"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
"At times, the Russians used more shells in two days than in the entire British stockpile."
Forget the myth of an incompetent Russian army. Yes, they've made mistakes, but they remain a potent and formidable force that came close to taking Kyiv in less than two weeks. Released last month, the Royal United Services Institute report on the Ukraine war overturns Western media-driven narratives and says sobering things about Britain's ability to sustain a fight.
Notably, the report claims that the Russians suffered from a culture that prevents openness and honest reporting. This trait, coupled with weak leadership at the NCO level, played a significant role in disrupting Russian operations. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians benefitted from their devolved command and an ability to scurry around the battlefield.
What the report has to say about Britain's capacity to keep up a war effort should send a shiver down the spine of defence chiefs and politicians.
The report - a copy is attached below - considers the lessons learnt (so far) in all aspects of war-fighting. It takes at look at planning, command, leadership styles, weapon systems and culture. Drawing on data from the Ukrainians and various other sources, including (hint, hint) intelligence, the report teases out many learning points.
From the outset, I acknowledge that the data in the report is provisional, and some may see the content as coloured by the U.K.'s support for Kyiv. That's a natural assumption to make. Still, having read the report, I must say it adopts a balanced approach. The findings appear cogent, well-supported and without the drum-beating propaganda that passes for media coverage.
The invasion of Ukraine began on 24 February 2022. Details of the Russian planning are ominous. The FSB drew up lists of people for 'physical liquidation', 'suppression and intimidation' and 'potential collaborators'.
The attack plan envisaged seizing the capital, Kyiv, within ten days, with detachments of Russian Airborne Forces conducting kill-or-capture missions to eliminate the Ukrainian leadership. With confidence, the 1st Guards Tank Army, designated to seize Kyiv, spoke of switching to mopping up by Day 10.
Yet, from the outset, the Russians made decisions based on faulty intelligence and assessments. Moreover, only a tiny circle of commanders participated in the planning. Even senior generals remained in the dark until days before the attack. This approach meant peer review or 'red teaming' didn't take place, while the late briefings had terrible consequences for the front-line troops.
The Russians didn't tell their army about the plan until 24 hours before the attack. Thus, the troops went in with inadequate briefings, no study of the ground, minimum kit preparation, and couldn't mentally ready themselves for the fight.
Crucially, the insufficient levels of autonomy given to junior Russian commanders removed operational flexibility. All these factors combined on the battlefield as the Russians soon got lost — literally.
Also, the FSB assessed Ukrainian civilian resolve to suggest the general population would roll over without a fight. This wrong judgment and other aspects of a 'false reporting' culture hampered the Russians.
Yet, the findings dispute the Western narrative of a corrupt, ineffective, ill-equipped, and inferior Russian army. While recognising the Russians failed to live up to expectations, many aspects of their plan worked without a flaw, and their weapons systems proved reliable. Hence, they came close to success.
For starters, the Ukrainians got duped into believing that the Donbas region would bear the brunt of the initial thrust. Thus, they concentrated troops in that area. Then, the Ukrainians refused to change their mind, even in the face of NATO intelligence suggesting the Russians planned to go for Kyiv.
Once the Russian army started moving, the lack of adequate briefings and the complacency in their planning became clear. First, told to move in columns as if redeploying in friendly territory, they made a tempting target. Then, as units became lost, they'd stop to ask civilians for directions. That made them an easy static hit for devastating artillery attacks.
In the first days, wrong footed and taken aback, senior Ukrainian commanders struggled. Fortunately, their front-line units proved psychologically and practically ready. Many soldiers had combat experience over the past eight years of intermittent warfare; they knew the ground and had a straightforward mission — blunt the Russian attack. With small unit mobility plus the discretion to act, they soon proved a capable force.
Much of the West's media coverage has focused on the destruction of Russian tanks by NATO-supplied anti-tank missiles. Spectacular footage of tank turrets flying through the air proved popular but misrepresented events. Instead, the report concludes, most of the damage came from artillery or precision rocket fire.
Moreover, the Ukrainians had indigenous weapon systems that were very capable. Also, NATO-supplied weapons took time to integrate into units because training and tactics changes proved necessary. Hence, the constant media chatter about NATO weapons winning the war is a false perspective.
