Small Wars Journal

Does Ukraine Spell the Death of the Operational-Level Offense?

Thu, 03/17/2022 - 9:31am

Does Ukraine Spell the Death of the Operational-Level Offense?

by John Q. Bolton and Andrew Senesac

            Russia’s invasion of Ukraine offers plenty of lessons for military leaders, especially regarding how armies operate in a social media environment. Most interesting is the emergence of the soldier-shooter-texter (SST) as both a fighter and operational-level enabler of multiple battlefield systems, especially intelligence and fires.  Undoubtedly, the slowness of the Russian advance owes much to stiff Ukrainian resistance, the extensive period Russian units spent deployed prior to the February invasion, and the Russian reliance on poorly led and misinformed conscripts. Russia’s inability to rapidly seize Kyiv and poor use of airpower against the smaller Ukrainian Military are shocking, with an estimated 4,000 dead Russian servicemen in just two weeks. What looks like a planned punitive expedition has bogged down into a war of attrition.


However, differences between Russian and Western armies aside, the frictions seen in Ukraine are increasingly endogenous to the modern battlefield. Once expensive systems are now cheap, dispersible, and resilient from communications to anti-armor missiles. The distributed intelligence and coordination networks made possible by mobile phones and social media have changed warfare, dulling the power of even the most audacious offense. Military leaders must take stock of this emerging operating environment. Doing so may make us reconsider just how able our forces are to wage even a limited offensive. 


            The plethora of portable anti-aircraft and anti-armor weapons pervading Ukraine makes even poorly trained soldiers deadly to vehicle and aircraft crews. The toll of these weapons on Russian helicopters and armor columns is made clear by (well-done) Ukrainian social media feeds and numerous open-source aggregators. It is apparent from their Day 1 decision to launch daytime attacks, including an apparently unsupported brigade-level airfield seizure,  that Russians did not expect such intense resistance enabled by modern technology and the morale derived from defending one’s homeland.


To Army Aviators the Russian helicopter shootdowns bring back painful memories of the 11th Regiment’s failed 2003 “deep attack” into the Karbala Gap when Iraqi spotters blacked out entire cities when they heard the attacking Apache helicopters, alerting small teams armed with machine guns and anti-aircraft artillery. Despite flying blacked-out and using infrared, the Apache attack failed, with over 20 helicopters suffering major damage and two lost. The Army took the defeat in stride and re-structured the 101st Airborne’s follow-on deep attack two days later. That attack, which was well-supported by F/A-18 jamming and joint fires, successfully destroyed an Iraqi air defense unit minimal aircraft damaged.


            We may be seeing a similar trend in Ukraine. Not only have technology-enabled bands of Ukrainian soldiers and partisans delayed and, in some cases, defeated the Russian onslaught, but their battlefield documentation in the form of cell phone testimonials and evidence of Russian atrocities and ineptitude, has helped Ukraine win decisively in the information space. In Ukraine, the soldier-shooter-texter has dominated a much larger and better equipped force.


While the Iraqis leveraged cell phone networks and rudimentary signaling using electrical grids, the Ukrainian defense has seen individual soldiers not only destroy Russian tanks using Javelins, NLAWs, or Stringers, but to act as a reconnaissance, collection, command and control, and propaganda node simultaneously. To be sure, some of this has resulted from Russia’s inability to control the information space – or at least prevent Ukrainian dominance. It appears technology and robust, distributed cell and Internet networks are creating what commanders have long wanted: powerful, technologically enabled mobile bands of soldiers that can not only punch defeat much larger formations but also provide immediate reporting (which swiftly becomes intelligence and propaganda) while remaining dispersed yet still accessible.


The long-sought integrated, resilient, and immediate networks dreamt of by 1990s proponents of “Information Dominance” is a reality – albeit not via the cumbersome, expensive military-specific networks legions of contractors envisioned. Instead, civilian cell, satellite, and fiber networks have proliferated, allowing both secure and unsecure communications to the individual soldier. Commanders, enabled by basic staffs and social media aggregation, can readily access information heretofore unimaginable. And now battlefield reports come augmented with corroborating pictures enabled by cloud storage for exploitation.


