. The Territorial Army (TA) was meant for this role, with a system of embodiment-disembodiment, though it might have been somewhat diluted!

In sum, Indian Armed Forces need to continually appraise the technological-doctrinal interface of the Russia-Ukraine War in all its dimensions, to prepare for the future war. The war in Ukraine is revealing that cognitive warfare and cyber warfare - as non-kinetic, in non-physical domains, will not alone provide strategic advantages. Undoubtedly, even PLA planners will come to realise that informationized and intelligentized alone warfare may not provide dividends, and in finality resort to physical contestation. Contextually then, for Indian Armed forces, Carl von Clausewitz himself wrote, “The defensive form of war is not a simple shield, but a shield made up a well-directed blows.”

Notes

[1]David Johnson, The Tank is Dead: Long Live the Javelin, the Switchblade, the…?, War on the Rocks, 18 Aptil 2022, accessed at https://warontherocks.com/2022/04/the-tank-is-dead-long-live-the-javelin-the-switchblade-the/
[2] Rob Lee, The Tank is not Obsolete, and other observations about future of Conflict, War on the Rocks, 06 September 2022, accessed at https://warontherocks.com/2022/09/the-tank-is-not-obsolete-and-other-observations-about-the-future-of-combat/
[3]Michael Kofman, Russian Performance in the Russo-Georgian War Revisited, War on the Rocks, 04 sep 2018, accessed at https://warontherocks.com/2018/09/russian-performance-in-the-russo-georgian-war-revisited/
[4] Maxmilian Bremer and Kelly Grieco, Success Denied: Finding ground truth in the air war over Ukraine, Defense News, 21 Sep 2022, accessed at https://www.defensenews.com/opinion/commentary/2022/09/21/success-denied-finding-ground-truth-in-the-air-war-over-ukraine/
[5]Maxmilian Bremer and Kelly Grieco, Success Denied: Finding ground truth in the air war over Ukraine, Defense News, 21 Sep 2022, accessed at https://www.defensenews.com/opinion/commentary/2022/09/21/success-denied-finding-ground-truth-in-the-air-war-over-ukraine/
[6] Jeffrey Engstrom, Systems Confrontation and System Destruction Warfare: How the Chinese People's Liberation Army Seeks to Wage Modern Warfare, Rand Corportaion, USA, 2018 accessed at https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1708.html

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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