It’s too early to talk about lessons learned from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but it’s not too early to observe how some of war’s perennial truths are illustrated in this, the most current of wars. This essay addresses five of them:
1. The future of war. Some writers have argued that war has changed so fundamentally that, if we have wars at all in the future, they will look nothing like in the past. Artificial intelligence, cyber, drones, robots, hypersonic weapons, space—pick a favorite technology—and you can find someone who predicts it is the future of war. Others have predicted that future wars will be gray zone operations—hybrid war below the threshold of conventional combat—in which mercenaries or paramilitaries fight a murky war in the shadows.
British Army Gen. Sir Rupert Smith has written: “War as a battle in a field between men and machinery, war as a massive deciding event in a dispute in international affairs: such war no longer exists.” Looking at world events, not only in Ukraine but beyond, civil and military professionals can see these arguments are forms of reductionism that don’t match the reality of what is happening on the ground.
Future war will take the shape necessary to achieve the political aims of those engaged in it. Combat will feature use of the means at hand: high tech and low, primitive and advanced, in the gray zone with hybrid means and with conventional tools. War is a practical affair, not a theoretical one. Preparing for war in all its potential forms is hard. It always was, and it always will be.
The key is that the future is unpredictable. Reductionism is seductive but represents a dangerous mindset for security professionals. Those who advance such views obscure real war and, in the process, place obstacles in the path of war preparation. Betting, so to speak, on one possible future is gambling with America’s security.
2. Levels of war. The tactical, operational and strategic levels of war are interwoven, and all involve both military and nonmilitary actions. Some in the 1990s believed, falsely, that the levels of war had collapsed. But each level, as well as how they interact, is clearly at work in Ukraine.
Some individual actions (the tactical level) involve fighting discrete battles. Other individual actions, however, may be diplomatic, informational, financial or industrial. A keen observer of the Russia-Ukraine war can see both military and nonmilitary tactical actions playing out daily. But if a state’s political aims are to be achieved (the strategic level), civil and military leaders must string together these discrete actions into coherent campaigns (the operational level).
For example, the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has been waging diplomatic and informational campaigns to create and sustain support for his country’s defense. His individual actions—whether in the media or in capitals around the world—are part of a larger campaign designed to achieve Ukraine’s strategic, political aims. The U.S. and NATO are conducting at least three simultaneous campaigns: one to defend NATO territory and prevent the war from widening or escalating; a second to supply Ukraine with the means necessary for its defense; and a third to sanction Russian individuals and corporate entities. Also going on are informational, diplomatic, industrial and monetary campaigns.
Like the tactical level, the operational is not just a military activity. Further, ensuring the military and nonmilitary campaigns are integrated, complement one another and adapt as the war unfolds is part of waging war at the operational and strategic levels. Finally, all campaigns must contribute to achieving the strategic, political aim set by the political communities involved. Otherwise, efforts could work against one another. This aspect of waging war is always difficult, more so when alliances are involved.
The key is to remember that excellence at the military tactical and operational levels is necessary but insufficient. Strategic excellence is also necessary, for wars are waged and won at the strategic level and always require military and nonmilitary action.
3. Combat power. Combat power is not merely a function of technology; it’s a function of confidence—in yourself, your buddies, your leaders, your equipment, your training and, importantly but often overlooked, the systems that are supposed to support you and your unit.
Thinking of a military force as a spear brings this point home. The tip of the spear, the fighting units, is sharp when confidence is high. Part of that confidence derives from the strength of the spear’s shaft. If the echelons above those fighting cannot consistently provide proper intelligence, integrate maneuver and supporting fires, conduct supply and logistics operations, or provide adequate medical support, confidence and combat power decrease.
Confidence has three dimensions. Military confidence derives from the tip of the spear and its immediate shaft. Institutional confidence lies further up the shaft. Institutional confidence derives from the highest levels of military and civil organizations that are designed to provide the fighting force and command echelons above fighting with the people, training, materiel, leadership, organizations and fiscal means necessary to sustain combat. Poor institutional proficiency takes longer to erode combat power, but it will finally affect confidence at the tip of the spear.
