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What the Ukraine War Teaches About Modern Ground Wars

Tanks
Three Challenger 2 main battle tanks firing their 120mm guns during a night firing exercise by the Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry at Lulworth, Dorset.

The Ukraine War on the Ground: It is difficult to learn the right lessons from the wars of the past. It is harder still to operationalize those takeaways in any kind of useful way. It is certainly risky, then, to look for lessons about war from a conflict that is still ongoing, but we are going to try.

In this three-part series, we will endeavor to distill some lessons from the conduct of the Russia-Ukraine War to this point.

In this first part of a three-part series (you can read part II here and part III here), we will discuss the ground war in Ukraine. 

Ukraine: Offensive Maneuver Hasn’t Gone Away

The war began with a spectacular Russian maneuver designed to seize Kyiv and force the Ukrainian government to capitulate. That maneuver, which also included an airborne assault, failed dramatically and led to a disordered retreat in the ensuing weeks. Over the course of that retreat, Ukrainian infantry, artillery, and aircraft picked off Russian armored vehicles seemingly at will. The advent of “Saint Javelin” opened up questions about whether the time-honored infantry-armor team could survive in a context defined by longer-ranged, more lethal infantry weapons. This evolved into discussions about whether the main battle tank, the venerable armor leader on the battlefield, has finally become obsolete. 

The Ukrainian offensives in Kherson and Kharkiv, along with incessant requests from Ukraine for more and more modern tanks, should put these arguments to rest. While Ukrainian success has hinged on factors idiosyncratic to each front, both of its major advances made use of the traditional armor-infantry-artillery triad. It remains possible for a carefully structured offensive to seize territory, at least when all of the pieces work together as they should. 

Artillery Is Still God

The fast-paced military campaigns of the 1990s and 2000s seemed to devalue the contribution of artillery. Although mobile artillery systems complemented maneuver-centric operations, airpower and standoff munitions seemed to replace what came to be regarded as the slow, plodding artillery arm.

Masses of enemy troops need not be destroyed when they can be paralyzed or encircled. Airpower, it was thought, could do the job that was once left to clumsy artillery tubes. 

No more. Ukrainian and Russian artillery tubes have had a devastating effect on exposed enemy forces, and artillery has re-established its primacy of place. Grinding barrages have had an attritional impact on infantry in fortified positions, with battles in the Donbas often devolving into artillery duels. Miserable, dug-in infantry are suffering levels of devastation that would have been well understood in 1916. Mass, it seems, still has a quality all its own.

Logistics and Supply

As Lawrence Freedman has pointed out, nearly every long war begins with ambitions to wage a short war. The failure of Russia’s initial offensive to seize Kyiv meant that a war nearly everyone expected to be short now has no clear endpoint. This has meant delving into stockpiles of equipment and munitions that neither side expected to use. Both Ukraine and Russia have, at times, used ammunition at an unsustainable rate.

The pace of combat has forced Russia to seek supply from Belarus, North Korea, and Iran. For its part, Ukraine has been forced to beg for equipment and ammunition from the West, much of which has already been so heavily used that it is breaking down from wear and tear rather than from direct enemy action.

Unfortunately, NATO militaries have discovered their stockpiles short on the ammunition needed to fight a high-intensity war, and they are now struggling to keep up with Ukraine’s needs.

Long story short, every country needs to prepare for the fact that its pleasantly short war might run long. 

Communications

One of the most important contrasts between the conduct of today’s war and the conduct of past wars involves the extensive and overlapping networks of information management on both sides. Elon Musk’s network of Starlink satellites has helped keep the Ukrainian military connected and aware of its surroundings, making it possible not only to build intricate, self-supporting defenses, but also to conduct mobile offensive operations.

For their part, the Russians suffered bitterly in the early days of the war from an incomplete communications network, with various legacy systems unable to communicate with one another, and with use of commercial technology (cellphones) often enabling successful Ukrainian artillery strikes. 

