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What the Ukrainian Army Is Trying to Do Is Hard—Even for Americans
Combined arms operations, especially an attack against a prepared defender, are difficult even for the world’s best militaries.
CNN REPORTS THAT “THE SLOW PROGRESS” of the Ukrainian counteroffensive “has exposed the difficulty of transforming Ukrainian forces into combined mechanized fighting units, sometimes with as few as eight weeks of training on western-supplied tanks and other new weapons systems.” Yeah, no kidding. Combined arms operations are hard, even for the best Western militaries, and even when the enemy isn’t actually shooting at you. I know; I’ve done it.
If you leave Los Angeles and drive for about two hours into the desert about halfway to Las Vegas, you’ll come upon the town of Barstow, California. If you stay on Interstate 15 a little longer, you can turn onto Fort Irwin Road and see a road sign: “Next 37 Miles, Absolutely Nothing.” At the end of that trek is the Goldstone Deep Space Communication Complex, where NASA tracks and communicates with interplanetary space missions, and Fort Irwin, the home of the U.S. Army’s National Training Center (NTC) since 1981.
Fort Irwin is the crown jewel of the three major U.S. Army Training Centers. (The others are the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Johnson in Louisiana and the Joint Multinational Readiness Center at Hohenfels, Germany, where the Army trains with international partners and where the Ukrainian Army has trained in the last year.) It is at Fort Irwin that the Army trains most of its heavy forces in combined arms operations. At the NTC, heavy brigades from all over the continental United States bring their command posts with dozens of staff officers along with thousands of soldiers mounted on tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery cannons and HIMARS, engineer de-mining and construction equipment, air defense medium-range rockets and missiles, attack and scout helicopters, drones, trucks, and all sorts of logistical support vehicles from fuelers to ammo carriers to participate in multiple missions. For 30-day training deployments, the brigades, each a combined arms team of all different types of capabilities, effectively go to war.
Commanders and units are stressed under near-combat conditions by the men and women of the Operations Group, who design the training events, and the “opposing force” or OPFOR, who are also organized in a combined arms team and who pride themselves on relentlessly outmaneuvering and outgunning the visiting units. Throughout these force-on-force battles, the training units are closely watched by several hundred “observer/controllers” from the Operations Group, who record every important conversation and capture every key movement on video. GPS trackers watch individual and vehicles movements. “Hits” and “kills” are recorded by the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System, the early pre-cursor to laser tag. All of this information is consolidated and used to discuss good and poor battle actions during formal and informal after-action reviews, which occur during scheduled pauses in the battle. This whole system fulfills basketball coach Bobby Knight’s mantra that the practice must always be tougher than the game.
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Resource intensive? Indeed. Complicated? Yes, it is. Repetitive? Absolutely. Challenging? You betcha. This kind of combined arms training is based on the American way of war, it prepares us to face our nation’s enemies, and it helps save American lives in real combat.
During each training rotation, brigades are usually given six combat missions of different types. For each “battle,” staff planning takes several hours, the preparation of forces and rehearsals requires additional time, and then the battles themselves are played out over a maneuver area slightly larger than Rhode Island. The very toughest of these missions is a deliberate attack against a defending enemy—the same kind of operation the Ukrainians have been conducting in an actual war for months.
When I was a brigade commander deployed to the training center, my unit experienced a lot of “learning and growing” during the deliberate attack. (No one “fails” a mission at the NTC, but I concede that the OPFOR cleaned our clock.) After months of training on this mission at our home station, we were confident we could beat the OPFOR. But out in the High Mojave, it didn’t take long for us to learn that we had a bad plan, we didn’t rehearse appropriately, and our infantry-artillery-armor-engineer teams weren’t synchronized during the fight. Tanks were stumbling into minefields and weren’t shielded from the eyes of the OPFOR’s long-range fires. Our engineer breaching equipment wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Our communications were jammed by the enemy, and our artillery wasn’t effective at suppressing theirs. I could go on.
Surprisingly, after brigade command, I was assigned to be the commander of the Operations Group at Fort Irwin. Maybe because I knew what a thorough drubbing by the OPFOR looked like as well as how to help other brigade commanders avoid the mistakes I made. During that period, I watched 12 different brigades all attempt this tough mission and saw every mistake imaginable. Their after-action reviews provided multiple “learning and growing experiences” for both commanders and soldiers. Of course, it wasn’t real combat and no one died.
