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Ukraine–objective creep

I have written recently about the strategic objectives in Ukraine.  At that point the choices were to win or not to win and the Biden administration was seeking a negotiated settlement with some form of appeasement of Russia.  Subsequently, I wrote about a movement within NATO and later the US away from purely defensive weapons towards offensive or more multi-purposed weapons. Given, Ukrainian successes and Russian losses the NATO and US goals seem to be evolving more in recent days.

Secretary of Defense Austin told reporters and his NATO colleagues after a visit to Ukraine that: “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” He went on to highlight that: “So it has already lost a lot of military capability. And a lot of its troops, quite frankly. And we want to see them not have the capability to very quickly reproduce that capability.”   This is a significant change in objectives and is supported by the change in weapon deliveries.

The Russian response to Secretary Austin has been more nuclear weapon rattling.  Previously, the Biden administration was scared by the Russian potential to escalate to de-escalate by the use of nuclear weapons.  Something changed. One can only guess/assume that there have been assurances from inside the Russian military that the escalation option is “under control.” 

NATO seems much more emboldened.  Talks about Sweden and Finland joining the alliance continue unabated.  Ukraine joining NATO is again being suggested.  One of the interesting arguments is that as Ukraine gains more NATO weapons and gets weaned off of Russian/Soviet weapons the compatibility suggests to the Ukrainian Minister of Defense that his country is moving in that direction.

I find the argument that using Ukrainian surrogates with western weapons to weaken Russia has some moralistic problems.  What bothers me is that what do we say to the Ukrainians if the strategy fails?  Sorry?  Realistically, it seems that the strategic goal is potentially leading to NATO active involvement to ensure that the threat posed by Russian aggression is eliminated for something approaching a decade.  Is the next strategic objective creep going to require NATO forces on the ground and in the air to achieve the desired Russian neutering? This seems to me to be obvious.

There are a lot of implications and dangers if such a strategy is successful.  I am reminded of the idea of a ”peace dividend”.  This was supposed to be benefit from the end of the cold war.  However, arguing against cutting the defense budget Senator from Kansas Nancy Landon Kassebaum suggested that the benefit of the end of the cold war was peace.  She argued in a presentation to the Army War College[i] that the cold war provided some stability and predictability to international relations.  Given the increasingly bellicose actions of the Chinese one can argue that a peace in Europe benefit would be more than negated by increased Chinese expansion.

The issue of Russian escalation has to remain in defense planners’ minds.  The best way to preclude such escalation is to prepare for it and to demonstrate the willingness and capability to defend against such an attack and to respond in kind.  Mutual assured destruction and the prevention of nuclear exchanges because of it seems to continue to be applicable. 

As the battles continue and the outcomes ebb and flow, we will remain vigilant and report the next twist in this on-going struggle for Ukraine.

[i] I was her escort officer and greatly enjoyed our conversations before and after her presentation.

Ukraine: Offensive versus defensive weapons

Yesterday (Ukraine: To win or not to win) I wrote that the Biden administration and the Zalensky administration in Ukraine had different objectives / goals in the conflict with Russia.  The prime Biden administration goal was escalation avoidance and a negotiated solution where Ukraine gave up some territory.  Ukraine’s objective, following tactical success against the Russians around Kyiv and in most urban areas assaulted by the Russians, is winning back all of its lost terrain.  In that article I mentioned the anti-ship missiles that the Brits had provided Ukraine and suggested that these reflected a possible split in NATO over objectives.  This begs the question of offensive versus defensive weapons.  Do the weapons supplied suggest an objective to be sought by the use of those weapons?

A short story.  In 1970, while a graduate student at UCLA, my faculty advisor gave me academic credit for writing a paper under the auspices of the RAND Corporation, where he was an adjunct contributor.  I was allowed to do this paper because I had a security clearance at the time.  The question was what type of weapons the US should provide Israel after the 1967 war?   The Israelis were seeking additional F-4 fighters.  In my short 10 page or so paper I concluded that it would be much more stabilizing if the US would provide M 109 155 howitzers rather than the jets.  The howitzers only had an 18-kilometer range and were critical for defense but could not conduct deep offensive operations, except in the case of artillery raids and other unique tactical maneuvers.  Conversely, the fighters could range over most of the critical parts of the middle-east and conduct offensive attacks.  To add stability to the region I supported the howitzers over the fighters.  This was the first time I ever thought about offensive versus defensive weapons.

As a ground maneuver force commander I considered all of my weapons systems as suited for either offensive or defensive operations.  The Russians have a formula that they apply for determining whether they have sufficient combat power for an operation.  It is called correlation of forces.  Different types of weapons systems against different types of foes provide, when cumulated and compared, a ratio that the Russians use to determine whether more forces are needed.  For example, for a main attack they needed a numerical superiority of 8:1. In the US we were taught that an attacking force should have an advantage of about 3:1.  In short, the advantage went to the defender in terms of the amount of forces required.  The defender has the advantage of prepared positions, mine fields and other obstacles, etc. 

However, in the defense there are opportunities for offensive operations to exploit observed weaknesses in the enemy’s deployments.  Such limited objective raids or other forms of attack can disrupt his formations and his time tables and buy time for other exploitations or to strengthen the defenses.  One would hope that it this form of attacks that the Ukrainians have in mind so as to defeat small parts of the Russian force, one small piece at a time.  They have already sunk a Russian cruiser (the Muskov) in the port of Mariupol with an anti-ship missile.  Does denying the Russians the use of the port weaken the Russian’s supply lines?

