What Ukraine Is Teaching U.S. Army Generals About Future Combat

Russia’s war in Ukraine is teaching U.S. Army generals that modern ground-launched missile technology, loitering munitions, and low-cost unmanned aircraft will force the service to unlearn most of what it remembers from its largely static counter-insurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In future combat, Army units will have to be constantly on the move and prepared for all manner of top-down attacks while assuming they are under persistent enemy surveillance, as troops have been since Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine began in February.

At this year’s Association of the U.S. Army’s annual convention in Washington, D.C. (AUSA), U.S. Army leaders laid out those lessons as examples of what they are learning while observing Ukraine’s remarkable battlefield successes, and Russia’s comparative failures.

For the past two decades, the Army has been fighting largely static wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, defined by massive, nearly permanent bases surrounded by a network of smaller tactical operations centers (TOCs) and forward operating bases (FOBs). Patrols would operate from those bases and return when their missions were complete.

U.S. soldiers disassemble a TOC during exercise Allied Spirit at Drawsko Pomorskie Training Area, Poland, June 13, 2020. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Julian Padua

In a future major conflict, fighting from established sites is a recipe for being hounded and pounded by enemy long-range missiles and drones, as the Russians have been in Ukraine, said Gen. James Rainey, head of Army Futures Command.

In his current position, Rainey is in charge of overseeing all of the Army’s modernization priorities, from soldier equipment to an optionally manned fighting vehicle and a fleet of revolutionary fast and maneuverable helicopters.

“We have got to get our hands around fighting under continuous observation,” Rainey said at the convention on October 12. “You’re going to have to figure out how to fight when the enemy can see you. You’re not going to be able to pile up things; you’re not going to be able to build TOCs.”

Russia has so far largely failed at efforts to perform combined arms maneuver, in which infantry, armor, artillery, and aviation operate together to advance against an enemy, Rainey said. This has made their forces even more vulnerable to Ukraine’s long-range precision artillery capabilities.

Ukrainian artillery unit fires with a 2S7-Pion, a self-propelled gun, in the Kharkiv region on August 26, 2022. AFP via Getty Images

Pairing infantry with armor and air support should, for instance, make U.S. tanks less vulnerable to enemy anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs). Rainey said he does not think U.S. armored units would fall prey as quickly as Russian forces have to Ukrainian missile attacks, but “it’s something we have to figure out and pay attention to and continue to emphasize in our training.”

“So, how are we going to take all the high-tech stuff that we know we need and deliver it in a way that doesn’t require you to stop, hold still and pile up?” Rainey added.

The war in Ukraine has shown that units, or established positions that stay in one place for too long, are likely to be found. Once found, it is likely they will be engaged by enemy artillery, drones, or something else. Russian ammunition dumps far behind the frontlines came under systematic Ukrainian fire for weeks ahead of currnetly ongoing offensives, highlighting the effectiveness of weapons like the High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS. The war has already validated the Army’s quest for precision long-range fires with ever-increasing ranges, as we previously covered in this piece.

Army units have defenses against some of the weapons Ukrainian forces have used to brutally punish invading Russian armored units. Rainey said a well-trained and equipped U.S. armored force would likely not suffer the same fate as Russian tanks in Ukraine.

Rainey did not specify what U.S. equipment would make that difference, but there are a number of things the Army is pursuing to protect its vehicles and personnel from guided missiles, drones and other modern threats. One is installing active protection systems, or APS, on its Bradley Fighting Vehicles, M1 Abrams tanks, and Armored Multipurpose Vehicles. Those systems can detect, track and deploy explosive countermeasures against incoming anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) and other projectiles. But APSs are not designed to protect against long-range guided artillery like the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, or GMLRS, Ukraine has used to such devastating effect with HIMARS and M270 tracked launchers.

A modernized M1A2 SEPv3 Abrams tank at Fort Stewart, Georgia, in September. U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Jacob Swinson

“We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to survive on a battlefield against everything,” Rainey said. “How much of what happened to the Russians was because of the threat of ground-launched missiles, and how much of our ability to actually do combined arms maneuver could prevent that?”

Ukrainian weapons have picked off Russian tanks at a rate that has some questioning the vehicle’s future utility. Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. James McConville put that notion to rest, saying tanks and armored vehicles are essential to offensive operations if properly supported.

In the early stages of the war, defending cities against an invading mechanized army, the Ukrainians needed ATGMs like the Javelin to destroy Russian tanks, at which they excelled. Later, Ukraine needed long-range fire capability to hold the Russians back and prepare the battlespace for an offensive. Now Kyiv is showing the modern utility of tanks as its forces retake huge swathes of occupied territory, McConville said.