Technology, of course, is not determinative. The information economy of Russian forces is much different than that of the Ukrainians. On the Russian side, the availability of drones and real-time communications has resulted in an even more hierarchical system of command and control. Remote commanders are relying on video to monitor the compliance of their own troops with orders, changing the nature of the longstanding principal-agent problem.

On the Ukrainian side, the availability of information has made possible a diffuse system of command and control that has played well against Russian weaknesses. 

Ukraine War: A Return to World War I?

Altogether, the war thus far shows that we still follow the fundamentals of war established in World War I. Technologies from ballistic to electronic have yet to undo the infantry-armor-artillery triad, though they might shift the balance in one direction or another. There is no question that the armies fighting today in Ukraine are more technologically advanced than the armies that fought on the Western Front in 1917.

At the same time, there is little that an infantry or artillery captain from 1917 would find unintelligible about the fighting in the Donbas. 

M777 Artillery Ukraine

US Military M777 Artillery. Ukraine Now Has a Similar System.

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money. 

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. GhostTomahawk

    November 29, 2022 at 10:47 pm

    Get ready for WWI style war with a modern twist…drones and precision guided mubitions. Imagine modern artillery barrages falling non stop and then some JDAM falling right into your canteen cup.

    No thanks

  2. 403Forbidden

    November 30, 2022 at 12:13 am

    The 2022 battle or conflict against the NATO-sponsored ukros in europe has ONE BIG LESSON for humanity when it comes to any clash against neo-fascist & global fascismo blocs – at the first possible instance, go STRAIGHT for the jugular!!!

    The basic, most bizarrely big mistake made by putin was failing to recognize how powerful the fascismo bloc (in charge of the dogbarking) is.

    Putin treated the special operation of 24 feb 2022 as a picnic, or day exercise in the field.

    When in reality and so totally unknown to putin, the NATO dogbarkers and chief of dogbarkers had planned very well for greatest proxy war since nam.

    The journalist zach dorfman famously uncovered an elaborate and very well laid out washington plan started during obama era that introduced CIA operatives with vast middle east combat experience into ukrainian right sector military units tasked with propagating terror & field sniper ops against donbass separatists and civilians.

    DoD personnel later entered the picture obstensibly to obtain intelligence reports and data, but were also involved in military operations after the ukrainian battalions were defeated in a series of fights that culminated in the demoralizing loss at debaltseve in jan-feb 2015 where surviving ukro veterans were forced to flee for their lives on foot.

    How’d putin and russian intel failed to gather info about all those events uncovered by an american journo is simply beyond layman comprehension.

    Thus, when faced with a life-or-death struggle against neo-fascist/global fascismo forces, one must GO FOR THE JUGULAR. Go forward with nukes hurled right dead onto the fascists lair or HQ !!!

  3. aldol11

    November 30, 2022 at 3:30 am

    this is all true UNLESS a side gains air superiority,
    then artillery is sitting ducks

  4. Jacksonian Libertarian

    November 30, 2022 at 4:09 am

    The fact that Russia has 3 times the artillery and heavy weapons that Ukraine has, and is still losing disputes most of the conclusions being drawn. The fact that Ukraine is being supplied with limited quantities of high quality western smart weapons, explains the frontlines.

    Combat Power rule of thumb: 1 smart weapon = 500 dumb weapons

    Conclusions:
    1. Tanks and armored vehicles are obsolete if the enemy has quality smart weapons. (The Russians don’t, so Ukraine wants them, even if they would prefer more smart weapons.)
    2. Dumb Artillery is obsolete if the enemy has quality smart weapons. (3,000 Excalibur rounds = 1.5 million dumb rounds)
    3. Maintaining industrial age weapons in combat is a logistical nightmare. (smart weapons one-shot-one-kill efficiency, eliminates wear and maintenance, = tiny logistical footprint)

    “Captains should study tactics, but Generals must study logistics.”

    The Unmanned battlefield of the future can easily be deduced from the results of the war in Ukraine.

