Lessons Encountered from Ukraine

By R. D. Hooker, Jr.

This short essay identifies lessons “encountered” from the conflict in Ukraine, with particular emphasis on applications for the U.S. Army.

What can our Army learn from the ongoing conflict in Ukraine?  The Russian invasion of Ukraine represents large-scale, multi-domain, high-intensity warfare unlike any seen before.  The future is opening before us.  What does it look like?

The first take-away is that the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union did not mean the end of major conventional war, as some suggested.  We live today in an era of persistent conflict, with every prospect of clashing with other great powers.  Our Army might well be thrown into action on short notice against powerful opponents, as Ukraine’s was in February of 2022.  We must be on a war footing, and think, act and train accordingly.

Most experts predicted the early collapse of Ukrainian forces and a swift Russian victory. That did not happen.  Why? Early assessments suggest that Russian forces were poorly trained, unable to fight with combined arms, and badly led.  Without a true noncommissioned officer corps, Russian soldiers lacked motivation and proficiency in basic tasks like small unit battle drills, fire control, field maintenance, basic hygiene and individual discipline. The clear lesson here is that the fundamentals are critical, and professional NCO’s are indispensable to our success. 

At higher levels, Russian generalship and battle command were deeply flawed.  Russian forces attacked everywhere, dispersing Russian combat power, complicating logistics planning and weakening the main effort to seize Kyiv.  Russian commanders seemed unable to synchronize fires, combat aviation, intelligence, logistics and combat engineers with maneuver, stalling their attacks and disrupting their operations. In contrast to Ukrainian leaders, Russian commanders did not practice mission command by allowing junior leaders to exercise initiative, based on commander’s intent and the situation.  When faced with obstacles or the unexpected, Russian units often froze and waited for orders.  The lesson here is that US commanders must be able to synchronize in time and space, and trust their subordinates to execute given clear guidance and freedom of action.

Remarkably, Ukraine recovered quickly from the initial blow and proved able to leverage technology to great effect.  Cheap commercial drones as well as military versions such as the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 and US Switchblade were employed in great numbers for intelligence gathering and targeting.  Many were lost, but low cost and ease of operation made replacement easy.  Starlink, a commercial satellite-based communications system, provided critical support to commanders and staffs. Commercial encrypted services like Telegram and Signal are also widely used.  In the near future, technology in the form of hypersonics, artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computing and machine learning may transform the conduct of war.  Our Army must stay abreast of these developments, which evolve with startling speed, but always with cost and ease of operation in mind. In future conflicts, we must be ready to adapt and employ commercial technology to our needs rapidly in forms that are both affordable and usable with limited training.

Cutting edge technology in Ukraine allowed us to glimpse the future, but the war has also shown the enduring relevance and importance of traditional systems, and above all, field artillery. On both sides, artillery remains the king of battle, inflicting the majority of casualties and dominating battles and engagements.  Like the Russians, the Ukrainians field not one but three artillery battalions in their brigades, in addition to several independent artillery brigades that support their regional commands. Early on, Russian forces were organized into “battalion tactical groups” with attached artillery batteries, diluting the effect of massed fires.  (The Russian army appears to be reverting to more traditional organizations and concentrating artillery at higher levels now) Russian fires lacked precision and flexibility, through sheer weight of metal caused many Ukrainian casualties.

Ukrainian artillery, though seriously outmatched, has been employed more intelligently and flexibly.  Displacing frequently and employed with initiative and imagination, it played a decisive role in defense and offense.  Reinforced with dozens of systems, including the US M777, the French Caesar and the German PzH 2000 (all 155mm), Ukrainian fire units linked with drones have dramatically outperformed Russian artillery, dominating the battlefield.  Highly accurate US and UK HIMARS and MLRS systems, though few in number, have been decisive.  Supplemented by older, Soviet-era Smerch, Uragan and Tornado rocket artillery systems, they have been used to devastating effect to strike Russian logistics areas, command posts and other high-value targets.  Today, the active Army has no general support artillery at the division level and no cannon artillery at the corps level, while maneuver brigades have a single artillery battalion.  The war in Ukraine reminds us that cannon and rocket artillery in mass are critical in high-intensity conventional war.

