A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 28, 2023

What Are Appropriate Measures For Ukraine Offensive Success or Failure?

Much of the coverage about the coming Ukrainian offensive has been journalistic handwringing about the potentially disastrous impact of "failure" on Ukraine's future prospects as a nation. The assumption is that with ammunition and weapons production lagging, the US and Europe may push for a disadvantageous negotiation if Ukraine doesn't "win." 

The problem with this framing of the issue is that success and failure are based on perceptions rather than actual measurements. Ukraine has made its task harder because its earlier successes around Kyiv and then Kharkiv and Kherson - and Russia's abject failure - have raised expectations for its performance. The reality is that Ukraine can succeed without pushing Russia entirely out of the country. JL 

Mick Ryan reports in War In the Future:

Any measures of success and failure must then be linked to goals, must be pragmatic, feasible, scalable (and) must balance short-term results with measurement of long-term outcomes. There is a need to move beyond simplistic doomsday reporting about ‘what happens if the Ukrainian offensives fail’.  Not only should we also be discussing ‘what happens when Ukraine’s offensives succeed’, these conversations must be informed by a clear view of what success and failure look like.

Recently, there has been discussion about the strategic and political importance of the Ukrainian offensives that are likely to be launched in the coming weeks or months. The focus of these articles has largely been about the consequences of failure. As a 24 April article in the New York Times argues, “without a decisive victory, Western support for Ukraine could weaken, and Kyiv could come under increasing pressure to enter serious negotiations to end or freeze the conflict.”

But what does a decisive victory look like? One of the weaknesses in the speculation about future Ukrainian offensives is that there is no definition of victory. There are no clear descriptions of how success or failure might be measured or perceived in Ukraine, Russia or in the West. As Shashank Joshi recently wrote:

I see everyone is already arguing over whether we are too pessimistic or optimistic about the Ukrainian counter-offensive, without anyone spelling out what precisely would constitute success or failure.

In military operations, measuring success is most often associated with the achievement of missions. Missions are critical elements of military operations for several reasons. First, they provide aiming marks from senior leaders to inform planning. Second, they describe both tasks and purpose, which provide direction to commanders as well as allowing for the exercise of mission command. Missions also underpin nesting of objectives at different levels to achieve unity of purpose and inform prioritisation.

But assessing mission achievement in the coming offensives may not be sufficient to judge the success or otherwise of the Ukrainian offensives. This is because the achievement of tactical and operational mission objectives will also have important strategic and political impacts. Therefore, separate and more strategic measures of success – and failure – are necessary.

The Measures of Success

In the current environment, the definitions of success will be heavily influenced by scale and timeframes at which military operations are conducted. This implies that measures of success might need to be designed around the different levels of operations that are applicable (tactical, operational, strategic, political) as well as different timeframes.

During military operations, measuring success also allows for the reapportionment of resources once objectives have been secured. It can also inform the reinforcement of operations to ensure goals are achieved.

There is a close relationship between measures of success and military effectiveness. In the late 1980s Allan Millett and Williamson Murray conducted perhaps the most detailed study of military effectiveness undertaken. The outcome of their study was a three-volume series of books exploring military effectiveness. The three books examined World War One, the interwar period, and World War Two. Each applied an analytical framework of political, strategic, operational and tactical effectiveness to explore effectiveness for multiple countries.

This is relevant because the levels of military effectiveness, like measures of success, are linked. A nation will not achieve its political objectives if it can’t win battles or it can’t generate the most relevant warfighting concepts, trained military personnel or logistic and industrial support. For the months ahead, the level of training and support (strategic) to Ukrainian forces before the offensives will have an impact on battlefield (tactical) success. This in turn will have an impact on the achievement of Ukraine’s political goals for the war, and the political support it receives from other nations.

Therefore, setting measures of success for the coming offensives will be an important way in which Ukraine, and others, can judge the impact of those offensives. They will also provide a mechanism to inform Ukrainian strategic influence activities during and after the offensives.

Defining and Measuring Failure

While the need to measure success in the coming offensives might appear obvious, the importance of measuring failure is less apparent. In describing a set of nested missions and desired strategic outcomes, identifying and describing the important mistakes that could obstruct the pathway to these objectives is often an afterthought.

Examination of the performance of complex organisations proposes that institutions or units that are at increased risk of high impact failures (such as aircraft carriers and nuclear power plants) have developed methods that allow them to cope with complexity better than most other organisations. These institutions have been described as ‘high reliability organisations’ because they can operate in highly complex environments and yet have fewer accidents than is the case across other industries. As Weick and Sutcliffe have found, these organisations are characterised by a preoccupation with failure, and are structured so as to recognise aberration and to intercept and arrest the development of the factors that contribute to failure.

