Observations from the Ukraine War
The world is watching the events of the Russian invasion of Ukraine unfold with a mixture of disbelief, dread, horror and, amazingly, inspiration and hope. The Ukrainian’s defence of their country against a seemingly irresistible Russian force provides important insights for Australia if we were ever to face a similar catastrophic and tragic fate. Even as a civilian observer, there are many emerging lessons to observe from the conflict. Of these, I have chosen just a few key areas to highlight in this Post.
Might is Not Right
The Russians have approximately a 5:1 advantage in their land forces, a 10:1 advantage in air power and a 100:1 advantage in artillery and missiles, including advanced hypersonic weapons. On paper, Ukraine should have lasted, at best, a few days before it was completely overrun. I suspect Russia was expecting this outcome as well.
The Ukraine defence force has turned back the attack on Kyiv, is holding the Russian army in most parts of the country and has even recaptured some of the conquered territory. The tenacity, courage, tactics and resilience in the struggle to defend Ukraine has been astonishing and has surprised the world.
I know there are many reasons why Ukraine is surviving and successfully fighting back. But the overall lesson is that, on home soil, a small land force (such as Australia maintains) can successfully repel an aggressor that has significant numerical superiority of people, technology and war materiel. Even today in this technologically advanced world, David can still triumph over Goliath.
Right Weapons, Right Tech, Right Intelligence
I have heard media reports that Ukraine’s military is generally low-tech in nature. I think this is an over-simplification and implies that the country’s army only has guns and other basic weapons to face tanks and planes. The inference in such an observation is that having the latest technology is a key determinant of victory, a situation that is implied by the concept of modern warfare.
In reality, the war has shown that the Ukrainian army has the right tech to maintain good communications and coordination across the battlefield, as well as among the strategic, tactical and operational levels of leadership. In addition, they have the right weapons, training and operational planning to counteract the technological lead in weapons and materiel upon which the Russians rely. Moreover, Ukraine has the right intelligence support to claim having killed more Russian generals than were killed in the Second World War (this figure may be exaggerated, but it nevertheless offers a significant and successful propaganda tactic).
Turning to the broader relevance of the Ukrainian conflict, it can be observed that having the latest technology, or weapons, may not be as critical to military success as having the right balance of technology to meet the needs of a land battle. The very sort of battle that could be fought on Australia soil.
The Metal Shield is a Bit Thin
Russia has relied on its predominance of military armour, planes and helicopters to overwhelm Ukraine. In response, part of the successful Ukrainian strategy has been to target the machines of war with both land-based and air-based weapons. This approach has reduced the Russian materiel advantage and has allowed Ukrainian soldiers to fight on a more level playing-field (soldier to soldier). In such an environment, advantages such as having interior lines of communication and transport, fighting on familiar territory, having a supportive population and fighting for your own country, have evidently redressed some of the numerical disadvantages faced by the Ukrainian forces.
Even today you can’t conquer or occupy territory with machines alone, at least not yet. The war in Ukraine demonstrates the central role of land forces in determining the outcomes of the war. For a considerable time to come, land forces will likely remain the key to countering any comparable military threat faced elsewhere in the world. As such, if Australia is to position itself to counter a similar scenario, then our defences must be built around an army that is, at its core, well trained, well-armed, well supported and well led.
You Need Friends
It would be unrealistic to think that Ukraine could have resisted Russia for so long, or that it would have been able to avoid an even more dire situation, without help from other countries. A small country facing a large aggressor needs all the help it can get. It needs help to fight the aggressor on the land, air and sea, and to fight on the world stage. The more powerful the friends and the more support they provide, the more likelihood of success - if not immediately, then in the longer term as economic, political and potentially military pressure builds between the aggressor and those other countries that are sympathetic to the weaker party.
Before the war in Ukraine, I had thought that Australia would struggle, and probably fail, to survive a land-based attack conducted by a vastly numerically and technically superior force. At best, I had thought that world opinion and diplomatic opposition would reduce the loss of land, or at least reduce the loss of life to a level that would enable Australia to survive and continue to operate as a nation state.
This was a pessimistic view I agree, but I thought it a realistic one.
Ukraine’s struggle to repel Russian’s military onslaught has highlighted that hope exists for a small nation such as ours to resist a much larger potential aggressor, and not to give up if foreign troops land on our soil. Our response to such a scenario would take courage, tenacity, strong leadership and great sacrifice, but I now know we can do it.
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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