On February 24, the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine would complete two years of hostility. This conflict has witnessed many firsts. The conflict has ushered in a completely new era of warfare. World over militaries are changing their weapons development, procurement and operational tactics. Many of the prized possessions of militaries like big naval ships, 4++ gen fighters, armoured platforms, air defence systems etc. have turned out to be a liability which needs to be protected. Small and low tech drone have emerged as weapons of choice. There is also revival of trench lines and brutal attrition warfare.
The idea behind is to allow readers to witness how this war has changed and also changed the way we perceived war and national power.
IDI and its e-magazine GeoStartegy have published stories and analysis pertaining to the conflict. Those would be republished here for the reader’s sake. IDI would also publish a new series of analytical pieces under ‘Lessons of Ukraine War’. Happy Reading.
Coverstory/Military - GeoStrategy - April-May 2022
Shock and Awe: Lessons from the Ukraine War
By Rakesh Krishnan Simha
More than a month into the Ukraine War, Russia has decapitated much of the Ukrainian armed forces. Contrary to the propaganda peddled by the Western media, the conflict in Europe is likely to be settled in Moscow’s favour, with Ukraine neutered and effectively losing its independence. For India, the war offers a number of lessons in key areas – from using artillery effectively to the right time to deploy air power and standoff strikes.
Russia’s objectives and tactics in the Ukraine War can be summed up in the words of two famous strategists. Niccolo Machiavelli, the Italian diplomat of the Renaissance Period, wrote in The Prince: “There is no avoiding war – it can only be postponed to the advantage of others.” More than 2,300 years ago, Chanakya, the Prime Minister of the Mauryan Empire, wrote in the Arthashastra: “The enemy's destruction shall be brought about even at the cost of great losses in mean, material and wealth.”
A key takeaway for India from the ongoing conflict in Europe is that sometimes war is unavoidable, and it should be executed with a laser-like focus. India is a stark example of a large country that has not only allowed an implacable enemy to thrive on its borders but also permitted it to emerge as a nuclear power. In contrast, Russia gave Ukraine a long rope for the past eight years, but when the Ukrainian leadership started making plans to join NATO, Russia decided Kyiv’s time was up. And when the invasion happened, it was fast but measured.
What Russia did to Ukraine wasn’t a blitzkrieg but rather economic and military strangulation. Since a blitzkrieg would result in huge civilian casualties and the destruction of Ukrainian cities, Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to go for a staggered assault that is taking apart the Ukrainian Army piece by piece. This is primarily due to the fact that Russia considers Ukrainians to be no different from Russians, and incorporating Ukraine into the Russian sphere of influence is the key objective. “It’s like a boa constrictor around Ukraine’s neck, squeezing and squeezing and squeezing,” said retired US Admiral James Foggo, former commander of US and NATO fleets in Europe.
The battle for Ukraine began in the early morning hours of February 24, when Putin launched what he called a “special military operation” into the country of about 40 million, with attacks from multiple fronts and targeted toward multiple Ukrainian cities.
In war, the army with the first-mover advantage has the element of surprise on its side. Hours before Russia launched its military operations in Ukraine, Russian cyber assault teams crippled Ukrainian internet and signal communications, isolating the political leadership in Kyiv from its forward military commanders. This is exactly what the US did in Iraq in both the Gulf Wars – in 1991 and 2003.
This was followed by a ferocious artillery and missile barrage. Non-nuclear Klub and Iskander-M cruise missiles smashed into Ukraine’s military’s headquarters, tactical command centres, radars, air defence missiles, anti-aircraft missile units and air force bases. As many as 74 control and communication centres were knocked out of action within the first 24 hours. Over 2,119 military infrastructure targets were hit within a week. According to Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov, among them were 11 airfields belonging to the Ukrainian Air Force, three command points, a Ukrainian Navy base, 68 radar stations and one hundred and eight S-300 and Buk-M1 missile systems.
The Ukrainian Navy was also knocked out in the early rounds, with most of its warships sunk in the harbour. The Black Sea port of Odesa, Ukraine’s busiest port and largest oil and gas terminal came under missile attack and quickly passed into Russian control. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet had been disrupting Ukraine’s maritime trade even before the invasion. Faced with these attacks, Ukraine suspended operations at its seaports.
