A while back I came across this pdf document about the war in Ukraine over at Think Defence (sorry TD, couldn't remember the exact page!). Written by Dr. Phillip A. Karber of The Potomac Foundation, the paper offers insights into the nature of the conflict, specifically from the military perspective and with a strong focus on the front line aspects of what is happening, with the intention of trying to draw out information that might be of use to future US and allied leaders in a conventional style conflict, possibly with Russia. Most of the information is drawn from the authors personal experience and observations, plus his interviews with Ukrainian officers and troops. One of the stated aims of the paper is to; "stimulate a dialogue on the military aspects of the Russo-Ukrainian War with a focus on emerging trends".
So today we're going to review some of its contents and try to stimulate a dialogue about possible emerging trends.
And right off the bat I see something that niggles at me a little. That is the idea that what Russia is doing in Ukraine represents a new generation of warfare, or indeed that what Russia is doing is new in any real sense. Russia has a long history of waging proxy wars against its enemies to tie them down, divert their attention, and stretch their resources. They learned it from western nations, who have a long history of doing the same (Britain became quite expert at it at one point in time), who in turn learned it from the cities states of "ancient" history. In other words, proxy wars have been around for donkey's years and the Russians have been doing them since at least the start of the cold war.
There's nothing really new here. Like all wars the level of commitment can vary as can the location and the specifics of what's happening on the ground, but the broad concept of using money, equipment and a smattering of your own troops to aid a third party to fight against a perceived enemy is as old as the flank attack or the ambush. I just get annoyed when people take old concepts and try to repackage them as new ideas in order to promote revolutions in military matters.
Now the first part of the paper is broken down into the analysis of four main subjects under the heading "Technology and tactics". This is the part of the paper I'll be focusing on today, as much of the rest is either specific to Ukraine or goes into the subject of wider NATO strategy, a debate for another day. The four subjects are;
- Ubiquitous Presence of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
- Increased Lethality of Indirect Fires
- ATGMs and Armor’s Counter-revolution
- Declining Survivability of Light Infantry Vehicles
Ubiquitous Presence of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
The use of UAV's is broken down into groups, though I would personally consolidate the listed types into three broad categories; medium/high altitude military observation drones for area surveillance, low altitude military drones predominantly for gathering targetting information for artillery, and very low altitude commercial drones for tactical reconnaissance.
The last category is probably the most interesting as it is something that western forces struggled to achieve in Afghanistan and Iraq through their military chains, especially at a reasonable price, yet forces on both sides of the Ukraine conflict as well as in places like Syria and Iraq have been able to field a variety of small drones very rapidly and at very little cost. It somewhat makes a mockery for example of the British MoD's Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) system that is was never really able to produce a reliable and cost effective small drone for UK forces, yet much more poorly resourced fighters in the current conflicts are able to rig up home made systems using off the shelf drones (or at least off the shelf radio control components) to provide themselves with the kind of tactical level Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) capability that UK forces would have loved to have had in Iraq/Afghanistan (documents from the Chilcot report indicate the annoyance of senior British commanders at the lack of such drone based ISTAR systems).
It also poses a serious problem in the future for UK forces in that the enemies inability to exploit the airspace above a battle can no longer be taken for granted. While fighters like the Typhoon and F-35 can deny the enemy the use of higher altitude drones and observation aircraft, and prevent them from deploying conventional attack aircraft and helicopters, the RAF and Royal Navy will find it almost impossible to prevent an enemy from launching a small commercial drone from a rooftop and proceeding to gather valuable intelligence and targetting data about UK forces.
It is therefore reasonable to assume that in the future UK forces will have to re-learn the techniques and methods of concealment against air observation. And I say "forces" deliberately, as to not exclude the RAF and Royal Navy. Access to commercial drones will pose interesting challenges for example in a future Counter Insurgency (COIN) operation, where targetting data might be collected about an overseas UK airbase with the use of such drones. Similarly civilian fishing vessels could be used as launch platforms for a drone to climb and act as a very high optical "mast", particularly in confined waters such as those around the Arabian peninsula, and such be used to detect the approximate location of naval vessels and task groups.
