At the end of last month the UK’s prestigious military think tank, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), published a report titled “Preliminary Lessons in Conventional Warfighting from Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: February-July 2022”.
The report runs to an impressive sixty-six pages or so and is an important piece of work. However, it is a shade on the long side for the casual reader so I thought a précis of its main findings might be more manageable and interesting to non-experts than ploughing through the whole tome would be.
Some of the lessons are obvious ones that we have covered before, but other nuances and aspects have emerged. In rough chronological order, here are some of the major lessons from that period of the current conflict.
Operational security is vital for the success of any military endeavour. You don’t want to let your enemies what you’re planning or where you’re going to attack. Deception is also an important part of keeping your opponents guessing, and the Russians have been expert at this in the past.
RUSI judges that the Russian deception planning was largely successful and allowed them to gain the favourable force ratio advantage required for their initial thrust on Kyiv. However, it appears that it was too successful, for the very operational security that provided surprise also surprised their own troops, many of them had no idea what was going on. It’s hard to react to developments when you don’t know what the plan is in the first place!
Perhaps not surprisingly there is also comment on the perceived incompetence of Russian troop s at the tactical level. We have all seen the media coverage of this, and the report reinforces it. When serving in Germany during the Cold War, I and my comrades-in-arms often wondered how long we might last if the (then) Soviets attacked across the Inner German Border. In all honesty we thought we might last twenty-four hours before being brushed aside. Now we all think we were overly pessimistic.
One of the biggest sins in war is to underestimate your enemy, but overestimating him isn’t really a good idea either! The Gulf War in 1991 is a prime example of the letter.
That said, RUSI is of the opinion that Russian weapons systems and equipment proved to be “largely effective”, and that those troops were lucky enough to have the proper level of training and experience to retain their military potential, which they were mainly unable to bring to bear because of the flaws in the initial Russian planning.
The report then goes on to identify five areas in which the Russian armed forces would need to rectify systemic faults if they were to operate more efficiently. These include departing from the current rigid, top-down only methodology of command and a need to improve on junior leadership, amongst others. That a disproportionate number of senior officers have been killed or wounded bears witness to this.
Finally, and most importantly for us, the document identifies the major lessons to which NATO and the west should pay heed. The first is that there is no sanctuary in modern warfare. Armed forces can strike far and wide, and deep into the enemy’s rear areas, so survival depends on the dispersal of assets – men, equipment, and materiel.
The Ukrainians managed to avoid much of the initial impact of the Russian early strikes by dispersing their forces, and conversely the Russians suffered by their less well developed logistics system which depends on railheads and supply dumps, leaving them vulnerable to precision missile and artillery strikes.
The west needs to follow the Ukrainian example here, and yet it militates against one of the fundamental principles of war, which is concentration of force at the main point of effort. Such future concentration may have to become ever more fleeting otherwise they invite destruction, and military doctrine may have to be rewritten accordingly.
Finally, for this article at least, we note once again how the demands of modern, conventional warfare on weapons and ammunition have proved to far exceed what peacetime planners imagined. Artillery remains the biggest killer on the battlefield but consumption of shells has been enormous, and so industrial capacity to produce them in bulk needs to be established and ramped up quickly. This is already in hand in the USA, but can the same be said for the UK?
Enough for now. The RUSI report deals with all of this and more in great detail, and I commend it to you. But we in the west fail to act on the preliminary lessons written clearly therein at our peril.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a Defence Analyst and a former Army officer, author & broadcaster – sign up to his podcast at defencereview.uk
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