Next, the Ukrainian Air Force went up in smoke. By the beginning of the special operation, there were up to 250 serviceable combat aircraft and helicopters in the service of the Ukrainian armed forces. The Russian Aerospace Forces destroyed 89 combat aircraft and 57 helicopters on the ground and in the air. “Some of the Ukrainian planes flew to Romania and no longer participate in battles," said Konashenkov.
Many so-called experts have been claiming that Russian forces have got bogged down on the Ukrainian border, but on the contrary, the Russian Army burst through Ukrainian defences – or what was left of them – and reached the outskirts of the capital Kyiv within three days of the invasion. “The scale and scope of the Russian attack is remarkable. They captured territory in three weeks that is larger than the landmass of the United Kingdom,” says Larry C. Johnson, a veteran of the CIA and the State Department’s Office of Counter-Terrorism, in an interview with UNZ.com.
The Russians were surprised by the world by using highly trained special forces to lead the attacks, especially in Kyiv. Moscow feared significant numbers of civilians would have died if Russian ground troops went into the Ukrainian capital. A significant number of these soldiers, known as the Spetsnaz, moved across the border and were spearheading the attacks. The Spetsnaz were joined by helicopters, separate guards and land and airborne diversions to conduct the assault on Ukraine.
Multi-pronged offensives were launched from Russia, Belarus and Russia controlled Donbas. According to the US-based Institute for the Study of War, the full military operation consisted of infantry divisions supported by armoured units. The main infantry and tank division attacks were launched at four spearhead incursions, creating a Northern front (launched towards Kyiv), a Southern front (originating in Crimea), and a Southeastern front (launched at the cities of Lugansk and Donbas), and an Eastern front.
All four attacks entered Ukraine at approximately 100-200 km within Ukrainian borders while occupying Ukrainian territory and encircling the main cities. By March 20, the four incursion fronts had formed a perimeter significantly within the entire border of eastern Ukraine and started to extensively consolidate lines of communication and support between all four fronts within Ukraine while besieging Mariupol, Kyiv, Donbas, Lugansk and other cities.
The Westerners – in particular the Americans and British who had trained and equipped the Ukrainian defence forces – have been claiming that their boys played well, extracting a heavy toll on the Russian Army. Bizarrely, they gave credence to The Ghost – a Ukrainian Sukhoi jet that supposedly shot down five Russian aircraft. The Ghost was quickly busted by fact-checkers.
Without artillery and aircraft, it was amply clear that Ukraine’s ability to launch counterattacks was exaggerated. This was proved by the relaxed manner in which a 40 km long Russian military column waited at the Ukrainian border for weeks without fear of strafing or shelling. In fact, many Westerners salivated at the thought of bombing the column, but no such thing happened because Ukrainian artillery and air power were nonexistent.
As Russian troops entered key Ukrainian cities and captured military bases and nuclear power plants, the Ukrainian response splintered and ineffective. Says Johnson: “We have not seen a single instance of a Ukrainian regiment or brigade-size unit attacking and defeating a comparable Russian unit. Instead, the Russians have split the Ukrainian Army into fragments and cut their lines of communication.”
Raising the stakes
The Russians now stepped up the tempo of the war by attacking de facto Western military bases in Western Ukraine. Significantly, they struck with deadly hypersonic missiles - perhaps the first time such missiles have been deployed in the war. This is a schadenfreude moment because some of these bases were populated with Western military advisors and mercenaries who had come not to defend Ukraine but to kill Russians.
The first blow, on March 13, was directed at Yavoriv, which was hit by a volley of 30 subsonic missiles. Witnesses told how "the sky turned red" as the missiles smashed into the site near the Polish border. According to Johnson, “Russian military strikes in western Ukraine during the past week have shocked and alarmed NATO officials…. Over 200 personnel were killed, which included American and British military and intelligence personnel, and hundreds more wounded. Many suffered catastrophic wounds, such as amputations, and are in hospital.”
On 14 March, the British newspaper The Mirror said at least three British ex-special forces may have been killed in the strikes. The Russian Ministry of Defence announced Russia would continue attacks on foreign fighters in Ukraine. The message was loud and clear – not only can Russian forces strike the western limits of Ukraine, but the Kremlin does not care if American or other volunteer fighters were training there.
