As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, many have been inspired by the resilience and determination of the Ukrainian people and their Army. Russia began this war, but Ukraine has not capitulated. Remember that was the predisposition of President Biden, whose first cowering instinct was to offer to evacuate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Mr. Zelenskyy decided to fight, an important lesson Mr. Biden needs.
There are many other lessons from the Ukrainian War that the Pentagon and congressional committees need to learn. Beyond the strategic blunders and tardy response by the U.S. and NATO in deterring Russia and coming to Ukraine’s aid, there are strategic and tactical lessons.
For several years now, our military services have been hard at work attempting to define future conflict. Central to that effort has been the shaping of what military strategists refer to as Multi-Domain Operations. This concept describes how the U.S. Army and other services can jointly counter and defeat a near-peer adversary capable — read China and Russia — in all domains of warfare (land, sea, air, space and cyberspace).
However, as China’s saber rattles against Taiwan, it is Russia that is actively threatening world order through its naked aggression against Ukraine. And while the U.S. is not a direct participant in that war, we nonetheless can benefit by observing it for the lessons it offers.
First, Russia is not the military behemoth we were given to believe. Since the fall of the former Soviet Union, the vitality of Russia’s military has been sapped by poor training, rampant corruption, and a preoccupation with relatively one-sided regional conflicts with neighboring states and in Syria. These conflicts do not approximate the challenges of what the U.S. Army terms Largescale Combat Operations (LSCO), or conventional war. That is on full display in Ukraine and Russia has not performed well. Its generals have failed to employ sound strategy. Mediocre ground commanders and the lack of a professional non-commissioned officer (NCO) corps have contributed to battlefield ineptitude. Yet the sheer size of Russia’s Army has compensated for all of this as they continue to bludgeon Ukraine.
We must now reexamine our own preparedness for LSCO. For two decades, our Army was focused on counter-insurgency warfare. In the process, we have neglected the skills we need to fight and win in LSCO scenarios. This atrophy — particularly in synchronizing combat power among armor, artillery and air forces — is dangerous and must be addressed.
That includes overcoming recruitment shortfalls to build a robust force structure — properly resourced — to fight and win when and where we need to. The Ukrainian War is a reminder that conflict can arise suddenly and if a nation is not ready, the consequences can be severe. We are not prepared for that war in Asia, despite the prevalent indications we see today. Indeed, while our small Army is significantly better and more professional than what Russia has shown us on the battlefield, we would be hard pressed to handle the losses we see in that sort of war, to say nothing of our inadequate industrial capacity to sustain such a conflict. A China scenario is daunting.
Second, we must reestablish our forward-deployed posture in both Europe and Asia. It was naive to assume that with the demise of the Soviet Union that Moscow would somehow retire its xenophobic proclivities for aggression and regional hegemony. Nations rise and fall, but the despotic tendencies of human nature persist. If we are to effectively project force in regions of the world where it is likely to be employed, we must be forward deployed, not only to build and foster training with alliances, but also to serve as a base force for follow-on forces to argument in times of war. These elements contribute to regional deterrence that must be maintained despite those who foolishly thought the Cold War would never thaw into a hot war.
Third, America’s armed forces must be of a size and capability to tactically fight and win. Today our structure is too small. With an active force at 481,254, it approximates our numbers prior to WWII. While we also need modern equipment and realistic training, we must have a force structure to maintain both forward deployment and a substantial active and reserve force in America to reinforce it. That also requires a significant reinvestment in equipment maintenance, training and operational tempo to be combat-ready.
Finally, the Army needs to get in the field and replicate the tactical battlefield lessons we’re observing in Ukraine. We have bright officers and NCOs who know how to innovate and improve our performance. Those lessons range from employing combat power to logistical sustainment. That innovation doesn’t happen in paneled Pentagon conference rooms. It happens on the dirt floors of our tactical national training centers. It’s time to get very dirty.
• L. Scott Lingamfelter is a retired U.S. Army Colonel and author of “Desert Redleg: Artillery Warfare in the First Gulf War” (University Press of Kentucky). He also served in the Virginia General Assembly from 2002 to 2018.
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