The implications of SST are enormous because this new model enables defenders more than attackers. Easy to use anti-tank and anti-armor systems enable reserves and less well-trained soldiers, as shown by the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Force (TDF), to assume responsibilities in a defensive action that enable better units to engage in counter-offensives or maneuver to positions of advantage more quickly than offensive forces can respond. In Ukraine, TDF ambushes and spoiling attacks have greatly attritted and impeded Russian armored columns and logistics. Accordingly, Ukrainian special forces and irregular units gained the tactical and “cyber mobility” to strike Russian columns, using information provided to them by smartphones and social media.


The proliferation of commercial information technology and communications infrastructure will continue to enable the SST. Crucially, it is difficult to stop the spread of information created by the SST network. Once in the cloud or on social media the information is not only redundant but permanent. Commercial incentives for generating redundancy in cell networks and the nature of Internet addressing and routing makes SST networks resilient. This is true of all but the most isolated Internet infrastructure, such as China’s “Great Firewall.” Satellite constellations such as SpaceX’s Starlink will increase Internet access even in conflict zones.


For military forces’ survivability is increasingly difficult amid satellite (both military and civilian) observation and widespread communications networks. But the net result of so many combatants with so much firepower and communications is a dulling of the operational offensive. Abundant battlefield sensors and commercial satellite imagery means mass and surprise may simply not be possible without mass communication blackouts or science fiction levels of stealth technology. Consider that Western weapons shipments and NATO flights operate near-transparently with live tracking of their positions.


Combined with the inherent advantage of the defense and the morale associated with homeland defense, the offense may be operationally sluggish at best for the foreseeable future. Russia’s attack occurred in full view of the global public. US intelligence began advertising potential Russian moves in October and countered Kremlin propaganda at every turn. Consequently, the Russian Army’s attack achieved limited local, but not operational surprise. The results have been devastating to Russian mechanized forces and now imperil Russia’s ability to consolidate its (limited) gains in Ukraine. The Ukrainians have shown that military communication can effectively operate “in the clear” on civilian networks. Moreover, with globalization making companies sensitive to political outcomes – see the corporations departing Russia – a defender can impose economic costs well beyond battlefield losses.


There is no time to lose in evaluating how best to fight and win in this new environment. Dispersed, mobile, light formations below the battalion-level may be better suited to fight future conflicts, whether on the offense or defense – a recognition the US Marine Corps has made. But this largely runs counter to US military doctrine, which heavily favors the offense, and the inherent construct of our most powerful combat formation, the US Army’s Armored Brigade Combat Team (ABCT). The Army’s operational concept imagines armored thrusts as a cornerstone of achieving tactical success. Events in Ukraine have shown such massing of large, heavy, logistics-dependent formations may not be possible, even with a friendly staging area near the objective.


The US Army has faced this dilemma before. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, US Army leaders, still reckoning with defeat in Vietnam, studied how the Egyptians were able to blunt Israel’s offensive edge using a combination of shrewd tactics and then-nascent Soviet anti-armor and anti-aircraft systems. The resulting Active Defense doctrine envisioned largely static defenses in central Germany to deter and delay a Soviet attack until CONUS-based reinforcements could arrive. For the US Army, technology dulled the offensive until AirLand Battle, itself contingent on new technologies, emerged a decade later. 


            Does this admittedly early picture of a modern battlefield mean the offense is dead? Probably not. Russian indiscipline and lack of skill, both strategically and operationally has contributed to the tactical failures of 40-mile convoys (traffic jam) and air defense units destroyed ironically by Ukrainian drones. Nevertheless, the opportunity for large-scale maneuver by even well-trained forces may be waning in an era when every soldier is not only a sensor, but an anti-tank shooter, battle damage evaluator, and intelligence/propaganda collector. The implications of the SST for how armies organize, train, and equip themselves are profound. Time will tell but military leaders must continue to study this conflict.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of any entities they represent.


About the Author(s)

Andrew Senesac is a Junior Policy Fellow at the National Defense Industrial Association and a second-year Strategic Studies MA candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).  He is a Pacific Forum Young leader and holds a degree in history.

Lieutenant Colonel John Bolton is an Army Goodpaster Scholar assigned to the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) where he is pursuing a PhD in American Foreign Policy. A Mandarin speaker and a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College’s Art of War Scholars Program, he holds degrees in military history and mechanical engineering. His most recent assignment was in the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade. He has deployed multiple times with Engineer, Infantry, and Aviation units. He is an AH-64D/E aviator with nearly 2,000 flight hours, including over 800 in combat.