It’s as much about how you learn as how you fight

‘I am not afraid of an army of lions led by sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by lions.’ So, reputedly, said Alexander the Great, acknowledging that any army can fight effectively if it is led with intelligence, cunning and courage. The Ukraine war is moving into a stage where both sides are re-orientating their forces – almost remaking them – for the campaigns to come this year. In an article from which a Sunday Times piece was extracted (‘Putin relies on raw recruits while Ukraine embraces western tech’, 8 January 2023) Michael Clarke assesses the way both forces may be evolving and sets it in the context of some previous examples.

The devastating Ukrainian New Year’s Eve attack with HIMARS missiles on a packed building the Russian military had taken over in Makiivka and – astonishingly – stored ammunition apparently in the basement, was another painful reminder to the Kremlin that its army invading Ukraine is structurally inept and organizationally weak.

Kyiv should not be too self-satisfied, however. On March 13, after all, Russian rockets caused mayhem at Ukraine’s open training base at Yaroviv just ten miles from the Polish border. Astonishing, in the same way, that the Ukrainians did not anticipate an attack so deep behind the fighting lines.

But that was in the opening weeks of the war, and the Ukrainians have learned a lot since. This month, however, the Russians were still piling men and ammunition into the Professional Technical School in Makiivka – a building that stood out even on commercial satellite imagery as the most prominent structure for several miles around. It appears that the Russian dead numbered something in the low hundreds; a loss that is comparable, or greater, than the sinking of the Russian flagship Moskva in the Black Sea during April. The Kremlin statement blaming the new conscripts at Makiivka for revealing their position by using their mobile phones is scarcely credible; very little intelligence effort would have been required on Kyiv’s part to work out what was happening in and around this building. In the eyes of many ordinary Russians who support this war, particularly in the Saratov and Samara regions from where most of the victims were mobilised, it’s simply unforgivable negligence.

And it points to the most critical issue for the coming year. Some conflicts are brief, ‘come as you are’ wars, usually measured in months. But any wars measured in years always become contests in organisational learning and adaptation; eventually it’s the difference between victory and defeat.

Learning and Adapting During Combat

The Ukrainian armed forces have been learning the western – that is the NATO – way of warfare since their abject capitulation to Russia’s first land grab in 2014. And since last February, they have been learning and adapting very fast indeed. They had already created a ‘combined arms’ approach to operations – integrating intelligence with air power, missiles, and ground forces operating flexibly in relatively small units. Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite system was made available to them and gave Kyiv a command-and-control advantage the Russians have still not been able to match. There are over 3,000 Starlink satellites in very low earth orbit, 9,000 more to come and up to 42,000 eventually planned. Starlink has given Kyiv’s generals the ‘philosopher’s stone’ of command and control – a system that offers so many cheap satellites over a small area, the enemy can’t stymie it or take it down. It provides instant connectivity for everyone from the central headquarters to the muddiest trenches. All armies constantly strive for this, but until now no one has had it for real. Starlink has got western defence chiefs looking hard at their own existing plans.  

On this basis, Ukraine was able to hold off the early Russian attack and buy time to reorientate its forces. Over the summer they absorbed more western weapons systems that began to make a big difference. Accurate artillery, long-range and precise rockets, and protected vehicles to help its forces disperse – then concentrate quickly – all allowed the Ukrainians to put pressure on Russia’s biggest weak-spot – its creaking logistics chain. Few weapons on a battlefront are real ‘game-changers’ in themselves, but the accurate, long-range, HIMARS multiple rocket system comes close for its ability to hurt Russian forces a long way behind the fighting. So too, NATO’s flighted Excalibur artillery shell, which turns a standard howitzer into a precision weapon.

With its increasing stocks of NATO standard equipment, Ukraine launched two strategic offensives from July, one in Kharkiv and one to recover Kherson and territories west of the Dnieper, sending the Russians furiously digging-in all across the front line. Russian commander General Sergey Surovikin now seems determined to buy time for Moscow’s newly mobilised troops to be trained and equipped to arrive for a big new offensive after the winter. Apart from strategically meaningless attacks on Bakhmut – led by the Wagner group rather than Russian regulars – Surovikin’s forces are not pushing forward anywhere. They are just trying to hold their ground against consistent Ukrainian pressure.

Kyiv still has some way to go before it has enough equipment and trained troops to conduct the sort of offensive this year that will throw Russian forces out of most, or all, of Ukrainian territory. It needs a lot more of what it already has, but then more overtly offensive weapon systems, like heavier armoured forces, more attack aircraft and more drones and missiles – always more drones and missiles.

The 50 Bradley Fighting Vehicles the US is sending to Ukraine – the best in the business for supporting tanks in an offensive – plus another 50 promised German Marder and French AMX-10 armoured vehicles will certainly help. But Ukraine will need many more of these spearhead weapons to create a momentum of liberation. Everyone is eyeing Germany’s Leopard II main battle tank as the best ‘spearhead’ Europe could offer. Finland and Poland already want to send some of theirs but Germany controls the export licenses for Leopard IIs and would have to agree. The expectation is that Chancellor Scholz will come under severe internal pressure to approve the licenses and then do the same – with bigger numbers of German Leopard IIs donated. The suggestion that Britain may be preparing to send a squadron of Challenger II tanks – in reality that would only be ten – will hardly affect the numerical balance but would be an important symbolic gesture and adds to the pressure building up on Chancellor Scholtz.

