Ongoing Russia-Ukraine War 2022-2024: Battleground of Adaptations and Innovations
Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma (Retd.), Distinguished Fellow, VIF

The war that commenced on 24 February 2022 between Ukraine and Russia, has limited parallels with the ongoing war! The sheer dynamism in adaptation, by initiative, ingenuity and vitality of the battleground and industrial interface, is a lesson by itself. Sir Michael Howard has written in an essay titled “the Uses and Abuses of Military History” in 1983 that military organisations invariably get the next war wrong. In Ukraine-Russian War too, the political-military hierarchies and think-tanks on both sides, as also globally, got the war wrong on many a count! What is most significant is that in two years except for the two belligerents remaining same, the war has transformed itself, constantly adapting to newer realities, invented fresher doctrines, innovations, weaponry and its usage! The Ukraine war has shattered the status quo of warfare in many ways. China is studying, contemplating and analysing this war in all manifestations!

This paper examines the richness of certain military adaptations in the Russia-Ukraine War, that argue that constant adaptability is essential to success in warfare. In the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, three significant adaptations need deliberations. First, is the political adaptation at the initial stages of war by Russia. At its core, war has been all about power—who had it, who can effectively use it, and who can adapt its use during the conduct.

Much to the chagrin of many political and military pundits, unexpectedly Russia’s military advantages did not facilitate accomplishment of its initial objectives, in early time. The likely assumptions on which the politico-military strategy relied upon, was that the Ukraine Government was weak and corrupt, and under pressure would capitulate. Again, Europe had little appetite for a war, dependent as it was on Russian oil and gas. Ukrainian military was weak and would melt away as they did in 2014, once Kyiv came under pressure. There was an overconfidence on Russian military machine. It is apparent that all these assumptions were flawed.

It is unimaginable to consider that Russian Federation and Military commenced the special military operation on 24 Feb 2022, without well conceptualised end-game and strategy. Doctrinally, Russian armed forces traditionally 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. There were apparent political constraints in use of combat force initially.

What is most creditable for the Russian politico-military establishment is that they swallowed the bitter pill, fathoming that progress along Kyiv-Sumy was a ‘no-go.’ Ukrainian forces showed great imagination and strength, with the West rallying behind it after initial and intermittent hiccups. Russians discovered the hard way that light, nonuniformed infantry with light anti-tank rockets can stop an armoured column in its tracks in the urban terrain.

The initial Russian plans and end-game was soon jettisoned. Russia henceforth adapted and revised the strategy totally taking the loss of face in the stride and took the difficult decision to relocate the forces from Kyiv-Sumy (and later from Kharkiv) towards Donbass-Zaporizhzhia-Kherson-Crimea, thereby seemingly redefining the end-state as Donbas-land bridge to Crimea. For a super power, like Russia, this adaptation of end state while in combat, would have involved pragmatic politico-military synergy. Significantly, it brings to fore that the political-military professional relationship built and existing in peacetime, can only facilitate war-time brave1 resilience and adaptation.

Second, are the battlefield adaptations undertaken by both sides. Russians appeared initially to have given little heed to drones and loitering ammunitions, that were to make traditional arms vulnerable. At the commencement of the war, Bayraktar TB2 drones of Turkish origin did quick work of Russian slow-moving tanks and convoys, and were even involved in the sinking of Moskva. Russia found the vulnerability and sought light weight Iranian Shahid 136 drones which could carry up to 50kg warhead– and commenced production which currently in Russia is stated to be 350 per month. Over 22,000 drones were produced in 2023. As availability of artillery bombardment waned, Shahid 136 took to the skies in Jan-Mar 2023 – with an admixture of 60% artillery and 40% drones. By April-June 2023, this figure had reversed itself, as Shahid 136 brought down cost of precision strikes dramatically. Gradually Shahid 136 also got adapted into a kind of stealth mode with a new black carbon-based paint!

As war continued, smaller and cheaper First Person View (FPV) drones came alive with operators with headsets coordinating for artillery and with loitering ammunition in kamikaze role. The Russians industry achieved the capability to mass produce 3000 FPVs per month. This was apparent in Bakhmut where Russian forces used twice the number of precise drones than Ukraine.

Artillery usage also changed role from the previous expensive saturation method. In comparison to June 2022, by Jan 2023, artillery fire had dropped by 75%. By 2023, UAV and artillery shells had fused operations together to locate and hit targets. The significant advantage that Ukraine had and exhibited with HIMARS in Kharkiv and Kherson in 2022 later half, reduced greatly thereafter with HIMARS becoming a high priority target for Russians using precision drones and artillery fire.

Third, Ukraine’s innovative approach also allowed it to execute newer battlefield technologies and tactics, that caused great upset to the Russian military. By 2023, facing this extraordinary precision threat, Ukraine started producing and deploying life-like dummies, of HIMARS design artillery and tanks, that were literally undistinguishable from original. Indeed, this project was costly as labour, but sophisticated as decoys. The Czech company Inflatech made inflatable decoys with hot air that imitate the appearance of heat signature of the M1 Abrams tank. Four soldiers could unwrap/ inflate a decoy in ten minutes! The Ukrainian company Metinvest, made replicas of the US M777 155mm howitzer using sewer pipes for its gun barrel. Costing under $1000 they were sent to the front as a “flatpack” and then assembled in less than 30 minutes. Other decoys Ukraine has used include radar systems from oil barrels. This duel is subject to imagination, when a dummy decoy costing $1000 to $100,000 could replicate a $10 million Abrams tank or $5 million HIMARS piece and invite an $2million precision missile to destroy it! Hence Russian forces were stated to have destroyed more HIMARS than were supplied by the US to Ukraine! The cost effect ratios of cheap under surface/ aerial drone is also evident in the Red Sea used by the Houthis against ships, being destroyed by $2million missile!

