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Posted by Jack Heslin on 15:06:24 05/10/23

Even for the casual observer of the Ukraine conflict, technological changes are having a huge impact on how combat operations are conducted.

Even while the conflict rages, we can see lessons emerging from the battlefields of Ukraine. Today, countries have organized their militaries and have equipped them to conduct combat operations based on their understanding of what the battlefield will look like in the future. Many of the assumptions used to structure land and air units are proving to be false assumptions.

For most of history, it was axiomatic that it was necessary to have a 3 to 1 advantage for the attacking forces to overcome the defense. There are many reasons for coming up with that ratio, which I am not going to go into here, but it has become obvious that a change in technology, especially in the ability to deliver effective fire, now has made it possible for numerically inferior forces to successfully overcome a larger enemy mass. We have seen numerically inferior Russian forces overcome well entrenched, numerically superior forces using massive and effective fire power. The technological changes of weapon systems are providing exponential improvements not seen in recent times.

In 1972 I flew a scout helicopter in the Vietnam War during the Battle of Kontum. The mission for scout helicopters, at that time, was to locate the enemy so that they could be targeted for destructive fire from gunships, artillery, or bombs from fixed wing aircraft. They were very hazardous missions because our helicopters were very vulnerable to enemy ground fire. In one air cavalry scout unit of nine OH 6 helicopters, there was a 100% loss rate.

Today, the ubiquitous use of inexpensive, unmanned drones, by both sides of the conflict, provides a clear picture of the future. The reorganization of the aviation units in the West is likely to see the mission of the expensive, manned scout helicopters transition to drones. The development and purchase of new scout helicopters is likely to end unless there is too much political pressure placed on the armed forces by political lobbyists, who will insist on business as usual.

Long range rocket artillery, such as HIMARS, which has terminal guidance systems that can be defeated by powerful electronic systems, is unlikely to survive in future conflicts except for low intensity conflicts where the enemy lacks the sophisticated counter measures we are seeing used by the Russians.

One of the biggest shifts in how to prepare for battle is in the understanding of how air superiority is achieved and maintained. An air superiority fighter aircraft is no longer the best weapon to achieve control in the sky over the battlefield. It is clear now, that ground based, anti-aircraft systems, dominate the sky. Currently, all the evidence indicates, that the Russian anti-aircraft systems are among the best in the world and, while they may not be able to use aircraft in the contested space, they can deliver highly effective fire through that space in the form of precision guided missiles and bombs that are difficult for the Ukraine military to stop.

Real-time, space-based intelligence systems, linked to battlefield systems, now dominate every aspect of the Ukraine conflict. While the Russians have their own systems in place, Ukraine forces are almost exclusively dependent on NATO, especially American systems, for their real-time intelligence. The loss of these systems would have a huge impact on the outcome of the conflict, and the growing efforts to negate the effectiveness of these systems is a high priority by both sides.

Finally, the historic role of armored formations is shifting and may signal a change in the balance of land-based war. As I experienced in the 1972 Battle of Kontum, after the initial psychological shock and awe of a large-scale tank assault, South Vietnamese defenders were able to adapt with the anti-tank weapons of the day to negate the effectiveness of the tanks and regain their psychological sense of balance. We are seeing a similar situation in the Ukraine conflict as both sides can use advanced anti-tank systems to destroy enemy tanks and armor, which has made rapid battlefield maneuver more difficult. This is likely to have a major impact on the way land combat is conducted in the future.

Will the lessons from this conflict be studied and embraced by the warring nations or will they simply be ignored, as has happened in the past, when the hostilities end? I hope that those painful lessons, which are emerging from this conflict, are studied in detail, but I believe, as has happened in the past, many will disregard those lessons and they will do so at their own peril.

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