The potential also exists for such cheap and relatively disposable drones to take an immediate offensive form beyond just the target location data they can generate. Whether it be from something like a claymore mine strapped to a drone, a grenade (potentially deployable to preserve the drone), or even just an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), small drones could present a new method of attack against UK forces, especially in the hands of those enemies who have no choice but to seek alternative methods of attack in lieu of a straight up "gun fight".
As Dr. Karber points out, the biggest problem with drones is how to detect them and how to bring them down. Small, frequently quiet, and with little in the way of a heat or radar signature, commercial style drones pose a major headache to counter. One possibility could be the use of specific radars designed to detect such small objects or perhaps reprogramming counter-battery radars used to detect artillery and mortar rounds. Even then, the problem of how to bring them down presents itself.
Dr. Karber notes that while surface to air missile systems (SAMs) are likely off the table, not least because to the expense of firing such weapons against a small drone, some success has been had in Ukraine by using existing Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) in calibres such as 23 and 30 mm. The most effective approach has stemmed from Russian/Separatist use of jamming technology to interrupt the GPS navigation signals used by operators to track the drones. Such technology could also be used to jam the command signals sent to the drone and used for controlling its movement. However, in light of the advances in autonomous route planning and following, the presence of AAA should be considered a strong advantage to the defenders.
In particular I would agree with Dr. Karber's statement that in future militaries like the UK need to place a strong emphasis on exercising against a red team that has a drone capability and operating on exercise under the assumption that they could be, or are currently being, observed by an enemy drone.
Increased Lethality of Indirect Fires
Two main points that are picket up here are that 1) artillery accounts for anything up to 85% of all casualties in the Ukrainian conflict, and that 2) Russian/Separatist use of dispensing sub-munitions and thermobaric warheads in their artillery, especially in rocket propelled artillery, could give them a firepower edge against NATO forces in the future.
The first point is not unexpected, or at least shouldn't be. Operations research conducted by the US army in the wake of WW2 came to a similar conclusion about the impact of artillery (it's one of the reasons body armour was discounted for infantry for such a long time and remains of dubious utility on a conventional battlefield today). Despite all the fanfare surrounding small arms and which calibre should be carried by the infantry, the reality is that this debate is way down the order of importance for military commanders compared to other concerns such as logistics and ratios of artillery tubes to the size of a force. And for good reason.
As for the impact of things like anti-armour sub-munitions and thermobaric warheads, I have to say I'm not overly convinced. We live now in a world where modern warfare is routinely caught on camera and broadcast across the globe. One of the side effects of this has been that we now have plenty of video evidence from Syria of the nature of Russian made sub-munitions in action. It is common in these examples to observe quite high failure rates in the sub-munitions, a prime reason why the UK signed up to a ban on their use. It is also notable that while such warheads might cover a wide area, their ability to actually take down a large number of vehicles in a location can sometimes seem questionable, in part oddly enough because of the sheer width of the area they cover and as such the dispersion of their effects.
It's possible that the main cause for concern is not so much the nature of the warheads themselves as it is the point that Dr. Karber makes that the number of rocket based artillery weapons in Russian use has grown significantly, reaching a point close to parity with the number of conventional "tubed" artillery pieces. It is likely that this massing of fires, especially the ability of the Russians to rapidly blanket an area with unguided artillery rounds, is the much greater cause of their lethality. Dr. Karber does bring up an interesting point though, in that the West in general has been more concerned over the last decade with the acquisition of ever more precise firepower while the Russians have focused on area denial capabilities.
In a way this is understandable as the need for precision has been primarily driven by the needs of operating among civilian populations in COIN campaigns, where precision strike is essential to minimise casualties, whereas the Russian focus has clearly been centred on generating fire effects for more conventional campaigns. I don't think precision is a bad thing, indeed I recently wrote a piece advocating for the army to develop more precision capabilities. This stems not least from the fact that western forces have some very well developed ISTAR capabilities, which only improve over time. We have reached the generation where a pair of snipers - with the aid of a laser rangefinder with digital compass and GPS + a radio - now have the potential to extend the effect of their skills and their ability to deliver precision fire onto choice targets beyond just the 1,000 yards of most typical sniper rifles.
