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Counterattack – How Ukraine Can Drive Russia Out (Part III: Building an Offensive Army)

M1 Abrams Tank
M1 Abrams Tank. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos on Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke to the group via video link and defiantly declared that “Ukraine will fight until it reclaims all its territories,” rejecting any suggestion of negotiating with Russia that included forfeiture of Ukrainian land. For there to be any chance for Ukraine to drive Russian troops from its soil, however, Zelensky will have to create an entirely new offensive force, almost entirely from scratch.

While it is a major understatement to suggest that building an offensive force will be a monumentally difficult task, it is, nevertheless, possible.

In Part III of this three-part series, we will examine in some detail what it will take for Kyiv to produce a modern, mechanized formation of sufficient strength to drive Russia from Ukrainian territory. Part I explained that step one was first to ensure that Kyiv had enough time to create this new force by recommending new ways for Ukraine to blunt Russia’s drive in the Donbas.

Part II recommended ways for Ukraine to build additional defensive lines east of the Donbas to ensure Russia could not make a single breakthrough and put Kyiv or other major cities at risk before it had time to complete the offensive force. In this segment, we examine what it will take for Zelensky to produce a force with sufficient striking power that he could have a realistic chance of driving Putin’s army from Ukrainian soil.

What Kind – and How Big – of a Force is Necessary?

The first thing Kyiv would have to do is determine how many new troops it would take to uproot Russian troops from Ukrainian territory. As of this writing, Russia occupies roughly one-fifth of Ukraine, or 125,000 square kilometers. Russia entered Ukraine with as many as 190,000 troops. It is unclear how many are still there, as tens of thousands of Russians are reported to have been killed and wounded thus far, but there are likely still in the range of 150,000 or more occupying parts of Ukrainian territory.

Ideally, Ukraine would need to build a new offensive force of 200,000 to provide overmatch at key points on the battlefield. Finding that many qualified soldiers in a short period of time may prove to be a bridge to far. Nevertheless, if Kyiv has any hopes of driving entrenched Russian troops out of its country, 100,000 is the bare minimum needed.

That pool of soldiers would be needed to form at least 75 battalion tactical groups (BTG), equipped with sufficient numbers of capable tanks, self-propelled artillery pieces, modern air defense systems, reconnaissance and attack drones, and sufficient logistic troops to keep all that gear fueled and operating. Each of these Ukrainian BTG would be composed of approximately 800 troops, totaling 60,000 soldiers. Ukraine would additionally need at least 20,000 general-purpose infantry troops for combat replacements, as well as another 20,000 for logistics, supplies, and maintenance personnel.

Forming the New Units

This 100,000-member force would ultimately be formed into three field armies, each composed of 25 BTGs. Within each field army, the BTGs would be composed of a mixture of tank-heavy groups, infantry-heavy groups, and artillery-heavy groups. They would be modular in concept, so they could be task-organized based on a given mission. For example, in one tactical operation a certain grouping of BTGs may need to fight a battle that requires many foot soldiers, and so would be weighted more heavily with infantry and artillery BTGs and less with tanks. Other fights would prioritize armor and be weighted with fewer infantry BTGs.

To form these field armies and BTGs, however, Kyiv will need to do two things: recruit and train a sufficient number of men and women and simultaneously obtain, from Western sources, the full range of equipment. Both are going to be very challenging and time-consuming.

Equipment

Though there is a rather sizable list of equipment a modern army needs to conduct combat operations, I’ll restrict my assessment to the more critical items, such as tanks and howitzers. The same process, however, will need to be done on everything else, from boots and socks to body armor and night-vision goggles.

With a major war raging in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine, time will be the most crucial element of this drive to form and field an offensive capacity. As such, actions that would ordinarily need to be done sequentially will instead have to be both compressed in time and executed simultaneously. Ideally, Kyiv would first identify and field the full range of combat equipment first so as to know what type of training the new recruits will need, not to mention ensuring that the kit fielded to the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) is as compatible across the board. Regrettably, however, Ukraine doesn’t have that luxury.