The report draws many military lessons that will impact future conflicts. For example, accurate missiles and long-range artillery mean neither side has any sanctuary. Open-air command posts, arms dumps and logistical lines prove easy to spot with modern surveillance systems.
The Russians opted to locate themselves inside the boundaries of nuclear power plants to dissuade Ukrainian fire. Moreover, with 60 per cent of Ukrainian power generated by nuclear power plants, taking these locations gave leverage.
Unmanned aerial vehicles — drones in civilian parlance — played a crucial role for both sides in reconnaissance and attack. Yet, data from the Ukrainians show these systems suffered a 90 per cent attrition rate. On average, a fixed-wing drone lasted six missions, while a quad-rotor drone managed only three tasks.
Skilled crews proved adept at extending the life of drones by low-flying tactics and terrain hugging but then experienced a reduced mission success rate. As a result, only one-third of drone missions succeeded.
Also, deploying the sophisticated drones with high-end sensors and controls didn't improve survivability. Instead, cheap, rather basic options had the best results.
Both sides used drones to identify concentration of troops, command posts or offensive build-ups; making mobility necessary to avoid artillery or rocket attacks. Besides, the flexibility of the Ukrainians, with devolved command, allowed movement often giving them an advantage.
During the campaign, some innovations proved 'a double-edged sword'. For example, the Ukrainians realised they could disrupt the laser marking of their positions by emitting smoke to deflect missile attacks. So they positioned detectors to pick up the lasers and then fired smoke. In response, the Russians then used the cover of the smoke to approach covertly to mount sorties.
MANPADS — shoulder-launched anti-aircraft rockets — made helicopter and plane operations difficult for both sides. The Ukrainians distributed MANPADS to all ground units, allowing comprehensive coverage that sometimes grounded the Russian helicopter fleet.
The conclusions about the intensity of operations and the capacity to sustain combat remind us that logistics wins wars. Typically a three-kilometre front would see 6000 artillery shells land a day.
At times, the Russians used more shells in two days than in the entire British stockpile. Hence, if the British went to war with the same intensity, they couldn't sustain a campaign beyond a couple of days.
Likewise, the report concludes the RAF's ability to maintain planes across dispersed locations is questionable. Since modern planes need hours of care after a mission, planners must raise serious questions about sustainability. Repeated budget cuts have reduced stockpiles of spares and stores, yet this spare capacity and the slack is precisely what is needed.
The Royal Navy does no better. The war proved that land-based cruise missiles and attack drones could keep naval forces clear of coastlines. So, unfortunately, those expensive carriers aren't much use when far away from the battle.
On the training front, the report assesses the British Army as well placed with many facilities and the ability to bring training online at short notice. Not so the RAF and RN because both contracted out their training. With the peacetime RAF experiencing severe difficulties getting pilots through its courses, the situation in a war would be critical.
On a positive note, the Brits enjoy a strong NCO cadre and an openness not present in the Russian command culture. Failure by Russian commanders often meant prompt replacement in a scapegoating without a complete examination of the facts. In turn, this practice encouraged false reporting that hides problems and deters an honest analysis of issues. Hence, the underlying problem never gets resolved, lessons are not learnt, and vulnerabilities remain hidden.
I draw three key conclusions from all this. First, much of the Western media narrative is distorted and a fair part outright propaganda. The often cited 'objectivity' of the Western press is again dented. Second, NATO cannot sustain operations without supplies from the U.S.; so not much has changed since World War II. Although, by several accounts, even U.S. stocks are running low.
And finally, having a flexible command culture is key to success. I’m reminded of the line, 'Culture eats strategy for breakfast.'
Putin's war is far from over. Meanwhile, some of the shortcomings in Britain's defences are now starkly evident. With a stuttering economy and little spare cash, some harsh decisions regarding military capabilities are needed. Flashy big-ticket items such as aircraft carriers and the latest high-tech jets may have to give way to the mundane drones and MANPADS. Likewise, having adequate stocks of ammunition and spares don’t grab headlines but win wars.
The report ends with an optimistic note, suggesting the Ukrainians can prevail. Regardless, only time will tell because the sordid realities of war are often fickle.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.