But I do feel that, especially in a world where GPS jamming is possible and laser designators can be hampered by conditions, there does need to be some respect shown for the advantages of "dumb" unguided munitions. In the same way the Dr. Karber has observed/heard of Russian Electronic Warfare (EW) being used against drones, it is entirely plausible that a mixture of EW and prevailing weather conditions will be used in the future to deny western forces their previously assumed ability to employ precision munitions. Under these circumstances NATO forces had better still have a hefty unguided ability up their sleeves and be trained to use it.
Other issues brought up were the use of self-propelled artillery systems in alternative roles (which I've chosen to discuss later), the increasing range of artillery systems which I think is natural as technology progresses, and the increased use (and need) of counter-battery radar systems. This has been a particular problem for Ukrainian forces who frequently lack the ability to detect and engage enemy firing points, while the Russians have few problems doing the same in response to Ukrainian artillery fire. The effect created by this technological imbalance should not be underestimated and the full implications of the ability to detect and neutralise counter-battery radars needs fresh consideration.
Finally, Dr. Karber notes that the emphasis on - and lethality of - heavy firepower has given both sides renewed impetus to develop their entrenching techniques. It is interesting to compare this modern account to Erwin Rommel's personal account of his experiences in the first world war, where he and his men quickly learned that every time they stopped moving for anything more than a few minutes their first priority became to start digging and to keep digging until they were reasonably well protected against incoming artillery fire. Some things never change it seems.
ATGMs and Armor’s Counter-revolution
In this section Dr. Karber claims that a "counter-revolution" has taken place in anti-tank fighting, compared to that which first occurred in practice during the Yom Kippur war. In that war infantry were seen to finally acquire an effective anti-tank weapon in the shape of Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs), that allowed them to fight off enemy tank attacks without needing their own tanks to do it for them. Dr. Karber claims that advances in technology have now swung the pendulum the other way, nullifying the ATGM and handing the momentum back to the tank.
At this point I have to start strongly disagreeing with the author, for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, the idea that the ATGM created a revolutionary shift in the balance of power. While the ATGM did represent a man-portable capability which was very different from anything seen previously and which with its HEAT warhead could crack the armour of even the largest and best protected tanks, the idea of a non-tank based anti-tank weapon was hardly a revolution.
One of the big misconceptions that still lingers from the second world war is that the primary killer of the tank was other tanks. While certainly there were battles where opposing tanks engaged in protracted combat, the main tank killer of the era was the anti-tank gun. On the defensive it was anti-tank guns that bore the brunt of engaging and thinning out the enemies armour, with friendly armoured forces held in reserve to launch counter attacks and cut off enemy penetrations. Similarly on the offensive the correct use of armour was not to fight, but to penetrate, bypassing nests of resistance with a view to getting as deep as possible into the enemies rear. Protecting the flanks of such a penetration against an enemy counter attack by tanks was often the responsibility of anti-tank guns, either towed or self-propelled.
The Germans even got into the habit - a habit which the British learned from them in turn - of using anti-tank guns offensively. By establishing a hasty anti-tank position with wide fields of fire it was possible to use tanks and even armoured reconnaissance units to probe and prod the enemy, luring them out of hiding and right into the killing grounds established by the guns. Thus the idea that infantry had never possessed a decent anti-tank weapon until the development of the ATGM is highly questionable, though the ATGM was certainly an upgrade in many respects over gun based system.
The second issue I have with Dr. Karber's position is his assertion that infantry have been "rendered impotent" in his words in the face of enemy armour due to the presence of Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA) layers on tanks in the Ukraine conflict. Just a sentence or two before he makes this claim he points out that ERA works only against single warhead systems, and not the dual warhead systems that are prevalent in modern armies. While he has a slight point in that neither the Russians nor the Ukrainians have been able to field these tandem warhead weapons in any great numbers, that's a question of procurement and logistics. The implication that infantry in the 21st century are now impotent against tanks is false and I feel the paper is let down by trying to give the reader the impression that this is now the case.