There have many other important innovations like explosive sea drones developed in 2022/2023, which have been able to strike and damage Russian warship and oil tanker in the Black Sea. Also, makeshift cope cages on tanks and self-propelled artillery were not new as an innovation, having been used in 2003 Iraq offensive, yet eventually did succeed in denying top attacks by missiles like Javelin or loitering munition. Moscow well learnt and adapted to reduce efficacy of precision weapons. The Russian military in a graduated manner also developed and deployed a wide variety of newer electronic warfare (EW) systems, that effectively jammed Ukrainian communications at unit level, deprive drones their links and their operators, and degraded the effectiveness of systems as HIMARS. Though EW is a see-saw between belligerents, erstwhile Ukrainian Commander in Chief Valeriy Zaluzhnyi in 2023 commented on EW weaknesses of Ukraine.

Ukraine's military leadership had prioritized projects that included robotic systems, electronic warfare, artificial intelligence tools, cybersecurity, communications, and information security management systems. The extensive involvement of irregulars on both sides, is not new to wars perse, but it highlights the growing hybridisation of modern wars, and complicates warfare as they are able to act autonomously. These forces range in combat effectiveness, from poorly equipped prisoners to professional mercenaries.

Russian Armed Forces, duly cognizant of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the summer of 2023, reconceptualised and adapted strategically from the offensive to tiers of deep linear well-fortified defences. This managed to fend off Ukrainian counter offensive, and literally stalemated the battle-front.

It is imperative to study the Ukrainian technological ecosystem created for the innovation and adaptation in war. Ukraine’s flagship defence technology platform, BRAVE1, was launched in spring 2023 by Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Economy, Ministry of Strategic Industries, the National Security and Defense Council, and the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. By summer of 2023, the BRAVE1 initiative, had registered approximately 400 projects, with almost 200 having undergone military testing. The projects currently under development include drones, robotic systems, electronic warfare, artificial intelligence tools, cybersecurity, communications, and information security management systems.

To be militarily effective in war, it is of utmost necessity for India to recognise that in all domains of warfare – army, navy, air force, space, cyber and electronic warfare, and in all dimensions, physical, informational and cognitive, adaptation will be all important. Militaries will invariably confront problems posed by an imaginative adversary with asymmetrical force and technological advantage, as also of unfathomable strategy. Why adaptation during war proves difficult is that military organisations get committed and stuck in fixated ‘way of war.’ Having under-addressed the issue in peace time, in war there is an inherent tension between disciplined, responsive rank and file with limited initiative against untested alternatives.

All wars post second world war have proven that asymmetrically advantaged adversaries can be halted in their tracks by innovation and adaptation. Large platforms, like tanks, and aircraft and ships are indeed essential, though with the kind of ISR in place, are ponderously difficult to hide. It is asymmetrical warfare brought in by more effective off-beat strategy, tactics and imaginative use of technology that has the power of out-witting the adversary, and if not winning, not being defeated in war! Victory, in current environment, as it is, is difficult to define!

The mind goes back to the war-footing of Covid19 times in India of 2020-2022, when from scratch the Indian industry rose to mass produce masks, PPE kits, ventilators and even vaccines, without encumbered by gargantuan regulations and procedures and financial shackles. This short-circuiting that saved millions of lives, also proves that infinite possibilities do exist within the country, when there is a will and imagination. There is but no reason why Indian industry cannot produce large, small and very small, sub-surface or aerial drones, in scale, in little time. And why EW cannot be state of the art and available at the very front-line to soft-kill drones and even precision artillery and missiles. In fact, the front lines of the battleground, like an infantry platoon or a tank crew or an artillery battery, would need redefinition with tailored retail dissemination of these cutting-edge technologies ON PRIORITY as against large cumbersome platforms, forcibly operating in terrain and climatic conditions! The utterly negative tendency towards Inter/Intra Service battle of the turf, must be supressed!

Wars are messy, chaotic, dynamic and fluid, with the end state remaining uncertain. Indian Army having been in combat literally over many decades, it is apparent that competent soldiers reflexively adapt. Obviously good soldiers would reactively adapt by applying their training and doctrine in saving their own lives: while truly great soldiers would adapt by proactively applying new, untested ways towards victory, and destruction to the adversary. Adaptation and innovations in combat are not easy, to adjust to them even cumbersome, yet they could become the difference between combatting sides, and provide a war-winning advantage.

The ongoing Ukraine-Russia war has proven that the tone and tenor of war has changed dramatically in two years since it began. In the course, Ukraine adapted and innovated from bottom up; the Russians from top down! India MUST commence soonest and do so multi-dimensionally!

(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 >>

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An in-depth analysis of a very complex scenario. There are many lessons to be learned by the Indian military and civilian leaders from the Russo-Ukraine conflict. The main takeaway is to change the way we think and adapt. Any future war would be very different from the way wars were fought in the 1990s and 2000s. Thinking in that direction has to begin today.


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