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Ukraine: Lessons for Leaders
What should Marines learn from this modern war?
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Here at the Tactical Notebook, we are delighted to publish the first of (what I hope will be) many fine articles penned by Brendan McBreen, late of the American Marines. If you like this article, you will find much to your taste on his website: 2nd Battalion 5th Marines.
Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. But the two sides have been fighting since 2014. The ground war in Ukraine is unlike the Marine Corps’ experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, and significantly different from our future, forecasted role in the Pacific. Ukrainian forces, fighting for their country’s survival, have been innovative and flexible, fielding new technology, destroying Russian tanks, discarding doctrine when required, fighting well with donated equipment and citizen soldiers, and keeping their enemies off-balance.
Is the war in Ukraine relevant to the Marine Corps? If so, what can we learn? If we had to fight a similar conflict, what would we need? The following insights on modern, conventional ground combat are taken from thirty recent reports and analyses.
1. The battlefield is totally transparent. Drones are everywhere, all the time.
We need to disperse, camouflage, and move to survive.
Reports: During the battle of Bakhmut, in August 2022, there were 50 drones in the sky at all times.1 In addition to continuous conducting surveillance, armed drones killed tanks, artillery, and aircraft.2 Under this threat, Ukrainian units have learned to disperse headquarters, ammunition dumps, logistics centers, and aircraft. Dispersing is difficult, but more effective than concealment.3
“There is no sanctuary” says U.S. Army General J. Rainey.1
We need anti-drone jammers to defend ourselves.
Reports: Every Ukrainian tank needs its own anti-drone system.4 Russian frontline electronic warfare, with one major system every 10 km, is primarily focused on disabling Ukrainian drones.5 Half of Ukrainian drone losses are now due to jamming of GPS (Global Positioning System) signals.6
We need organic drones. Every unit. Every echelon.
Reports: 90% of Ukrainian drones are disposable—lost after an average of six flights. Ukraine may be losing 10,000 drones per month.5,1,6 Units of all types on both sides are using expendable drones, loitering munitions, and counter-drones capabilities.3 When Russian formations cannot hide and cannot mass, they cannot achieve surprise, and are therefore denied an important tactical advantage.8,9
2. Every signal is a target. We need to reduce emissions and mask our signals.
Reports: Ukrainian units now view all emissions as targetable.10 Ukrainian soldiers avoid cell phones.11 When Ukrainian units stop using cell phones and start using paper-based communications, Russian sensors lose their ability to track Ukrainian emissions.12 Russian brigade headquarters pull back from the front line and take shelter in underground bunkers.5 Units need the capability to measure their own signals.10
3. The modern all-source, real-time surveillance network is not ours. We need to use commercial sources of information.
Reports: In February 2023, a Ukrainian citizen uploaded a geo-located video of Russian invaders arriving at Bakhmut.16 Everyone is now a collector. Precise Russian locations are reported by civilian smartphone photos, social media, amateur drone videos, and commercial satellite imagery. Anyone with a laptop can access a real-time operational picture.13,14,15 Crowd-sourced security cameras and mobile phones feed a real-time sensor network far more responsive than any centralized, legacy military system.17,18
