By Col Ashwani Sharma (retd)
When the cold war era ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s it was widely believed that the threat of a conventional war would gradually diminish and gradually make way for grey zone tactics. Come February 2022 and the multi pronged offensive on Ukraine changed all of that. It demonstrated that Russia remains a threat beyond the clandestine soft power approaches (grey zone). It is prepared to invade and attack; by extension, so are the militaries elsewhere in the world.
The Ukraine conflict has provided a superb opportunity for military analysts to observe Russia on the battlefield. It has also provided a window into how today’s wars require a level of agility, and rapid innovation and integration that has never before been executed at this scale by a nation’s military.
Right from the start, Ukraine forces were outgunned and outnumbered. Theoretically speaking, this conflict should have been over months ago. President Putin and General Gerasimov predicted running over Ukraine in a flash. But the conflict continues to defy the predictions of experts. That is partly because Russia’s military doctrine is nowhere near as advanced as suspected – their planning for this incursion was limited; and their command and control capability has been lacking. Surprisingly, Russian tactics in 2022 are not significantly different from those of the 1970s.
The US and NATO have played a major part in stalling the Russian invasion by providing military, moral and psychological support to Ukraine. Constant and precise information about the Russian military’s moves and manoeuvres to Ukraine, accompanied by easy to use precision weapons and missiles to strike the targets inflicted heavy casualties on the Russian military. Social Media networks, owned and operated by the West ran narratives favourable to the Ukrainian cause (and theirs’) and denied Russia the use of such platforms. Russia was flat footed in dealing with Information warfare; it has been a one sided affair.
Credit of course is due to the ability of Ukraine’s forces to embed agile principles into their approach to defending their country. The mind-set of facing an existential threat can also not be underestimated. Embracing rapid innovation, trying new and inventive things quickly, and accelerating the integration of novel ideas and approaches to repel Russia’s military advantage all have made a significant difference to how this conflict has developed. This has been most obvious in three areas – technology, training, and doctrine.
The use of advanced communications, drones and other autonomous assets would normally require years of planning and adaptation – but in Ukraine, that adaptation is happening in the field and it is proving successful. They have also been given access to SpaceX’s Starlink, allowing Ukrainian military command to talk to its frontline soldiers on a secure link and direct them in operations.
Having access to the technology is important, but it is the ability to incorporate it into military planning and operational use that delivers effect.
Here, Ukrainian forces have demonstrated impressively rapid innovation and integration. They have quickly improved the efficacy of their existing military capabilities by using the tools given to them, For example, they have combined radars and quantum computing to work out the exact location of Russian artillery. It uses algorithms to track the trajectory of Russian missiles and calculate where they originated and then counterattack with accuracy.
Are all these techs changing the nature of warfare?
The answer is yes.Is it changing war? Not really.The principles of war remain much the same as they existed during the times of Chanakya, Alexander the great, Yom Kippur or Operation Desert storm.
In the last 100 years we have moved from Positional warfare to blitzkrieg, counter blitz, Rapid Action Force, Extended defences (Geographical and time dimensions which now stand annulled) to AirLand battle and now NCW.AirLand battle became the primary battleplan of US NATO in the early 80s. Its roll-out required upgrades to the C4I, along with similar changes in the command and control structures to take advantage of the massive information the new C4I assets would be generating.Today, we embrace a new doctrine- the NCW made possible by the digital revolution.
Should we Adopt and induct New tech?
Yes, because that obviously is the way forward.But not in a hurry because we need the necessary infrastructure in place before we do that. By that I mean a doctrine, tech sustainment facility, training etc.
The challenge posed by the above situation is that warfare has evolved faster than the warfighter. Today, a nation’s or military’s ability to incorporate new technologies with an effective supporting infrastructure is critical to achieving its objectives which will ensure victory, whether on the tactical, kinetic contact battlefield or in the realm of non-kinetic statecraft and psychological dominance. The recent events( Syria, Armenia, Ukraine) have alluded to the resurgence of force on force, highly kinetic warfare and the role that technology along with its enabling infrastructure will play in the outcome.
‘Enabling Infrastructure’ transcends from the tactical to the strategic realm depending on the type and impact of the technology. Including intrinsic tactical parts like development, testing, procurement, maintenance, training and technical capability building to more operational and strategic elements like coordination with other technologies, systems, forces, impact on objectives etc should help evolve tactical and strategic doctrines.
The fact that technology plays a vital role in the warfare and the infrastructure required to enable technology to be an effective weapon is undeniable. Increasingly, the world is moving toward Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality, Stealth Systems, Drones, and Robotics et al. These new age domains require an even more effective and robust enabling infrastructure to be able to shape the battlefield.
Training is another area where speed of innovation and integration has enabled success beyond expectations. Ukraine’s forces now employ NLOS, Javelin missiles and multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) to fend off Russian attacks.
A regular soldier would have undertaken 16 to 20 weeks of basic training, a further 8 to 10 weeks of specialised training on these weapons before firing one in earnest. For the Ukrainian conflict, this has been compressed to less than six weeks. The training does not appear less effective, it is simply less time consuming, less reliant on basic training experience, and being deployed at the speed of relevance. It has also been adapted for use by members of the public, who put themselves at risk alongside practised soldiers on the battlefield to bolster combat mass. The existential threat has created the need, but surely the successes provide vital lessons in training efficiency and optimisation going forward.
Innovations are happening in parallel. There are numerous examples of departure from established military doctrine with great success. Conventional wisdom says that to stop enemy tanks requires using your own armour and creating solid defensive networks. Yet, during the early battles around Kyiv, Ukranians were simply given anti-tank weapons and told to use their initiative to seek and destroy, with great success to date.
Against the might of the Russian military, Ukrainian forces have been able to slow Russia’s progression, expose their tactical deficiencies, and even win back certain parts. Ukraine’s response to Russia’s invasion has involved civilian support, advanced technology from overseas and novel training methods – all designed to accelerate successful effects. But it is the shift in mindset, away from the protracted procurement, integration and training programmes so typical of most militaries today, in favour of a more iterative approach to ‘combat innovation’ that has had the greatest impact.
In conclusion, it will be right to state that whilst having the right tools is important, having the agility and innovativeness to try new things in different ways, adopt and use them at the relevant pace is what generates unexpected outcomes and success.
Author is Indian Army Veteran & Editor-in-Chief, South Asia Defence& Strategic Review
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