Instead, while recruitment and initial training of personnel begins (more on that below), Army leaders in Kyiv would need to work with Western partners to identify sufficient numbers of armored vehicles and form fielding and transportation plans immediately. Each BTG would need (depending on whether it was tank-heavy or infantry-heavy) between 10 to 30 tanks and 11 to 33 armored infantry carriers each, along with sufficient numbers of trucks for supply and hauling ammunition and other armored vehicles for command and control, medical evacuation, etc. Each would also need up to eight self-propelled howitzers. Of course, such a large force will have to build the capacity to continually feed, fuel, clothe, and provide resupply of ammunition.

To equip all the BTGs in the three field armies, that would require Ukraine to field (including spares of each category) somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,250 tanks, 2,000 armored vehicles (of varied types), 750 self-propelled howitzers, and close to 1,000 trucks of various sizes and functions (including a robust number of refueling trucks). If Western countries cannot or will not provide equipment to this scale, any hope of Ukraine fielding a force strong enough to repel an entrenched Russian army is stillborn.

I cannot more strongly emphasize that it is essential for Ukraine to receive an equipment set of this magnitude if they are to have a genuine chance of uprooting Russian troops from its territory. As a means of comparison, consider that Russia is reported to have entered this war with 120 BTGs and 190,000 troops; even this proposed force of 75 BTGs and 100,000 will be maximally taxed to successfully drive out all Russian troops.

Identifying, procuring, and then shipping this much gear will be a monumental task – never before attempted at this scale – and will take more time than anyone would like. This process must begin, in earnest, immediately upon a decision being made by Ukraine and its Western partners that such a force will be created.

Personnel

As hard as it will be for Kyiv to find sufficient kit to equip this offensive force, finding 100,000 soldiers may be even more challenging. Ukraine must recruit and assemble this massive number of people while simultaneously continuing to fight with every soldier currently in its employ to prevent Russian troops from breaking through the defensive lines and threatening the capital. Just getting people to fill the ranks, though, is only one of the tough requirements.

Ukraine also has to find training facilities, produce a cadre of qualified instructors, and house and feed all the personnel while training takes place. This effort will need to be conducted in the far reaches of western Ukraine, as far away from the fighting as possible, to limit the ability of Russian weapons from reaching the training sites and attacking the recruits.

Every recruit will need to be taught basic combat skills but will also need to be trained in specialized abilities, like how to drive a tank, how to be a gunner, fire a howitzer, operate sophisticated communications gear, and other special needs. For a field army to be successful under fire in combat, each individual must be highly trained in their discipline, but then successive levels of units must also be trained to adequate levels.

For example, in a tank-heavy BTG, it isn’t enough merely that soldiers be taught how to drive a tank or fire the main gun. They must also learn how to fight the tank and work as a crew. Then that crew must learn to operate within a tank platoon; the platoon as part of a mechanized company, and companies as a combined arms battalion.

The BTGs then also have to learn how to operate together in larger-scale operations. Every echelon of training takes time. If they do it right, Kyiv will provide at bare minimum 12 full months of training once soldiers have arrived for training and equipment is on station (18 months would be far better). Shortchange any stage of training, try to hasten the process or skip parts to get units into the field faster, and the risk that the unit fails in combat – possibly spectacularly – goes up.

Offensive Force’s Objectives

If all goes well, the UAF will have accomplished all their tasks outlined in Part I and Part II of this series and will eventually have ground the Russian force down to a sufficient level to produce a stalemate and a static line of defense somewhere in eastern Ukraine. If Kyiv was somehow able to build a massive field army of half a million or more, they could consider forming a broad counteroffensive that sought to overwhelm Russia’s defenses across a front of hundreds of miles and try to sweep them from the country.

Since the most likely case is Kyiv’s commander-in-chief will have 100,000, Ukraine will have to focus its efforts in one geographic region and try to create a series of local overmatch. For example, if the line of defense in a year from now is somewhere along the Vorskla River south of Poltava, the UAF would first conduct reconnaissance of the Russian lines to identify the weakest spot in their defenses.

