A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 31, 2023

The Critical Intangible Capabilities Essential For Ukraine's Counteroffensive

Ukraine's very tangible new weapons have gotten lots of appropriate attention. But there are intangible capabilities to its prosecution of the counteroffensive which may be even more critical. 

These include training in the use of the weapons, especially in a holistic combined arms manner; the gathering, interpretation and application of intelligence garnered by various means; the strategic context in which this is all focused (eg, "keep your eyes on the prize") and the power of good leadership. All will be critical to success of this enterprise. JL

Mick Ryan reports in War In the Future:

Ukrainian strategy for this war has incorporated corrosion of the Russian physical, moral, and intellectual capacity to fight and win in Ukraine. They have done this on the battlefield, and they have done it in the global information environment. For the offensives about to be launched, these elements of fighting power will be critical. For each, there is a capability that will be critical for Ukrainian victories over the Russian military: application of its physical elements of fighting power will be guided by intelligence. Its intellectual aspects will be guided by strategic context. Finally, Ukraine's moral aspects of fighting power will be achieved through leadership.

In the last few days, a video was promulgated by Ukrainian Commander in Chief, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, that some have taken as a sign that Ukrainian offensive activities are about to commence. That may well be the case. Since late 2022, the Ukrainian Government and its armed forces have been undertaking diplomacy to secure the physical means for the multiple assaults against Russian forces that will be necessary to eject them from Ukrainian territory.

At the same time, the Ukrainian high command has been balancing its personnel and material resources to undertake defensive operations in the east and south of Ukraine while concurrently building the large, multi-division offensive capability which will conduct offensive campaigns in the coming weeks and months.

And while all of this has been taking place, President Zelensky has continued his daily speeches, and travelled the globe, building the moral case for continued patience and support for Ukraine in its defence against the Russian predations against his nation. This has been supported, as always, by the superbly innovative Ukrainian strategic influence campaign that shows the world ongoing Russian brutalisation of the Ukrainian people, while nurturing the case for supporting Ukraine and its people.

These activities, in the physical, intellectual and moral realms, together comprise the fighting power of Ukraine. This notion of fighting power was originally described by Martin van Crevald in his 1982 book, Fighting Power: German and US Army Performance 1939-1945.

In recent years, the term has made its way into the doctrinal publications of military institutions. In the Australian Army doctrinal publication, LWD1: The Fundamentals of Land Power, fighting power is defined as being comprised of physical, moral, and intellectual components. Ukrainian strategy for this war has incorporated the corrosion of the Russian physical, moral, and intellectual capacity to fight and win in Ukraine. They have done this on the battlefield, and they have done it in the global information environment.

And for the offensives about to be launched, these three elements of fighting power will be critical. And for each element, there is a capability that will be critical for Ukrainian victories over the Russian military in the months ahead. The application of its physical elements of fighting power will be guided by intelligence. Its intellectual aspects will be guided by strategic context. And finally, Ukraine’s moral aspects of fighting power will be achieved through leadership.

Intelligence: Application of the Physical Element of Fighting Power

Much has been written, and speculated about, in the past few weeks about shaping operations being conducted by Ukraine in the lead up to their offensives. And while many activities may well be viewed as shaping, all of them are part of the collection and application of intelligence for the coming fight. Good military institutions are able to fight with intelligence while fighting for intelligence.

For months, Ukraine will have been engaging in all kinds of intelligence collection with its tactical forces as well as with stand-off assets in the physical and cyber domains. Human intelligence will have been collected in Russia and throughout Europe. Added to this will be the multitude of different intelligence collection capabilities of many European nations as well as those of the United States of America. Finally, the meshing of civilian and military collection, analysis and dissemination will have provided an extraordinary level of detail for Ukrainian planners. The resulting picture will have provided insights into the weaknesses of the Russian military – its dispositions, its logistics, its morale and other factors – which might be exploited in the early days of offensive activities.

But this will only be a baseline. Regardless of the detail of any intelligence picture built before H-Hour, as soon as the offensive begins the Russian picture at multiple levels will evolve. As such, intelligence collection by the Ukrainians must continue while they are in contact with the enemy. And the key to tactical and operational success will be their ability to not just collect it, but to assess it and push it to the most relevant military forces so they might rapidly exploit opportunities. They must use this to quickly seize, and then maintain, the tactical and operational initiative. In doing so, they can expand the range of options and opportunities available to Ukrainian forces and limit those available to the Russian defensive formations.

At the same time, the Ukrainians will need to protect their own intelligence (or essential elements of friendly information) through operational security measures and engage in deception of Russian forces to ensure the Russian misdirect their forces and their firepower. Intelligence is a vital aspect of applying the physical elements of Ukrainian fighting power in the days, weeks and months ahead.