The General Staff in Kyiv has created a ‘shopping list’ that rather irritates its supporters, but consists of 300 main battle tanks, 600-700 armoured vehicles and 500 more artillery pieces. Some of these numbers create eye-rolling reactions in Western capitals, but they are not implausible if Ukraine is to conduct a successful offensive that does not fall into a fresh battlefield stalemate in the autumn of this year.

Meanwhile, having failed to win the war quickly with its inept standing army, Russia’s General Staff is now trying to build a new army, probably on the basis of near-continuous mobilization, for Surovikin’s offensive this year, and then for whatever happens next.

Can it be done? Maybe. It’s been done before.

Re-making Armies

In 1645, facing repeated incompetence, Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, built Parliament’s New Model Army in a matter of months. There were no great technical or tactical revolutions involved; just the creation of a professional, officered, regularly paid, well-equipped and supplied force. And it embodied Cromwell’s maxim, repeated at Staff Colleges down the ages – ‘a man must know what he fights for, and love what he knows’. It was fairly small, numbering at its peak no more than 30,000 infantry, cavalry and dragoons. After an initial setback in the west country, the New Model Army was never defeated anywhere, and for good and bad, it became ‘Cromwell’s Army’. After barely 16 years it was disbanded at Charles II’s restoration in 1660 – even Parliament had come to fear its power and potential. But the New Model Army changed European military thinking. It was the hinge between ad hoc medieval armies and a new type of standing force for both war and peace. It had taken a few months to create – and a couple more to learn and adapt in combat.

Then too, in 1914. Britain’s ‘old contemptibles’ in the British Expeditionary Force were struggling to hold the line in Belgium – 150,000 of them protecting the flank of the 254,000 men of the French 5th Army against the 580,000 of the Kaiser’s 1st and 2nd Army, bearing down on them. Lord Kitchener immediately began recruiting a citizen army for a war that he, at least, realized would not be ‘over by Christmas’.

Kitchener didn’t believe a conscript army would be effective in the new warfare. He was building a citizen army – ‘Kitchener’s Army’ – of free and patriotic volunteers. Nor was he prepared to have it committed in dribs and drabs to immediate tactical offensives. He directed the generals to operate conservatively until his citizen army was ready for a war-changing push. The initial recruitment target of 500,000 had grown to an army of 2 million by mid-1916, a million of them infantry.

Twenty-six days after his death, Kitchener’s Army went into action on 1st July on the Somme. That first day was famously a disaster. But his citizen army was in being. It learned and adapted. And eventually it prevailed; equal partner to the French army, as the great wheel of the western front turned remorselessly on troop numbers, industrial production, innovation and the endless competition of prosaic human courage.

More than Kitchener’s Army, Stalin’s Red Army had to remake itself even as it was fighting. His pre-war army was destroyed when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. German planners had assumed that the Soviet Union – such a big country – might be able to put 300 new divisions into the field. In fact, by December 1941 the Soviets had created the equivalent of over 600 divisions. Inevitably, they lacked almost everything. But 1942 was a year of desperate adaptation. In two months, 25 new tank corps were formed. Almost 1 million were recruited straight from the Gulags, former criminals called up. They frequently attacked without rifles – soldiers being told to take one from whoever was dead near them.  And through the sheer brutality of the process, the Red Army developed its own version of the German blitzkrieg – the successive hammer blows of one unit after another.  

The Russian Army and its Society

Ultimately, of course, armies are a reflection of their own societies. Armies tend to work the way their founding societies tend to work. As Putin’s Russia tries to re-create an army that can fight Ukraine’s NATO-inspired and equipped force – where everyone certainly knows what they fight for, and obviously love what they know – it will have to overcome some of the deepest societal roots of its current ineptitude.

To be more effective for General Surovikin’s spring offensive, the re-mobilised Russian army will have to be less naturally corrupt – a characteristic that bedevils the quality and supply of military equipment at every level. It should have a much stronger cadre of non-commissioned officers – the practical backbone of any army – something based on experience that cannot be created quickly and which didn’t exist much in the old Red Army. Its logistics need to be modernized quickly – food and ammunition supply is particularly acute. More fundamentally, a new Russian army needs to be able to operate in a less centralized way – not just for fighting, but for supply, living and mobility in the battle area. Big units of anything, sitting in one place for any length of time, are asking to be targeted these days, as happened at Makiivka. A modern army has got to be able to take care of itself in small units but stay closely connected to its central command. Not least, it isn’t clear that the limited Russian training establishment, already cannibalized for equipment and experienced trainers, can deal with a throughput of new recruits that has doubled since last summer.

These structural issues are impossible to address in so short a time. But when Surovikin’s new forces reach the battlefront, some improvement in Russian organization and fighting power seems plausible. And like new armies before them, he may assume they will adapt quickly in combat. But at least on the ground itself, Surovikin will still be commanding a Russian army that looks largely like the twentieth century Soviet army, up against an increasingly twenty-first century Ukrainian combined force. Or perhaps he will just be testing the longevity of the old dictum ascribed to Stalin that ‘in warfare, quantity has a quality all its own.’   

Michael Clarke is co-author of Tipping Point: Britain, Brexit and Security in the 2020s, London, I.B. Tauris, 2019 and Britain’s Persuaders: Soft Power in a Hard World, London, I.B. Taurus, 2021. He is the former Director General of the Royal United Services Institute and Visiting Professor of War Studies at King’s College London. Twitter: @MikeClarke2020s