They might then covertly reinforce the defense on the north and south of the designated attack zone to protect their flanks from unexpected Russian counterattack, and then launch a massive attack at a time and place of Ukraine’s choosing, catching Russian troops unprepared. Across a front of perhaps 50 miles, the UAF would attack with two of their field armies abreast.

Each would seek to penetrate the Russian lines to open a lane into the enemy rear areas. Once successful, the third field army could then be used as an exploitation force to flood the breach and destroy Russia’s ability to sustain its entire force in that area before turning to try and encircle the most vulnerable grouping of Russian units. Putin’s troops would then be faced with either trying to hold on to the line – putting them at risk of being surrounded and annihilated – or withdraw further to the east to avoid destruction.

The UAF concept from that point forward would be to isolate individual Russian battlegroups to overwhelm them with superior force and firepower, denying them the benefit of mutually supporting fires; it’s a much less challenging task to destroy the enemy in bite-sized chunks rather than try to eat the elephant at one sitting.

As the Ukrainian counteroffensive continued to push the battlelines east, the UAF troops that were initially manning the defensive line along the Vorskla would advance forward and join the attacking armies, progressively increasing Ukraine’s striking power. Over time, Zelensky’s troops would continue defeating Russian occupiers section by section, bound by bound, until ideally the last Russian trooper had been driven from Ukrainian land. But this plan does not come without significant risk.

Risk

One thing must be made crystal clear from the outset: under the very best-case scenario for Ukraine, it would take years to eject Russian troops from all of Ukraine. The cost in lives could run into the hundreds of thousands (above what Ukraine has suffered to date). More cities would be laid to waste. The 100,000 recruits that would have to be generated to begin the offensive would only represent the opening play.

Any mechanized offensive would exact sometimes have egregious casualties on the attackers (as Russia has found out to its pain over the first three months of the war), and thus a continual pipeline of replacement troops would have to be established. In anything other than a best-case scenario, the risks/dangers increase.

UAF troops have performed well above expectations in the opening phase north of Kyiv and so far even in the Donbas. That success was largely driven by the courage and tenacity of the Ukrainian troops, but it was due in no small part to the advantages that accrue to the defenders: congested urban terrain, buildings, and limited fields of visibility in the city fighting, and the benefit of seven years of prepared defensive works in the Donbas. When Ukraine goes on the offensive, they will no longer have the inherent protection of defenses and will be much more vulnerable as they move into the open to attack.

If things go badly, it’s possible the Russians could blunt the counteroffensive and then return to offense themselves (bearing in mind that during the 12 to 18 months Ukraine is training up its counteroffensive force, Russia will surely be training new formations of their own). If Kyiv’s attempt to drive Russia off its land fails, Ukraine will be even more vulnerable to a counter Russian offensive that could result in losing the war outright.  There is no guarantee, at all, that if the West provides all this modern equipment and Ukraine produces enough troops for an offensive force, Ukraine will emerge victorious. Zelensky and his people will have to openly acknowledge the risk they take in pressing for ultimate victory.

Ukraine

Russian T-90 Tank. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Conclusion

Many Ukrainians, along with their millions of supporters in the West, understandably want to win this war. They don’t merely want a negotiated settlement, they want to drive every last invader out of their land. The blood spilled and the damage done by Russia is unconscionable. But everyone, from Zelensky on down, need to understand, without emotion, what it will take to form an offensive power strong enough to have a legitimate chance of pushing Russia out, and understand the risk they take in seeking that outcome.

Moreover, as the casualties and destruction mounts throughout Ukraine, there will be the temptation to take shortcuts, to throw every offensive capacity into the lines, as soon as they become available, in an effort to start the counteroffensive immediately. That would be a mistake, possibly a fatal one.

