As we head towards autumn, the winter rains in Ukraine will mean that manoeuvre warfare must give way to less ambitious, static, attritional fighting. This comes as something of a disappointment to the Ukrainian people and those who wish them well, and falls short of the breakthrough to the shores of the Azov that was so hoped for.
The Ukrainians’ problems are, I believe, self-inflicted to some extent. Using Soviet era doctrine with Western equipment will simply not work. In the lull of movement that will inevitably be imposed by the arrival on the battlefield of General Winter (as the Russians say) Ukrainian commanders need to review their doctrinal approach. For instance the use of smoke on the battlefield to disguise movements and protect assets is a standard practice for Nato armies. Yet the Ukrainians refuse to use the smoke generation capability available to them. As a result, the minefield clearing and obstacle breaching effort is being hammered by Russian snipers and artillery, targeting the precious, hard-to-replace sappers and engineer equipment whilst hampering the manoeuvre needed to preserve the force and defeat the enemy. The Ukrainians have resorted to working at night, which brings its own hazards.
A complete revamp of doctrine is needed now to prepare for the resumption of offensive operations in the spring of next year. For that to happen the mentors and instructors need to move forward – despite the risk – both to see for themselves the realities of the theatre and to impress the lifesaving tactics that are needed.
Then there are the other problems faced by the Ukrainians. Can they rely on the West? Is the supply of arms just enough to survive but not enough to win – as some Ukrainians fear? And can the supply of manpower be sustained?
The solution to the manpower problem may inolve some tough decisions. The pre-war Ukrainian professional military has largely gone. Even the reservists, those with some previous military training and experience, have been gravely reduced in number. The war is now being fought by civilian conscripts. The net for more conscripts will have to be thrown wider, to find those who dodged the draft and include those whose medical status previously precluded them – HIV positive citizens for instance.
Overseas, US politics are a significant cause for concern. Continued American support is vital to the survival of Ukraine, but the US presidential elections are looming. The recent spat between Poland and President Zelensky is also a worry to Ukraine’s friends and balm to Vladimir Putin. The victory in the Slovakian elections of Robert Fico will mean not only an end to support for Ukraine from Slovakia but perhaps the beginning of a trend across those Nato members who are better disposed towards Russia. With tensions ramping up in Kosovo and the US Government expressing concern at a build-up of Serbian troops on the border with Kosovo, Putin must be drawing some comfort from the divisions among Ukraine’s allies.
So what of the future?
The winter cannot be allowed to be a respite for the Russians. The pressure must be kept up with direct and indirect fire to prevent the Russians repairing or reinforcing their damaged lines. Long-range weapons such as the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System, British Storm Shadows and French SCALPs must be aimed at Russian HQs and high value assets as well as the vital supply routes via Kerch and the Crimean peninsula.
This capability for long range precision strike will increase dramatically as and when the US Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) arrives, which it reportedly will at some point. ATACMS will offer longer range, covering all Russian-occupied territory. It is simpler for the Ukrainians to use, as it can be fired from ground vehicles they already have rather than being dropped from a fighter jet. Its supersonic speed makes it hard to resist. However, ATACMS may not arrive for some months yet. The long-awaited arrival of F-16 jets will also make a huge impact, especially if they are equipped with the right weapons, and could allow the Ukrainians to fight in a truly combined-arms manner.
With all of that said, we in the West now need to get ourselves ready for the new world. I believe we both need to increase our defence spending and re-double our learning. I would suggest that young British officers training to be platoon commanders should be taken to the front as observers to learn from their Ukrainian peers the realities of 21st Century warfare. British corporals and sergeants need to have a phase of their battle courses as observers also. Our artillerymen need to learn the realities of fighting a peer adversary, as do our aircrew.
The offensive of 2023 has met its objectives, if not the expectations of all Ukraine’s allies. But the costly lessons it has taught must be learned and built into plans for the resumption of offensive operations in spring ’24. The Ukraine struggle must also be the workbench on which we prepare our own militaries for what may lie ahead.
Colonel Tim Collins is a former British Army officer who served with the SAS and as commander of the Royal Irish during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when his before-battle speech to his soldiers made headlines around the world