Death From the Skies: 2016 Edition

Steve Hsu links to this report on the lessons of war in the Ukraine. The main take aways seem to be that Ukraine has been a testing ground for new technology, weapons, and tactics, and the Russians have taken several major steps forward. New command and control systems linking unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) [drones] to devastating fire control and delivery have fundamentally reshaped the battlefield. Some excerpts:

Shortly before dawn on the morning of July 11, 2014, elements of Ukraine’s 24th Mechanized Brigade met a catastrophic end near the Ukrainian border town of Zelenopillya. After a mass rocket artillery barrage lasting just three minutes, the combat power of two battalions of the 24th Mechanized Brigade was gone. What remained was a devastated landscape, burning vehicles and equipment, 30 dead and 90 wounded. According to multiple accounts, the Ukrainians were on the receiving end of a new and dangerous Russian weapon: the 122-mm Tornado Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS). Capable of covering a wide fire area with a deadly combination of Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICMs), scatter mines and thermobaric warheads, the attack had not only destroyed the combat power of the Ukrainian forces, it offered a glimpse into the changing nature of Land Warfare in Europe. The battlefield was becoming deadlier...

(Lesson 1) Send in the Drones: During the Russo-Georgian War (2008), Russian forces woefully underutilized Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for ISR missions—creating a deficiency of real-time reconnaissance and targeting in the battlespace. Now in Ukraine, Russia has changed course. It has fully embraced the use of drones and— significantly—fielded high-tech ECM suites to deny the use of UAVs to opposing forces. As such, the use of ISR from drones and sensor nets has been a game-changer for Russia’s mass strike fire missions (see below), providing real-time surveillance and targeting for artillery and MLRS units. Indeed, the lag between the appearance of a Russian drone and a subsequent artillery attack can now be as short as 15 minutes.2

(Lesson 2) Indirect fire is the Queen of Battle (again): New MLRS systems like the Tornado, as well as other older variants like the 122-mm Grad, mobile howitzers and mortars, are making mass fire barrages relatively cheap and lethal for Russia. This is especially true for thermobaric and DPICM payloads. In Ukraine, artillery has become so deadly it has accounted for 70-85 percent of all causalities (on both sides). The extensive use of indirect fire in Ukraine—coupled with the static nature of the fighting—has brought about a return to trench warfare, artillery duels, and the use of indirect fire to disperse and destroy concentrated land forces—methods more familiar to European Land Warfare in the early 20th century.3

(Lesson 3) Heavy tanks are back in business: One legacy of the Yom Kippur War was the wide-spread adoption of reactive armor to defend against ATGMs. Tandem-charge ATGM warheads (features of the Spike, Javelin, and TOW-II missiles) were designed to counter this defense. In Ukraine (and most recently Syria), Russia has taken the next step in this cycle by equipping some of its most advanced main battle tanks with an active protection system against missiles. The results have been compelling. During the battle for Donetsk, for example, Ukrainian anti-tank crews dubbed it the “magic shield,” which inexplicably protected Russian T-90s on the battlefield.4 The net impact of this system has been to decrease the relative combat power of anti-tank infantry and increase the shock and survivability of Russian heavy armor. Russian 9A52-4 MLRS. Credit - Vitaly V. Kuzmin. 3 LAND WARFARE

(Lesson 4) RIP last-gen IFV: Perhaps the biggest causality on the battlefield is the Soviet-era IFV. These vehicles are becoming death traps for mechanized infantry. In Ukraine, BMPs and BTRs provide obsolete protection against thermobaric warheads and other dangers from mines, artillery and ATGMs. The vulnerability is so great that Ukrainian mechanized infantry now ride into combat on-top of their vehicles, rather than inside them; and tend to dismount far from the battle line. Unfortunately, this practice also exposes slow moving, dismounted infantry to indirect fire and mass strike artillery—thus closing the loop on Russia’s new warfighting techniques (namely the convergence of drones, ISR and lethal indirect fire). NATO armies take note: last-gen IFVs and BMPs are prolific in Western inventories.5 This could lead to unacceptably high casualty rates for NATO’s mechanized infantry in the event of a future Land Warfare scenario.

Bottom line: Russia is back, and decades of underinvestment have left Western Europe woefully unprepared.


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