A New Eastern Front: What the U.S. Army Must Learn From the War in Ukraine
The situation in eastern Ukraine might best be described as “World War I with technology.” Venturing to the front line today, you would quickly learn the two greatest threats facing Ukrainian soldiers are snipers and Russian artillery. Unlike in 1915, however, soldiers on 2018’s “Eastern Front” receive text messages on their phones telling them their cause is hopeless and they must regularly attempt to avoid being spotted from an unmanned aerial vehicle.
The fighting in Ukraine during the past 2½ years provides great insight into the types of threats facing the U.S. Army today and sheds light on what a war with a near-peer enemy—or an enemy sponsored by a near-peer—would look like.
Over the past few decades, the landscape of potential threats the U.S. must navigate has diversified greatly. During the Cold War, the major threat, the Russians, was simple to conceptualize and the battle plan was well-known. Junior leaders needed to know their part.
The modern threat has changed markedly; the Russian threat remains but in a different form, and combines with an array of other threats to create a challenging global operating environment.
An expanded role of the information dimension, explosive technological growth and a range of other trends have eroded the monopoly of violence by the state. What is “modern war”?
This new column from the Modern War Institute at West Point will examine that question and the many and diverse challenges it entails.
There is no better starting point than Ukraine, where Russia’s “new-generation warfare” is being implemented in ways that fundamentally challenge the post–Cold War security environment. So, what lessons should the U.S. Army learn from the situation in Ukraine?
What’s Old Is New
Electronic warfare. Russia has deployed a wide range of electronic warfare systems in Ukraine, using them to jam communications, locate headquarters and subsequently target them with long-range artillery. Few active U.S. Army members grew up in an age worrying about the signals their antennas and radios produced. After visiting a battalion tactical operations center at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, a senior Ukrainian officer observed that the headquarters would not last long in eastern Ukraine. With its antenna farm located only meters from the tactical operations center, it would basically have been sending an “aim here” message to the Russians.
We have returned to an era where communications must be short and infrequent and tactical operations centers must run their antennas hundreds of meters away. Ultimately, this will make command, control and communications more difficult, and commanders will have to get comfortable in an environment where they don’t have information dominance and don’t know the exact status of each of their units at all times. Additionally, with a force largely reliant on GPS technology, it is time for soldiers to go back to being expert navigators using only a map and compass.
Information operations. The Cold War was as much an ideological war about which political-economic system was best as it was a military confrontation. After winning that war of ideas, the U.S. largely divested itself of its information operations capabilities. By contrast, after recovering from its economic slump in the 1990s, Russia has invested heavily in theirs. At the strategic level, Russia has been largely successful through its state-sponsored or state-supported media outlets. Its information and disinformation campaign caused sufficient paralysis within NATO to ensure its annexation of Crimea became a fait accompli. At the tactical level, Russians have targeted individual soldiers, commanders and their families using cellphones and social media to undermine the Ukrainian war effort.
AIR SUPERIORITY. The Russian air defense system is extensive and capable, and grounded the Ukrainian Air Force at the start of the war. Ukrainian helicopters still fly, but they fly extremely low to the ground and avoid the front, effectively eliminating their ability to serve in a medevac; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); or fires role. While Russian air defenses could not replicate this dominance against the U.S. or NATO, the air superiority we have become accustomed to over the past 30 years is no longer certain. We can’t take for granted that we will have close-air support evacuation or fires anytime we wish, nor that we will have unfettered access to the sky to conduct ISR.
CAMOUFLAGE. Largely forgotten over the past 17 years, camouflage is back in vogue. With the proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles that can serve as ISR platforms for artillery, an element spotted by a UAV may only have minutes to move before a rain of artillery fires falls. After witnessing Ukrainian and NATO units in training, it is clear the Ukrainians take this seriously while NATO units only go through the motions. Ukrainian vehicles look like giant, mobile vegetation clusters, with camouflage netting put up if a vehicle is stopped for any length of time. NATO vehicles, by contrast, are too often operated on the assumption that speed alone provides sufficient security during movement, and netting (often substandard) is more slowly put up after stopping.
What’s New Is New
CYBER. Russian hackers have seemingly penetrated just about every network in Ukraine. Russians have spoofed GPS signals and captured video downlinks of unencrypted transmissions from Ukrainian UAVs to view the feeds as the aircraft are overflying Ukrainian positions during takeoffs and landings. They have penetrated the cellular network for locational data and information operations, sending targeted messages to individual soldiers showing them nearly real-time pictures of their families and asking if they know whether their families are safe. On other occasions they have sent messages after an artillery strike telling soldiers to go home; their corrupt oligarch government officials aren’t worth dying for. In yet another case, the Russians tracked Ukrainian artillery units using a malware implant on Android devices. Placed in this context, the U.S. Army’s desire for perfect information brings with it real vulnerabilities that could be exploited by a sophisticated enemy.
UAVS. Russia has primarily employed UAVs in an ISR capacity to identify enemy positions for artillery strikes. In the technological development game of cat and mouse, UAVs currently dominate counter-UAV capability. The concept of air superiority increasingly looks like it might be a dated one.
DENSE URBAN TERRAIN. Urban warfare is not new. But given the historic and current lack of U.S. Army expertise in this area, the unique challenges of urban operations will largely be new to us. The Second Battle of Donetsk Airport demonstrated the challenges of fighting in urban terrain. At one point, Ukrainian military forces controlled the first and second floors of the international airport while Russian-led separatists occupied the basement tunnel system and the third floor. Two-dimensional maps don’t work to monitor unit locations in this environment.
Likewise, Russian forces aren’t afraid to fire artillery from populated areas, knowing Ukrainians are hesitant to mass fires into a densely populated area of their own citizens. Russia expertly uses our Western norms regarding civilian casualties against us. In future conflict, we may wish to bypass dense urban terrain, but this likely won’t be possible when our enemies attempt to use cities for protection. We may also have to look hard at how we balance operational objectives and collateral damage, a uniquely difficult task in cities dense with civilians, buildings and critical infrastructure.
Toward a Better Understanding
Today’s global operating environment presents the U.S. Army with a host of complex problems. To improve our ability to deter and, if required, defeat threats to the nation, the Army must take a holistic approach to these challenges. Some solutions are primarily technological, others will be organizational, doctrinal and, perhaps most challenging, cultural. But the first step toward developing these solutions is to watch, study and learn from cases like Ukraine.