    The WWI trench warfare in places is evidence of backward incompetent leadership failing to effectively use smart weapons, instead of human wave attacks and cannon fodder. Bad leadership is a disgusting fact of war, it’s even worse during the accelerating evolution of weapons from the industrial age to the information age.

    Ask the question: If Ukraine was exclusively armed with smart weapons (Javelin, Switchblade, Stinger, HIMARS, UAVs, etc.) and had no armored vehicles, cannons, etc. would the war already be over in their favor?

  5. Yrral

    November 30, 2022 at 5:14 am

    EU say 100 thousands Ukrainain soldiers killed Google 100 Ukrainain Soldiers Killed

  6. Neil Ross

    November 30, 2022 at 9:13 am

    A good balanced article. The absence of air power in this conflict is striking, at least from my point of view as a lay person. The 1 smart weapon equaling 500 dumb weapons analogy also seems to roughly apply to the costs and logistics of the munitions as well, which seem to be an important factor as well. I have not heard of many successful HIMARS attacks recently.

  7. YS

    November 30, 2022 at 11:28 am

    Note: Ursula said 100 thousand military officers, not soldiers.
    I’m sure number for soldiers is higher.

    “assume nothing, question everything”

  8. SurfBird

    November 30, 2022 at 4:34 pm

    The thing is though, World War I wasn’t even World War I as we in the west think of it. The massive trench lines and barbed wire of the western front are what we think of but they were pretty unique and not at all representative of the war as a whole.

    The eastern front was massive in every sense of the word and pretty much trench free. Enormous swathes of land switched sides multiple times as the war went on. Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary all fought far more mobile battles than were fought in France and Belgium. Today’s Poland and Ukraine had armies marching across them back and forth for years.

    The Middle East was also overwhelmingly mobile as were the many battles in Africa.

  9. dan mullock

    November 30, 2022 at 6:04 pm

    As Alldol and others have commented, the article does not consider the absence of air superiority by both parties. If Ukraine had 100 F15E fighters and jdams/sdb’s etc Russian ground forces and artillery would be wiped out quickly. Air superiority eliminates conventional ground force resistance.

  10. John

    December 1, 2022 at 1:26 am

    Air superiority may be difficult to achieve with non-stealthy jets.
    However lots of dispersed longrange rocket artillery can replace forward based fighter jets.
    You can but 20 Himars systems for the price of 1 F-35.
    An General Atomics Avenger ER drone can be airbound for 20 hours, has a payload of 5000 lbs and operates at 50000 feet.
    For the price if one aircraft carrier you can buy 1000 Avengers.
    Munition production needs to be nationalized as private industry not delivering.

  11. marcjf

    December 1, 2022 at 2:12 am

    One issue is that because of satellite and drones it is very difficult to create tactical and operational surprise despite various “maskirovka” approaches. That some battles (eg the September Kharkov attack) appeared to have done so is itself a surprise. However manouver warfare depends on breaking through lines where the enemy isn’t. If your opponent pretty knows where you are the whole time then the “deep battle” concept becomes much harder to implement. If they have air superiority almost impossible?

  12. Johnny Ray

    December 1, 2022 at 5:30 am

    This article is a pretty good snapshot of what happened and the way it is. What’s missing is the way it coulda’ or shoulda’ been.
    #1: The Russian initial attack was impromptu, incompetent and half-assed.
    #2: All sides are withholding or misusing their best weapons, people and resources. Where’s the air war? Why are high tech weapons held back, and targets limited by map lines?
    #3. Definitions of win and lose are vague. Where are the big picture strategists? Where is Patton, Clausewitz?

  13. Paddy Manning

    December 1, 2022 at 2:22 pm

    403 has a dementedly bizarre take on the brutal, stupid and self destructive second Putinist invasion of Ukraine, inspired no doubt by its closeness, financially or otherwise, to that vicious, murderous tyranny that might best be described as gangsterism.
    Russia is of course now revealed to be a badly governed third world tyranny with nukes.

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