Russia then used its newest Kinzhal hypersonic missiles to destroy a weapons storage site in the country’s west. “The Kinzhal aviation missile system with hypersonic aero-ballistic missiles destroyed a large underground warehouse containing missiles and aviation ammunition,” the Russian Defense Ministry said.
Russian forces also destroyed an aircraft repair plant in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, using six Kh-55 cruise missiles fired from the Black Sea.
Absence of airpower
The calibrated Russian attacks on Ukrainian targets have devastated much of Ukrainian military infrastructure. This is even more remarkable when you consider that the Kremlin has held back its air force and premier army regiments. Had the Russian Air Force entered the war, Ukraine would have fallen in days.
The absence of the Russian Air Force from the war has baffled military experts. David Deptula, a retired US Air Force three-star general who once commanded the no-fly zone over northern Iraq, said he was surprised that Russia did not work harder to establish air dominance from the start. “The Russians are discovering that coordinating multi-domain operations is not easy,” Deptula told Reuters. “And that they are not as good as they presumed they were.”
Western experts commenting on Russian military strategy are expected to suffer from bias. Russian military tactics have since the Soviet era called for close integration of the air and land forces in the battlespace. In the Afghanistan War, the Russians deployed strategic bombers such as the Tupolev Tu-95M against the Afghan Mujahideen. In one notable reprisal attack against an Afghan village, where a Russian army soldier was found skinned alive, they bombed the entire village in hours, killing 3,000 Afghans.
The Russian reluctance to use the vast air force of 1,400 aircraft could be owing to the fact that the job of eliminating Ukrainian military targets is better left to saturation attacks by cruise missiles and non-nuclear ballistic missiles, thereby minimizing the risk to fighter pilots. “They’re not necessarily willing to take high risks with their own aircraft and their own pilots,” a senior US defence official told Reuters.
The Russians had employed similar tactics in Syria where they used the potent Klub anti-ship and land-attack cruise missile – having a stupendous 2,500 km range – to take out Islamic State targets. Only after they had killed hundreds of terrorists did they use the air force.
Lessons for India
The Russian military action offers India’s war planners a strategy to pursue war with minimal loss of life. The use of cyber warfare and precision missile strikes to soften up the enemy’s armed forces and take out his military headquarters has proved to be highly effective strategies. India’s Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles should be used within the opening moments of war to take out air defence radars and command and communication centres in order to blind the enemy.
This should be followed by snapping further chains of command to deny enemy forces the ability to communicate with each other. The Brahmos has a range of over 300 km, with the latest versions capable of hitting targets 450 km away. Newer versions of the missile are set to have an 800 km range. This means no target in Pakistan will be safe from a saturation attack from India unless the Pakistan forces hide in the ravines of Balochistan.
The next time India needs to conduct a Balakot-style strike deep inside Pakistan, it should use the Brahmos. Longer range subsonic missiles like the Nirbhay can be deployed against Chinese armed forces in Tibet.
Napoleon described artillery as the god of war because nothing ensures battlefield dominance better than having vast firepower. Unfortunately, despite the shift in India’s warfighting doctrine from offensive defence to offensive, India has just three artillery divisions – 40th Artillery Division based in Ambala (Western Command), 41st Artillery Division, Pune (Southern Command) and 42nd Artillery Division based in Jaipur (South Western Command).
However, in order to acquire the ability to decide the outcome of a war in India’s favour before a bullet is fired, the Army needs to raise more artillery divisions. Since the civilian bureaucracy is likely to oppose further expansion, the least the Army can do is use the current sanctioned number of divisions more effectively. The harsh reality is that the generals always want the latest weapons but armies ultimately have to fight with the weapons available.
Secondly, as the Russians have shown in Ukraine, artillery should be treated as a combat arm rather than a support arm. The aim should be to concentrate artillery fire not only on forwarding areas but in the enemy’s rear as well, leading to a greater scale and magnitude of destruction. India should not only hit the enemy’s frontline troops and armour but also destroy his supplies, ammunition and urban infrastructure in the hinterland.
Heavy and continuous suppressive fire keeps the opponent in a defensive posture – hunkered in his foxhole instead of taking aimed shots. This tactic limits the enemy's overall firepower. Suppressive fire also prevents the enemy from properly assessing the attack and organising a coherent and coordinated defence or counterattack. This is what the Russians have done in every city they have attacked.
