Jay Ballard, CDR (ret) USN, Military Training and Simulation Lead, Calian Group Ltd.
Jordan Miller, Senior Manager, Marketing (Defence)
The early 2020s have seen two significant changes in armed conflict. First, the end of Western involvement in Afghanistan indicates a shift away from the previous two decades’ focus on counterinsurgency. Second, the war in Ukraine has renewed the Cold War threat of major state-based conflict and has re-emphasized the critical importance of coordinated armoured maneuver, deep fires, ISR assets, and logistics and sustainment while under fire.
The impacts on military training and readiness are still playing out on Ukrainian soil and the lessons from this conflict will be studied in the months and years to come. In the meantime, insights can be gleaned from the combat trends on display since the morning of February 24th. These trends can be used to immediately adjust training concepts, doctrine and the way that capability and acquisition roadmaps should change to better prepare NATO members for current and future threats.
The Will to Fight
A 2018 RAND study titled Will to Fight found that the will to keep fighting may be the single most important factor in war. The will to fight is very difficult to assess before combat starts and the West doesn’t have a good track record of estimating an adversary’s intentions or desire to fight. Of the factors identified in the RAND study, the most important are quality of leadership, training, adaptability and culture at the unit and organizational levels. Ukraine’s military, citizenry, and foreign legions have fought with tenacity, intelligence and agility. Ukrainian forces have endured, despite being out-numbered and out-equipped, primarily because they trust their leaders, have received excellent training and equipment from NATO member nations and are in an existential fight. The value of morale and the will to fight has been vital to their success so far.
Western nations should develop doctrine and processes to assess their own, as well as a potential adversary’s will to fight. Educational programs that improve leadership skills directly contribute to operational success, but better leaders also foster a better unit culture. Quality training improves the confidence of a nation’s own forces, which results in higher morale and better combat success. Adaptability of the force is supported by everything mentioned previously, but perhaps most importantly by Mission Command, which will be covered in the next blog post.
The Importance of Logistics and Sustainment
Military logistics is the art and science of delivering the necessary supplies to sustain military operations over time. Modern militaries are logistically intensive organizations. The requirements for fuel (vehicles, aviation, etc.), water and food, ammunition, batteries, spare parts, etc. for contemporary combat operations are immense. This becomes more complex as equipment is damaged, sick and wounded require medical evacuation, and civilians in the battlespace require assistance.
Attacks on logistical support networks are important to degrade an adversary’s ability to sustain ongoing operations and prepare for major offensives. The massive volumes of fuel, ammunition, food, water, and equipment—which far outweigh (literally) the volume of stocks required for counter-insurgency operations—underlines the importance of sustainment for contemporary combat operations.
Ukraine enjoys some advantages in the logistical contest. Ukraine is operating from home, with much shorter travel distances to bring supplies from depots to the units that need them. They are also receiving supplies from NATO member nations that are outside the conflict zone and immune from interdiction prior to arrival in Ukraine. Connection to global supply chains is still important, though those materials travel shorter distances once inside Ukraine.
Rehearsals and exercises for a range of operational scenarios can provide the forum to practice the art and science of military logistics. Major operational plans can be war-gamed repeatedly with a range of scenarios to identify strengths and limitations in logistical plans, and to exercise responses to major supply lines—such as road and rail lines—being attacked. The importance of sustainment to contemporary warfare means exercising logistical capabilities alongside combat operations—as any logistical failure will be immediately capitalized on by the opponent with devastating consequences.
The Importance of Commercial ISR
Imagery and video from satellites, aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and land-based systems are being widely used in Ukraine. Cheap, commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) UAVs help identify targets and correct fire during attack. COTS UAVs are ideal for dismounted personnel in small units operating at the front.
Using COTS UAVs gives small units the ability to detect and then target enemy capabilities much faster than relying on brigade or division echelon support for ISR. This serves as a flexible force multiplier at the tactical level. To properly utilize these UAVs, they should be trained with prior to deployment and incorporated into the targeting process. Likewise, defending against small-unit UAVs is becoming a growing priority. These capabilities are often purchased from the commercial market, which makes them available to friendly and adversary forces alike.
The utility of commercial technologies for military application is not limited to COTS UAVs. The number of civilian satellites that provide almost daily updated subscription imagery products have increased by 400 percent since 2014. At the operational level, the availability of satellite imagery makes the movements of large military formations very difficult to achieve without detection. To improve the likelihood of moving without being detected, classic techniques of camouflage, concealment and deception become more important. During recent conflicts, Western militaries have grown accustomed to having air and space supremacy, which would preclude an adversary’s ability to persistently observe friendly forces or engage with long-range, precision fires. Therefore, the skills of concealing movements and forces have faded. Western militaries should include these considerations in doctrine, planning and exercises at the tactical and operational level.
New social media posts on movements and combat actions in Ukraine are shared daily, if not hourly. Ukraine has benefitted most from this by showing evidence of their combat actions, their successful use of donated military equipment and by documenting suspected human rights violations. These actions are important for bolstering Ukrainian morale, rallying NATO members toward the Ukrainian cause and underlining the urgency for continued material support. Posts by the aggressor have provided actionable targeting information that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have quickly exploited to devastating effect. Crucially, skilled social media use also allows the Ukrainian narrative to be presented with clear evidence, undercutting the potential effectiveness of adversary disinformation campaigns.
Western nations should incorporate social media exploitation into planning, exercises and targeting processes to maximize the value of this now ubiquitous environment.
The war in Ukraine represents a major shift away from the past twenty years of counterinsurgency and asymmetric threats. This shift includes conventional concepts for which NATO countries prepared all through the Cold War and into the post-Cold War period. Morale is vital to sustaining resistance, supported by social media activity that provides daily updates. Classical principles like camouflage and deception are more important than ever with the rise of commercial sensing platforms like satellites and COTS UAVs. Logistical sustainment has always been important, and this war reminds us of its importance in contemporary warfare.
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