More specifically, what about failure in military operations? A wide array of failure mechanisms for military organisations and military operations are explored in the literature that covers this topic. Cohen and Gooch (Military Misfortunes), Norman Dixon (On the Psychology of Military Incompetence), Shimon Naveh (In Pursuit of Military Excellence), John Hughes-Wilson (Military Intelligence Blunders), Andrew Krepinevich (The Army and Vietnam), Meir Finkel (On Flexibility), Knox and Murray (The Dynamics of Military Revolution 1300–2050), and Alastair Horne (To Lose a Battle: 1940) have all documented military failures and the factors behind such disastrous outcomes.

All of these publications offer useful insights on failure. But, perhaps Cohen and Gooch’s Military Misfortunesprovides the most immediately applicable method for identifying, preventing or adapting out of failure. They explore the most significant military failures from over a century of modern military conflicts, producing failure matrices which identify the critical pathways to disaster.  

Cohen and Gooch adopt a systemic approach to their analysis of failure and classify it as either simple or complex. A simple failure results from a single error or shortcoming. Complex failure incorporates more than one form of mistake. Three types of errors can result from simple or complex failures: failure to learn, failure to anticipate, and failure to adapt. I will return to these when describing the specific measures of failure for the forthcoming Ukrainian offensives.

When planning and executing complex military operations, and aligning them with strategic and political goals, aspirations should focus not only on success. Some level of concern with the potentially large and (mostly) small failures within the execution of these activities is also necessary. Therefore, in considering the forthcoming Ukrainian offensives, there must be an articulation of what failure looks like. If these can’t be mitigated in advance, there must be methods for its detection.

Measuring Success and Failure

The preceding sections describe why measures for success and failure are important when reviewing the forthcoming Ukrainian offensives. But, it is also important to possess principles for guiding how we might construct them. For this, I have reached back into the past.

In 2008-9, I worked as a staff officer in the Army Headquarters in Canberra. During that time, I was the lead staff planner for the Adaptive Army initiative. This was a transformation program that restructured the Army out of its Vietnam-era structures, and into an organisation that was more ready, more deployable and better able to support sustained operational commitments. In the course of this work, I developed measures of success and failure for the implementation of the Adaptive Army program.

But before doing so, I produced five principles to guide how these measures of success and failure might be constructed, evaluated and adapted. These are just as relevant to developing measures for success and failure for the coming Ukrainian offensives as they were to the work back in 2008-09. They are as follows:

Principle 1 – Linkage. The measures must be ‘linked’. Any measures of success and failure must then be linked to goals. The study of complex adaptive systems indicates that no action occurs in total isolation; thus, clear linkages between the different goals and measures are essential. Additionally, the measures must be linked to the measures of other organisations.

Principle 2 – Simplicity. The need for, and use of, measures of success and failure must be widely understood. It would be a mistake to assume that every individual automatically appreciates the rationale for measuring success and failure. The Army must provide clear guidance on the rationale for the measurement of success and failure within the Adaptive Army initiative, and a simple explanation of the implementation of these measures.

Principle 3 – Feasibility. The measures must be pragmatic and feasible. This is a logical consequence of Principle 2. If the measures are complicated and not clearly linked to the [desired strategic outcomes], they will be used sporadically at best. Thus, these measures must be accessible to a broad swathe of [people]. The measures must be set against quantifiable outcomes and should support clear assessments of whether goals have been met or whether they will be met in the future.

Principle 4 – Scalability. There must be different measures at different scales. For these measures to be widely applicable there must be different measures for the different scales (or levels of command) …As the examination of failure indicates, maintaining a narrow focus is likely to result in an inability to recognise failure in the scales that are not measured, leading to system failure.

Principle 5 – Temporal applicability. There must be different measures for different timeframes. Alongside achieving the correct balance in scales (see Principle 4), sits a need to balance measures for different timeframes. As the examination of failure indicates, an over-focus on short-term gains often leads to systems failure. Thus, the measures must balance short-term results with measurement of long-term outcomes.

Measuring the Outcomes of Ukraine’s Offensives

There is a need to move beyond simplistic doomsday reporting about ‘what happens if the Ukrainian offensives fail’.  Not only should we also be discussing ‘what happens when Ukraine’s offensives succeed’, these conversations must be informed by a clear view of what success and failure look like.

Now that we have explored the rationale for measures of success and failure, and how to construct them, the second and final part of this article will propose detailed measures of success and failure for the offensives to be conducted by the armed forces of Ukraine in the near future.


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