Learning to Win Wars, Not Just Battles!
Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma (Retd.), Distinguished Fellow, VIF

The Russo-Ukraine War 2022 has clearly indicated that warfare is changing at dramatic rate and scope and historical similarities might not provide any guidance to the future ones. Our experience of past wars would be divorced from realities of 21st Century and make us infer lessons that may be way off the mark! Lessons of Russo-Ukrainian war will continue to be evaluated for long time and will certainly lead to rethinking by many nations and militaries. India has structural fault-lines with two adversarial neighbours and contested borders. In the light of ongoing Russo–Ukraine war, there is a need to contemplate the transformation that modern warfare is undergoing. Seven such propositions are examined to draw lessons relevant to the Indian context.

First, war is a constant teacher, albeit a costly gambit and greatly destructive and brutal endeavour. Questions had previously been raised about utility of large conventional forces involved in long-drawn attrition warfare in hostile battlefield conditions, to gain territory or to break will of the adversary to fight. Ukraine forces prepared for irregular warfare in the cities like suburbs of Kyiv and conventional trench warfare in Donbas like along Siverskyi-Donets River. The course of war could not be pre-determined, even with the in-depth knowledge that Russian political and military hierarchy had of Ukrainian military and irregular forces. However, the force and focus of initial offensive onslaught, towards key objective can be effective. The Russian Southern Military District’s 58th Combined Arms Army (CAA) from 24 Feb 2022, was focussed towards Kherson and Antonovskiy Bridge across Dnieper River, and to link with Donbas. As in the current war, mass concentration of own and adversaries forces as training exercises that culminate in war, will be clearly discernable by commercial and military technologies. There will be limited advantage of surprise or even deception at scale, even of broad timings and to an extent, intentions. The defender in such a campaign will be singularly advantaged. The ongoing war has put paid to many such posers, though it does not foretell that wars cannot be swift, short, lethal and intense. Fact is the adversary has a vote too in war; will not fight like us and would have planned counter strategy.

Second, use of Force is a cultural phenomenon, and the politico-military dynamic is most important in constructive and effective formulation of strategy. In the Russo-Ukraine War 2022, there are apparently political constraints in use of combat force. Doctrinally, Russian armed forces have emphasised on mass fire offensive strategies, leveraging improved ISR capabilities, wide array of fires platforms, and using speed, surprise and integrated combined arms manoeuvre forces to disrupt and overwhelm enemy forces. Cases in point are Battles of Grozny in the Nineties and Aleppo, Syria in the end of 2016.

There were apparently strong political diktats on use of discriminate fire power, measured response and precision fires, to avoid damage to cities, national infrastructure and peoples. This is also why bridges on River Dnieper, the extensive rail/ road infrastructure, and cities were not targeted indiscriminately, though collateral damage was evident. By the end of three months, there have been obvious changes in Russian strategy as is evident in the destruction wrought in Mariupol. It is obvious the Russian forces did not fight a methodical campaign of shaping the battlespace, creating breakthroughs and exploiting by successive echelons and reserves. The point here is that political hierarchy, the Government, retains the over-riding right to dictate how combat power will be applied. In the case of India this stands true in the form of political constraints in 1948, 1962 (use of Air Force), 1971 (capture of Dacca), 1999 (crossing of LOC), 2001-2002 (coercive use of military power) or 2008 (Mumbai terror attacks). The issue that needs emphasising is that our military must train and exercise, and create the force design that facilitates a wide array of options – ones that have concordance of the Government in peacetime. Shortly before commencement of war, any dramatically modified military strategy, without use of preponderant firepower, will bring situation to what the Russian military faced at Kyiv and its suburbs. War is not predetermined, not linear, mistakes will happen, conditions will change and innovations demanded. To sum it, we need to make political and military strategic choices, based on outcomes, in peacetime.

Third, terrain plays tremendous role in territorial wars. Urban warfare is an absolutely different kettle of fish! Recent examples of urban warfare, Grozny (31 Dec 1994 to 08 Feb 1995 and 25 Dec 1999 to 06 Feb 2000) and Fallujah (04 Apr 2004 to 01 May 2004, 07 Nov 2004 to 23 Dec 2004 and 22 May 2016 to 29 Jun 2016) among others, saw great devastation. A significant case is of Mosul from 16 Oct 2016 to 04 Jan 2017, when US-backed Iraqi security forces conducted full-scale city attack to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State. The operation was the largest conventional land battle since the attack on Baghdad during the US-led invasion in 2003 and one of the most destructive urban fights in modern history – a force of over one hundred thousand attacking somewhere between five and twelve thousand irregulars. This nine-month battle is said to have killed over ten thousand civilians, caused an estimated two billion dollars in damage to the city, created ten million tons of debris, and displaced over 1.8 million of the city’s residents.

Urban warfare is high-cost, high-risk operation, and can have little regard for any humanitarian laws of war, morality or concerns about collateral damage. Ukraine is a modern urban state, with very large cities. Kyiv is a huge metropolis with large suburbs. The four to five CAAs applied against even Kyiv’s suburbs were grossly insufficient combat force. Use of preponderant firepower, as doctrine of the Russian forces, was absent, as would have cause massive civilian casualties and destruction. Later, steel and concrete debris of destroyed buildings would themselves become grave obstacles. Even much better employment of combined arms units and formations; urban warfare will remain long drawn and difficult. Mariupol, a key objective for the Russians, has to finally face such devastation. This brings to fore the immense urbanisation (in addition to the water-obstacle ridden terrain) in plains of Pakistan and India. We ought to draw right lessons from the modern day urban wars in contemplating military strategies in urbanised environment.

