What The U.S. Will Learn, And Not Learn, From Its War In Ukraine

The quarterly magazine Parameters by the U.S. Army War College published an interesting paper about U.S. war capabilities:

A Call to Action: Lessons from Ukraine for the Future Force

Its abstract says:

Fifty years ago, the US Army faced a strategic inflection point after a failed counterinsurgency effort in Vietnam. In response to lessons learned from the Yom Kippur War, the United States Army Training and Doctrine Command was created to reorient thinking and doctrine around the conventional Soviet threat. Today’s Army must embrace the Russo-Ukrainian conflict as an opportunity to reorient the force into one as forward-thinking and formidable as the Army that won Operation Desert Storm.

This article suggests changes the Army should make to enable success in multidomain large-scale combat operations at today’s strategic inflection point.

It is normal for a military to analyze ongoing or just finished wars and to draw conclusions from them. Such efforts should then lead to changes in the military structure or its procedures.

The above effort though is unlikely to lead to the changes the authors want to see.

The authors correctly point out that command and control of troops via radio is problematic when the enemy has the means to detect all radio traffic:

The Russia-Ukraine War makes it clear that the electromagnetic signature emitted from the command posts of the past 20 years cannot survive against the pace and precision of an adversary who possesses sensor-based technologies, electronic warfare, and unmanned aerial systems or has access to satellite imagery; this includes nearly every state or nonstate actor the United States might find itself fighting in the near future.

The solution lies the extensive use of Mission Command (in the original German: Auftragstaktik) which allows subordinate leaders to do their own planning and operation within the given context:

When Milley served as Chief of Staff of the Army, he explained mission command through a concept of “disciplined disobedience” in which subordinates are empowered to accomplish a mission to achieve the commander’s intended purpose—even if they must disobey a specific order or task to do so. Without perfect communication, a subordinate officer or soldier must be trusted to make the right judgment call during battle, unencumbered by the need to seek approval for small adjustments.

To do that is a cultural issues. Mission Command must be lived and experienced from the very first day a civilian becomes a soldier. The U.S. officer corp is more used to direct order and control. The culture of Mission Command is not liked because mistakes of subordinate units still gets blamed on the higher command level.

Mission Command uses way less communication than direct order and control and is more robust when the crap hits the fan. But, unlike the German military, the U.S. army has never really lived up to it. I doubt that is going to change.

The next problem are high casualty numbers:

The Russia-Ukraine War is exposing significant vulnerabilities in the Army’s strategic personnel depth and ability to withstand and replace casualties. Army theater medical planners may anticipate a sustained rate of roughly 3,600 casualties per day, ranging from those killed in action to those wounded in action or suffering disease or other non-battle injuries. With a 25 percent predicted replacement rate, the personnel system will require 800 new personnel each day. For context, the United States sustained about 50,000 casualties in two decades of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. In large-scale combat operations, the United States could experience that same number of casualties in two weeks.

The 25% replacement rate is probably too low. Consider this current headline from Strana (machine translation):

Out of every 100 people, there are 10-20 left. The head of the Poltava TCC told about the losses in his district

The TCC is the Ukrainian administration responsible for drafting conscripts.

Out of every 100 people mobilized in the fall of last year, 10-20 remained, the rest are dead, wounded and disabled.

This was stated by the head of the Poltava regional TCC Vitaliy Berezhnoy, speaking yesterday at the 39th session of the Poltava City Council.

The problem is that the U.S. no longer has the reserves that are needed to sustain a large conflict:

[T]he US Army is facing a dire combination of a recruiting shortfall and a shrinking Individual Ready Reserve. This recruiting shortfall, nearly 50 percent in the combat arms career management fields, is a longitudinal problem. Every infantry and armor soldier we do not recruit today is a strategic mobilization asset we will not have in 2031. The Individual Ready Reserve, which stood at 700,000 in 1973 and 450,000 in 1994, now stands at 76,000. These numbers cannot fill the existing gaps in the active force, let alone any casualty replacement or expansion during a large-scale combat operation.

The authors recommend to re-introduce a partial conscription.

Politically that is unlike to happen. Any president who would do that would face immediate hostility from his voters.

Besides that there is rather large problem that most U.S. young citizens are not even qualified for it:

A new study from the Pentagon shows that 77% of young Americans would not qualify for military service without a waiver due to being overweight, using drugs or having mental and physical health problems.

A slide detailing the findings from the Pentagon’s 2020 Qualified Military Available Study shared with Military.com shows a 6% increase from the latest 2017 Department of Defense research that showed 71% of Americans would be ineligible for service.

“When considering youth disqualified for one reason alone, the most prevalent disqualification rates are overweight (11%), drug and alcohol abuse (8%), and medical/physical health (7%),” the study, which examined Americans between the ages of 17 and 24, read. The study was conducted by the Pentagon’s office of personnel and readiness.

Also most young people are not interested in serving in the military:

Only 9% of young people now show a propensity to serve, according to Defense Department polling data shared with ABC News. It’s the lowest number seen in 15 years.

The second former senior military official said the recruiting problem is a sign of wider societal problems.

It’s a reflection on our country. It is our country, and those recruiters see those problems firsthand every day,” the former official said.


The next point in the Parameters paper is the wide introduction of drones:

The ubiquitous use of unmanned aerial vehicles, unmanned surface vehicles, satellite imagery, sensor-based technologies, smartphones, commercial data links, and open-source intelligence is fundamentally changing the way armies will fight on the land domain in much the same way that unmanned aerial vehicles have changed the way air forces conduct operations in this century. These systems, coupled with emerging artificial intelligence platforms, dramatically accelerate the pace of modern war.

Western military have yet to introduce drones on the necessary scale. The Ukrainian and Russia military have both done well in that. They have recognized that drones are, like ammunition, consumables with Ukraine reportedly losing 10,000 per months. On top of reconnaissance drones the first-person-view (FPV) targeted armed drones have led to a wide use of drones in the role of precision targeted artillery.

Any units that are bunching up on the future battlefield will get immediately recognized and punished. This complicates the preparation for any larger operation.

This will require, the author say, a new level of deception when preparing for battle. It also requires more multi-domain reconnaissance and intelligence at every level. Any group leader should have a tablet and the necessary information available to him.

This point is probably the easiest one to fix. It just needs time until the necessary production facilities are in place to produce the necessary mass amounts of drones and to get some cheap information system down to the last level.

The other problems, Mission Command, personnel reserves and recruitment fitness, are cultural issues that will resist change.

The U.S. military, as many other western ones, is currently unable to fight on the large-scale combat level as the Russian army is currently doing.

That not only relates to the army but also to the navy and air-force. The U.S. ship-building capacity is 200 times lower than China’s. U.S. Navy ships are badly conceived boondoggles. The short legged F-35 jets have terrible availability rates.

Despite all that U.S. politicians continue to instigate for wars against high level competitors.

The results of wars against Russia or China with the military forces the U.S. currently has would be embarrassing. It would be much better to not ever try it.