Lessons from the war in Ukraine. Part 4

This part of the series is a record of conclusions and observations resulting directly from conversations with the participants of this war — soldiers and officers.

– There is a huge rotation in the ranks in the Ukrainian army. From February to October there was even a three-fold rotation due to the extent of personnel losses; some line troops had 20 percent of their starting lineup left, mostly in the rear command and communications posts.


– Great number of wounded, with a wounded to dead ratio of 7:1.


– Now the Ukrainian army fights mobilised, but this has a negative impact on discipline, especially in the attack; training is also weaker than in the case of the initial composition of the army. On the other hand, those mobilised are well motivated, and reservists are deployed regularly, there is no problem with that.


– Russian ranks in line troops are more disciplined, there is more “murderism” there; compared to the Ukrainian army, this works especially in the attack.


– Soldiers lack comprehensive abilities and skills, which deprives subunits of their abilities in the event of heavy losses. Equipment training is too narrow in scope and lacks universality; besides, it is difficult to train mobilised troops to a satisfactory level, and it is difficult to get something more out of them.


– There is a large deterioration in the quality of the soldier after several months of combat. This is a very important observation; in recent years, the Polish army has lacked and still lacks solutions regarding this issue; if war broke out, we wouldn’t know how to deal with it.


– Professional soldiers can do sophisticated things, but then – with losses – it all “settles down”, the stage of commanding “professionals” ends; it begins to resemble the management of national service known from the past. Commanders are not trained to deal with these new situations.


– The overall intensity of fighting has been rather low since the end of March; conservative fights with a step increase in intensity prevail. On the front, there are on average (except during offensives) two clashes per week, their duration is from one to six hours.


– As long as the commanders were competent, they had a lot of independence from central command. At the moment, the lack of cadres of non-commissioned officers and young lieutenants causes a stiffening of the command line in the Ukrainian army and an erosion of amorphousness.


– In tactical clashes, the Ukrainian army suffers casualties similar to those of the Russians; Russian equipment is effective in this war.


– After seven months of the war, a large increase in pathologies in the ranks of the army is already being observed. There is more and more alcohol and drugs; there is a slow departure from the professionalisation of the army, the “mission command” is eroding.


– The younger generations endure the difficult conditions of war worse than the older ones.


– The structure of subunits at the beginning of the war was ad hoc. It was then concreted; losses are replenished on time. This means that there are no field promotions, i.e. field commanders cannot promote talented leaders, because the system operates centrally and is similarly bureaucratic as is the case in Poland. Headquarters wants to give away jobs, so you can’t advance anyone in the ranks, in combat. This means that new officers appear in the unit, deprived of respect from the cadres shot at in battle. And such officers are suddenly supposed to command experienced soldiers. This generates a drop in morale for those who have already been baptised into battle and are now about to be led by someone without authority. Internal conflicts arise, it is necessary for better and longer “bedding in” between each side. The reason is probably political: maintaining a policy of promotion within the units by field commanders makes these units independent of the Ministry of Defence headquarters, Caesarism may appear, which is politically dangerous, but more effective in combat conditions.


– Officers are generally only rotated because of an injury or when an officer needs to be replaced after the death of an officer. If there is a rotation for other reasons, it is only for professional officers.


– The war mobilisation system should be rethought and arranged in such a way that it would no longer be up to the reservists to “win” the war. It should be the other way round. So that in the middle of the war, the best soldiers would determine its outcome, acting against an army of poorer quality. In some respects, this is the case in Israel, where the war is started by a young army and ended by an old one with many years of training and combat experience behind it.


– Ukrainian officers say that if Putin had the 100,000 troops he destroyed at the beginning, the situation of the Russians in relation to the Ukrainians would be much better.


– Artillery is the queen of the battlefield, it deals 90 percent of casualties; concentration and mass are risky, no clustering is allowed in close proximity to the opponent. Russian artillery fires en masse, which is of great psychological importance, because it creates the impression that the Russians are more supported by their own artillery than the Ukrainians.


– Changes in tank tactics: tanks fight with indirect fire from 10 kilometres, guided by drones and infantry; the tanks are in the rear, they act as close support to the artillery.


– It is impossible to recognize who the drones above the troops belong to; this has a powerful psychological effect that there is never any peace at operational depth.


– The Russians have fewer drones.


– Phosphorus and magnesium fire is a big problem for infantry, but not a problem for mechanised vehicles.


– Russian counter-battery fire is quite fast and massed, but often inaccurate.


