A year ago, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The war came as a shock despite the intelligence inputs in the preceding months. As the world expected Kyiv to fall, it was a surprise to see the Ukrainian President and his team step out to the streets of Kyiv and post a video rejecting the offer of evacuation, and demonstrate his will to fight.
Ever since, the Russo-Ukrainian war has witnessed several ups and downs. Russia initially sought to catch Ukraine by surprise. When it failed to do so, it chose to escalate the war by targeting the infrastructure and people of Ukraine. On its part, the Ukrainians have been more conservative. With a steady supply of advance weapon systems from the west, its military has prioritised the meagre resources available at its disposal to target Russian military assets on ground, largely to reclaim some of its lost territories, though all is yet to be recovered. On its part, the Ukrainians have avoided targeting civilian areas, thus far, in order to limit harm to its own population and infrastructure.
Understandably, both Ukraine and Russia have contrasting war aims and objectives. While Russia aims at breaking the will of the Ukrainian people to fight back, Ukraine seeks to roll back the Russian advance in the east. In a recent article, in Foreign Affairs Magazine, Lawrence Freedman explains these two contrastive war strategies i.e., classic and total warfare pursued by Ukraine and Russia respectively.1 And, how these two divergent forms of warfare are likely to shape the future military contest. The classic way of warfare is all about hard fought ground and air battles. Military strategy is focused more on battle outcomes such as number of soldiers killed or captured, military equipment destroyed, and who dominates the battlefield. Russia has resorted to large scale attacks on infrastructure and pursued a total-war like strategy. Earlier in Syria and elsewhere, Russian forces had demonstrated a similar line. However, this time, Russia faces a fairly well-organized and motivated army, in Ukraine.2 Led by a tenacious leader and an ingenious military hierarchy, and backed by the west and its war fighting material, Ukraine has re-written the blueprint to fight future wars.
An important takeaway of this war is that conventional wars, however limited in scope, space and time, are no longer constructs of the last century, but a reality of this age, which political leaders, diplomats and militaries world-wide must readily accept and organise themselves to face it.3
This article attempts to analyse, what previously held assumptions have been challenged in this war, and what has not, and how militaries should adapt its war-fighting strategy, structures, tactics and equipment to new realities that would work on the battlefield.
The Corporatisation of War
In this war, two aspects have stood out from a future policy planning and war-fighting perspective; the corporatisation of military support to Ukraine by the west and, two, the role play of the Ukrainian society to underpin the efforts of its armed forces on the warfront.
Firstly, the corporatisation of the western military support to Ukraine tells us how battlefield superiority can be made to tilt in favour of a weaker power. Since the beginning of the war, the United States has facilitated its various allies to work alongside the Ukrainian forces in providing military equipment, training, intelligence, and communication assets. Thus far, the US has directed more than $75 billion in assistance to Ukraine, which includes humanitarian, financial, and military support.4 That is a different matter that much of the military assistance to Ukraine comes from existing stockpiles, which in turn, aids the donor defence industry and its economy. Both Germany and France have promised to increase its spending on defence. Poland has increased its defence budget by seventy percent. Estonia has pledged one percent of its GDP in military aid to Ukraine.5 On its part, Ukraine has effectively utilised the western systems to target Russian assets in depth such as command posts, ammunition dumps, and logistic nodes, thereby blunting the Russian offensive. On the other hand, Russia has relied on its indigenous legacy equipment such as long-range missiles, artillery, tanks, and infantry vehicles to fight the war. Unlike the Ukrainians, the military support to Russia from some of its allies and partners has been somewhat insignificant.
However, Ukraine’s mounting requests for supply of lethal equipment such as fighter aircrafts, have made the Europeans wary as that might escalate the war. The EU feels that provision of highly lethal platforms to Ukraine could raise the risk of a nuclear war.6 As the conflict becomes more intense, the west might progressively shed its reluctance to give Ukraine sophisticated platforms, such as battle tanks and aircrafts.