4. Artillery kills everybody. Rockets kill. Missiles kill less often. We need artillery. We need artillery rounds.
Reports: The Russian critical capability is fires.5 Dumb artillery rounds are still the greatest killer on the battlefield.15 Over 80% of current Ukrainian casualties are caused by artillery,10 over 90% during the previous eight years, 2014–2022.3 Although precision weapons reduce logistics requirements,3 they cannot replace the large volume of dumb munitions needed.7
Russia fired 200,000 shells per day in the summer of 2022.1 Barrels wore out. During the battle of Bakhmut, Russian guns were reduced from firing 60,000 shells to 10,000 shells per day.16 To meet high artillery consumption rates, Russia transported 700,000 tons of shells in the first five months of war.3,19
The Russians use massive salvos of shells and rockets to suppress Ukrainian positions and support tactical advances.21 Plentiful Russian artillery often makes up for poorly trained infantry.5,18
To mass artillery effectively, Russians has formed artillery brigades.5 Most of the 110 to 136 Russian mechanized battalion tactical groups that invaded Ukraine in 2022 have been dissolved, and their detachments of artillery, tanks, engineers, and air defense were reformed into full-strength units.3,18
Russian leaders have come to the conclusion that ad hoc battalion tactical groups, with poor cohesion, little in the way of infantry, poor infantry-armor cooperation, and attachments to small to be effective, are unsuited for use in the ongoing war in Ukraine war.3,10
5. Modern fires networks can see, strike, and destroy in 60 seconds. We need counter-drone jammers to attack the kill chain.
Reports: In May 2022, a Russian unit crossing the Donets river was detected by Ukrainian drones. Soon thereafter, Ukrainian artillery destroyed over 70 Russian vehicles and killed 485 Russian soldiers.9 In 2014, rockets fired by Russian multiple rocket launchers destroyed two battalions-worth of Ukrainian vehicles that had been detected by Russian drones in the vicinity of Zelenopillya.21
Multiple Russian drones acting as forward observers supported a single attack over Khromove (Artemivske), a village just west of Bakhmut, in December of 2022. One drone targeted Ukrainian artillery outside the city, another targeted Ukrainian reserve routes, a third scouted ahead to target enemy ambushes, and a fourth watched over the assault element.5
Doctrinally, a Russian ‘reconnaissance fire complex’ uses long-range artillery and precision weapons to destroy targets identified by distant drones.10,24,27 Vehicles are attacked with guided missiles, but unit positions, headquarters, and logistics centers are struck with high-explosive artillery, which cannot be jammed.27 Russian drones now send grid references directly to the commanders of artillery units.5 This kill chain can take less than a minute. The goal is ten seconds.29 When it comes to the observation of artillery fire, the Russians are making greater use of drones and less use of ground reconnaissance units.5
Multiple Russian generals (many on cell phones) have been killed by Ukrainian artillery fire guided by drones.29 86% of Ukrainian artillery targets are identified by drones.1 Russian artillery no longer digs in, since it must move quickly after firing.5
6. A single tank is the most lethal weapon on any battlefield. We need tanks—for infantry support in close terrain.
Reports: Ukrainian forces claim to have killed 1,000 Russian tanks, but have not specified the systems that killed them. That is, they do not know what percentage of kills that should be credited to anti-tank guided missiles, armed drones, tanks, or artillery fire..18,4 The success of infantry anti-tank guided missiles is exaggerated. The Ukrainian armed forces have received 150 Javelin launchers, 1,200 Javelin missiles, and 2,000 Swedish-built next-generation light anti-armor weapons (NLAW),3 but how many missile gunners survived their encounters? In the early days of the war, Russian tanks were exposed, not protected by combined arms suppression or infantry escorts.2,4
The tank is not dead, as many have predicted.2,26
Between 2014 to 2018, Ukraine received 500 new tanks and built a force of 30 tank battalions. By the time of the invasion, February 2022, Ukraine possessed 900 tanks.3
Russian forces employ tanks in three ways. First, as indirect fire platforms. Second, to raid—attack by fire and then withdraw. And third, most importantly, to support infantry assaults. In the support by fire role, the tank is better than an infantry fighting vehicle—in firepower, protection, optics, and standoff range against anti-tank guided missiles.5 The tank remains essential in urban warfare.4
“Tanks are like dinner jackets. You don’t need them very often, but when you do, nothing else will do.” – Australian General K. Toohey2
7. Helicopters are vulnerable to man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS).
We cannot assume the ability to use helicopters to evacuate casualties. We cannot assume that helicopters will be able to anything in forward areas.