– The impact of Russian aviation and battlefield support is sporadic and not very burdensome. There is not even training in air support procedures; such training does take place in Poland.


– Own support of the Ukrainian air force is practically imperceptible.


– So the feeling of the soldier is that it just land warfare plus drones.


– Own communication at the operational level is weak and random, but Russian EW (Electronic Warfare) is strong. The Russians carry out their communication via cable. Ukrainian communication is provided by Starlink thanks to the American company SpaceX. This communication works well up to the platoon and company level, sometimes even battalion level, but not above. Soldiers communicate via the Signal application, including group correspondence. Above the battalion, the Ukrainians maintain encrypted communication, but it does not work well. They text on Signal while the fight is in progress. Starlink works very well, but the Russian EW can jam this communication with point jammers. There are not many EW systems and not when the Russian army is attacking. EW is not a magic veil that cannot be penetrated.


– Without Starlink, the Ukrainians would not have tactical communication. If it wasn’t for access to the space domain, there would be no more war – this is the opinion of the Ukrainian army after eight months of war.


– Soldiers have location apps, civilian and military, on their phone.


– When there is no access to the Starlink signal, messengers and flags are used.


– Using Starlink has its downsides: infantry can’t go far from the terminal. So, during an attack, exploiting Starlink’s signal is difficult.


– The points of the combat order are poorly implemented in the Ukrainian army: that is, the orientation in who is the neighbour of the unit is poor, the operational orientation is also quite poor.


– The armament of the Ukrainian side is sufficient, but there are many captured weapons in use.


– There is a big difference between the equipment of ethnic Russian units and the equipment of Asian, Siberian and auxiliary units of the Russian Empire.


– The Ukrainians often capture Russian field magazines and capture a lot of equipment in this way.


– Ukrainian food for the army is tasteless, so the soldiers cook themselves, unless the meals are served by civilians, often volunteers, in the form of catering. Therefore, there is a lot of food, but it is not distributed according to system solutions. The system alone wouldn’t work.


– Russians have a problem with food, they loot and eat the same things over and over again.


– There is a belief that light infantry can destroy tanks and Russian logistics.


– Reconnaissance: own use of civilian cars, even in mechanised companies; GPS cannot be relied on, soldiers must reconnoitre the terrain themselves.


– Drones help tremendously in reconnaissance.


– The development of road fortifications, ditches, dugouts, cavings, holes, trenches, bridges (built and destroyed) is of great importance.


– There is enough fuel for the army, no need to requisition.


– There are no guidelines as to the depth of action, raids are rather long because they go into empty spaces; when you know where the enemy is, you can make further raids.


– He who does not dig in is dead; hence the multitude of engineering dams, trenches made by own means.


– Vehicles are not entrenched except in defence; natural barriers are used; there is not a large number of engineering vehicles in the Ukrainian army.


– Traps, mines, sappers play a huge role; sappers are lacking.


– Hand-to-hand combat is rather conservative. When the fight is even, there is a stalemate because no one wants to risk it without asymmetry. The impasse can last a long time, it can be broken by artillery support; also when there is an attack; or when one of the sides gets support from additional flanking units, or from the rear, but then friendly fire happens very often. Or when ammo or fuel runs out.


– IFVs and transporters are not ridden in, only on.


– Tape and paint markings are very important.


– Attacks in urban terrain: concentration and gathering of the squad to attack is delayed until the last moment; the platoons arrive separately at the very end; first, suppressive and indirect fire from tanks to the edge of the buildings; two IFV platoons drive at full speed into the points selected under the firewall and spill out at the first buildings, creating a bridgehead, which they try to enlarge; one IFV stays and the others retreat and disperse; then more platoons appear as the bridgehead expands. One IFV stays because it gives firepower and psychologically the possibility of evacuation in case of injury.


– Uniforms of the opposing side are often used, so armbands, tapes are more reliable when it comes to assessing who we are dealing with than uniforms.


– Poor coordination in the Ukrainian army above the battalions and poor information flow at the upper echelons; weaker OODA loop than at tactical levels.


– Very high operational pace.


– Often a problem with recognising who is the enemy and who is a friend.


– Need: universal abilities to replace wounded and killed; the ability to drive enemy vehicles and use enemy weapons (there is a lot of captured enemy equipment).


– It is necessary to know the Russian language.


– Disguise and camouflage as well as camping skills in the field and in the forest are very important.

Lessons from the war in Ukraine. Part 4
Autor Jacek Bartosiak
CEO and Founder of Strategy&Future, author of bestselling books.
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