Should that happen, this war would unwittingly strengthen the notion of strategic alliances and partnerships amongst countries who are militarily weak to stand-up against its adversaries.7
The “Community-izing” of Warfare
At another level, the “community-izing” of the war by Ukraine demonstrates how strong political will and societal resilience can be leveraged by a state to alter military outcomes on the battlefield.8 The Ukrainian military has been successful in integrating thousands of its civilians into an effective territorial defence force and many more, might have undertaken missions with grave risk to personal life and safety to delay and disrupt the Russian advance.9 By leveraging its citizenry on social media, to advance its security interests, Ukraine has expanded its strategic reach and influence, in this war.10 This highlights the role of society and culture in the future of warfare. As a community, the Ukrainian people have demonstrated unbelievable resilience and learnt how to adapt to incessant missiles and drone attacks and cope up with hardships in daily life.
Even after a year, in war, there is little effect on Ukraine’s will to fight back, and its determination to roll back the Russian advance. The Ukrainian war has established that future wars might not just require a “whole of government” approach, but a “whole of peoples” approach to achieve favourable outcomes in inter-state conflicts. The Russians too have leveraged its private military companies to some success in recent months. Clearly, this war has blurred the distinction between uniformed personnel and citizenry on the battlefield.
Possibly, it might be fair to say that time has come where boots, brogues and heels will work alongside to fight hi-tech wars, and this community-izing of war-fighting structures might become a cost-effective option, rather than an exception in the future.
Military Strategy, Techniques and Tactics
Every new war is invariably a revisit of old ideas and beliefs, in terms of military strategy, techniques and tactics.11 In this war too, we have witnessed several similarities to the past wars. Aspects like trench warfare, hand to hand fighting, artillery duels, and mechanised battles over rough and boggy terrain are not new. But then, this war has also been marked by the widespread employment of new technologies and techniques, such as, agile hand-held anti-tank and surface to air missiles, drones and other autonomous systems, counter autonomous systems, AI and OSINT based intelligence platforms and satellite based secure geo-positioning, imaging and communication systems.
Three aspects are pertinent
First, the Ukrainian war reminds us that military offensives planned by either side have not been as successful. On both sides, whenever and wherever opposing defences have been well prepared, progress has been slow.12 Russian military advances were quick during the first few days of the war, when the Ukrainians were not well prepared. However, later as the Ukrainians got their act together and strengthened the defences along the wide front line, the Russian mechanised forces found it difficult to punch holes to advance their offensive. On its part, Ukraine’s counter offensive in Kharkiv proved successful when its forces took advantage of a weak and poorly prepared Russian defences. Yet, Ukraine’s offensive to recapture Kherson got off to a slow start, to only make little progress in the following weeks. Thus far, both Russia and Ukraine have demonstrated distinctive land war-fighting strategies. While, Ukraine has been repeatedly resorting to dynamic ground holding and offensive operations, trading space for time, the Russians have been less agile in planning and executing their attacks.13
Second, when Russia invaded Ukraine, its air campaign seemed to be straight out of the playbook. Russia sent waves of fighter jets to bomb Ukraine, with an assumption that Ukraine’s smaller force would be quickly overwhelmed to establish air superiority. But Ukraine was smart enough with its legacy air defence systems and hand-held missiles in shooting down dozens of Russian aircrafts and helicopters in the initial stages of the war. Ever since, Russia has scaled down its employment of air force in Ukrainian air space. As of now, Russians are keeping its large air force on the margins, relying more on cheaper missiles and drones, to fight the war. If Ukraine exhausts its supply of missiles while targeting Russian drones and missiles, only then could that pave the way for the return of Russian air force to Ukraine. Thus far, the offensive air campaigns from either side have been rather subdued. But, the induction of western fighter aircrafts, in Ukraine, might draw in the Russian air force, and this year might well witness the deadliest of air battles in recent history.
