RUSSIA-UKRAINE WAR : IMMEDIATE LESSONS LEARNT
In terms of its sheer High Intensity, duration and scale, the Russia-Ukraine war resembles some of the major battles of the First World War and more notably, of the closing phases of the Second World War. Some of the most cutting edge weapons of our modern era have been put to the most unforgiving test of combat. The Sheer scale of casualties in terms of personnel and even more, in equipment, have been colossal and unprecedented in recent times. Like in The two World Wars, artillery has again played a very dominant role. War fighting is back to the era of Carl von Clausewitz- a brutal test of wills between evenly matched opponents that is a clear test of endurance and national stamina. As Col David Johnson of the Rand Corporation has said ,”Ukraine has shown not just a capability to continue to resist but an astonishing ability to persist”. We are now clearly , “into an era of grinding wars of attrition, with high number of casualties on both sides (and where) neither combatant appears ready to throw in the towel, (despite brutal punishment). The world is witnessing the sheer costs Russia is willing to endure to accomplish its objectives.”
The New Relevance of High- Tech and Mass. In the dynamic between offense and defense, between Tank and Anti-tank weapons, between Aircraft and Air Defense (AD) systems, we have seen a new equilibrium that clearly favours defense over the offense. Cheap defensive systems like Anti-tank and Anti -Aircraft missiles and loitering munitions have been able to inflict significant levels of attrition on the attacker. Tanks ,the primary instruments of offense, have taken particularly heavy casualties and the sheer lethality of Surface to Air Missiles( S-300, S-400/500) have forced Air Forces to stay away from battle areas and restrict sortie generation rates (to just 250- 300 a day. These were over 1500 a day in Gulf War I).This is a new era of not just High- tech but high- tech and mass. Any Armed forces that fail to cater for this new order of lethality and the consequent need for Mass, will be making a fatal Mistake. Discarding Mass as a principle of war could prove to be fatal. Given the scale of casualties, we will have to focus hard on Force–preservation, re-constitution of badly battered units and quick replacement of casualties in all future wars.
Col Jhonsonwrites ,”What we are witnessing is a pivotal moment in Military History, the re- ascendence of Defense as the decisive form of war. In recent history , we had seen it majorly in the First World War where most offensives had ended in fearsome carnages. Somme , Verdun or Flanders had become bywords for slaughter. We saw the same dynamic re- assert itself again by the end of World War Two and swing to the other side of the pendulum. The power of the offensive had been restored at the start of that war by the brilliant German doctrine of Blitzkrieg, which had created a lethal combination of Tanks and Stuka dive bombers to restore mobility on the battlefield. The problem we overlook is, that by the end of World War Two, Defensive fire power had caught up once again, defeated the German Blitzkrieg and made attrition supreme on the battlefield once more. Stalin had said –“ artillery is the God of War” and he was right. In Ukraine we have simply re- learnt the lessons of World Wars One & Two. In the second half of the 20th century we had seen a re- equilibrium between Offense and defense emerge again in the very hard fought Yom- Kippur Arab- Israeli War of 1973and once more in the Israeli invasion of Lebenon. Both had seen very high levels of attrition and casualties ending in stalemates.”
Unprecedented Battle Field Transparency. What has favoured the defender and made the task of the attacker even more difficult is the near total level of battle field transparency in Ukraine. The US satellites, UAVs , AWACs, JSTARS etc can pick up virtually every single tank, truck and even soldiers that move on the battlefield. Surprise in the attack has thus become virtually impossible to achieve. Concentrations can be picked up immediately and even intentions can be discerned through Electronic Surveillance of enemy communications. What has made Russia’s task even more difficult is the proxy nature of the war. Had it been a direct clash between US and Russia , the latter could have shot own US spy satellites ,AWACs and even drones loitering in Poland or Rumania. These are now totally safe from any Russian counter- action. In a direct clash the attacker can take prophylactic action to shoot holes in the sky over the projected area of the offensive by downing Enemy satellites with ASAT missiles and AWACs with his S- 400/500 SAMs or even stealth aircraft. The Proxy nature of this war has kept the Surveillance assets of US and NATO totally unmolested and free to snoop on Russia. The levels of battlefield transparency thus available to Ukaraine have simply been unprecedented in the annals of warfare.
