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The Lessons of Ukraine for the Australian Army

Exercise Southern Jackaroo 2016
Australian Army soldiers from 105th Battery, 1st Regiment, Royal Regiment of Australian Artillery, prepare to reload an M777 155mm lightweight towed howitzer gun shortly after firing a round during during Exercise Southern Jackaroo 2016 in Shoalwater Bay training area, near Rockhampton in Queensland, on 25 May 2016.


The ongoing struggle in Ukraine between government forces and Russian backed separatists – as well as operations in Syria - has provided a range of useful insights into trends in future land combat operations.  Much as the Yom Kippur War and the first Gulf War yielded insights into the future of warfare, these conflicts offer an important chance to prepare for the future operations if we are clever enough to grasp the opportunity.  The recent article by Professor Karber and Lieutenant Colonel Thibeault provides us with very useful insights from the Ukraine in particular.

This is relevant to a small army at the bottom of the world for several reasons.  First, the technologies and equipment used in the Ukraine are either already present in likely theatres where we will operate or will proliferate given the history of Russia’s capacity to export military equipment. Second, the tactics employed by the Russians are clearly very effective – and copying tactics is a relatively low cost opportunity for our potential adversaries.  Finally, even non-state actors have demonstrated the capacity and willingness to integrate a range of kinetic and non-kinetic influence actions into their operations and we must be better at countering these.

Some Key Observations

Conventional is back – but new and improved.  After fifteen years of deploying forces on low to mid intensity operations, the governments of the West now have to acknowledge that conventional land operations remain a likely part of the future security environment.  A range of potential adversaries have developed highly capable land forces, and the willingness to employ them.  Re-weighting capability and training to ensure a better mix of conventional and capacity-building capabilities in the Army is imperative if we are to deploy forces offshore in anything other than the most benign circumstances.  For Australia, if only the most highly capable conventional air and naval platforms are acceptable, the same logic must hold for land forces.

The primacy of operations in the electromagnetic spectrum.  The exploitation and domination of the electromagnetic spectrum is not discretionary in contemporary operations.  It is a central element and encompasses a broad array of endeavours.  It is no longer signals intercepts and jamming.  A range of sophisticated signature detection and exploitation capabilities, spoofing, and jamming capacities – married with massed fires - has proven decisive in the Ukraine for Russian and Russian backed forces. 

High quality armour and artillery remain an essential land force capability.  It would be fair to state that in the Ukraine at least, the tank is back.  High quality main battle tanks, with active and passive protection systems have achieved significant success by overmatching against Ukrainian vehicles.  The fires and active defensive systems (with their perceived invulnerability) of new generation Russian main battle tanks have also generated a psychological impact on opposing forces.  Likewise, massed fires through tube and rocket artillery has returned to the battlefield.  Linked with electromagnetic operations and UAV reconnaissance, artillery has proved devastating too, especially against Ukrainian forces.

Air defence and fighting for control of the air.  The Russian capacity to control the air, employing a layered mix of sophisticated air defence assets challenges existing approaches in Western armies.  Since the Second World War, we have been able to conduct land operations relatively free of threats from the air.  Over last several decades, Western air power has been able to operate largely unchallenged.  The Ukraine shows that this is unlikely to be the case in future, and investment in multi-layered air defence for land forces – down to the lowest level – must be examined closely.

Training and Education Take Aways

Our training must include a balance of conventional and unconventional actors and operations.  In preparing land forces for operations, they must be challenged by a spectrum on traditional and non traditional threats.  These must be representative of contemporary and possible future scenarios.  Additionally, a mix of conventional and special forces must be part of our collective training activities, to enhance the range of options available to commanders and ensure senior leaders are exposed to different ways of thinking about their operations.  Finally, in conducting these collective training activities, the opposing forces must employ likely enemy tactics and procedures and avoid ‘mirror imaging’ our own doctrine.

Our training must reinforce signature management techniques to reduce our vulnerability to adversary electromagnetic and cyber operations, and detection for massed fires strikes.   We must train in a range of defensive techniques including reducing emissions, deception, and backup command and control systems.  Equally, our training must also emphasise offensive techniques in the electromagnetic spectrum.

Getting the balance of fires and influence right in our training is imperative.  Much of the last fifteen years has been seen as focussed on influencing populations and seeking to remove them from the influence of malign actors and insurgent groups.  This has actually been valuable preparation for future warfare because it has seen us develop a range of non-kinetic options for military operations.  But we must build on this to ensure in our training we prepare our forces to better influence enemy commanders and combatants, and this will require both fires (killing is a form of influence) and non-kinetic (cyber, EW, psyops,etc ) activities.

Our training areas must reflect the contemporary and likely future environments.  Training areas cannot simply large expanses of land for manoeuvre and live fire.  They must contain a range of different physical environments and urban operations facilities.  Further, training areas must include the ability to generate a range of electromagnetic environments that replicate green and red activities in the electromagnetic spectrum.  Training areas must be fully instrumented (as must participants); this significant improves tracking and post activity analysis. 

Our professional military education must incorporate detailed study of Ukraine operations – of both sides – to draw relevant lessons for our Army.  Different institutions and Services will draw different lessons. We must be careful that the lessons we draw are those that are relevant to a small, expeditionary Army and to the ongoing evolution of capability development, training and education.  This applies to the broader examination of contemporary conflict.

Doctrine must be more agile and relevant.   If doctrine is to influence training and education, it must be highly adaptive and well-informed about future threats. Our doctrine development processes must be faster and more networked to ensure that the need to change, and capacity to change, are more robust.  Further, we must possess a useful and relevant enemy doctrine to train against; this too must be agile and continually evolving to reflect evolving threats.

Finally, our training and education must be founded on constant development of leaders at every level.  Reinforcing the physical, intellectual or moral elements of leadership – and providing training opportunities to do so – must remain at the heart of the training, education and doctrine system of a professional army.  The types of conventional operations on display represent high threat environments for our soldiers.  In such an environment, unit cohesion and the capacity to sustain combat operations is only possible with high -quality leadership founded on strong national and institutional values.


The operations in Ukraine and Syria represent harbingers of future land operations.  They demonstrate that no matter how much some might like to wish away the problem of large scale contemporary conflict, our potential adversaries intend to sustain this approach in seeking their strategic objectives.  The types of land operations we have witnessed in the Ukraine represent the new normal in land combat.

As such, we must observe and learn from a distance and then make the necessary changes to our Army to ensure we remain capable for contemporary operations.  The training, education and doctrine system of the Army has a key role to play in this.  In thinking about future threats, and training our people, we can at least avoid surprise and ensure we remain survivable and adaptable on future battlefields.


The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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