Fourth, many thinkers have opined about the demise of a tank, or otherwise. It is necessary to observe the battlespace intently. There is indeed no replacement to boots on the ground or tank as a platform. However, modern technology, and irregular warfare practised by the Ukrainian defenders clearly indicate limitations of mechanised warfare, especially in urban environment. The survivability of tank has come in question. Much has been written about Javelins, New generation anti tank weapons (NLAW) and Stinger missiles. 84mm Rocket Launcher (RL) has serious limitations against 1000mm effective rolled homogeneous armour (RHA). NLAW is six times more expensive that 84mm RL and Javelin is ten times of NLAW. However the NLAW and Javelin can be utilised from closed urbanised environment, and be effective against many times expensive tank. To add to this there are the PGMs, drones and loiter ammunitions, which are increasingly with Artificial Intelligence and autonomy.

There has been conservative use of tactical air force, aircraft have been avoiding low level operations, and in future would require advanced defensive aids to survive. Attack helicopters may have limited use in contested airspace, as suppression of hand-held missiles like Stingers and Javelins in cities is difficult. Long range precise artillery has been and would play decisive role, though collateral considerations may demand more precision ammunition. ISR is the key, as, for example, real-time data to Ukraine provided the opportunity to effectively use Neptune missiles against Russian ship Moscova. About 125 ballistic and cruise missiles were launched against pre-selected targets in the first 24 hours of war, against radar positions, electronic warfare systems, S-300 sites, runways, airports, air assets and bases. Over 1200 ballistic and cruise missiles were fired in first 30 days of the war. It calls attention to PLA’s system confrontation and system destruction strategy that has distinctly similar focus.

The large Russian tank and ICV destruction must not be pushed under, by ascribing to poor vintage tactics or ill-planned combined arms support. The tank will have to take another avtar, sort out its ‘cook off’ of ammunition issue, get some directed energy weapons, different metallurgy and protection; improve its survivability, all without gaining weight. Use of mechanised forces through urban contested environment or even narrow gullies of Eastern Ladakh clearly need re-analysis. Contextually, light tanks too will have serious survivability issues.

Fifth is the distinctive emphasis in the ongoing morality issues, rules of warfare and human rights of civilians used as human shields, humanitarian corridors for evacuation of civilians from the thick of battle zones and war crimes investigations, many of which are motivated. These are more apparent in this war in Europe, were not so in other conflicts such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. May be the future has largely precision and principled use of combat power in store, and civilian casualties will become focus of international attention.

Sixth, is of logistics planning. Much has been stated about poor logistical planning by the Russian advancing columns, terrain conditions for move, limited road space management and focussed targeting of logistical convoys and trucks by irregulars. The Russians follow the model of push system logistics, as against the West’s pull model, when it comes to managing inventory for distribution to combat forces. Russian (and Indian) push network operates from forecasted data and delivers supplies based on estimated and pre-determined requirements based on historical evaluations. Demand for combat-enabling supplies such as rations, fuel, ammunition, and repair parts are difficult to forecast because of the nature and unpredictability of conflict and consumptions/usage. The actual demand for items for the forward combat echelons is never truly known, only projected. The practice of holding reserve is common to offset possible shortages.

Pull system is preferable when it comes to following lean principles. It relies on demand-driven data; requirements are made, and exact quantities are delivered. As a result, pull networks can be seen as more dependable. Pull systems can be criticised for being slower because of the time required to consolidate dynamic requirements and deliver supplies to the requesting forces. We need to learn from large operations that have happened in this century and contemplate revising to pull model logistics and avoid creating cumbersome logistics echelons. This will require logistics automation upwards from forward logistics staff and dedicated communication. This must be exercised in peacetime too.

Sixth is the issue that have been constantly debated, information warfare (IW). It is understandable that virality triumphs veracity, and negativism is viral in no time. Creation of narratives is a process that mandates specialisation and specialists, otherwise social media will become hand maiden of inimical elements and adversaries. Indian audio-visual media also tends to get over-emotional! This is also an era of Tik-Tok warfare. We need to get on with creating the strategy, the synergy, structures and specialists for future IW.

Last and seventhly is the human resource that in enmeshed in all domains. Russian special military operations were so named (and not called war) to avoid mass mobilisation and call in of reservists. The Russian battalion tactical groups hence remained sub-strength, with non-availability of reservists, and conscripts having been pulled out – could not be used in combat as per law. The success of Ukraine in urban areas also rested upon the trained reservists who joined the Territorial Brigades and undertook the task of irregulars. Human Resource is critical to warfare, very difficult to train and retrain. This is a decisive element of analysis for the armed forces in India, presently on the cusp of immense changes.

In sum, predicting future scenarios is a majorly onerous task. What caused the conflicts of yesterday is unlikely to be useful to anticipate those of tomorrow, as historically armed conflicts are too complex to allow prediction. The greatest challenge of our times is to be able to make correct and timely assessments of the changes taking place and the nature and extent of challenges and opportunities they present, and to learn and learn from ongoing wars. The easiest way out for the militaries is to remain in status quo, the power of inertia is just too strong! It is critical to obtain firm analytical foundation – the why of prospective war, understand the likely political objective or aim, politico-military strategy, the technological changes that have over-riding implications on warfare, and create dynamic sectoral profiling on use of combat force. This transformation to modern warfare requires careful holistic analysis, as exhorted by PM Narender Modi at Kevadia in March 2021, on creation of a future force, and shedding legacy philosophies.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


Image Source: https://www.wefornews.com/lessons-for-india-from-the-russia-ukraine-crisis/

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