Return of the Stalemate. The new equivalence or equilibrium between defensive and offensive systems has led to brutal stalemates on the battlefields of Ukraine and unprecedented levels of attrition that are reminiscent of the First World War and its sheer carnage. Once again- as in the two World Wars, Medium and Heavy artillery has proved to be a decisive, war- winning factor. An Austrian Army ORSA (Operational Research Statistical Analysis) study of the last seven years of combat in the Donbas region, has clearly highlighted that 45% of the Tank kills, 65 % of Artillery guns and 57 % of the vehicles destroyed were by Medium artillery – especially of the 152/155 mm calibre.
Despite all the media hype, the total number of Tanks destroyed by ATGMs (Anti Tank Guided Missiles) Javelins, Tows, etc were just 13%. A major media hype was created that Javelins, Stingers (and later the HIMARS) were singular war winning factors- the US silver bullets that by themselves would win the war- single-handedly. There are no silver bullets in war. We were told that a lethal combination of cheap ATGMS and Drones had decimated the Tanks and consigned them to the dustbins of history. The tank was now a dinosaur – no longer relevant on the modern Battlefield. As Sir Basil Liddle Hart had noted earlier, the tank has been pronounced dead so many times in recent military history. Each time it reasserts its relevance. It is still the only viable instrument of shock and offensive action. So even though Defense has regained primacy over offense in overall terms, the tank remains the sole instrument of offense on the land battlefields. Like at the end of World War II, tanks may have to be used in mass to overcome lethal defenses. Massive Artillery barrages have to pave the way for tanks as we saw in the Donbas.We may need more Tanks not less. The world is witnessing the sheer costs Russia is willing to endure to accomplish its objectives. Top attack is a new vulnerability for Tanks but it is certainly something that can and will be countered by simple expedients like canopies and more sophisticated Active Protection System (APS). Besides, despite all this media hype – actual casualties inflicted by the ATGMS on tanks have just been 13%. The real tank killer was Medium Artillery. (45% tank kills). As such earlier lessons of the Second World War have simply been revalidated today.
Drones The Armenia – Azerbaijan conflict had served to hype up the potential of Drones (UAVS) as a critical war warning factor- the new Turkish and American silver bullet for winning all wars. The celebrations were premature. Yugoslavia had earlier clearly indicated that the survivability of drones was a major question mark in a high density Air Defense (AD) environment. Drones are very useful for gaininging tactical and contact intelligence and precise, sneak attacks on enemy weapon systems, but to say that they are cheap new systems that can bring about a Paradigm Shift in the very nature of war, is highly premature and unsubstantiated. In the lethal and dense AD environment over Ukraine, Drones have found it very difficult to survive. In fact the Russians claim to have shut down some 1830 Drones is this war so far.
Wrong Lessons from Low Intensity Conflicts
In fact the world has learnt some patently incorrect lessons from the era of Low Intensity Conflicts(LIC). The levels of asymmetry between the opponents was inordinately high in Afghanistan, Lybia, Lebenon and also in Iraq and even Yugoslavia and Syria. Due to the sheer Asymmetry, patently wrong lessons were learnt which cannot withstand the shock of High intensity Conflict between evenly matched opponents. No lessons from Afghanistan or Lybia can be applied to any Western conflict with peer group competitors like China or Russia. Given the accuracy of Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs), the levels of lethality have gone up by several orders of magnitude. If we want to look for recent precedents the Arab- Isreali Wars may be far more relevant, especially the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 that proved to be a costly stalemate. Then again defense had caught up with offense. Another useful precedent to study is the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965 and China- Vietnam War of 1979. In all these wars equipment profiles were quite evenly matched on both sides. What the Russia-Ukraine war clearly highlights is the need to graduate quickly beyond the era of Low Intensity Conflicts entailing inordinately high levels of asymmetry between the two sides. The world is rapidly entering into the era of Long Duration High Intensity Conflicts between evenly matched opponents where the levels of attrition will be inordinately high.
Nuclear Backdrop. All such future Conventional wars will be fought against a nuclear backdrop. So far the nuclear threat had served to constrain the levels of combat below the nuclear threshold. However, we are increasingly seeing nuclear Red lines being completely ignored on the modern conventional battlefield. So far the USA and NATO have refrained from direct combat with Russia and China. Ukraine is an unfortunate Proxy that has been bled white. The Americans have certainly fought Russia to the last Ukrainian in the current conflict.. Either by deliberate design or by sheer accident, the world is careening towards a dangerous Armageddon, a Third World War that may see limited or full scale use of Nuclear, Chemical and Biological weapons. Restraints are fast eroding at a rate that spells serious danger for mankind’s survival as a species.