And third, there has been sharp criticism of certain military platforms, such as tanks and drones. For instance, few analysts had pronounced tanks as obsolete platform based on the tank losses suffered.14 Several reasons are ascribed to it; the increased lethality of anti-tank guided weapons, drones, and artillery fire; limited role of the Russian air force; and use of cheap drone technology to target Russia’s tracked assets and static defences.15 Possibly, the Russian field commanders did not fully appreciate that tank warfare has to be fully embedded into other arm operations, such as infantry, artillery, air defence, autonomous and counter-autonomous capabilities, and not the other way around, to manoeuvre and fight. At yet another level, this war has unambiguously demonstrated how a weaker state can imaginatively use drones, and other indigenously engineered autonomous systems, to deal with a larger and more powerful force in battle.
Men, Machines and Material
Warfare will always remain an interplay of men, machines and material. Men, machines and material (3Ms) determine a state’s capacity to leverage its hard power and fulfil its security objectives. A deficiency in any of the constituents can impact the military capabilities, in turn, the levels of military readiness and ability to fight effectively.
On its part, the Ukrainian state seems to be doing right with its 3Ms, in exploiting the military’s ingenuity and dynamism, identifying the right technologies, and ensuring a steady supply of military equipment and wherewithal.16 This war has been particularly instructive on Ukraine’s military resolve in deterring rapid Russian advances. As Mick Ryan argues that, while machines might be important, but unlike men, they do not plan, fight or win wars.17
The Ukrainians also seem to be doing well in acquiring technologies that provide their forces a decisive military advantage. Initially, the Javelins and Stingers, then HIMARS, and now tanks, do point towards the right choice of technology in war. More importantly, the Ukrainians have demonstrated an extraordinary acumen to meld and employ military technologies obtained from diverse sources with little training and logistical support in the battlefield. Suffice to say, it was never useful to look at weapon platforms in isolation, without considering the overall operational context, where these legacy systems and other new age complementing capabilities have to be deployed.
For Ukraine, a steady supply of munitions, spare parts and surge in industrial capacities has emerged as another important battle-shaping factor.18 The fact that western countries are drawing down on their own stocks of munitions to support Ukraine, in a way, highlights the importance of war fighting material in long drawn wars. This war is also an example of what happens when a nation tries to fight a war without fully considering the impact of logistics and sustainment that go alongside such fights.
New Age Intelligence, Information and Data
Ukraine’s use of intelligence gathered from diverse open and silo-based sources will go down in the history, as one of the best examples of a real-time and meshed intelligence driven war.19
As of now, the Ukrainians seem to be flush with actionable intelligence and have the capacity to leverage it over secure communications to plan and execute precise military operations.20 For instance, the extensive use of low earth orbit satellite technology has helped the Ukrainian forces with superior intelligence and battlefield transparency to fight this war. Relying on satellite-based information is nothing new, but the agility of the low orbit satellite systems has been incomparable relative to traditional satellites, which operate at high orbits and slow data transmission speeds.21 For sharing of this data in remote areas, the Star link terminals have proved to be more useful and robust to cyber-attacks. The exploitation of this new low earth orbit technology to locate and target troop positions using Star link terminals has changed the future of ground intelligence-based operations.
The use of AI, in this war, has many lessons for us.22 Besides, speeding up the process of compilation and collation, and bucketing of intelligence inputs to meet specific needs of the war planners, it also enhances the ability of intelligence analysts to handle large volumes of structured and unstructured data. AI today empowers the intelligence analysts to attack the haystacks (of information), rather than work laboriously to look for “pins” in the haystack.
While the role of human beings would continue to reign supreme in the field of intelligence and its analysis, the war proves that AI and OSINT will be the new intelligence mules for the future.
Learnings in the Indian Context
For the West, the war in Ukraine is about the future of Europe, not the future of the world order.23 For others, like India, the war has become a distraction from more pressing issues in the region. China’s repeated attempts at changing the status quo along its land and maritime peripheries is forcing nations to have a relook at their military postures.24 Further, the future of warfare is being challenged by new war-fighting strategies and technologies.
