How the Primary Lesson from Ukraine is a Call for Stability Operations
By Richard M. Ingleby
It happens in college football almost every year. There is always a team that everyone projects will be a powerhouse before the season begins, one that receives a majority of the hype and finds themselves ranked in the pre-season top five or ten teams. Analysts predict playoff runs and national championships long before the first whistle is even blown.
Then this acclaimed team steps out on the field, and within the first minutes of play, the nation finds itself collectively shocked at what they are seeing on the turf. What is viewed from the stands or on broadcasts is a completely different than the championship team they had been told about and expected all offseason. Visions of post-season play at the highest levels are dashed, and we all get to laugh at those one-of-a-kind scenes shown, where the school’s student section is collectively on the verge of tears is shown across televisions nationwide.
The Armed Forces of the Russian Federation are that team. For three-quarters of a century the West has consistently looked at the USSR and subsequent Russian Federation as its premier adversary, even using it as its primary example of a “near peer” in more recent decades. Trillions have been spent to prepare for conflict against them, along with massive amounts of energy and focus. So much so that on multiple occasions we have even taken our eye off of actual ongoing conflicts to focus on preparation for the Russian foe.
When the Russian military invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022 however, it finally stepped out onto the field and showed exactly what kind of team it was. Massive and relatively well equipped, our long anticipated foe is actually horrible. Their campaign has been a complete debacle, and there are few examples in modern history of such failures. Perhaps one has to the post-purge Red Army’s invasion of Finland in 1939 for an equivalent example of such a military miscarriage.
From the outset of the conflict, at the tactical level, the Russians showcased a complete inability to plan and employ fires, execute combined arms warfare, or even conduct battle drills at the small unit level. Their equipment losses due to logistics, maintenance or even terrain feasibility assessments (e.g. avoiding Ukrainian mud) have been unimaginable. It is now clear why the Russian military took months to stage all along their neighbor’s border. Operationally, thus far, their plan seems to have been to just attack everywhere, hoping to overwhelm with their mass. All these factors combined have been the reason for Ukrainian success – their success has more to do with Russian failure than anything of their own doing.
Our foe is not who we thought they were. Rather than a near-peer threat, they have exposed themselves more to be peers with one of Saddam’s armies. Likewise, given that the Chinese were less industrialized than the Russians following the Second World War, and have had no military experience since the Korean War, there is nothing to suggest they are actually any better. Further, our other potential adversaries in the Republic of North Korea and Iran are not even worth mentioning. Bottom line, this Ukrainian War has made it clear: the United States and some – but definitely not all – of our NATO partners are currently light-years ahead of our most likely and prominent threats in every regard.
Of particular significance however is the fact that since the 1950s Korean War, all of the United States’ significant conflicts have been insurgency operations. Specifically in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Militarily in the former, and at the outset of the latter two, along with in every other more traditional conflict since, the United States has absolutely dominated its opponents on the battlefield. In our insurgent wars however – now termed Stability Operations in current military doctrine – we have consistently struggled. That is too mild of a statement: we lost all three.
More concerning is the fact that at the end of three of these wars, particularly given their lasting impacts, we still have not mastered how to conduct them. Nor have we attempted to try to figure out how to do so. Given that thousands of America’s sons and daughters that went off to fight them returned home in flag draped coffins, we owe it to our nation to master Stability Operations to the same degree we have done with Offense or Defense in Unified Land Operations. Given that our threats have clearly given us some breathing space, we have the time to do so, particularly while the Global War on Terror lessons are still fresh. Because undoubtedly, the next conflict will include Stability Operations, if not completely so.
Currently, our doctrine is generally sufficient. Our training, and thus proficiency, is what is lacking. JP/ADP 3-07 and ATP 3-07.5 provide a solid doctrinal foundation, but again, our training is solely focused toward traditional combat, rarely – if ever – allowing for units to practice Stability Operations. Case in point, it is probably safe to say that every brigade in the Army could execute an offensive or defensive operation with a relative degree of proficiency right now – at far greater proficiency than that of our “near-peer” adversaries. Were brigades tested on Stability Operations however, readers here know that results would unquestionably vary, that any tactics employed would more likely be based on their leaders’ personal experiences, rather than anything learned from regular training or practice. This of course, is not mastery. Far from it. And results will only get worse as time goes by and more and more Global War on Terror service members retire from the ranks.
The natural instinct then is to simply suggest that leaders need to implement Stability Operations into training. That is too simple of a response however. The problem at present is that we do not know how to train it – we have all been through attempts at training where if you talk to a “local,” ask them what they want, then coordinate to hand over that bag of desired rice, we call it a win for training. Not only is training like this usually a complete waste of time, such efforts did not produce results in real Stability conflicts, so to practice them in training only sets us up to repeat the same mistakes. The problem again is we do not know how to do anything better than that – again, we are far from mastery.
What the Army needs to do is organize a Functional Area devoted specifically to Stability Operations, with a simultaneous mission to study and understand it, along with developing and leading a training regimen for units to practice, both at home station and during CTCs. This group should be experienced Field Grade level leaders, who first receive graduate education in history, with emphasis toward small wars. Once complete, they then spend their entire career devoted to its study, to include frequent publication of case studies for regular use across the Army. They should additionally be responsible for developing both leadership professional development and training sets for unit home station training, from the individual to the division level. Similarly, they should develop and assist in CTC rotations devoted entirely to Stability Operations, along with injects that can be incorporated into more traditional rotations.
Lastly, combat units should be deployed regularly to short humanitarian deployments, where they can actually practice non-lethal targeting and Stability Operations first-hand, learning to win over a population without the threat of enemy forces. This deployment should be supervised with accompanying Stability Functional Area team members. While this likely sounds like an idea that is far outside the box, imagine the proficiency units would come home with after spending a several months identifying critical infrastructure and then supervising its construction in a village Kenya or the Philippines. Imagine the experience gained from the interactions and relationships built with the civil population that could be applied to Stability Operations in an active warzone. Imagine how prepared we would have been in Afghanistan and Iraq had we been done so prior.
Bottom line, it is absolutely clear that are well beyond our nearest adversary in terms of combat proficiency, technology and equipment. It is also clear that the United States will undoubtedly find itself in another major Stability Operation in the coming decades. While this is not a call to completely dedicate all our efforts to Stability, it is a call to put enough emphasis on it – permanently – to ensure we are ready when the next Vietnam or Iraq comes. Enough to achieve the same degree of mastery in Stability as we have in the Offense or Defense.
The Army absolutely owes it to the population we serve to be ready to win the next war. Given the costly failures in our more recent insurgency conflicts, we owe it even more to the nation to master this type of warfare. Mastering Stability Operations will require significant effort, but only a small percentage of our overall efforts. So there really is no excuse not to give Stability some focus now – given what the Russians have shown of themselves in Ukraine, we can absolutely afford to.