Right now, it is taking every single uniformed trooper Ukraine has to defend against the major Russian offensive in the Donbas and the supporting efforts in the Kharkiv environs to the north and in the Kherson region to the south. They cannot afford to reduce manning in a single front or they will risk Russia making major new gains. The defenders, therefore, must remain fully engaged. But recruiting and training a new force takes painful time.

Ukraine Chernihiv

Russian MLRS firing. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The HBO miniseries Band of Brothers graphically shows the 101st Airborne Division in its preparation for combat in World War II. The paratroopers had to be individually trained, then as units, and finally as a division before it was ready for combat. From the date of its formation at Fort Bragg, NC in October 1942, it went through 20 total months of training before its first taste of combat at Normandy in June 1944.

The U.S. 106th Infantry Division trained from its inception in March 1943 until it first went into the line in Belgium in December 1944 – and was effectively wiped out in its first action in the Battle of the Bulge. One of the reasons historians gave for the division’s poor performance was that thousands of its troops had been taken and sent to Europe to replace mounting U.S. losses, being replace with inadequately trained soldiers just before deployment. Training a unit to succeed in combat takes time and can’t be cut short.

Everyone, from Zelensky on down, must understand that to drive Russia from Ukraine, it will take thousands of modern combat vehicles to be provided by the West and 100,000 new Ukrainian recruits – and at least a year of preparation. Anything less, any shortcuts taken, likely result in failure and losing the war outright.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis.

Written By

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Begemot

    May 28, 2022 at 2:57 pm

    All that equipment, personnel, and supplies being assembled for training, not to mention eventual deployment, will be under constant attack by long range Russian weaponry. The Russians have demonstrated they have the ability to locate, target, and destroy whatever they consider of interest throughout all of Ukrainian territory. This hoped for Ukrainian offensive force may be killed in the cradle, never even reaching the battlefield.

    And then, Ukraine may not have a year to get such a force together and ready, even if it wouldn’t be under constant attack.

  2. Error403

    May 28, 2022 at 3:35 pm

    The neo-nazists are finished. Ain’t no way they gonna get russia out of donbass short of US supplying them with tactical nukes.

    The fighting in ukraine has been particularly destructive and has resulted in europe and the world itself getting divided into 2 camps – similar or actually mirroring the situation of 1914.

    It took tens of million lives and paved the way for the deadly flu pandemic that swept the world. This time around no different. It’s finished for the neo-nazists unless they obtain or get US tactical nukes.

  3. Invitado 2

    May 28, 2022 at 4:09 pm

    Soñar no cuesta nada; ademas, el papel aguanta todo lo que le escriban. El autor deberia ser mas realista. ¿El dinero para construir ese ejercito de donde va a salir?. Ni Estados Unidos, ni Europa (lo que ustedes llaman Occidente, es decir una cincuentena de paises, nadie mas), van a seguir suministrando fondos a Ucrania sabiendo que lo que han enviado ya se ha gastado y que Ucrania al final perderá la guerra y mucho terreno. ¿Qué recomendaria el autor para una defensa de Taiwan? ¿Será capaz de realizar un bosquejo en tres partes como este?

  4. Dan Farrand

    May 28, 2022 at 4:19 pm

    Oh it all sounds so simple: round up people, equipment and train to suite.

    The current Ukrainian army being destroyed in Donbass has been under construction by Nato for 8 years. Enjoying a secure rear area and low intensity combat within commuting distance to provide realistic experience for the development of it’s cadre of officers and NCO’s.

    First you will have to give the west 6 – 12 months and $100 billion to open production lines for the 1000’s of aircraft, tanks, IFV’s and artillery pieces before production will begin in large numbers.

    Even if Ukraine had the manpower resources – they don’t, the time needed to produce this offensive force (offense being a much harder skill to acquire than defense) is more like 3 years. One just has to look at the US experience in WW2 to appreciate that 2 years is the minimum to go from nothing to anything like effectiveness.

    Finally, this assumes that the Russians will have no say in the matter.

    What you propose is possible as a paper exercise, but if it really looked like this was the direction Ukraine was going to take, Russian war aims would adjust dramatically.