Reports: On 29 February 2022, outside Kyiv, Russian attack helicopters suffered heavy losses at the hands of Ukrainian man-portable air defense systems.3 In the air assault against Hostomel airport, two hand-held anti-aircraft missiles shot down two Russian helicopters.3 The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces claims that, between February and June of 2022, Russian forces in Ukraine lost 170 helicopters .13
The fact that so many units on both sides are equipped with man-portable air defense systems creates a friendly fire risk. Because of losses, Ukrainian helicopters no longer fly within 30 kilometers of the front lines.10 Neither side enjoys air superiority, much less air supremacy, so both can lose large numbers of aircraft.15
All units need air defense, even if they do not have access to the common air picture.3,10 If helicopters cannot survive, then armies will have to use ground vehicles to move troops, fire upon enemy positions, resupply units, and evacuate casualties.10
8. Ground combat is high-intensity, large-scale, long-term, and deadly. We need casualty replacements to sustain our ground combat units.
Reports: Conventional land combat dominates the war in Ukraine.21 The conflict is a long, grinding war of attrition,8,14 where both armies have suffered crippling losses of vehicles, units, aircraft, and people.13,27 Over 47,000 Russians may have died in the first year of the war.23
“We (the U.S. military) have chronic inexperience in offensive combat against a competent adversary.” – U.S. Army Colonel D.E. Johnson.9
With both pre-war armies gone, the new armies are a mix of conscripts and volunteers.1 Many Russian conscripts are disposable, making well-trained soldiers even more valuable.24 Armies need access to large reserves of well-trained infantry.28 Because Western militaries suffer casualty phobia, and prioritize force protection over mission,9 casualty replacement and unit reconstitution is not planned.
On the modern dispersed battlefield, new soldiers with only individual or technical training do not have the initiative, knowledge, or skills required.11 Competent infantry unit leaders in particular are critical to coordinate combined-arms attacks, the key skill of successful armies.5
9. Defense is now the stronger form of war. We need to be able to defend cities from mechanized attacks.
Reports: Technology now makes the defense stronger than the offense.7,8 Defenders in prepared positions now have enormous advantages, combining firepower with unmanned intelligence collection,8 especially in cities.25 Because they are vulnerable to jamming and air defenses, drones do not provide the same advantages to attackers.12 Offensive forces cannot hide their unit concentrations or avenues of approach.8,9
Ukrainian forces have increased their reliance on prepared defenses.10 Russian engineers and contractors have built complex obstacles—trenches, earth berms, razor wire entanglements, minefields, and dragon’s teeth anti-tank obstacles—and 1400 entrenched positions in Zaporizhzhia, and 600 each in Kherson, Donetsk, and Luhansk.5,21,22 Some defensive belts have been built to a depth of 5 km, with each belt separated by a kilometer.5
10. Jamming GPS is more effective than jamming radios. We need backup methods for navigation and targeting.
Reports: Russian forces jam GPS to interdict Ukrainian drones. Between 2018 and 2020, Russian electronic warfare units disabled at least 150 Ukrainian drones. In 2019, Russian air defense and electronic warfare units neutralized a total of 60 drone-and-missile attacks launched by anti-Assad forces against the Khmeimim air base in Syria.12
Russian forces jam GPS to counter precision weapons. During one Ukrainian attack, 4 of 9 American-made JDAM missiles missed their targets due to RUS jamming.6 Russian forces jam GPS to disrupt Ukrainian ground units, who then revert to paper maps for planning, navigation and calls for fire.10
Russian forces jam tactical radios—forcing Ukrainian soldiers to use wire and written messages—but have difficulty jamming Starlink signals and American SINCGARS radios.6 Russian cyber attacks have not significantly affected the conflict.15,18
“You can’t cyber your way across a river.” – British General Sir P. Sanders.1
1. Ypres with AI. (2023, July 8). The Economist, 3–5.
2. Johnson, D.E. (2022, April 8). The tank is dead: Long live the Javelin, the Switchblade, the…? War on the Rocks.
3. Zabrodskyi, M., Watling, J., Danylyuk, O.V., & Reynolds, N. (2022). Preliminary lessons in conventional warfighting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: February–July 2022. Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
4. Kington, T. (2022, June 13). Lessons from Ukraine could help shape Europe’s new tank—if there is one. Defense News.
5. Watling, J. & Reynolds, N. (2023, May 19). Meatgrinder: Russian tactics in the second year of its invasion of Ukraine. Royal United Services Institute.