The situation in Ukraine, of course, is very different. In addition to the very real deaths, injuries, and damage, the Ukrainians are attempting deliberate attacks at a much larger scale, with all their brigades just a parts of an overall large offensive operation. They’re doing it with multiple combat units (estimates say between nine and 12 combined arms brigades), over a very large front (between 400 and 600 miles, or conservatively the distance between Washington and Boston), against an enemy who had eight months to build three extensive belts of obstacles and prepare fighting positions to support those obstacles (at the NTC, the OPFOR has about 24 hours to construct one complex of obstacles consisting of wire, mines, and ditches).
The Ukrainian military also does not totally share the American/Western way of warfare—yet. Working with them extensively in 2010-2012, it was obvious some of their commanders (especially my counterpart, Col. Gen. Henadii Vorobiov) were desperately attempting to shed the post-Soviet Army, artillery-centric, institutional approach to warfare. While training at the time prepared Ukrainian forces to take their place alongside other European units sharing the mission in Afghanistan, there was little time allocated at the Yavoriv Training Center near Lviv to help them build the type of army to which they aspired. Combat experience since 2014, and especially since February 2022, has contributed to their gaining experience and seeing the need to further transform their security force. The Ukrainian military does not yet have a trained and mature combined arms capability, or the kind of trained and supportable air force that would contribute when synchronized with effective ground operations. Truthfully, as with combined arms training, it takes significant effort beyond just shipping them F-16s to have an effect on the battlefield. That day will come.
The great military theoretician Carl von Clausewitz once wrote that everything in war is simple, but the simplest things are difficult. Millions of military practitioners who have combat experience would agree, and most pundits who have not been on a battlefield rarely understand the implications of other factors of warfare: new equipment, conducting a difficult mission for the first time, green troops, weather. The New York Times recently suggested Ukrainian troops armed with new equipment and trained by Western militaries “stumbled in battle.” The description of the Ukrainians’ performance sounded a lot like many after-action reviews at Ft. Irwin: “the troops became bogged down in dense Russian minefields under constant fire from artillery and helicopter gunships. Units got lost. One unit delayed a nighttime attack until dawn, losing its advantage. Another fared so badly that commanders yanked it off the battlefield altogether.” Replace “Russian” with “OPFOR,” and that’s not a too far from what happened to my brigade at the NTC. The difference was that Ukrainian troops were under real fire, which resulted in real casualties and real damaged equipment. Yes, everything is simple—move here, shoot there, hide this, destroy that—but the simplest things are exceptionally difficult.
There’s an adage that any defending force usually has a 3-to-1 advantage over an attacking force; that is, a defending force can hold off three times its number of attackers. The ratio of 3-to-1 allegedly came from a study rooted in operations research that found that, while an attacking force assumes greater risk by not having enough soldiers to create and exploit a breach, a defending force can take advantage of defensive terrain, preparedness, and less fear and fatigue due to a static position. Most experienced practitioners would call the 3-to-1 ratio a rule of thumb or even a kind of military proverb. Combat performance depends on leadership, the morale of the troops on both sides, the weapon systems, and the time dedicated to executing the mission in addition to raw numbers. All these factors come into play with two forces executing different missions for the first time. The Ukrainians are attempting multiple deliberate combined arms attacks against an entrenched enemy with miles of complex obstacles over a large area for the first time, while the Russian are attempting a deliberate defense with months of preparation of multiple obstacle belts for the first time.
It should come as no surprise that Ukraine’s army, after being given a significant amount of new, Western equipment and having a relatively short time to train at European bases, may not be executing the rapid, Desert Storm-like offensive many expected. Especially given that offensive is directed against a significantly entrenched Russian force which, though still somewhat dysfunctional, has learned and is applying significant lessons about electronic warfare, air defense, artillery targeting, and integrating long-range fires from protected defensive positions.
Given the desire to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity, complete the withdrawal of Russian troops and cease hostilities, and meet the request for a special tribunal to prosecute Russian war crimes—three central items in Volodymyr Zelensky’s 10-point peace plan—this war will likely not end before the end of 2023. But I remain convinced that the Ukrainian Army will continue to learn during the execution of their large offensive operation in Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, and the Donbas. Patience, understanding of the dynamics of war, and continued support will remain critical to the completion of this mission.