    Face it, Ukraine is a lost cause (thank goodness). They still can save something by negotiating. However the nihilist/mythic fantastical thinking that animates the elites – joined with the cynical evil of their western paymasters, means that saving Ukraine is not even their goal. If they have a goal it is some sort of Gotterdamerung drama play and then off to Florida to enjoy their celebrity.

    The only hope for some constructive end, lies entirely with the Russians.

  5. Honest Opinion

    May 28, 2022 at 4:55 pm

    While i hear what he is saying, how do you stop the conflict and prevent any further escalation over time?

  6. Stefan Stackhouse

    May 28, 2022 at 5:17 pm

    Of course, Ukraine would not even be able to field the defensive forces that it has were it left only with its own resources. Resupply from the west has been the force multiplier that has allowed them to at least stay in the game and make every square kilometer very costly for the Russians.

    Scaling up to take the offense is a whole other order of magnitude. If Ukraine doesn’t have the resources to maintain its defensive army all by itself, it certainly doesn’t have the resources to scale up to offense. Developing any offensive capability would thus be ENTIRELY paid for by the west, and mainly by the US. The price tag could be many times bigger than anything we have seen thus far. We do need to stand by Ukraine, but I am not at all sure that it is wise to issue them a blank check.

  7. from Russia with love

    May 29, 2022 at 5:34 am

    the author thinks in terms of the last century. what kind of training can you dream of when Iskander, Caliber and X-101 constantly fly into the barracks? potential replacements suffer heavy losses before reaching the front. for the same reasons it is impossible to create the production of tanks and artillery. quite impossible. you can try to organize army training centers and the production of military equipment on the territory of neighboring countries, but this means the direct participation of these countries in the conflict on the territory of a third country. if someone does not understand, then Article 5 of NATO no longer applies to these countries and the Russian Federation receives the right to destroy objects on the territory of these countries. I doubt that there will be suicides who dare to host the Ukrainian military infrastructure. if there is still someone who hopes that the Russian Federation will run out of high-precision weapons, then recently information appeared in an open bostoup that 30 “Caliber” are produced in Russia per day and they plan to increase production to 50 per day. this is only “Caliber”, not counting the Iskander and X-101.
    now about offensive operations. As an example, consider an attempt by the Ukrainian army to attack Kherson on 27.05. the Ukrainian army, consisting of 1 battalion group (about 1000 people + tanks and infantry fighting vehicles) tried to cross the river and seize the bridgehead. the concentration of forces of the Ukrainian army was detected by UAVs and they were hit by MLRS and artillery. resulting in heavy losses and retreat. in modern conditions, no offensive operation is possible without complete control of the airspace. any accumulation of troops will be detected by UAVs and destroyed by artillery. given that the concentration of troops takes place in open areas, the losses will be colossal.

    • Eric

      May 31, 2022 at 2:18 pm

      Not sure why you are talking about Russia’s rights to bomb targets in NATO countries. The whole war against Ukraine is not even declared a war by Russia. But it’s certainly a war of aggression against a neighboring country. Russia does not have a right to attack Ukraine or any other country under international law.

      • LJ

        May 31, 2022 at 5:56 pm

        Russia claimed R2P, the same justification USA/NATO claimed to justify war on Yugoslavia and Libya and Syria. Ukraine’s continued (and continuing) attacks on civilians in the Donbass give weight to this justification.

        Ukraine had 8 years to enact the provisions of the Minsk Accords, thus ending the massacre of its citizens in Donbass and retaining those oblasts within Ukraine. The Kyiv government decided it would prefer war to negotiating with the rebellious oblasts.