Image from new Ukrainian recruiting video (From @CinC_AFU)

Strategic Context: An Intellectual Essential in Fighting Power

The intellectual component of firepower provides the knowledge of war, strategy and cognitive capability. In a military organization, this manifests as doctrine, as training processes, as military education programs and at higher levels, organisational strategies and programs.

Perhaps most important for the coming Ukrainian offensives will be how the intellectual component of fighting power provides strategic context for these offensives. It is important that all participants, whether they are higher level commanders and staffs, or the most junior soldier about to cross the Line of Departure on H-Hour, understand the purpose of these offensives. Every mission statement contains both a task AND a purpose. In almost every case, purpose is the most important element because it is from this that inspiration is drawn. And it is also purpose that allows for flexibility in the execution of missions, and the exercise of mission command at various levels.

More broadly, strategic context for the Ukrainian offensives is important because it should explain the role of these vital military operations in the overall strategy for victory against Russia. All military operations exist to achieve some form of political objective. Therefore, strategic context – the political objective – plays an important role in the design, execution, adaptation and termination – of the coming offensives.

A final part of strategic context is the important question “what comes next?” While Ukraine is capable of making significant inroads into recapturing its territory and destroying Russian military capability in the months ahead, it is unlikely that a single offensive will lead to the complete defeat of Russia in Ukraine (however, I really want to be proved wrong about this).

Given the size and relative wealth of Russia, it will probably require multiple offensive campaigns by Ukraine, in 2023 and beyond, to secure Russia’s defeat. This will demand strategic patience and ongoing support from the West. Therefore, an important part of the strategic context for the coming offensives should be an understanding of the position Ukraine might be in (militarily, politically) at the end of the offensives and what the opportunities and threats of situation that might be.

Leadership: A Vital Moral Component of Fighting Power

While we should rightly acknowledge the tremendous commitments of hardware, munitions, intelligence and other forms of aid from Western nations in preparing the Ukrainians for their coming offensives, we should not forget that it is Ukrainian leaders that turn these mountains of material and information into effective war-fighting formations.

As the different phases of the coming Ukrainian offensives are executed, it will be leaders at many levels who will ultimately determine its success or failure. Thousands of military leaders, from the tactical through to the strategic levels, will provide the purpose, direction and inspiration to their people that is so essential in effective military institutions.

These military leaders are commanding a Ukrainian military organization that is comprised of professionals as well as the hundreds of thousands who have left their lives as musicians, tradesmen, doctors, dancers and others united by a common dedication to their nation, and who have accepted the unlimited liability of military service.

As I wrote in a recent article for ABC Australia:

Like no others of their society, tactical leaders are given the profound and terrible responsibility of leading their units in killing their enemies on the battlefield. It is the purest, and most horrendous, expression of human will.

Successful military leadership in wartime demands physical and moral courage, example, personal sacrifice, an understanding of the bigger picture, risk taking and a profound respect and trust in one’s subordinates, peers and superior officers. There is no perfect exemplar of this, but if the Ukrainians can sustain the military leadership model they have developed and adapted throughout the war so far, they will prove to be better than their Russian adversary.

The Messy Business Ahead

Regardless of the intellectual, physical and moral preparation of the Ukrainian Armed Forces – and the Ukrainian nation as a whole – the coming offensives will be difficult, messy, bloody, ambiguous and at times it will be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. So it is in all wars, and in all major military campaigns. In his book, The Big Stick, Eliot Cohen writes that:

Military power is at best a rough and imprecise instrument, used painfully and with unpredictable results. It is not a scalpel, but a knife that can turn in its wielder’s hand...military power is about the ability to crush, maim, destroy and kill. Although it often taps some of the highest virtues of which human beings are capable, there is nothing lovely about it. It is however indispensable.

There will be nothing lovely about what the Ukrainian armed forces will need to do in the coming weeks and months. Success will demand an optimal blend of Ukrainian physical, moral and intellectual capacity to maximise its fighting power against Russia. But their military offensives, along with the myriad of military, intelligence, information and diplomatic activities that will accompany them, are essential to Ukraine’s ultimate victory.

Given the magnitude of the operations about to unfold in Ukraine, and their importance beyond Ukraine’s borders, we might reach back into history for words that might provide comfort to families and friends of those about to go into battle, while inspiring those who will fight, sacrifice and deliver Ukraine from its Russian invaders.

In February 1944, General Eisenhower had begun drafting a message to the millions of soldiers, sailors and airmen and women who would land in France to being the eventual liberation of Europe from the Nazis. After many revisions, he released his short message as an order of the day on 6 June 1944 as they boarded their ships and aircraft for the fateful passage across the English Channel. You can read the full message here. But three key passages standout, because they provide strategic context, intelligence on the enemy, and the expression of trust of a fine leader:

The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you… Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely… I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory! Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.

The eyes of the world are indeed upon Ukraine in their great and noble undertaking to defeat the Russians.


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