A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jul 19, 2023

Ukraine Is Adapting Counteroffensive Tactics To Reality

Ukrainian troops are advancing, albeit slowly, which is more than the Russians have been able to do when on offense. 

But Ukrainians on the ground report several challenges: the brief training they received in combined arms maneuver was, as many feared, inadequate. NATO troops practice this for years, not weeks. Also, Russian troops are fighting, not giving up as many had hoped, largely because they are better protected on defense and have adequate supplies; and, as was the case during the Kherson offensive, Ukraine still has too many Soviet-era commanders who need to be replaced more ruthlessly with younger, more modern leaders. These problems are fixable, and the Ukrainians are masters of adaptation. JL

Kos reports in Daily Kos:

Ukraine is advancing, but it’s doing so the slow attritional way: small units clearing trenches one by one. Ukraine’s shaping operations—destroying Russian artillery, command and control, and logistics—will continue to degrade Russia’s war effort, hampering its defenses and future offensive capabilities. Cluster munitions are critical to extend weakening Russian defenses to a degree that enables maneuver.  (But) additional weapons (e.g., ATACMs, etc.) will  not have a decisive tactical impact without more effective integration. Ukraine is reevaluating its tactics, which is a good thing. Armies constantly make adjustments.

On Sunday, I wrote this (bolded emphasis not in the original):

Honestly, I don’t know what magic task people think air support does in a near-peer war (as opposed to the counterinsurgency operations of the War on Terror). It destroys enemy equipment, supply depots, and command and control centers behind the front lines. Drones and HIMARS/MLRS are taking care of all that in this war. Ukraine’s problems have nothing to do with air support, and everything to do with a lack of mine-clearing equipment and proper combined arms training, while dealing with Russia's massed artillery—all of which would be difficult under the best conditions, for the best-trained combat brigades.

This assertion, which seemed self-evident to me given the utter lack of video showing combined-arms actions, got some pushback in the comments. There is certainly this well-intentioned notion that people underestimate Ukraine and that they are capable of anything and everything if just given the chance.

New information from the front confirms my observations.

Franz-Stefan Gady is a conflict journalist and military analyst with experience embedding with NATO forces, Kurdish militias, and the (former) Afghan national army. He just spent time at the front in Ukraine with prominent (on Twitter) military analysts Michael Koffman and Rob Lee, and has reported back on what he saw. This is a transcript of his relevant tweet thread:


1.) By and large this is an infantryman’s fight (squad, platoon & company level) supported by artillery along most of the frontline. This has several implications: 1st: Progress is measured by yards/meters and not km/miles given reduced mobility.

2nd: Mechanized formations are rarely deployed due to lack of enablers for maneuver. This includes insufficient quantities of de-mining equipment, air defenses, ATGMs etc.

2.) Ukrainian forces have still not mastered combined arms operations at scale. Operations are more sequential than synchronized. This creates various problems for the offense & IMO is the main cause for slow progress.

3.) [Ukrainian] forces by default have switched to a strategy of attrition relying on sequential fires rather than maneuver. This is the reason why cluster munitions are critical to extend current fire rates into the fall: weakening Russian defenses to a degree that enables maneuver.

4.) Minefields are a problem as most observers know. They confine maneuver space & slow advances. But much more impactful than the minefields per se on Ukraine’s ability to break through Russian defenses is Ukraine’s inability to conduct complex combined arms operations at scale.

Lack of a comprehensive combined arms approach at scale makes Ukrainian forces more vulnerable to Russian ATGMs, artillery etc. while advancing. So it's not just about equipment. There’s simply no systematic pulling apart of the Russian defensive system that I could observe.

5.) The character of this offensive will only likely change if there is a more systematic approach to breaking through Russian defenses, perhaps paired with or causing a severe degradation of Russian morale, that will lead to a sudden or gradual collapse of Russian defenses.

Absent a sudden collapse of Russian defenses, I suspect this will remain a bloody attritional fight with reserve units being fed in incrementally in the coming weeks & months.