From a military perspective, there are several learnings that the war offers in the Indian context. Three important, yet inter-related, aspects are discussed here: the necessity of a strong defence indigenous industrial base; the fielding of signature war-fighting capabilities; and the maintenance of structural and/or operational readiness.
Defence Industrial Capacity: Future defence spendings and industrial enhancements over a longer time horizon are a dire necessity. Two aspects are important here. One, the need to plan budgetary forecasts at absolute levels of military expenditure, on a decadal basis (i.e., 2030s, 2040s, etc). And two, what component of the annual budgetary allocations must be mandatorily used for investments in the defence industrial base. This war truly demonstrates the importance of a strong indigenous industrial base to a country, which could be built through global and regional defence networks, including interest-based technology partnerships and research collaborations.
War-fighting Capabilities: This war proves beyond doubt that signature military capabilities are important battle-winning instruments for any modern military. These are proficiencies that confer significant tactical and strategic advantages in warfare, including missile technology, unmanned systems, autonomous and counter autonomous systems, AI and satellite enabled intelligence and secure communication networks and defensive or offensive cyber capabilities. For its part, the war reminds us as to how defence engagements, military dialogues and information sharing pacts, joint military training exercises, arms procurements from technology partners and collaboration across defence industries, could be leveraged to build favourable war-fighting asymmetries in the region.
Military Readiness: Military readiness and not defence preparedness will have to be the mantra for the future, and the policy makers and practitioners will have to take a thoughtful view on this. Furthermore, India’s military readiness needs have to be seen at two distinct levels: structural and/or operational level. Simplistically speaking, India’s readiness levels have to be operational along our western borders, whereas those will have to be more structural, than operational alone, in the case of our northern borders.25
India’s policy dilemma lies in balancing the structural and operational aspects of readiness amongst the three services, and other defence departments, against myriad internal and external threats.
A quick end to the war in Ukraine may be desirable. However, the war is likely to prolong given the Russian stakes and Ukrainian commitment. Though, in a protracted fight, time tends to favour the larger side, the big question is, what course this war will take.26 This war, like any other war, will have to be settled through hard fought battles. There are three possible paths to draw a closure on this war. Either side must win, or lose, or both sides run into a stalemate. The extent to which Ukrainian military retains its edge in well-trained and highly motivated troops, superior arms and munitions and better intelligence inputs over Russia’s reliance on mass, less motivated soldiers, inferior arms, and intelligence, they would have a fair chance to restore their territorial integrity.
The follow-on military offensives would be crucial. How Ukraine incorporates Western technologies, what new war-fighting strategies might emerge, and how does Russia respond in terms of its counter strategy, manpower mobilisation, ramping up of defence production capacities and the domestic response to the necessity or futility of this war.
As of now for both Russia and Ukraine, the trajectory to victory remains difficult and elusive.
Freedman, L. (2023, February). Kyiv and Moscow Are Fighting Two Different Wars: What the Conflict Has Revealed About Contemporary Conflict. Foreign Affairs. Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/ukraine/kyiv-and-moscow-are-fighting-two-different-wars
Courtney, W. (2023, February). One year After Russia Invasion of Ukraine: Experts React. The Rand Blog. Retrieved from https://www.rand.org/blog/2023/02/one-year-after-russias-invasion-of-ukraine.html
Cohen, R.S. (2023, February). One Year After Russia Invasion of Ukraine: Experts React. The Rand Blog. Retrieved from https://www.rand.org/blog/2023/02/one-year-after-russias-invasion-of-ukraine.html
Master, J. and Merrow, W. (2023, February). How Much Aid Has the US Sent Ukraine? Here are Six Charts. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from https://www.cfr.org/article/how-much-aid-has-us-sent-ukraine-here-are-six-charts
Ukraine Support Tracker. IFW Kill Institute For World Economy. Retrieved from https://www.ifw-kiel.de/topics/war-against-ukraine/ukraine-support-tracker/.