An Economic War Coup de Grace ? In hind sight, it is quite apparent that the US and NATO (by the uncalled for eastward expansion of NATO) had deliberately pushed and provoked Russia into the Ukraine war. The desire to humiliate Russia was inexplicable and uncalled for. Russia had most clearly defined Georgia and Ukraine as its Red lines. These were callously ignored.
Economic War. So what then was the American design in provoking Putin by almost poking him in the eye? With some reflection (and purely in hindsight) it appears that a grand design of waging Unrestricted Economic war against Russia had already been prepared in the US. The Aim was perhaps to repeat 1991- when unrelenting Economic war had caused the Soviet Union to collapse in a cataclysmic manner. That however had been the result of a carefully- calibrated, long term, Economic war strategy to bring a Nuclear Power to its knees. It had been triggered by the American induced oil Glut of 1986 in which US had pursuaded its surrogate Saudi Arabia to flood the world with cheap oil. In that year (1986) itself, petrol prices had plummeted from 30$ a barrel to just around 10 $ a barrel. This unprecedented fall in oil prices had torpedoed and seriously wounded the Soviet Economy. It went into a negative tailspin from which it never really recovered. In 1991 the mighty colossus of the USSR simply vanished without a shot being fired. Its thousands upon thousands of nuclear weapons were absolutely of no avail as the economically fatally wounded Soviet Union was flushed down the tube of history. The USSR splintered into 15 states and simply ceased to exist.
Was that the design that Joe Biden was trying to replicate? If so the Second Economic War against Russia seems to have floundered rather badly till now. The outcome of this economic war will be far more consequential than the shooting war in Ukraine. At first the Russian Rouble had fallen rather steeply from 80 Roubles to a Dollar to over 160 Roubles to a Dollar. Russia however took strong and energetic counter measures. They asked for all payments of oil and gas to be made in Roubles. Europe was hopelessly dependent upon Russian Gas and Oil. Creating alternative infrastructure would take minimum four to five years. Despite all brave talk of sanctions, Europe had no option but to keep buying Russian oil and gas on the sly. The cost of the war in Ukraine has been estimated at a billion dollars a day. It is noteworthy that Europe by itself has paid a billion Dollars a day to Russia for its oil and Gas and this has financed the Ukraine war for Russia. The Rouble is back to 80 Roubles to a dollar and is one of the best performing currency against the dollar today. Russia’s balance of trade has never been better. Phil Rosen writes that soaring oil and gas prices helped Russia to triple its current account surplus to 96 Billion $ – its largest is the last 28 years.
Economic War and Europe. The Boomerang? Europe however has been hit the hardest. Structurally its energy linkages with Russia were far too deep and comprehensive to be severed in such a hurry. The sudden removal of 3 million barrels a day of Russian oil has caused energy prices to skyrocket. From 70 $ a barrel they shot up to 125 $ barrel. Russia and Ukraine are also the biggest exporters of Food grans & Sun Flower oil. Energy inflation has now combined with food inflation to give a body blow to the global economy that was still reeling from the disastrous impact of the Covid Pandemic. Today the world is staring at a dangerous Recession and Stagflation. The European Economy has been hit the hardest. Germany and France will suffer the most due to US inspired sanctions on Russia. They face a very bleak winter ahead. The economic scenario in US itself is dismal. Stock markets have crashed. Inflation is at a 40 years high. Gas prices are at an unprecedented 5$ a gallon and Recession and Stagflation appear inevitable. In hindsight the Economic war offensive against Russia has clearly boomeranged. What has clearly been destroyed beyond repair is the trust that was the basis of globalisation. America’s weaponsation of its banking system and economic institutions has destroyed this trust. Russia had a forex reserved 630 Bn. Of this $ 300 billion $ was invested in US and European Banks. America simply seized this money .Will Russia, China or India or other major economies ever put their money and trust in US Banks Again?