6.) There is limited evidence of a systematic deep battle that methodically degrades Russian C2/munitions. Despite rationing on the Russian side, ammunition is available and Russians appear to have fairly good battlefield ISR coverage.

Russians also had no need to deploy operational reserves yet to fend off Ukrainian attacks.There is also evidence of reduced impact of HIMARS strikes due to effective Russian countermeasures. (This is important to keep in mind re. any potential tac. impact of delivery of ATACMs.)

Russian forces, even if severely degraded & lacking ammo, are likely capable of delaying, containing or repulsing individual platoon- or company-sized Ukrainian advances unless these attacks are better coordinated & synchronized along the broader frontline.

7.) Quality of Russian forces varies. Attrition is hitting them hard but they are defending their positions well, according to Ukrainians we spoke to. They have been quite adaptable at the tactical level and are broadly defending according to Soviet/Russian doctrine.

8.) Russian artillery rationing is real & happening. Ukraine has established fire superiority in tube artillery while Russia retains superiority in MRLSs in the South. Localized fire superiority in some calibers alone does not suffice, however, to break through Russian defenses.

9.) An additional influx of weapons systems (e.g., ATACMs, air defense systems, MBTs, IFVs etc.) while important to sustain the war effort, will likely not have a decisive tactical impact without adaptation and more effective integration.

Ukraine will have to better synchronize & adapt current tactics, without which western equipment will not prove tac. decisive in the long run. This is happening  but it is slow work in progress. (Most NATO-style militaries would struggle with this even more than the Ukrainians IMO).

10.) The above is also true for breaching operations. Additional mine clearing equipment is needed & will be helpful (especially man-portable mine-clearing systems) but not decisive without better integration of fire & maneuver at scale.

(Again, I cannot emphasize enough how difficult this is to pull off in wartime.)

Monocausal explanations for failure (like lack of de-mining equipment) do not reflect reality. E.g Some Ukrainian assaults were stopped by Russian ATGMs even before reaching the 1st Russian minefield.

11.) There is a dearth of artillery barrels that is difficult to address given production rates and delivery timelines.

12.) So far Ukraine’s approach in this counteroffensive has been first and foremost direct assaults on Russian positions supported by a rudimentary deep battle approach. And no, these  direct assaults are not mere probing attacks.

13.) There is evidence of tactical cyber operations supporting closing of kinetic kill-chains. That is cyber ISR contributing to identifying & tracking targets on the battlefield. Starlink remains absolutely key for Ukrainian C2.

14.) Quality of Ukrainian officers and NCOs we met appears excellent & morale remains high. However, there are some force quality issues emerging with less able bodied & older men called up for service now.

15.) The narrative that Ukrainian progress thus far is slow just because of a lack of weapons deliveries and support is monocausal & is not shared by those we spoke to actually fighting & exercising command on the frontline.

16.) It goes without saying that in a war of attrition, more artillery ammunition & hardware is always needed and needs to be steadily supplied. (Western support of Ukraine certainly should continue as there is still the prospect that the counteroffensive will make gains.)

But soldiers fighting on the frontline we spoke to are all too aware that lack of progress is often more due to force employment, poor tactics, lack of coordination [between] units, bureaucratic red tape/infighting, Soviet style thinking etc. & ...Russians putting up stiff resistance.

None of this is new to anyone reading me the past year and a half—I’ve long argued that combined arms warfare is incredibly difficult, that NATO armies struggle with it even with regular training, and that Ukraine couldn’t just learn it in 3-6 months, no matter how smart and motivated they are.

Gady writes that, “Ukrainian forces have still not mastered combined arms operations at scale. Operations are more sequential than synchronized.” In proper combined arms operations, all the elements work together as one. By sequential, he means something like this: Artillery strikes these trenches first, then armor softens them up more before infantry moves in to finish the job.

