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War in Ukraine: Understanding the Tactical Situation

by Galen Peterson

Galen Peterson in Iraq, 2008

Galen Peterson is a foremost expert on modern tank combat, having learned the subject first-hand as a tank platoon leader and company commander in Iraq. Galen is author of the memoir Strike Hard and Expect No Mercy and has lectured at his alma mater, West Point, on battle command and officership. A guest on VBC Happy Hour back in February, Galen recently wrote this analysis of the operational situation in Ukraine, explaining how the Russian Army, a supposed armored juggernaut, bogged down so quickly in a losing war.

The war in Ukraine is the first major war involving near-peer militaries on the European continent in decades.

As a result, forms of combat not seen in a long time are appearing in our information feeds, videos and photos shared on social media.

The unique tactical situation unfolding in Ukraine is a challenge to understand, even for the major news networks.

Let’s examine some of the key weapons, tactics, and operational considerations that have defined this Russo-Ukrainian War of 2022.

Javelin Anti-Tank Missiles

US soldiers fire the Javelin anti-tank weapon at the Pohakuloa Training Area, Hawaii (Photo by SPC Patrick Kirby)

Much attention has focused on the success of Javelin anti-tank guided missiles. The Javelin is a US-made fire-and-forget missile with an effective range of 2000 meters (just over a mile and a quarter). The missile comes in a disposable tube, which the Command Launch Unit (CLU) snaps onto for use. The CLU, an oversized Styrofoam-camera-looking thing attached to an upward angling missile tube, is your clue that you are looking at a Javelin. The gunner locks the missile onto a thermal image and after launch, the missile arcs up into the air before plummeting down from the top, where the vehicle armor is thinnest. The missile can also be programmed to fly a direct path and strike the side of the target.

While most modern tanks have frontal armor rated from 500 to over 1,000 millimeters of rolled homogenous steel (the benchmark measuring unit of armor), the top armor of most tanks is around 25 millimeters. The massive difference in armor thickness is the reason behind the development of top-attack weapons. There is no top armor on the planet, including our own, thick enough to withstand a strike from a Javelin.

Next Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapons (NLAW)

Bofors NLAW (Wikimedia)

While the Javelin gets the publicity, most published photos are actually of a different weapon that’s roughly the same size. The Next Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapons (NLAW) is a Swedish and British jointly-developed missile with the small sight already attached and a range of only 800 meters.

The NLAW’s flight profile is flat and programed to fly over the top of the target. The top-down strike is achieved with a downward-angled warhead that penetrates top armor. Portable and simple to use, the NLAW is as potent as a vindictive mother-in-law.

Metis and Konkurs Missiles

Belarusian soldier with a 9M113 Konkurs missile (Mil.ru)

A third type of anti-tank guided missile is also seeing success in Ukraine. The Ukrainians, as former Soviet citizens, have large quantities of Cold War-era Metis and Konkurs missiles. These missiles are wire-guided, requiring the gunner to keep the sights aligned on the target all the way to impact.

To aid the gunner, these missile systems come with a tripod because the flight time might be as much as twenty seconds for a Konkurs maximum range shot. Unlike the Javelin and NLAW, the Metis and Konkurs only impact directly at the point of aim instead of a top-down attack. The Metis has a range a tad longer than the Javelin, but the Konkurs has double that.

These two missiles are the primary means Ukrainians are using to destroy the more than 1,000-1,500 Russian armored vehicles lost so far.

There are more weapons for short-range urban fights, like the RPG and other western-made equivalents. These RPGs are not the ones seen in Vietnam or even, for the most part, in Iraq or Afghanistan. They are newer and more effective. I can attest personally to their ability in stopping even an M1A2 Abrams tank.

Tank and Anti-Tank Tactics

The effectiveness of these anti-tank weapons is partially due to the tactics employed. Launching a missile requires exposing the soldier long enough to acquire the target and then shoot. To increase the survival rate of missile gunners, infantry will plan for ambushes or place missile teams on opposite ends of the line so if one team gets targeted by retaliation fire, another is still free to launch.

On the other side of the fight, the tanker needs to use technology or good tactics to avoid being hit by a missile. While there are systems designed to counter the missiles at point of impact, they don’t always work as designed.

Russian tanks with “Cope Cages,” 2021 (Anonymous posted to Russian social media)

The most visible and widely ridiculed system employed by Russia are the roof “Cope Cages” over tank turrets. These slats of metal, in theory, cause the missile to detonate farther out and the airspace below dissipates the molten jet caused by the warhead before it reaches the tank’s armor.

In practice, the cages fail for two reasons: the missile doesn’t strike the cage on its flight path and/or the molten copper jet still retains enough power to cut through the armor.

A Georgian T-72 tank layered with Explosive Reactive Armor bricks (1st Lt. Justin Colvin, Marine Forces Europe)

The Spanish-tile-like brickwork you see on tanks is Explosive Reactive Armor. When a shell or molten jet strikes the armor, the tile explodes outward, and the explosion disrupts the incoming weapon. Explosive armor really does work – as long as it’s replaced regularly. Most explosives have a short shelf-life measured in the time it takes for the composite chemicals to disintegrate. The Russians have been terrible at maintenance, so it follows their reactive armor tiles are likely too old to function correctly.

A third method of defeating missiles is to block or intercept them. The Russians have a passive defense system called Shtora – Russian for “curtain”–to counter wire-guided missiles such as Metis and Konkurs, or the American TOW missile. Shtora has a hot red heat lamp on the front corners of the turret. When turned on, these hot spots work to confuse the computer that tracks and aims the missile. If the computer makes flight corrections off the wrong heat source, the missile misses.

