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Ukraine: the more war changes, the more it stays the same

Over the past century little has changed in the way that armies fight one another

EuropeWar Zones

Ukrainian artillerymen from the 24th brigade load an ammunition inside of a 2S1 Gvozdika self-propelled howitzer at a position along the front line in the vicinity of Bakhmut, Donetsk region. Photo by Ihor Tkachov.

“The soldier’s main weapon against death is the shovel.” It doesn’t sound like modern hi-tech war. But in fact, it’s a very recent statement by Alexander Khodakovsky, a veteran of eight years fighting in Ukraine, and the commander of the Donetsk People’s Republic’s Vostok Battalion. After months of full-scale war following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Khodakovsky notes that most casualties come from shell fragments whizzing along just above ground level. If you want to live, he says, whenever you have a break—dig. Dig, dig, dig.

If it sounds very First World War, that’s no coincidence. For as the Russia-Ukraine war nears its first anniversary, what has become clear is that despite all the technological paraphernalia of modern warfare, over the past 100 years very little has changed in the way that large-scale armies fight one another. It’s still a matter of assembling the biggest possible force, equipping it with as many weapons as you can, and firing off as much ammunition as your factories and stockpiles will permit. It is, simply put, not very subtle at all.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. For the past 30 years or so, military theorists have been telling us that the character, or even the very nature, of war was undergoing fundamental changes. The idea was that precision-guided weapons (PGMs) would allow armies to drastically reduce ammunition expenditure, as they would be able to hit the target most of the time. Modern intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets would cut through the “fog of war” allowing those possessing them to achieve “information dominance” over their enemies. Computer networks would connect command and control systems with ISR and PGMs, allowing almost immediate, and accurate, strikes on enemy positions. The result would be a shift in advantage to the offensive, with the dominant side winning rapid victories at low cost.

All of this would mean that the massive armies of old, equipped with huge amounts of heavy equipment, would become obsolete. War would cease to be a linear affair, with armies lined up opposite one another. Instead, small mobile, widely dispersed forces would move across the battlefield with great rapidity, while the primary source of firepower would be aircraft.

Overall, this was meant to constitute a “revolution in military affairs,” with new technology combining with new tactics and organization to produce a synergistic effect of such magnitude to fundamentally alter the character of war.

As so often though, practice has brought theory down to earth with an almighty bang. When one looks at the war in Ukraine, and compares it to all these predictions, one is forced to the inevitable conclusion that almost none of them correspond to reality.

First, it has become obvious that precision guided weapons don’t reduce ammunition expenditure to any noticeable degree. We don’t know for sure how many munitions have been fired in Ukraine, but the number is huge. Estimates of Russian artillery ammunition expenditure vary from a low of 7,000 rounds a day to a high of 60,000. The most commonly cited amount is about 20,000 rounds a day, with the Ukrainians maybe firing a third of that amount. If that is the case, then combined, the Russians and Ukrainians may have expended up to eight million rounds so far during the war.

They have not, of course, killed anything like eight million people as a result. Modern artillery systems can be extremely accurate. Yet the reality remains that 95 percent of shells don’t hurt anybody. The same goes for other types of munitions. According to one Russian war correspondent, troops of the Wagner private military company are using 2,000 rifle rounds a day during the battle for the town of Bakhmut. Probably 99.9 percent of these bullets miss the target (a report for the US government similarly noted a few years ago that the US army fired 250,000 bullets for every insurgent killed in Iraq and Afghanistan). Modern war is anything but precise.

In these circumstances, the way one makes progress is by bombarding the enemy with as much as one can. To protect themselves against this, soldiers follow Khodakovsky’s advice and dig, dig, dig, producing a line of trenches and fortifications that in places resembles the Western Front of 1916. British intelligence reports that the Russians have built an almost continuous trench system some 60 km long in the most northern part of the front line. Russian war correspondent Alexander Kots writes that “I travelled from Kherson to Lugansk, and… there is now literally construction of fortifications on an industrial scale… trenches, anti-tank moats, … concrete pillboxes… and bunkers.”

With this, the war in Ukraine has taken on a decidedly linear form. Far from disappearing, front lines are well-defined and change only slowly. Instead of “contactless war,” or war by means of small, rapidly moving detachments relying on air support, we have a slow-moving war of mass, reliant above all on what Stalin called the “God of War”—artillery.

In this war, the advantage belongs not the offence, as theorists imagined, but to the defence. Modern surveillance systems contribute to this. Drones are ubiquitous—some of them military grade, but most of them quadcopters bought off the shelf in an electronics store and shipped off to the front. Compared to aircraft, drones are cheap. Even a very modest army can easily equip itself with hundreds of them. The result is that is increasingly difficult to hide large-scale concentrations of force of the sort required to carry out offensive operations. It’s not impossible, but the risk of being discovered and then immediately destroyed by enemy artillery is greater than ever before.

This greatly complicates offensive action, and strengthens the tendency to precede any attacks by long artillery preparation. The problem with this tactic, however, is that it eliminates the element of surprise and gives the enemy time to bring up reserves. Attacks may make some initial progress, but any holes in the enemy line are soon filled up by reserves and the process has to start again from scratch. The result is a very slow moving pace of operations.

One may be sure that the military industrial complexes of Western states are taking note, and rubbing their hands with certain amount of satisfaction. For the nature of the war in Ukraine is a wonderful opportunity to press the case for larger armies, more and heavier weapons, more ammunition and, of course, more money. One may expect military planners to start arguing that they must prepare for the possibility that wars of the future may look very like wars of the past, in other words, that they may be prolonged and bloody wars of attrition, and that the outcome may be determined by which side is able to mobilize the largest army and the greatest firepower. This will necessitate a move away from the smaller, lighter forces favored by Western states in the immediate post-Cold War era and towards bigger, more heavily equipped militaries, with large peacetime stockpiles, all backed by a significant domestic military-industrial capacity.

This makes some sense, but only if you consider it likely that you will fight a peer, or near peer, competitor, something that Western states haven’t done for a very long time. But there’s another lesson that military planners ought to take away from the war in Ukraine, namely that a war of that type is utterly suicidal. Rather than teaching us how to fight such a war, what events in Ukraine are really telling us is that we must do all we can to make sure that we never ever have to.

Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy. He is the author of numerous works on Russian and Soviet history, including Russian Conservatism, published by Northern Illinois University Press in 2019.

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