Last, at the end of the shaft, lies political confidence. Spears don’t throw themselves; senior political and military leaders throw them. When a military spear is thrown frivolously, in haste, at the wrong target, or is repetitively aimed poorly—that will ultimately affect confidence at the tip. And combat power at the tip of the spear decreases if there is a sense that those throwing the spear are “wasting” the lives and sacrifices of those fighting. The quality of both the Ukrainian and Russian “spear” is in full view for all to evaluate.
The key is proficiency-based confidence at each dimension of combat power: at the tip of the spear and in the spear’s complete shaft. A sharp tip without a strong shaft is not a spear.
4. War’s moral dimension. The moral dimension of war is often described in three parts: going to war for legitimate reasons, waging and fighting the war according to moral principles and the laws of armed conflict, and ending the war in ways that bring about a better peace than at the war’s start. These are important, and each is apparent in the Russia-Ukraine war. Another way to understand war’s moral dimension, however, is through four important wartime moral relationships.
The first is between combatants and the innocent, the noncombatants who are always on the battlefield. The outrage over Russian disregard for the rights of the innocent is a daily reminder of the world’s moral expectations of those who fight: first, protect the innocent to the extent demanded by international conventions and the law of armed conflict; and second, do not use the innocent as means to achieve military ends.
The second morally relevant relationship is among soldiers themselves. Each combatant relies on the other for protection, sometimes to the point of sacrificing one’s life for a fellow soldier. No unit can long fight if such trust is absent.
The third is between soldiers and their leaders—tactical, operational and strategic. Soldiers’ very lives are in the hands of those who give commands, issue orders and promulgate directives. These leaders are often sergeants and officers. At the tip of the spear and the base of the shaft, the moral bond and the weight of responsibility are clearest. At the senior operational and strategic levels, the bond and responsibility are sometimes obscured, but both are always present. Those who direct large-scale operations literally use lives to achieve campaign goals. These military and political leaders have the weightiest of responsibilities even though they are farther from the battlefield.
Finally, there is an important and morally relevant relationship between soldiers and their government. Senior military and political leaders are those the government sanctions to send citizens-now-in-uniform to risk their lives; they are also the leaders whose decisions have a wide-ranging effect on families and communities. Governments have the right to use the lives of their citizens-turned-soldiers (or airmen, sailors or Marines), but in doing so they have the corresponding obligation to use those lives well. Responsible use is the flip side of the right of final decisions.
The key for civilian and military security professionals is this: Your decisions are matters of life and death. Citizens in uniform remain citizens. Some of their rights can be modified, abridged and temporarily withheld, but none merely forfeited unconditionally.
5. War’s enduring nature. Regardless of how technology affects the conduct of war, the geostrategic conditions surrounding war or the historical period of war, war remains the realm of fear, fog, friction and uncertainty. War remains, on the battlefield and in capitals, a dynamic phenomenon in which warring parties try to outfox as well as outfight their enemies. Each side tries to outwit the other, and each side tries to thwart the plans of the other. Force is the coin of war’s realm. Sometimes diplomatic force or economic force may succeed, but physical force is more often the final arbiter. War’s primary aim is to compel, not to convince or communicate. The Russia-Ukraine war displays war’s enduring nature daily.
Finally, war is a constant interplay—at all levels—among its purpose, the emotion necessary to sustain fighting, and skill and chance associated with both fighting and waging war. This dynamic relationship changes constantly as war unfolds for each of the warring parties as well as between them. The dynamics are ever-changing, as opportunities and vulnerabilities emerge, and as populations and leaders respond to the realities of war unexpected at its start. Nothing is static in war, which adds to its fog and uncertainty.
Key for those who are trying already to derive lessons learned from the Russia-Ukraine war is to be mindful not just of the specifics of this war, but also of the constants in war.
When security professionals, military and civilian, hear claims that the Russia-Ukraine war shows that everything has changed, remember that this list of five is only the beginning of an understanding of war’s perennial truths. Take care not to fall prey to a new fad of reductionist thinking.
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Lt. Gen. James Dubik, U.S. Army retired, a former commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, is a senior fellow of the Association of the U.S. Army. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and is the author of Just War Reconsidered: Strategy, Ethics, and Theory.