Shtora can jam Metis and Konkurs missles, but not Javelin or NLAW. I haven’t seen any footage of Russian tanks in Ukraine using Shtora.

Arena Active Protection System: 1. Protective siloes 2. Radar 3. Protective ammo 4. Incoming anti-tank guided missile 5. Tracking phase (MesserWoland)

Social media coverage of the war is filled with images like this of turrets separated from their tanks. The turrets pop off from secondary explosions of ammunition stored around the turret base. A strike strikes the ammunition, causing the turret to fly. When the ammunition does not also explode, the destruction is less spectacular. (Twitter)

Top-shelf Russian tanks also have an active defense system called Arena. This system detects incoming missiles and shoots them down at close range, much like a shotgun against a clay-skeet pigeon. Of course, this is highly dangerous to any friendly infantry nearby. As with Shtora, I’ve seen no reports of Arena being used in Ukraine.

The most successful method of countering missiles is to prevent infantry from ever firing the missiles in the first place. This is accomplished through tactics. A good commander will strive to identify likely positions of missile teams and employ firepower to suppress them or kill them before they can launch a missile. A massed attack, with a base of fire and an aggressive assault, will overwhelm light infantry anti-tank missile gunners.

The traditional Russian antidote to missile teams is heavy volumes of artillery fire. Massed artillery suppresses the infantry, keeping them from rising up and risking the exposure required for firing a missile. As tanks and mechanized infantry close in, cannon and machine gun fire take over until the assault reaches the defending missile teams’ positions. We’ve not seen this tactic employed in Ukraine.

The downside of proliferate use of firepower is the quantity of ammunition required. A strong logistical system is necessary to maintain this style of warfare. Ammunition is bulky and heavy. Rockets especially so. This gets us to another major Russian liability: logistics.

Logistics and Maintenance

Mechanized warfare already has high logistical demands, especially in fuel. Combat conditions drastically reduce vehicle cruising ranges. Driving off-road slashes mileage and burns fuel at a much faster rate. For tanks, the need for quick turret hydraulics requires higher RPMs. The constant starting, stopping, and backing involved in fighting guzzle fuel.

Supplying a large mechanized force involves thousands of trucks. The longer the supply line is, the more trucks are needed. A key piece of this puzzle is the staging of supplies in depots for distribution. When supplies can’t get off the highway because of mud, the result is a massive traffic jam and starving units at the front.

The vast distances involved in the Ukrainian invasion are logistically daunting. It is more than 150 miles from the Russian border to Kyiv. Large pockets of Ukrainian-held territory dot the rear of the advance. The Russian left flank of that advance is 250 miles long, and the supply lines are vulnerable along that stretch.

The Russian Army is not well organized for large offensive operations. Railroads are a vital piece of Russia’s logistics system, and once the Army departs its home rail network, the system unravels. Russian trucks are not designed for efficient loading and unloading.

Maintenance is another critical liability. Armored vehicles require a lot of attention. Vibrations of tracked movement alone can cause wires and bolts to come loose. Cold temperatures (Kyiv is the same latitude as Calgary) make metal and rubber brittle and easy to break. Frozen mud globs can rip wires and air lines. And if one vehicle in a convoy stops moving, it can have a cascading effect upstream.

It’s clear from videos of broken-down equipment that the Russians had not been keeping up with maintenance prior to the war. Flat tires, of all things, lead the list of critical problems. State of the art equipment is no good if it can’t get it where you need it.

The maintenance operational readiness rate expresses the difference between paper and ready inventories. While the Russians have 15,000 tanks on paper, fewer than 3,000 have seen a wrench recently. Russia has already lost upwards of 400 tanks in the war, about a third of their total tank force on the ground in Ukraine. Russian tank crews rarely survive the destruction of their tank, so each of those losses equates to almost three men killed. Tank crews are harder to replace than the tanks themselves.

Weather gives the Ukrainians a massive advantage. “General Mud,” or Rasputitsa, is the seasonal early spring in Eastern Europe. The ground thawing mixes with the snow and rain to create deep gooey mud. Gravel and dirt roads, which are many, become impassible.

“General Mud” helped to save Russia in 1812 and 1941, but now it’s working against them. Bad roads prevent Russian forces from leaving highways with any expectation they’ll be able to return. The constrained maneuver prevents armored forces from exploiting mobility to flank defenders and bottles up logistics. How the Russian General Staff failed to account for this factor, given its decisive role in Russian history from Napoleon through Hitler, is a mystery.

Wehrmacht soldiers pulling an automobile through mud, November 1941 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1981-149-34A / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Distance and mud makes Ukrainian ambushes and sabotage operations easier, shrinking territories under Russian control. The Russian offensive has stalled out, and now Ukrainians are launching counterattacks and raiding the logistical areas of the Russian forces.

Ukrainians are even able to challenge the airspace over the Russian-held territory. Russia has not been able to unleash their air force at will in northern Ukraine. And Ukrainian unmanned aerial systems—drones–are having spectacular success dropping missiles and spotting for artillery.

The effectiveness of Ukraine’s air defense is most evident in the patterns of Russian air strikes. Only the areas near the Sea of Azov are seeing extensive Russian fighter-bomber activity. While Russians have hit the far west areas, they have done so only by cruise missiles. This indicates that Russians are not comfortable flying over Ukraine. As it is, they have lost well over a 100 airplanes and helicopters, perhaps over 200.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, experts predicted the armored juggernaut would be in Kyiv within three days. This failed to happen. Poor tactics and operational art have hampered Russian soldiers’ ability to counter the modern weapons making headlines.

If there is a lesson at the tactical and operational level, it is to stay on top of maintenance and to train with skill.

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