Attrition in combat, early lessons from the war in Ukraine 
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 04 Oct , 2022

War is back in Europe, with operations pitting tens of mechanized brigades, comprising hundreds of thousands of troops, against each other. War colleges and general headquarters in the West are confronted with the brutal reappearance of high-intensity warfare on European soil, and examine the strategic and tactical ramifications of this strategic development.   

Long-term high-intensity warfare is back in Europe 

Although the scale is smaller, for the time being, this type of conflict has not been seen on the Old Continent since the second World War. In past decades, the only military activity the West has engaged in pertains more to territory control and counter-insurgency, than to outright conventional warfare. On a few rare occasions, Western troops were able to engage in large-scale military maneuvers, but their enemy soon buckled and folded, due to the difference in military potential. 

Here, for the first time in nearly half a century, massive volumes of troops are engaged, and use is being made of all aerial and terrestrial assets, deployed and operated at their fullest capacity within combined arms maneuvers, down to the smallest units, with armored infantry, main battle tanks, artillery, engineers, drones and electronic warfare units, on both sides. And with the high attrition rates one can expect from high intensity warfare: in 2010, the worst year for US casualties in Afghanistan, the US Army lost 700 soldiers to battle. Ukraine, in comparison, has at least lost 9000 men already, and over 5000 civilians, from a much smaller pool of recruitable manpower.  

Depth and duration of engagement leads to higher attrition rates  

In this type of warfare, attrition can no longer be neglected as a meaningful factor, both in troops and equipment. While soldiers were killed in action, and vehicles were destroyed, in Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria, their numbers were small enough to cause no imbalance in forces, or impact strategies. With the conflict in Ukraine entering its second semester, inducting fresh troops, equipment and potential which have been lost in battle is, and will increasingly be, a major challenge with large-scale ramifications.

Choices will need to be made between types of equipment, in an approach balancing between purchasing rugged and robust equipment, which is easy to acquire, maintain, deploy, support and train on, on the one hand – and the broad spectrum of what modern technology has to offer, which enables getting an edge on the opposing forces, on the other. 

High-intensity warfare leans in favor of up-to-date but rugged and resilient equipment, and away from high-tech systems whose excessive complexity exceeds whatever advantage they can yield on the battlefield. Equipment can be replaced with US and NATO countries pumping in more of it into Ukraine but trained soldiers and junior leaders lost in battle are not easily replaceable. Equipment alone cannot fight a war and win. It is always the soldier manning the weapon and equipment who wins it.

Hybrid use of artillery: both targeting units and areas  

Artillery is being used both as area denial means and precision strikes, to defend Ukrainian territory, while Russians are using it in the same hybrid way, but as an offensive means. With the September counter-offensive, roles are slowly inverting and both sides of the conflict have now made use of artillery in all of the possible configurations, stretching the potential of their howitzer units. Ukraine is hoping to compensate for its smaller number of artillery units, compared to Russia’s, with better use and mobility of their own, including those received within international assistance. 

Large-scale consequences will be seen on Western military configurations

Western armies, after having consistently diminished their artillery units, must therefore stock up on large guns again. Russia has over 4000 howitzers (all types included), with an additional 6000 in reserve, while Ukraine has barely over a thousand. As a means of comparison, the United States has a similar number to Russia’s after drastically downsizing its artillery forces over the past years – a move which the US Army is now regretting. The RAND corporation published that “While the U.S. Army’s field artillery branch was dealing with the implications of COIN from 2003 to the present, the militaries of a number of potential competitor nations made significant advances […] As of 2017, the Russian Army has made considerable advances in its artillery.” Now that artillery pieces must once again be acquired and integrated, to face the new threat, generals and procurement departments are working hard on making the right choice. Incidentally, Ukraine is expending more artillery ammunition thanwhat US can supply. US is producing only 6000 rounds on 155 mm ammunition every month but Ukraine is consuming it faster than what US can spare. 

The question is all the more pressing for the countries whose artillery arsenals were due to be renewed in the near future, and who must now choose which type of platform will be most adapted to this current and most likely foreseeable type of warfare. Countries due to purchase artillery systems in coming years are Italy, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Spain, the United Kingdom and the US, mainly. The main criteria in these tactical settings are accuracy, range and survivability.  

Three different “schools of thoughts”, or options, are on the table: 

The heavy and armored school: with Germany, with its Pzh2000, as its enthusiastic champion. With a very high degree of sophistication, this doctrine fits the German tradition of industrial excellence, but is rather costly, in acquisition and moreover in maintenance, and may not be a one size fits all solution to modern-day settings. Track-and-armor is notoriously difficult to deploy, slow to implement operational move, difficult to sustain and vulnerable to modern tank-busting weapons.   

Towed artillery is considerably easier on budgets, and therefore enables the acquisition of more tubes for the same price. They are also far easier to deploy, namely by air, due to their reduced weight. However, their mobility, lack of kinetic protection and ensuing survivability in high intensity warfare tactical dynamics, is poor. In July of 2022, Russian forces easily destroyed at least a battery of Ukraine-operated US-donated M777 towed howitzers, in a classic strike of counter-battery fire. 

The wheeled truck configuration seems to be striking the right balance with all current needs of many countries, United States included, encompassing mobility, deployability and cost both of acquisition and maintenance. The US Army are considering the wheeled cannon option in their plan to revamp artillery, within the frame of its strategic prospective thinking, with the prospect of a conflict against heavily-armed Russia looming more than ever.  

Here again Ukraine provides us with much insight regarding the matter. A German Pzh 2000 costs 17 million euros. In comparison, a truck-mounted gun such as the Caesar, will set the client back 7 million euros, thus enabling the acquisition of many more howitzers for the same price.  Additionally, the German complex design will be a problem to face attrition rates: delivery delays will easily range in years, whereas the French design enables faster fielding. Firepower capacity is equivalent between both models, ranging up to 25 to 35 miles, according to the shells used, with outstanding accuracy.   

The United Kingdom has also moved away from tracks and chosen wheeled platforms for its Archer platform, as reports the manufacturer: “In addition to the need for longer range and higher accuracy, there was a desire for higher mobility and fast deployment speeds to be effective on battlefields of the future.” Wheeled platforms like the Archer or the DANA, and many others, however, are too new a concept to have been battle-proven, or even fielded, while the French Caesar howitzers have already been through the fire of battle, with excellent results. It implements the same strategic thinking, and is successfully contributing to the Ukrainian strategy which aims to compensate lower numbers with better operational and tactical mobility. Several pieces of equipment have been deployed in the Ukraine as part of the international military assistance facing the Russian invasion.

SofRep reports: “An anonymous commander of one of the CAESARs said the artillery helped their forces to become more agile. In modern warfare, the faster you can shift and adapt, the more accurate execution can be for offense and defense.” The commercial success of the Caesar also seems to confirm that many countries now consider the truck platform to be the best configuration for modern combat needs. Beyond the French army, the Caesar has been – or is being – exported to Denmark, Indonesia, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Belgium, the Czech Republic and Morocco.  

Defense expenditures are likely to rise considerably across Europe, in the coming years, for two reasons. Firstly, because after several decades of peace on the continent, budgets have shrunk and, now that the specter of war looms again, armies will be the center of more attention. Secondly, because, as Ukraine is showing us, warfare has evolved since our last major battles, and equipment is considerably more obsolete than might have met the eye.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Jai Patel

Independent consultant on defense and security issues. 

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