Photograph of Russian T-90 tank following a hit by a U.S.-made TOW missile in Syria. [War Is Boring.com]
For anyone paying attention, it is no surprise that the U.S. Army is intently watching Russia’s military operations in the Ukraine. What they have seen is sobering. Defense One’s Patrick Tucker recently highlighted the preliminary findings of The Russia New Generation Warfare study directed by Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, who heads the Army’s Capabilities Integration Center.
According to McMaster, “the Russians have superior artillery firepower, better combat vehicles, and have learned sophisticated use of UAVs for tactical effect. Should U.S. forces find themselves in a land war with Russia, he said, they would be in for a rude, cold awakening.”
The Army evidently envisions a future clash between U.S. and Russian or Russian-backed forces will begin with long-range missile exchanges.
“We spend a long time talking about winning long-range missile duels,” said McMaster. But long-range missiles only get you through the front door. The question then becomes what will you do when you get there.
The tactics of Russian-backed irregular forces in the Ukraine have demonstrated effective leveraging of the new technological capabilities.
“Look at the enemy countermeasures,” [McMaster] said, noting Russia’s use of nominally semi-professional forces who are capable of “dispersion, concealment, intermingling with civilian populations…the ability to disrupt our network strike capability, precision navigation and timing capabilities.”
The implication of this, McMaster contends, would be that “you’re probably going to have a close fight… Increasingly, close combat overmatch is an area we’ve neglected, because we’ve taken it for granted.”
One big reason for the perceived Russian overmatch is a due to an advantage in artillery, both in terms of range and in power.
[Phil] Karber, the president of the Potomac Foundation, went on a fact-finding mission to Ukraine last year, and returned with the conclusion that the United States had long overemphasized precision artillery on the battlefield at the expense of mass fires. Since the 1980s, he said last October, at an Association for the United States Army event, the U.S. has given up its qualitative edge, mostly by getting rid of cluster munitions.
Munitions have advanced incredibly since then. One of the most terrifying weapons that the Russians are using on the battlefield are thermobaric warheads, weapons that are composed almost entirely of fuel and burn longer and with more intensity than other types of munitions.
“In a 3-minute period…a Russian fire strike wiped out two mechanized battalions [with] a combination of top-attack munitions and thermobaric warheads,” said Karber. “If you have not experienced or seen the effects of thermobaric warheads, start taking a hard look. They might soon be coming to a theater near you.”
McMaster believes that the combination of heavier, longer-ranged artillery abetted by the targeting capabilities afforded by hordes of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) provides the Russians with a significant battlefield advantage.
“We’re out-ranged by a lot of these systems and they employ improved conventional munitions, which we are going away from. There will be a 40- to 60-percent reduction in lethality in the systems that we have,” he said. “Remember that we already have fewer artillery systems. Now those fewer artillery systems will be less effective relative to the enemy. So we need to do something on that now.”
One potential solution is to develop more flexibility in existing U.S. Army fires capabilities.
To remedy that, McMaster is looking into a new area called “cross domain fires,” which would outfit ground units to hit a much wider array of targets. “When an Army fires unit arrives somewhere, it should be able to do surface-to-air, surface-to-surface, and shore-to-ship capabilities. We are developing that now and there are some really promising capabilities,” he said.
It remains to be seen how pervasive and permanent these new Russian military capabilities are and whether they will result in changes in the existing system for modern conventional combat. The advantages the Russians derive from mass fires would appear to directly challenge the U.S.’s investment in precision guided munitions and strike capabilities going back to World War II. Precision strike, networked capabilities, and information warfare were fundamental aspects of the technology-driven Revolution in Military Affairs concept that dominated U.S. military thinking in the 1990s and early 2000s. Leveraging technology is also a foundational aspect of the Defense Department’s current Third Offset Strategy.