The Ukrainians have what military tacticians would call interior lines. Interior lines is a strategy of warfare that is based on the concept that lines of movement, communication, and supply within an area are shorter than those on the outside. Using the strategy of interior lines, a surrounded force can more easily supply, communicate, and move its forces around, and can mount a series of surprise attacks on the forces encircling it. If the Ukrainians can use their movement advantages to mass their forces for attacks to attrit and divide the Russian forces they may be able to “win” by making it so that the Russians cannot achieve any opportunities to inflict serious damage on the Ukrainian forces. 

Large World War II types of tank battles as envisaged in yesterday’s paper by Ukrainian sources are most likely not to the Ukrainians advantage until the Russians have been greatly attrited, if at all. No matter what form of operations the Ukrainians choose to engage in they will need armored vehicles—tanks and personnel carriers.  Attack helicopters would be a definite plus if they have trained pilots. 

Clausewitz argues that the superiority of the defense may leave both sides with no incentive to attack and thus ‘tame the elementary impetuosity of war.’ However, he also argues that it is the offensive force which can win.  This is the exact position that the Ukrainians find themselves in.  They need to avoid massing their forces to avoid the massive fire power advantage that the Russians have and choose their offensive opportunities.

The recent addition of helicopters to the US provided equipment may not be an indicator of a change in the US posture.  The news also showed a battalion of M109 howitzers (18 tubes and associated command and control and supply vehicles) on trains reportedly headed for Ukraine.  These weapons are no more offensive than defensive, as noted earlier.  But could indicate a slight modification of the US objective.  Time will tell.

An addition by a NATO member of offensive capable fighter aircraft could be a definitive indicator of a change in NATO’s goals and objectives.

Ukraine:  To win or not to win

Presently there is a significant and important difference between the Biden administration’s objective / desired outcome of the war in Ukraine and that of Ukraine’s President Zalensky.

The president’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told CNN recently that: “We will continue to take every step we possibly can to help the Ukrainians succeed on the battlefield and to improve their position at the negotiating table and to make the Russians pay also through increasing costs of sanctions for what they are doing to the people of Ukraine.”  Is this another way of saying to the Russians and the Ukrainians:  Russia you can keep what you’ve conquered and Ukraine you should give up the areas the Russians have conquered?

Ukrainian President Zalensky’s frustration was apparent in a recent speech when he asked: “What is NATO doing?  Is it being run by Russia?  What are they waiting for?”  He said Ukraine needs “tanks, planes, antiaircraft defense and anti-ship missiles.  Our allies have these resources, but the prefer to allow them to collect dust in their warehouses.”

Since he made these remarks, the British have announced that they are providing 100 armored vehicles and anti-ship missiles.  Does this indicate a split in NATO’s desired outcome of this conflict? 

When the Russians invaded Ukraine most of NATO, probably led by the US, has expressed this overarching fear of escalation and the use of nuclear weapons.  NATO, and the Biden administration, has feared that escalation would be the Russian way of disengaging if it was losing.  Published Russian nuclear doctrine does discuss escalation to deescalate.  In other words, Russia would use tactical / theater nuclear weapons to create conditions favorable for it to withdraw its forces and terminate a conflict.  The Russians would use nuclear weapons, declare victory and withdraw from the conflict if they were losing.  This after thought in the Russian doctrine has scared the alliance.  (I wrote about this a year ago.  Most analysts called this doctrine both foolish and irresponsible.)

Zalensky and the Ukrainians want to win and recover ALL of their lost terrain.  Obviously, the Biden administration does not see Russia surrendering the Crimea which it stole during the Obama years.  But the anti-ship missiles that are going to be provided by the Brits might suggest a much different objective for the Ukrainians.  (This is the first hint of an alliance difference on objectives.)

With the Russians trying to secure lands on the eastern border and the southern Crimean parts of the Ukraine the nature of the warfare could change.  The terrain is much more open and conducive to armored/mechanized warfare.  Additionally, the new commander of the Russian forces is known as “the butcher of Syria.”  Just his appointment is designed to “scare” NATO that the brutality will increase in the Russian occupied or sought parts of the country.  “The battle for Donbas will remind you of the Second World War, with its large operations, maneuvers, involvement of thousands of tanks, armored vehicles, planes, artillery,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said following a meeting of NATO foreign ministers last week. 

Without the aid that he is seeking it may be difficult for Zalensky’s forces to win such a set of battles. However, I am more optimistic about Ukraine’s chances than I was two months ago.  The Russian ground forces that we are seeing in Ukraine are nothing like the force that I trained to fight for 25 years of my Army career. Logistically and tactically, they don’t seem to be able to conduct sophisticated ground combat operations.  Some time back I suggested that one of the outcomes of this war would be the Russian creation of a national training center on the US model at Fort Irwin.  The need for this is becoming more apparent every day.

But I digress.  Since the beginning of the cold war in the later 1940s the US and then NATO has sought ways to defeat the Soviet Union.  This finally happened with the fall of the Soviet empire in 1990.  It has been replaced by the Russian Federation, which under the leadership of Vladimir Putin has sought to reestablish the Soviet Union.  The sad shape of the Russian ground forces provides a strategic opportunity that it is almost impossible to ignore.  ‘Almost impossible” because this is what the Biden administration is trying to do—ignore the reality that the Russian ground forces could be destroyed.  The destruction of the Russian ground forces would provide at least 10 years for the west to seek to modernize Russia into the country that optimists thought would result from the fall of the Soviet Union.  To create this opportunity the Ukrainian people and their armed forces must be given the wherewithal to do more than negotiate some form of cease fire.  They must defeat the Russians on the battlefield that is Ukraine, in short, they must WIN.

Will NATO seize this strategic opportunity?  If so, it will have to pull the US with it.  Ukraine has the initiative can it be exploited? To reduce NATO’s fear of the Russians escalating it must put its own nuclear forces at an increased level of readiness so as to signal Russia that deterrence is still the name of the nuclear game.