It is here that I wish to pick up the point from the previous section about self-propelled artillery systems being used in different roles. The author notes that such systems, often mounting 122mm guns, have found secondary uses on both sides as both an anti-tank and infantry support weapon. Although the gun lacks a proper anti-armour round, the sheer power of its warhead combined with the kinetic impact force at shorter ranges has proven enough in some cases to simply punch the turret of an enemy tank off its ring mount. In the infantry support role the gun provides the ability to suppress point targets with direct fire high explosives, whether that be a machine gun firing from a window or an enemy ATGM team hiding in a clump of bushes.
It provides food for thought I think because of the prevalence of companies in the modern era trying to sell 120mm gun equipped versions of their Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs). Previously I've resisted peoples enthusiasm for these, as invariably people suggest using them as light tanks in order to avoid the expense of having to pay for a "proper" tank. An IFV with a big gun is just that, not a main battle tank. But the more I think about it, the more a 120mm armed IFV conversion makes sense in two roles. Firstly, providing anti-tank protection for reconnaissance units. And secondly, to form the modern equivalent of the anti-tank battalions that were so prevalent in second world war divisions.
As has been seen in Ukraine, such units could provide mobile fire support to infantry in addition to their anti-armour duties, while freeing up the tanks to do what tanks do best; offensive, mobile penetration. It also worth considering at this point the potential benefits of twin 20-30mm armed anti-aircraft systems. As we have seen, their use with proximity burst ammunition can be highly advantageous against small drones, but it's also worth considering their advantages in secondary roles such as providing suppressive fire support for infantry.
Returning to the proper sequence of Dr. Karbers paper, he notes that the introduction of newer tank types by the Russians has caused some major headaches for the Ukrainian army, as the new tanks are better protected and have much improved fire control systems. It is noted for example that the T-90 has repeatedly proven to be a battle winner whenever it is deployed, even though it is used sparingly, typically in no more than company strength. This I think reaffirms something that we have known for a long while now; that while training and tactics can do a lot, there sometimes comes a point where a technological edge is simply overwhelming, to the extent that there is very little the enemy can do to overcome it. While tanks like the British Challenger and American Abrams may be expensive, so far the evidence of history points repeatedly to this investment being worth while.
Part of the advantage that modern tanks like the T-90 have brought is their modern protection systems but here I think Dr. Karber gets confused. He mentions the use of Active Protection Systems (APS) which can detect incoming rounds using small radars and classify whether or not they pose a threat to the tank, before engaging potential threats with small explosive charges that launch a cloud of debris into the oncoming missiles path, destroying the guidance system and frequently detonating the warhead away from the vehicle (a "hard kill" system).
However the reports he cites from Ukrainian soldiers of seeing their ATGMs veer off into the sky or into the ground as they approach the target are more consistent with the effect of "soft kill" electronic systems like the Russian Shtora. This system works against Semi-Automatic Command to Line of Sight (SACLOS) ATGMs by imitating the marker used by the missile itself to indicate its position to the firing post. These false returns cause the system to send inaccurate steering updates to the missile, which result in it veering off course and sometimes into the ground. Going back to the prevalence of cameras in war zones, we actually have video evidence from Syria of ATGMs being spoofed off course by systems like Shtora, which match the reports that Dr. Karber cites from Ukraine. We also have footage of Israeli tanks having previously used their domestically produced APS in combat against incoming missiles, which usually results in the detonation of the missile short of the target.
Either way, the main impact of these reports and the video evidence collected from other war zones would point towards the need for the next generation of UK MBTs (and possibly other armoured vehicles) to come equipped with both "hard" and "soft" kill measures, in much the same way as modern Royal Navy vessels are. With the new systems should also come new approaches, such as the possibility of radar jamming systems to spoof a new generation of air launched anti-armour weapons like our own Brimstone missiles, as well as looking at techniques for defeating top attack weapons like Javelin.