  8. aldol11

    May 29, 2022 at 6:13 am

    agree in part, disagree in part
    recruiting and training even 300,000 ( instead of 100,000) in a country of 40 million is easily doable in 3 months.
    the main issue is air cover for assault troops, Ukraine will need at least 100 ASF’s to keep Russian air force at bay.
    the performance of the Russian army is so poor that even limited armor assault capabilities would prevail against it.
    PS i was an artillery officer in a previous life

    • tod

      May 29, 2022 at 1:56 pm

      Traditional military logic says you need 3x more attackers than defenders to successfully advance, we’ll leave Singapore type collapses out of the equation.
      So Aldol11 is maybe right. I’d say 500,000 new troops could be recruited, arming them with crew served weapons being the problem.
      The almighty Russian AF being the main issue stopping Ukraine’s liberation is unclear, they seem to be mostly AWOL so far. Resting? Saving their strength?
      This may be a missile dominated war like early 1973, SAMs and Saggers preventing the usual Israeli blitzkrieg.
      The Ivans seem pretty far behind in antitank missile and drone mastery, even compared to their traditional frenemy Turkey.
      The Keystone Kops murderous war criming looter ruskies are going to beef up their military faster and better than Ukraine with the West’s support?
      Is China going to supply them with chips for oil? And sell them secure telecommunications, night vision equipment, medical supplies, transport, drones? I don’t think so. Blowback on China would be fierce. Unlike Russia, China must sell things to the West. Russia sells oil, dictatorship and mass murder.
      And arms. How well do you think Russian weapons will sell after this demonstration of their failure?
      The Russians, pulling T-62 tanks out of museums are going to build all this needed stuff? LOL.
      So how can a corrupt failed authoritarian oligarch klepto murder regime like Putin’s compete with democracy?
      Plus, short of Putin nuking Ukraine the entire country will be liberated eventually. It does not matter if it takes 100 years. Because democracy wins and murderous gangster Putin can’t push all of us out windows or feed us poison tea.
      How this war criminal must long for his good old USSR KGB days when he could just fire two rounds from his Makarov into the back of each head.
      The stench of Ivan-bot propaganda, paid lies, treason and maskirovka is strong in this comments section. Putin- bots: the whole fucking world hates Russia with a white hot passion.
      Just a few words why beyond this war: 1956- Hungary, Czechoslovakia, ’68, Katyn Forest Poland- 4,000 shot.
      If all you Ivan bot masters are still being paid in rubles bet you all switched to the bargain rotgut vodka.
      Slava free Ukraine.

    • Urban Fox

      May 30, 2022 at 5:57 pm

      Ukraine dosnt have 40 million people, the last census was a decade ago. Before the loss of Crimea, Donbass and the continuing outflow of population & natural decline.

      Furthermore the VSU is already sending territorials to the front due to manpower & training constraints. The idea they can build an offensive army from scratch is fatuous.

      Particularly when the fighting the main front, which is Donbass will be over in a few weeks aside from mopping up by the Russian/Donbass forces.

      P.S Speaking of bots/trolls I think tod isn’t a very good one.

    • Garry Owen

      June 2, 2022 at 10:41 pm

      “PS i was an artillery officer in a previous life”….and a piss poor officer, if your comments reflect your military acumen and judgment!

      Three months training creates ONLY “cannon fodder,” not an organized military capable of carrying out even basic coordinated operations. and such training would have to be intense and un-opposed. Early morning rocket attacks on barracks full of sleeping recruits is rather distracting!

      Guess you stood too close to your battery, for too long, eh??? Those concussion waves from your own guns, can be disruptive!

  9. jack

    May 30, 2022 at 10:03 am

    100,000 EUROPEAN NATO troops should be sent to Ukraine immediately to push the Russians out. They should have the Russians out by September with no problem.
    The Europeans tell us all the time about how smart they are so I’m sure they can accomplish this task without any help from the US

  10. Rich

    May 30, 2022 at 5:50 pm

    Ukraine would be wise to forget any thoughts of a grand offensive. Besides localized thrusts at targets of opportunity, their best bet is just to continue bleeding the Russians. Re-capturing and holding ground means little at this point. Just ratchet up Russia’s pain. That is the path to ultimately expelling the invader.

  11. stark

    May 31, 2022 at 8:39 am

    in paragraph six ‘a bridge to far’ should be ‘a bridge too far’.

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