Another objective of heavy and sustained artillery fire is to place your mechanised regiments and infantry in an advantageous position. That is, your troop formations are concentrated without committing them to the ground. This is known as Manoeuvre by Fire in which your troop formations may not necessarily advance under cover of the artillery offensive; rather they may advance to support the artillery offensive. This completely transforms the nature of warfighting and can potentially disorient the enemy and unhinge his decision-making process.
Also, such a strategy is the way to execute the Cold Start doctrine (the colloquial term for the Proactive Military Strategy which aims at a blitzkrieg style strike into Pakistan) where long-range artillery will have to kick in the door and clear paths for the army’s eight Integrated Battle Groups to pour into Pakistan in the shortest time possible.
The bottom line is that firepower saves lives. Because India has a volunteer army, every life is precious and therefore the Indian Army should have the capacity to unleash saturation artillery barrages so Indian soldiers do not get into harm’s way.
And finally, the Russian decision to hold back its air force offers a key lesson for India’s war planners – avoid a scenario where Indian fighter pilots get shot down over Pakistan. In the opening days of a conflict, the Indian Air Force should be used primarily for combat air patrol over Indian airspace, allowing Indian antiaircraft units to operate with impunity. With the induction of the S-400 air defence system, India has acquired the capability to take out the adversary’s aircraft within its airspace. Air raids or overflights into the enemy’s airspace should be conducted only after his aerial assets and air defence radars have been neutralized and his airspace sanitized.
In 2019, it was Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s personal decision to enter Pakistan that led to the dogfight with an F-16 after which he was shot down by enemy antiaircraft artillery. Whether he shot down the F-16 is not important; the fact that he became a POW is the issue. In a real war – as opposed to a border skirmish – India cannot extradite each pilot. Loss of aircraft and pilots can impact the morale of the entire nation, if not the armed forces. As Russia has shown, standoff weapons (which can be launched from a distance sufficient to allow attacking personnel to evade defensive fire from the target area) are the best insurance against loss of life.
The world is never constant. There will be war again – and most likely it will be thrust upon India as on countless previous occasions. In view of this existential threat, India must not be caught napping as happened during Kargil 1999 where our commanders initially fought in the manner of World War I generals who threw underequipped soldiers at enemy trenches.
War is too expensive to be a learning ground. It is better to learn from the experiences of other countries than relive them over and over again. This is the defining takeaway for India from the Ukraine War.
BOX: THE MILITARY BALANCE
Russia 900,000 I Ukraine 200,000
Russia 2,000,000 I Ukraine 900,000
Russia 1,328 I Ukraine 146
Russia 478 I Ukraine 42
Russia 31,000 I Ukraine 5,000
Russia 7,571 I Ukraine 2,040
Russia 30,122 I Ukraine 12,303
Russia 535 I Ukraine 38
Russia 70 I Ukraine 0
Russia $62 billion I Ukraine $6 billion
Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a globally cited defence analyst. His work has been published by leading think tanks and quoted extensively in books on diplomacy, counter-terrorism, warfare and economic development.
Ukraine War – Employment of Aerial Platforms
By Col Pramod Ninan (Retd)
The world is focused on the Russian Ukrainian war drawing conclusions on various fronts. Assuredly, this war is a display of military technology combined with grit and determination. All types of military hardware have been used in this war. However, what stands out is the employment of unmanned aerial vehicles and drones in various roles. Having experienced a drone attack in January 2018 at the Khmeimem Air Base and Tartus Naval Facility, Russian forces would have been better prepared to thwart such drone attacks. This war will be quoted for years to come and is likely to be the foundation for drone and anti-drone employment doctrines.
Whose Doing is Invasion of Ukraine
By Lt Gen JK Sharma (Retd)
It was a time of hope. NATO, with the breakup of the Soviet empire, became obsolete. President Mikhail Gorbachev reached out to Washington and Europe to build a new security pact that would include Russia. The US Secretary of State James Baker in the Reagan administration and then West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher assured the Soviet leader that if Germany was unified NATO would not be extended beyond the new borders. The commitment not to expand NATO, also made by Great Britain and France, appeared to herald a new global order. The peace dividend that was dangled, the promise that the massive expenditures on weapons that characterized the Cold War would be converted into expenditures on social programs and infrastructures that had long been neglected to feed the insatiable appetite of the military.