Some analysts, citing high Russian tank losses, conclude that the main battle tank may no longer be relevant on the modern battlefield. Large numbers of man-portable anti-tank systems like the Javelin and NLAW surely destroyed many Russian tanks.  Closer examination suggests that poor tactics – above all, the lack of infantry-armor cooperation in close terrain – better explains these losses.  Poorly trained tank crews, an inability to fight using true combined arms, and ineffective leadership have all contributed to the destruction of Russia’s tank forces.  For its part, the Ukrainian army has generally used its smaller tank force more competently and more aggressively in concert with drones, supporting infantry and fires. If anything, the US Army needs more armor.  Today, only 11 of its 31 maneuver brigades are heavy.  The war in Ukraine has demonstrated the terrible lethality of modern war and the importance of mobility and protection – along with firepower, the strengths of our Armored Brigade Combat Teams. 

At the outset, Russian combat aviation outnumbered Ukraine’s by a factor of 10:1.  Most experts confidently expected Russia to achieve air supremacy in a matter of days.  Instead, using outdated air defense systems like the S-300, SA-6 and SA-11, Ukraine has managed to negate Russian airpower and achieve “air denial,” often forcing Russian aircraft to descend to lower altitudes where they could be engaged by shoulder-fired systems like the Stinger, Starstreak and Mistral. Ukrainian air defense, augmented by western systems like the US/Norwegian NASAMS, Italian Aspide and German Gepard, has also been effective against Russian ballistic and cruise missiles and drones. All Ukrainian maneuver brigades include an air defense battalion for defense against Russian fighter/attack and attack helicopter threats as well as unmanned aerial vehicles. In contrast, the US Army has no air defense units at the brigade or division level, a clear vulnerability, especially given the proliferation of UAVs. 

Electronic warfare has also played a key role as an enabler in Ukraine.  Both sides are well equipped with EW units, which are organic to tactical units and widely used to jam and intercept communications.  Russian systems such as the Krasukha-2 and 4, R-330 Zhitel, Moskva-1, Leer-3, and Lorandit  have been employed effectively, helping to down 90% of Ukraine’s drone force.  Along with Soviet-era equipment, Ukraine fields domestically-produced systems like Enclave, Bukovel, and Prometheus-MF5 to counter Russian drones and disrupt Russian communications. Following 9/11, the US Army eliminated EW units from its divisions and brigades, a current shortfall that should be addressed. 

One sobering observation has been the extraordinary and rapid consumption of ammunition and materiel.  Artillery ammunition and precision-guided munitions in particular were used up quickly, depleting Ukrainian and western stocks.  Major end items like tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, howitzers and trucks were lost at high rates due to breakdown or enemy action. Planning for future conflicts must take this into account.  Defense budgets that emphasize hyper-expensive, costly-to-operate and hard-to-maintain systems at the expense of ammunition, replacement systems and spare parts will not serve us well in the next war.  A clear lesson from Ukraine is that “cheap and many” may trump “costly and few.” 

Perhaps the strongest lesson to emerge from the conflict in Ukraine is that human factors remain supreme in war.  Ukrainian soldiers are tough, resilient, motivated and courageous – in Cromwell’s famous phrase, they “know what they fight for and love what they know.”  Tactically proficient and innovative, they are well-led by a newly empowered NCO corps and commanded by competent and experienced company and field grade officers.  Despite the absence of division staffs, Ukrainian generalship has been noteworthy, as shown by the stunning success of the Kharkiv counter-offensive in the summer of 2022 and the re-taking of Kherson in November 2022. Facing an existential threat, and despite heavy losses, the men and women of the Ukrainian armed forces have risen to the challenge, imposing their will on the enemy and crushing the morale of the Russian soldier.  With western help, victory is now in sight.

The war in Ukraine has been a tragedy for all concerned, but it is also providing a laboratory to study future war.  Its lessons have been hard earned by the Ukrainian armed forces and the Ukrainian people. By taking them to heart, we can better prepare for – and deter – the next war.