Saturday, 13 July 2024

    More Lessons Learned

    by Navy Capt (Ret) Pete O’Brien

    We are 120 weeks into the war in Ukraine, a peace conference begins in a week in Switzerland (at which only one side is represented), and the war continues to evolve.

    But there are some lessons we can draw from the war, and perhaps some hints of what the future may hold. None of these lessons look new; we’re once again re-learning things we should already know. So, in no particular order:

    1) Many lessons learned from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or East Africa have almost no value. Don’t get too wrapped up in that, many lessons from this war will have little relevance to a future operation in East Africa, or a war for Taiwan; a few points but not many. Between technology, geography and political reality, few lessons are easily transferable. Some are, I’ll note them as I bump into them.

    2) Great Power Competition. This war is not Ukraine versus Russia. This war is about Ukraine backed by the EU and the US fighting Russia backed by Iran, North Korea and especially, China. And given the way China is involved, it’s fair to say that no matter how the war ends, and no matter who else wins or loses, China is going to come out “ahead on points.” Which leads to the real Lesson: no great power gets involved in a war anywhere and fights alone; other great powers will, in some way, participate, as allies or allies of your enemy. But they will be there. 

    3) Costs and production. Any war that lasts more than about 90 days will hinge on your economy. If you are interested in being able to fight and win wars, have a healthy economy. Or, as in the case of Ukraine, have very rich friends. This is Ukraine’s number one lesson learned: the friendship of the US and EU is central to Ukraine’s survival. 

    But for the US or EU or the ROK or Japan (or China), any war that lasts more than about 90 days is not going to go per plan unless you have fully mobilized and moved to a wartime economy (See “Rainbow 5” and War Plan Orange.”) And before you do that, re-read the first paragraph of point 3. 

    And even if you have a War Plan Orange sort of set-up, it will still not go exactly according to plan (remember the Kamikazes). The lesson here is that there is a need to develop strategic plans (not simply operational plans) so that the USG understands the left side of the equation: what is the cost of the war? Cost of course, includes every asset, tangible and intangible, and you must understand the impact on the rest of the economy and the rest of society. Those are real costs, they need to be included in the “equation.” 

    This is perhaps the most relevant lesson for the US as it looks around the world and tries to prepare for the future.

    4) The DOD and service staffs are currently peace time organizations led by peace time admirals, generals and senior civilians. By that I mean, they do not have any sense of urgency, nor do they insist on high standards. Proof of this is that it took 2 years to substantially increase our 155MM artillery shell production and we still haven’t fixed our ship maintenance programs even though the mess has been well documented for any number of years. The lesson here is that if you want to move to a wartime footing, you need some very hard men on top of the pile, with an unforgiving attitude, and the  institutional authority to fix things. 

    If you don’t change your leadership, you will not get change. This is the second most important point for the US as it considers the future.

    5) ISR is now pervasive. So, your analysis needs to be MUCH better. That seems counter intuitive; isn’t it now simpler? Ask the Israelis. The Israelis had damned near perfect intelligence, they had early warning, they had all sort of surveillance systems in place; what really happened was that there was enough “normal noise” that the Israeli decision-makers were able to “believe what they wanted to believe;” war was not going to start “today.” There were no analysts in the Israeli intelligence community – or ours – that were able to see through the deception, assemble all the facts into a tight, logical argument, and then – convince the leadership. All three are necessary. It didn’t happen. This was an intelligence failure of tremendous proportions. Lesson Learned: Intelligence (US and Israeli) needs a dramatic improvement in analysis and in “argument,” in the ability to marshal facts in the correct order to demonstrate, to prove the point; to prove the point and get the leadership to ACCEPT the argument. That is missing. This is the third point the US needs to consider.

    6) Great Power war will be violent. The most conservative estimates suggest that more than a quarter of a million people have died in this war in 2 years. And it could be a great deal worse. Don’t get involved in a great power war unless you are prepared for a great deal of killing. This is not trivial, a wise-guy remark. The war will require that a great many people die. Even when the battle is going well, the winning team will be killing LOTS of the enemy. If the nation is not prepared, then reconsider the war.

    7) Wonder Weapons don’t usually come off. We have poured a lot of weapons into Ukraine, but the war grinds on and it does so at a grunt level, scores of squad and platoon sized engagements every day. Certainly it has been changed by pervasive ISR and precision weapons. But for both sides, infantry units performing the basics – or not – still makes large difference in casualty counts, and in battlefield success.

    Meanwhile, the argument is made that if we had given Ukraine all the weapons they asked for, and provided the weapons right away, they would have won the war. That may be true, but I have a nagging suspicion it would not have changed things as dramatically as some would suggest. And anyway, it misses perhaps the great maxim of war: war is political policy carried out with other means. To complain about politics affecting war is to complain about water being wet.

    Where does this leave Ukraine and Russia?

    The war has evolved oddly, with the fighting distilled down to a fight for fairly small amounts of terrain at great cost. Despite some rhetoric from both sides, neither side is making any military moves to unseat the other government, though there is potential in the Russian strikes on the Ukrainian power grid to cause a great deal of social and political stress in Ukraine.

    At the same time there is a clearly stated policy position in Kyiv that the war is being fought for the return of all the terrain, and the bringing of charges against the Putin government. This would appear to be a policy – strategy mis-match that needs to be resolved.  

    And while it would theoretically be possible to expand the war effort, it isn’t clear that Ukraine has the manpower to do so, or that the EU and US have the means to expand the Ukrainian military to the necessary capability level. Accordingly, it would seem that the war will grind on until there is some level of political, social and military exhaustion and then a negotiated peace.