In the first significant action of 2023, carried out on New Year’s Day, Ukrainian forces attacked Russian troops in the occupied region of Donetsk using the HIMARS rocket system supplied by the west. The strike hit a building in the city of Makiivka where Russian soldiers were housed with four to six missiles, causing carnage.
How many casualties resulted? Ukrainian and Russian numbers are at variance here, with the former claiming some 400 dead whilst the Russians have admitted to a more modest eighty-nine. As ever the truth probably lies somewhere in between, but the fact that Moscow has acknowledged the damage done is significant. The casualties are clearly too high to be hidden behind the usual Kremlin propaganda.
A recurring theme is this conflict seems to be that the Russians are not adept at concealing their concentrations of personnel and materiel from prying eyes. The reasons for this may include the fact that their issued communications equipment is poor or not up to the job and they have been relying on commercial systems and personal mobile phones, plus their way of waging war in other aspects is militating against them.
The Russian lack of junior officers and experienced NCOs, compared to western armies at least, means that senior officers are often drawn further forward towards the front line that they would normally be found when things go wrong. And things have clearly been going wrong throughout the Russian invasion.
Senior officers in all armies – and the British are no exception here – are notoriously lax when it comes to communications security and often regard it as a tiresome hindrance and nuisance when trying to give orders and impose their will on their subordinates. By using non-encrypted and open systems they have, in many cases before, revealed their positions and brought Ukrainian artillery fire down upon themselves with predictably fatal results.
Next, Russian logistics are not as sophisticated as their western equivalents by and large, and they still rely on railway networks for much of their supply lines. Nor are their systems optimised for mechanical handling like NATO’s tend to be. Much of their materiel supply depends on human labour and man-handling. Consequently, to ease the burden somewhat, dumps of ammunition and fuel are often established close to railway lines, and often well within range of Ukrainian artillery and HIMARS.
Russian occupied territory also contains, surprise, surprise, elements of the population loyal to Ukraine, and these observers and informers are not slow to pass information on Russian military concentrations to the home side. On top of this HUMINT, it’s clear that Ukraine has had the benefit of NATO and the west’s overflying surveillance and target acquisition systems since the very beginning of the war. Ukrainian success at striking Russian bases and supply dumps should therefore come as no surprise.
Because of the plethora of surveillance systems now available, some commentators have increasingly been talking about the “transparent battlefield”, where there is nowhere to hide any more. This is nonsense, but there’s no doubt that the priorities have shifted. Much more care and attention has to be given to dispersal and camouflage on military assets if they are to survive.
And yet the truth is, and always has been, that troops who are either badly trained or who suffer from poor leadership and morale tend to pay less attention to these if they can get away with it. Camouflaging a tank properly, for example, is an unwelcome and difficult task at night, in the wet and cold and after a long day in the field. It’s easier not to bother. I know because I have been there.
All armies have to adapt, and both Russia and Ukraine will have to change their practices and behaviours. Neither side has managed to achieve air superiority, and denying airspace to the enemy has always been an important part of the process, hence the current focus on anti-aircraft and anti-drone systems. If the enemy doesn’t know where you are then they can’t target you.
And then there is the overarching importance of communications security. It’s quite clear from the Ukrainian war that troops who use their mobile phones can be easily geolocated and targeted, plus those who choose to use non-encrypted radio means can be intercepted. The lesson seems to be straightforward; personnel cannot be allowed to carry their mobile devices into combat zones. If they do so they not only endanger themselves but also their comrades. The Russians themselves have blamed the unauthorised use of personal mobile phones for the disaster at Makiivka.
The need for communications security is yet another lesson from the Ukraine war that NATO and the west have to re-learn. It’s not so long ago that NATO forces in Kosovo also resorted to mobile phones when comms proved difficult. The temptation is always there to take the easy option.
Operational security is critical to success in war. Let’s not forget it.
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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