6. The new battle of the beams. (2023, July 8). The Economist, 5–6.
7. Johnson, D.E. (2022, August 15). Ending the ideology of the offense, Part I. War on the Rocks.
8. Johnson, D.E. (2022, August 25). Ending the ideology of the offense, Part II. War on the Rocks.
9. Johnson, D.E. (2022, May 31 Would we do better? Hubris and validation in Ukraine. War on the Rocks.
10. Angevine, R.G., Warden, J.K., Keller, R. & Frye, C. (2019, May). Learning lessons from the Ukraine conflict. Institute for Defense Analyses.
11. Baptism by fire. (2023, July 8). The Economist, 12.
12. Calcara, A. Gilli, A., Gilli, M., Marchetti, R. & Zaccagnini, I. (2022, Spring). Why drones have not revolutionized war, International Security, 46(4), 130–171.
13. Barno, D. & Benshahel, N. (2022, June 27). The other big lessons that the U.S. Army should learn from Ukraine. War on the Rocks.
14. Joshi, M. (2022, August 31). The long(er) Ukraine war: Lessons for the Indo-Pacific. Observer Research Foundation.
15. Johnson, D.E. (2022, June 14). The Army risks reasoning backwards in analyzing Ukraine. War on the Rocks.
16. Stepanenko, K. (2023, May 24). The Kremlin’s pyrrhic victory in Bakhmut: A retrospective on the battle for Bakhmut. Institute for the Study of War and AEI’s Critical Threats Project 2023.
17. The home front. (2023, July 8). The Economist, 8–9.
18. Jones, S.G. (2022, June). Russia’s ill-fated invasion of Ukraine. Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).
19. The sinews of war. (2023, July 8). The Economist, 7–8.
20. Fox, A. (2019, May) “Cyborgs at little Stalingrad”: A brief history of the battles of the Donetsk airport—26 May 2014 to 21 January 2015. The Institute of Land Warfare.
21. Jones, S.G., Palmer, A., & Bermudez Jr., S. (2023, June). Ukraine’s offensive operations: Shifting the offense-defense balance. Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).
22. Africk, B. (2023). Russian field fortification in Ukraine.
23. Unfortunate sons. (2023, June 15). The Economist, 73.
24. Slow learners. (2023, July 8). The Economist, 10.
25. Spencer, J. & Collins, L. (2023). Twelve months of war in Ukraine have revealed four fundamental lessons on urban warfare. Modern War Institute.
27. Stelzenmuller, C., Hill, F., Pifer, S., Goldgeiger, J., Varma, T., Aydintasbas, A., Kim, P., Maloney, S., Madan, T., Jones, B., Talmadge, C., Sisson, M., O’Hanlon, M., Wessel, D., Gross, S., Roehse, S., & Kirisci, K. Lessons from Ukraine. Brookings.
28. Lieven, A. (2023, June 14). Ukraine’s paradoxical lessons for the future of warfare. Responsible Statecraft.
29. Grau, L. & Bartles, C. (2018, May). The Russian reconnaissance fire complex comes of age. Pembroke College, Oxford.
Ukraine: Lessons for Leaders deals exclusively with matters directly related to ground combat in Ukraine. Thus, it offers no substantial comments about naval operations, air campaigns, long range missiles, theater air defense, battle-damage assessment, intelligence, planning, communications, logistics, information warfare, cyber operations, training, manning, force structure, force generation, doctrine, or procurement.
For Further Reading: