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Russian defences and military adaptations pose challenges for Ukraine's 2023 offensive.
Irrespective of the progress made during Ukraine’s counteroffensive, subsequent offensives will be necessary to achieve the liberation of Ukrainian territory. It is therefore important to assess the tactics employed and training provided during the Ukrainian offensive to inform force generation over the coming months. This report scrutinises tactical actions to identify challenges that need solving.
The prerequisite condition for any offensive action is fires dominance. This has been achieved through blinding the counterbattery capability of Russian guns and the availability of precise and long-range artillery systems. Ensuring the sustainability of this advantage by properly resourcing ammunition production and spares for a consolidated artillery park is critical.
Ukraine is suffering from heavy rates of equipment loss, but the design of armoured fighting vehicles supplied by its international partners is preventing this from converting into a high number of killed personnel. It is vital that Ukrainian protected mobility fleets can be recovered, repaired and sustained. This also demands a focus on industrial capacity and fleet consolidation.
Attempts at rapid breakthrough have resulted in an unsustainable rate of equipment loss. Deliberately planned tactical actions have seen Ukrainian forces take Russian positions with small numbers of casualties. However, this approach is slow, with approximately 700–1,200 metres of progress every five days, allowing Russian forces to reset. One key limitation on the ability to exploit or maintain momentum is mine reconnaissance in depth. The exploration of technological tools for conducting standoff mine reconnaissance would be of considerable benefit to Ukrainian units.
Another limiting factor in Ukrainian tactical operations is staff capacity at battalion and brigade level. Training of staff would significantly assist Ukrainian forces. This will only be helpful, however, if training is built around the tools and structure that Ukraine employs, rather than teaching NATO methods that are designed for differently configured forces. There is also a critical requirement to refine collective training provided to Ukrainian units outside Ukraine so that Ukrainian units can train in a manner closer to how they fight. This requires regulatory adjustment to allow for the combination of tools that are highly restricted on many European training areas.
Russian forces have continued to adapt their methods. Some of these adaptations are context specific, such as the increased density of minefields, from a doctrinal assumption of 120 metres to a practical aim to make them 500 metres deep. Other adaptations are systemic and will likely have a sustained impact on Russian doctrine and capability development. The foremost of these is the dispersal of electronic warfare systems rather than their concentration on major platforms, a shift to application-based command and control tools that are agnostic of bearer, and a transition to a dependence on more precise fires owing to the recognised inability to achieve the previously doctrinally mandated weight of imprecise fire given the threat to the logistics sustaining Russian guns. It is vital that Ukraine’s partners assist the country’s preparations for winter fighting, and subsequent campaign seasons now, if initiative is to be retained into 2024.
Dr Jack Watling
Senior Research Fellow, Land Warfare
Research Fellow, Land Warfare