A destroyed Russian tank is seen outside of Izyum district of Kharkiv Oblast, Ukraine, on October 13, 2022. Photo by Wolfgang Schwan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“You don’t need armor if you don’t want to win,” he told reporters at AUSA. “What I mean by that is, you go on the offensive – if you look at those great lessons being learned in Ukraine – that was the initial part of the war. And that was when they were in complex terrain and trying to defend cities, and they did that very, very well. But you don’t win by being on the defense. You have to go on the offense … as the Ukrainians go more on the offensive, what they’re looking for is armored vehicles and tanks.”

The U.S. military’s experience with improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in Iraq and Afghanistan led it to harden its vehicles against such weapons. That armor weighed down its tactical vehicles and sacrificed speed and range, precisely the mobility attributes commanders now want to reintroduce. The Army’s Mobile Protected Firepower, or MPF, light tank and Future Vertical Lift family of next-generation rotorcraft are just two examples where speed is required to promote survivability.

“Because of 20 years of tough combat … we have a lot of protection against bottom-up stuff, and that comes with a lot of weight,” Rainey said. “Unless we figure out how to port some of this stuff over, we might find ourselves in a situation where there is not as much of a bottom-up threat, but there is very clearly a top-down, 360 [degree] threat.”

Brig. Gen. Walter Rugen, chief of Future Vertical Lift at Army Futures Command, said the war in Ukraine underscores the need for speedier rotorcraft to avoid enemy air defenses during air assault and attack missions. Army aviation has kept a close official watch on helicopter operations on both sides of the war, and much of what they’ve seen has reaffirmed the assumptions made in designing requirements for the Future Attack Recon Aircraft (FARA) that will replace some AH-64 Apaches and the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) that will replace the UH-60 Black Hawk.

Bell’s V-280 Valor, seen here in attack configuration supporting Abrams tanks, are in the running for FLRAA. Bell image

“The fact that rotorcraft operating in the lower-tier air domain has been decisive in a number of engagements – we’re watching that very closely,” Rugen told reporters at the AUSA conference. “But also, some flaws in the tactics that have been well played out – flying high during the day – those things don’t work in large-scale combat ops. And so, the kind of technology we’re bringing forward is going to allow our crews in the future to not be put in flight profiles that would give them difficulty getting through tough neighborhoods.”

The use of helicopters in Ukraine has reinforced “the need for speed, the need for standoff,” Rugen said. Both the Russians and Ukrainians have been flying their helicopters very low and employ standoff tactics like lobbing rockets into the air to increase their weapons range while reducing the aircraft’s vulnerability to attack from air defenses.

Future air assault forces will have to launch missions from beyond the reach of enemy reconnaissance and artillery capabilities, then fly farther to their targets than existing helicopters can safely reach and still return to base. The faster and lower they fly, the less vulnerable they are to enemy man-portable air defenses.

The SB>1 Defiant is in the running to replace the UH-60 Black Hawk. Lockheed Martin Image

“Having the ability to stand outside of certain fires, just all this artillery and rocket capability that the Russians have, again, you want to be outside that and then close in quickly and strike, and that’s where really the validation is coming from,” Rugen said. “And then stay low. Outside of these things that are hunting us.”

So far, the Army has engaged in distance learning while Ukraine and Russia duke it out. Army commanders have been able to study how their weapons are used without directly engaging an enemy. Ukraine’s Minister of Defense, Oleksii Reznikov, even offered Ukraine as a real-world, live-fire testing ground for Western weaponry.

Studying the conflict is undoubtedly valuable for the U.S. and its allies that are pouring weaponry into the country. Gen. Edward Daly, chief of Army Materiel Command, said the NATO effort to both arm Ukraine and retain enough equipment for member states’ militaries shows the value of foreign military sales.

“I think we’re finding that foreign military sales are hugely powerful and enabling to numerous countries other than ours, and we’re seeing that,” Daly said.

However, the U.S. Army and its sister services are more focused on a regional showdown with China than they are becoming directly involved with Ukraine’s struggle against Russia. Rugen and Rainey warned against leaning on lessons from Ukraine to confirm assumptions about all future conflicts.

“We also need to be very careful of confirmation bias, where we look at what’s going on in Ukraine and say ‘yeah, see, I was right,’” Rainey said. “There are some things that are very new and interesting, and some of them are affirming some really problematic things.”

The ongoing aforementioned debate over tanks is an excellent example of running that risk. Ukraine has reinvigorated the debate about whether tanks are now obsolete given the proliferation of ATGMs, loitering munitions and other tank-killing weapons. The Russian’s early experience in this war would seem to confirm that heavy armor is obsolete. The Marine Corps’ Deputy Commandant for Combat Development and Integration came to that conclusion in May when the war was only three months old, saying Russian armor losses validated his service’s decision to divest its Abrams tanks.

Now that the Ukrainians are on the move, they are clamoring for NATO to provide more tanks.

Rugen echoed that sentiment, saying, “we have significant observations, and we want to be humble about that to make sure that we don’t gravitate towards the wrong lessons.”

Contact the author: dan@thewarzone.com