Main Image Credit Tanks taking part in a parade to mark the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence in August 2021. Courtesy of Defence Imagery / MOD News Licence
Sending anti-tank weapons to Ukraine will not alter the military balance or moderate Russia’s behaviour. It is time for a serious approach to supporting Ukraine, one that accounts for the Russian way of war.
The UK and US have been the most prominent military supporters of Ukraine since the conflict with Russia started in 2014. Past military deliveries have included Saxon armoured vehicles from the UK and HMMWVs from the US, as well as the widely reported delivery of the Javelin anti-tank guided missile system and now the Next generation Light Anti-tank Weapon from the UK.
Other systems that Ukraine has imported include the Warmate loitering munition from Poland, and 12 Bayraktar TB2 remotely piloted aerial systems from Turkey. This week, the US has also allowed partner states Lithuania and Estonia to transfer US-made weapons such as the Javelin and Stinger man-portable air defence system to Ukraine. Ukraine’s domestic defence industry has also led a valiant effort to modernise the country’s armoured fighting vehicles, radios and personal weapons. The overall picture suggests that support for Ukraine is strong and forthcoming. However, these efforts are unlikely to significantly alter the ability of the Ukrainian armed forces to resist a determined assault by Russian conventional forces.
The Russian Way of War
The reason for this lies not in the Ukrainian armed forces themselves, but in Russian operational art. Michael Kofman of the Center for Naval Analyses has explained how Russian forces would seek to leverage their superiority in long-range fires to achieve decisive effects against an opponent, which could in turn achieve strategic results. This approach eschews the use of massed ground formations in direct confrontations, which are reserved for finishing an opponent’s combat strength, he states. The belief is that by inflicting enough damage to alter an opponent’s course of action, or signal that Russia’s intent is genuine, Russian strategic goals can be achieved without conflict. This level of confrontation may rely upon 'non-contact’ means of warfare. Non-contact warfare in Russian military thinking is taken to mean the use of high-precision weapons like the 3M-54 Kalibr cruise missile against critical targets. The goal is to use the minimum level of force necessary to promote Russia’s regional goals and limit the need to deploy ground forces.
This can be combined with an understanding of wider Russian strategic thinking, which holds that long-range kinetic strikes that converge with cyber and electronic warfare effects in a concerted information campaign are capable of disabling an opponent’s critical networks and command infrastructure at the political and military level, with the goal of either controlling escalation or preventing it altogether.
The proliferation of artillery enables the Russian army to use massed fires as its primary means of lethality and dictates the way in which it would fight
Russia’s approach at the operational level is not significantly different, as demonstrated by Russia’s order of battle: a single motorised rifle brigade – the basic manoeuvre unit of the Russian Ground Forces – includes three battalions of artillery, and the Army Group of which it would be a part includes an entire brigade of artillery. The proliferation of artillery at this scale enables the Russian army to use massed fires as its primary means of lethality and dictates the way in which it would fight.
At the brigade level, the organic artillery elements employ intelligence gathered by reconnaissance units, including unmanned aerial vehicles, as well as the brigade’s electronic warfare (EW) company, to engage tactical targets in what is known as the reconnaissance-fire system. Long-range strike assets such as the BM-30 Smerch multiple rocket launcher and Iskander-M missile system are combined with stand-off intelligence gathering assets and additional EW forces at the Army Group level to form a reconnaissance-strike system.
The goal of the former is to engage targets of opportunity – a column of tanks, for example – with overwhelming firepower using real-time coordination between artillery and reconnaissance assets. The latter is intended to achieve the same results through similar means, but against the most important targets within the entire depth of an enemy’s area of operations. The goal of both systems is to reduce the enemy’s ability to fight through the destruction of its command-and-control, logistics and counter-strike infrastructure as well as its forces at all echelons. In either scenario, much of the fighting would initially be conducted using long-range strike and reconnaissance assets, minimising the need for direct contact between armoured forces.
Short-Range Weapons are Not Enough
Where does this leave Ukraine? The delivery of armoured vehicles, short-range anti-tank weapons and air defence systems can only be useful in one scenario, one which is likely to be preceded by a harrowing and extensive period of non-contact warfare designed to prevent the Ukrainian armed forces from operating effectively at all.
The provision of short-range missiles does nothing to improve Ukraine’s odds of deterring Russia, or even defending against a Russian invasion once it has begun
In this sense, the weapons that have been provided are genuinely as defensive as the providers claim them to be, because their use will only be possible once all initiative has been lost and the situation is unlikely to be turning in Ukraine’s favour. In short, the provision of short-range missiles does nothing to improve Ukraine’s odds of deterring Russia, or even defending against a Russian invasion once it has begun. If the UK and its partners wish to contribute seriously to Ukraine’s defence and its ability to deter Russia through the imposition of costs, they could do so by supporting Ukraine to develop its own reconnaissance-strike systems.
Ukraine has certainly attempted to develop long-range strike assets of its own, including the Vilkha and Neptune missile systems. However, neither effort has reached the levels of deployment that could meaningfully change the nature of a conflict. It is unlikely, even with the development of these systems and their combination with long-range intelligence and reconnaissance assets, that Ukraine could defeat Russian forces. However, by attempting to interrupt the preferred Russian methods of escalation and confrontation, it would stand a greater chance of moving the conflict in a direction that is favourable to Ukraine.
The UK and some of its partners remain fully invested in Ukraine’s sovereignty. But their current efforts – however well-meant – are still not likely to achieve this objective.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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