Gannon, J.A (2022, November). If Russia Goes Nuclear: Three Scenarios for the Ukraine War. Council of Foreign Relations. Retrieved from https://www.cfr.org/article/if-russia-goes-nuclear-three-scenarios-ukraine-war
Walt, S.M. (2023, February). Friends in Need: What the War in Ukraine Has Revealed About Alliances, Foreign Affairs. Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/ukraine/friends-in-need-war-in-ukraine-alliances-stephen-walt
Matheny, J. (2023, February). One year After Russia Invasion of Ukraine: Experts React. The Rand Blog. Retrieved from https://www.rand.org/blog/2023/02/one-year-after-russias-invasion-of-ukraine.html
Flanagan, T. (2023, February). One year After Russia Invasion of Ukraine: Experts React. The Rand Blog. Retrieved from https://www.rand.org/blog/2023/02/one-year-after-russias-invasion-of-ukraine.html
Helmus, T. (2023, February). One year After Russia Invasion of Ukraine: Experts React. The Rand Blog. Retrieved. from https://www.rand.org/blog/2023/02/one-year-after-russias-invasion-of-ukraine.html
Ryan, M. (2023, February). A Year of War, Part I: Ukraine and the Continuities of War. Futura Doctrina. Retrieved from https://mickryan.substack.com/p/a-year-of-war-part-I
Massicot, D. (2023, February). What Russia Got Wrong: Can Moscow Learn from its failures in Ukraine? Foreign Affairs Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/ukraine/what-russia-got-wrong-moscow-failures-in-ukraine-dara-massicot?
Graham, T. (2023, February). Ukraine Has Held Off Russia’s Invasion- So Far. Here’s How. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/ukraine-has-held-russias-invasion-so-far-heres-how
Ryan, M. (2023, January). The Great Tank Debate: Providing advanced western main battle tanks to Ukraine. Futura Doctrina. Retrieved from https://mickryan.substack.com/p/the-great-tank-debate
Freedman, L., Ibid.
Cohen, E.A. (2023, February). Move Fast and Him Things: What the War in Ukraine Has Revealed About Statecraft. Foreign Affairs. Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/ukraine/move-fast-and-win-things-statecraft
Ryan, M., Ibid.
Martin, B. (2023, February). Will Logistics Be Russia’s Undoing in Ukraine. The Rand Blog. Retrieved from https://www.rand.org/blog/2023/02/will-logistics-be-russias-undoing-in-ukraine.html
Ryan, M. (2023, February). A Year of War, Part II: Ukraine and the Continuities of War. Futura Doctrina. Retrieved from https://mickryan.substack.com/p/a-year-of-war-part-II
Zegart, A. (2023, January). Open Secrets: Ukraine and the Next Intelligence Revolution. Foreign Affairs Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/world/open-secrets-ukraine-intelligence-revolution-amy-zegart
Samson, P. (2023, February). Global Memos: The Future of Modern Warfare on Display. Council of Foreign Relations. Retrieved from https://www.cfr.org/councilofcouncils/global-memos/invasion-shook-world
Schmidt, E. (2023, March). Innovation Power: Why Technology will define the Future of Geopolitics. Foreign Affairs Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/united-states/eric-schmidt-innovation-power-technology-geopolitics
Menon, S. (2023, February). Out of Alignment: What the War in Ukraine Has Revealed About Non-Western Powers. Foreign Affairs. Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/world/out-alignment-war-in-ukraine-non-western-powers-shivshankar-menon
Pant, H.V. (2023, February). “The Invasion That Shook the World: Finding a New Equilibrium in a Militarised World. Global Memos.” Council of Foreign Relations. Retrieved from https://www.cfr.org/councilofcouncils/global-memos/invasion-shook-world
Singh, H. (2023, February). “India’s Military Readiness Challenge.” IDR Website Commentary. Retrieved from http://www.indiandefencereview.com/news/indias-military-readiness-challenge/
Reach, C. (2023, February). “One Year After Russia Invasion of Ukraine: Experts React.” The Rand Blog. Retrieved from https://www.rand.org/blog/2023/02/one-year-after-russias-invasion-of-ukraine.html