Declining Survivability of Light Infantry Vehicles
Despite the use of the word "light" here, Dr. Karber is actually just referring to standard IFVs, by comparison to "heavy" IFVs in the shape of converted tanks. The implication is that traditional IFVs are not survivable on a modern battlefield due to the combination of ATGMs, 25-30mm+ automatic cannons mounted on other IFVs, and again the threat of anti-armour sub-munitions and thermobaric warheads on artillery. The extent of the problem is highlighted, the author claims, by the desire of troops to ride on the top of the vehicle rather than inside it.
I have some questions over this. I've certainly seen footage of troops from both sides riding on top of vehicles, but typically this has been when moving from rear staging areas to a forward position, and frequently is caused by there being insufficient space inside the vehicle itself (with troops clearly visible getting in and out of the vehicle at each end). I can't seriously imagine for a second that sane troops expecting to come under sustained contact with the enemy would actually contemplate riding on top of the vehicle. However dangerous it might be to be inside an IFV that is hit by 30mm fire or an ATGM, it certainly beats sitting on the outside of it under such fire, along with the risk of small arms and artillery fragments. It is therefore highly debatable I think to assume that soldiers have been doing so under enemy fire.
As for the use of a "heavy" IFV, if top attack sub-munitions are the major problem then a heavy APC will offer little additional comfort, given that such munitions are designed to penetrate even full blooded tanks from above. Survival against 25-30mm fire though, that's a different prospect. Many countries have begun switching to (or at least looking at) more heavily armoured vehicles. In fact the concept dates all the way back to WW2. There the ever resourceful Canadian units started stripping the guns out of self-propelled artillery pieces in order to improvise better protected infantry vehicles, an idea which later caught on with British forces, who even used old Shermans that were "field stripped" to make them suitable for personnel carrying.
The need for such a heavy vehicle was a conclusion that both the Russians and the Israelis had reached prior to the start of the Ukraine conflict. The Russians had found their APCs and IFVs unsuitable during the Chechen conflicts, through both being too vulnerable to attack by Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG) and lacking sufficient elevation on their main armaments to engage targets firing from high floors in urban warfare. The Israelis meanwhile have found APCs such as the old M113 to be far too vulnerable in the face of modern ATGMs and mines/IEDs.
It makes sense then that as more and more nations gather experience of operating in hostile environments, particularly against more conventional weapons than just IEDs, the trend has been to dig old tanks out of storage and convert them into heavy APCs. I'm not sure what stocks the UK has of old MBTs, mainly because every time someone tries to get a freedom of information request out of the government on the subject they simply get rebuffed on the grounds of national security. Which either means the MoD has a cunning plan for a future mobilisation centred around the reactivation of large numbers of old tanks, or more likely it's flogged most of them off for a few pence and doesn't want to admit it. Either way, it does beg the question whether this is something the MoD and the army has looked into.
While heavy APCs/IFVs are expensive, hence why their introduction has been somewhat limited even in Israeli and Russian service, the law of combat reality does seem to be pushing everyone in this direction. The Russians new MBT for example, the Armata, is not just a tank. They have displayed a heavy IFV variant and a 152mm self-propelled gun version, presumably with the intention of creating a family of heavily armoured vehicles. And though the Israelis have been slow at bringing heavy APCs/IFVs like the Namer into service on cost grounds, they have produced decent numbers across various types in the past, and each time they engage in a conflict the overwhelming consensus that comes back from the front line is "give us more heavy APCs!"
(P.S. Who still wants to use converted IFVs as tanks then...?)
In light of all this, and in light of some of the revelations that surfaced in the Chilcot report which I covered a few weeks ago, my next post will be something that I don't normally go in for much around here; a hypothetical restructuring of the British army that incorporates some of the lessons of Chilcot and some of the lessons from the fighting in Ukraine.
For now though, thanks for reading and I look forward to the debate that may or may not be stimulated by this. If you enjoyed the article, please be sure to share it on Twitter, Facebook etc using the buttons provided below. Next post will probably come out later in this week (starting August 1st) or early next week (starting August 8th).