Impact on India
This military conflict is of overwhelming relevance to India. That is simply because over 70 % of our cutting edge military equipment is still of Russian origin. Though the military lessons of this war are of overwhelming importance to armed forces all over the world (simply because they mark a turning point in Global military history where the power of defense has once again gained ascendance and dominance over the offense), they are of very particular relevance to India. The Americans have tried to ridicule the performance of the Russian Army in Ukraine. It was not incompetence but a shift in the power of the Defense over offense that has resulted in the stalemate. Had the US or NATO armies been attacking, they would have found the going as tough if not tougher. This campaign is therefore being closely studied in all armed forces. There is a visible shift in American military literature from an emphasis on expeditionary offensives to a far more prudent reliance on defense in the new context. This Campaign marks a significant milestone in the Evolution of modern War. However for India in particular, this campaign has very particular lessons and relevance. Let me summarise some primary lesson in theindian contexts: –
Military Demographic. Demographics is the key to the outcome of any prolonged conflict. Russia has no shortage of equipment. It has a dire shortage of manpower and it is showing badly. Russia has fielded an Army of 1,50,000 against Ukraine, which has fielded some 2,50,000( now almost 7,50,000 by some estimates) due to complete mobilization. The Russian constraints are painful and showing. It has had to recycle and use the same forces again and again.Due to reverses in Kharkiev Putin has finally been forced to order partial mobilisation.had he done this at the outset the war would have been long over. This has painful and obvious lessons for India. India has no dearth of manpower but it is cutting down its manpower and switching from a regular full colour Service Army to short terms inductees (Agniveers). Russian short term inductees ( conscripts) have performed very poorly in the Ukraine war. We need to draw immediate lessons from this war and take a fresh look at the Agniveer scheme. Future wars will not just be high- tech but high- tech and mass. Seeing the grim realities of the modern battlefield we simply cannot afford to downsize.
The Tank is Dead All notions that the Tank has been turned into a Dinosour by Drones, Javilians and Tows is highly misplaced and premature. Tanks will continue to be the prime platform for offensive action for decades to come.
Medium Artillery .Artillery of the Heavy and Medium calibres has proved to be a decisive and war winning factor in the new wars of intense attrition. It was so in World War II, in the Arab- Israeli war in 1973 and in the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965. Artillery has inflicted 45% of the Tank kills in Ukraine. Before the Kargil war India had planned to standardize its Artillery around the 155 mm caliber.TheBofors scandal badly derailed- this plan. We now need to accelerate the Mediumistaion of the Artillery with rapid induction of at least 1800 ATAGs (Advanced Towed Artillery Gun Systems) of indigenous manufacture at the earliest.
Air Power Despite near total Air Superiority, the Russian use of Air power was curiously restrained. Perhaps this has been due to the vastly enhanced lethality of the AD systems (The S-300 and Buk SAMS and the shoulder fired Stingers) Russian sortie generation rate at its peak was confined to 250-300 per day. In Gulf War I the USAF was mounting 1500 sorties per day but against a much weaker and outdated Airdefense system of Iraq. India needs a 45 Squadon Air Force to deal with the dual threat from China and Pakistan. Today we are down to just 30. This is an alarming situation. We must accelerate our induction of fighters like Tejas and at least a 115 more in the Rafale class. Pending this, 155 mm gun induction must be accelerated to make up for short falls in fire power.
Drones .Survivability of Drones is a question mark in a high density AD environment. That was so in Yugoslavia and the Russians again demonstrated the ability to deal with Drones in Syria. The Russians claim to have shot down well over 2000 Drones in Ukraine. We will need Drones for surveillance & target acquisition and tactical engagement but they cannot be treated as war winning factors by themselves.
Refrofitting Russian Tanks .60% of India’s Tank fleet are the Russian T-72 tanks. The war has shown ergonomic design flaws wherein ammunition is stored in the turret which tend to blow up. We will have to retrofit these tanks.
Objectivity and ORSA .It is vital that this seminal conflict in Ukraine be studied dispassionately and objectively. There has been an unprecedented barrage of disinformation and propaganda. A military analyst must sift fact from fiction and discern the truth from Post-Truth. As a military analyst I have avoided value Judgements and morality plays of who was right and who was wrong. Only an objective (preferably ORSA based) analysis will help in separating fact from fiction and draw up accurate lessons learnt. Over 3000 Tactical Ballastic Missiles (to include Kinzhal Hypersonic missiles, Iskandars TBMs (Tactical Ballistic Missiles) and Cruise missiles( likeYakhont, Klub and Kalibir) were fired. We need to analyse their accuracy and impact on various types of targets. This is vital.
Another impact of overwhelming import is the Nuclear backdrop. We find then aspect being recklessly ignored in the hope of snatching some limited advantage on the conventional Battle field. The nuclear threshold has proved to be rather elastic and flexible in the Ukraine war. Despite repeated Russian – threats and nuclear sabre rattling, not a single nuke has been used so far. In fact no nuke has even been moved into firing position. What does that tell us about an India-Pakistan or an India-China war? These are points to ponder. Are nuclear weapons becoming an unusable resource? Or one we heading for an accidental or deliberate nuclear escalation that could prove to be catastrophic?
By Maj Gen (Dr) G D Bakshi
(Excerpted from Authors forthcoming book Russia- Ukraine war)