What the U.S. Military Needs to Learn from the Ukraine War

As the Ukraine War continues with its brutal fighting, it is likely that the new way of war will be fundamentally changed in the 21st Century. New tactics and new equipment could be the beginning of fundamental changes in war-fighting. What are the lessons for Western militaries from this conflict?

The first is the incredible success that the Ukrainian army (armed with Western technology) has against Russia’s armor. It is almost certain that the Ukrainians have destroyed thousands of armored vehicles and tanks. The hand-held anti–armor weapons that NATO countries provide (NLAWS in Britain and Javelins in the U.S.) are largely responsible for this.

This is indicative of an overall tactical approach taken by Ukraine to the West. It combines intelligence, the portability of missile and drone system; their employment by small-sized special forces and new systems such the Switchblade drones.

First, every tank or armored car that is destroyed results in more Russians being killed. The number of Russian soldiers who died in combat is likely to be around 15,000, over five weeks. This is quite staggering. For comparison, in the twenty-year wars in Iraq/Afghanistan, the U.S. has lost approximately 7,000 soldiers. In the near future, it will prove difficult to replace armor stocks that were lost. While each Russian tank is more expensive than $10million, each missile costs only around 100 thousand dollars. War, like General Sherman in the American Civil War said, is terrible, but also very expensive.

It is time to end the life of the tank fighting on the battlefield. They could be the new battleships, made obsolete by modern tactics and technologies. It’s time to think about reducing the number of tanks in the U.S. Marine Corps and moving towards unmanned systems. Tanks can still be effectively employed, but must be used in a coherent combined-arms manner that includes protection of them from such “cheap kill” mechanisms.

A second concern is the increasing risk to close air support. The vulnerability of helicopters is another concern. We are seeing $18 million Russian attack helicopters destroyed by a hundred thousand dollar stingers—over and over. This strategy was key in enabling the Afghanistan mujahideen victory over the Soviet Union in 1980s. This is a difficult task for Russia’s weak economy, particularly as it involves replacing pilots.

This is it BeforeThe development of new swarm-drone systems is a major step forward. Artificial intelligence will become a reality as wartime warfare becomes possible. This technology allows for large numbers of unmanned systems to be controlled and operated in tandem to strike large, less maneuverable platforms such as helicopters or troop transports. This capability is at our forefront, which will have serious consequences for costly manned aircraft that fly close to ground.

It is important to not abandon the manned aircraft that provides close support of the battlefield. The Ukrainian War is an example of how we need to spend more money on unmanned aircraft systems. We should also leverage artificial intelligence improvements to allow them to work together. Finally, experiment aggressively with these capabilities to ensure that they can provide close air support at higher altitudes with cheaper unmanned vehicles that are directly controlled by ground forces.

Learn More: Ukraine’s Past and Future

The third key element in the Ukrainian war on the battlefield was the ability for Western intelligence systems and Western countries to monitor Russian formations, providing real-time targeting information directly to the Ukrainians. It has resulted in high numbers of Russians being killed by their enemies, as well as operations that have led to the death of Russian generals officers. The result is chaos. There are numerous reports that indicate a lack or coherent command on the battlefield and that operations are directed from Moscow.

In my time as Supreme Allied Commander in NATO’s Afghan Operation, it was impossible for me to imagine taking control of tactical operations of over 150,000 troops on the ground. With attendant failures, that’s exactly what is happening in Ukraine. A belligerent may be able to disrupt one of the centers-of gravity in combat by providing precise, real-time targeting to troops on the ground.

Let us not forget the Russian example of war crimes. It is important to recognize that the tactics our adversaries are using are war crimes. They include the destruction of civilian infrastructure including the internet, fake flag operations that use deep fake video, mass movements of civilians, taxing national logistics and the utilization of unprincipled and unprincipled foreign mercenaries, such as the Wagner Group and the Chechens.

All of this has been called “hybrid” or “gray zone” warfare, and we’ve seen the Russians go to this list of dirty tricks in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Syria over the past several decades. These new battlefield realities require that we do better at preparing for them. These techniques will not be used, but it is important that we reverse engineer them and make sure they aren’t in the training or equipment we choose. It means that we need to train our troops in how to work in biological and chemical environments; provide more civil support for local people to reduce the effects of refugees; improve our ability to gather evidence to discredit fake propaganda videos; and enhance our response to cyberattacks on battlefields to add offensive options.

A new tactical triad is emerging in the 21st century battlefield—special forces, unmanned systems, and cyber will be far more important going forward. Legacy systems, from close air support planes to tanks and destroyers, will still be useful. However we must rethink how war is done. There is a lot to be learned from the battlegrounds in Ukraine, unfortunately.

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