In proper combined arms operations the infantry are a screening force, protecting the armor from enemy infantry carrying anti-tank guided missiles. Rolling out the tanks ahead of the infantry makes them sitting ducks for those ATGMs, as we’ve seen at least twice during this counteroffensive and as noted in the thread above.

Ukrainians on the front lines also are noting that Russian troops are fighting. The hope that they would surrender en masse or flee has proven, thus far, unfounded.

On the plus side, I’ve noted the Ukrainian focus on eliminating Russian artillery and how effective those efforts have become. That is confirmed in the thread above noting how Ukraine now has an advantage with tube artillery even if Russia still has a MLRS advantage. Tube artillery packs a bigger punch, and Russian MLRS is a fraction as effective as Ukraine’s NATO-standard MLRS (HIMARS and M270s). However, against the kind of squad-sized assaults Ukraine is currently using, Russia MLRS likely has the same kind of impact as cluster munitions—smaller dispersed explosives over a wide area. Russian MLRS also has a longer range than tube artillery, which is why less of it has been eliminated by Ukrainian counterbattery fire.

Finally, I’ve argued that no single weapons system or munition will be a game-changer. In fact, as noted in the thread above, Russia is even learning to protect itself better from GMLRS rocket artillery. It’s interesting that Ukrainian forces on the ground recognize this: “The narrative that Ukrainian progress thus far is slow just because of a lack of weapons deliveries and support is monocausal & is not shared by those we spoke to actually fighting & exercising command on the frontline.” Ukrainian war supporters want to blame everyone else for the apparent lack of progress: It’s a lack of F-16s! It’s a lack of ATACMS long-range rocket artillery! It’s a lack of X, Y, and Z!

This Ukrainian Tartar serving as an intelligence officer in the Ukrainian army has been critical of his own side for months, arguing that too many old-school officers remain in command, using the same outdated tactics that have served Russia poorly. “In the past, I wrote about challenges that our troops were facing near Bakhmut. I received criticism from both compatriots and foreign supporters of our country for saying it, but I turned out to be right about it. Regrettably, we remain in a state of ongoing uncertainty, with neither clear victories nor losses,” he tweeted. “What saddens me further is our tendency to shift blame onto our allies and partners, instead of acknowledging our own recurring mistakes.”

Ukraine needs more of everything, for sure. As I’ve argued and as noted in the thread above, Ukraine needs a hell of a lot more engineering mine-clearing equipment, but F-16s won’t make a measurable difference on the front lines. They are better suited for air defense operations and chasing Russia’s Black Sea fleet out of Crimea. ATACMS are limited in supply and will help degrade Russian logistics. Cluster munitions will alleviate ammunition shortages. None of the above can help Ukraine move faster as long as it doesn’t have the capability to properly use its Western (and Soviet, for that matter) gear to punch through Russian lines and wreak havoc in its rear.

If this update seems downbeat, it’s because it’s acknowledging real challenges at the front. Ukraine is advancing, but it’s doing so the slow attritional way: small units clearing trenches one by one. Ukraine’s shaping operations—destroying Russian artillery, command and control nodes, and logistical hubs—will continue to degrade Russia’s war effort in a positive way, hampering both its defenses and future offensive capabilities. And The New York Times reported that Ukraine has paused to reevaluate its tactics, which is actually a good thing. War is like a chess match, and armies almost constantly make adjustments during war, learning from their mistakes and better taking advantage of their enemy’s missteps.  

But these shifting tactics means the hope for a quick knockout blow amidst collapsed Russian lines is essentially dead. Slow and steady will hopefully win the race.

While the Russian defense ministry claims that the Wagnerites are signing contracts with the Russian army, Wagner veterans dispute those claims: “The most experienced of his infantrymen remained with Prigozhin, and no one is going to take them under the wing of the Defense Ministry." If I had to guess, a good number of them signed up with Russian armed forces or maybe Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s own private army, Patriot PMC (private military contractor), because having private armies is all the rage in Russia these days. And likely a bunch did not. Either way, good riddance to these war criminals. It’s good to see them off the Ukrainian battlefield as an organization.


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