Breaking Out of Positional Warfare in 2024
Renewed Commitment is the West’s Secret Weapon
The recent paper by the Ukrainian Commander in Chief, General Zaluzhyy, provided an excellent diagnosis of the current situation of the war in Ukraine. It also described the trajectory of the war towards Positional Warfare if the West does not step up its support across an array of capabilities. You can read more about Positional Warfare and the Zaluzhnyy paper in my recent article here.
Since the release of the Zaluzhnyy paper, there has been discussion about how Ukraine (and its supporters) might be able to avoid Positional Warfare. Or, if it is a necessary or unavoidable phase of the war in the near future, how might we break out of it?
There is no big secret method that might be employed to do this. To transition away from Positional Warfare – when the time is right for Ukraine – requires only one thing.
There is an old story about the difference between ‘commitment’ and interest’. It employs a plate of bacon and eggs. In the story, the chicken was interested in producing this meal. But the pig, well he (or she) was totally committed!
It is possible to measure commitment and interest in this war by the amount of national treasure that nations have been willing to sacrifice to assist Ukraine.
We have seen some nations who have been totally committed to supporting Ukraine over the past 21 months. But these nations are in the minority. Many other nations have been very interested, others ‘somewhat interested’ (I include Australia in this basket) and many others sit on the fence. I have attached the world map with the percentages of national GDP that nations have provided to Ukraine since February 2022. You can judge for yourself which countries are committed to Ukraine, and which ones are interested.
The West will need to make a significant new commitment if it is to assist Ukraine to avoid a prolonged period of Positional Warfare. While a short period of this form of war may actually be useful so that forces can be regenerated, staying in such a phase of war for too long only helps President Putin achieve his theory of victory. That is, wait out the West.
Consequently, Western nations must commit anew to their aid to Ukraine. This commitment has four elements: strategic, industrial, innovation and informational.
I. Commitment to a Strategy
One of the missing elements of Western assistance to Ukraine has been an explicit strategy for support beyond expressions of ‘defending Ukraine’ and ‘in it for as long as it takes’. While these may be strategic declarations of intent and provide flexibility in decision- making for Western leaders, it has also permitted heel dragging and not following through on commitments. Those nations that support Ukraine need to reassess their approach and commit to an enlarged strategy if a permanent stasis is to be avoided from 2024 onwards.
The West needs to commit to a new strategy that looks beyond defending Ukraine and embraces the defeat of Russia. Not only does this send a signal of resolve to Ukraine, and other NATO allies who face an aggressive Russia, it also says to Putin that he cannot wait out the West. Such a strategy must communicate to Putin that the only possible medium- and long-term outcome, given the overwhelming financial and military resources available to the West compared to those of Russia, is the defeat of Russia.
In sending this message, Putin could make an early decision to withdraw and look bad, or be catastrophically defeated and look really bad.
A strategy for Ukraine that embraces the defeat of Russia would give Western governments the certainty to make the right commitments at the right time for Ukraine aid. One of the challenges with Western assistance to Ukraine is that it has often been too slow. As President Zelensky noted during his 2023 Munich Security Conference address, “We need speed…Speed of decisions to limit Russian potential. There is no alternative to speed. Because it is the speed that life depends on. Delay has always been and still is a mistake.” A new strategy must accept that Ukraine is capable of absorbing advanced weapon systems quickly.
But this new strategy must also include more than military endeavors: diplomacy, economics, informational and a range of other strategic endeavors are needed to comprehensively confront, roll back and defeat Russian endeavors in Ukraine and beyond.
There is both a strategic and a moral imperative to help Ukraine to quickly defeat Russia. Guided by a new strategy that underpins Western commitments, gives Ukraine the best chance of doing so. And such a strategy would also provide direction for the second element of a new Western commitment to Ukraine: the industrial base.
II. Industrial Commitment
The Ukraine War is a war of industrial systems. One of the most significant lessons that have been learned (yet again) since the beginning of the war has been the fragility of the defence industrial capacity in Western nations. Consolidations and draw downs over the past three decades have left a defence industry in the West that produces small and short runs of defence materiel with limited capacity to scale up production.
A new commitment to Ukraine necessitates a new level of investment by western nations to ‘prime the pump’ of their defence industries. This will require a massive injection of capital and contracts. But given most Western nations spend a very small proportion of their GDP on defence (around 1-5 to 2.5% for the majority) there is the capacity to increase spending. While there have been some initial attempts to increase production, such as the U.S. production of artillery ammunition and European initiatives to produce one million shells by March 2024 (which it will not achieve), there has been little improvement in defence industrial output in the past 21 months. As a June 2023 article notes “more than a year into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, contracts have been slow to materialize, the Continent’s industrial base is still in tatters following decades of underinvestment, and fierce competition looms from outside Europe.”
In his 20 October speech, President Biden addressed this issue when he described how “just as in World War II, today, patriotic American workers are building the arsenal of democracy and serving the cause of freedom.” The arsenal of democracy that President Biden described in his October 2023 speech is yet to materialise.
Our adversaries have not been so slow. Russia has expanded its defence industrial production over the past year as well as its ability to recover, repair and update military vehicles and equipment damaged in Ukraine. It can draw on the huge ammunition and rocket reserves of North Korea. And it is importing dual use material from the other great industrial power, China.
The Russia-China industrial complex is now the Arsenal of the Authoritarians.
Just as there has been global shortage of artillery ammunition and other precision munitions as a result of the war in Ukraine, we may soon see shortages of other materiel. The most likely is drones. A massive injection of funding and contracts is needed, in Western democracies now, to follow through on any commitment to defeat Russia.
Not only will this give Ukraine the materiel and munitions it needs for victory, but it will also replenish the withered war stocks of western nations who have donated so much to Ukraine since February 2022. And, perhaps even more importantly, it will send a powerful message of Western unity and commitment to conventional deterrence for other predatory authoritarian powers.
III. A Commitment to Intellectual and Technological Innovation
Throughout this war, an adaptation battle between Ukraine and Russia has played out. Both sides, seeking to generate advantage at the tactical, operational and strategic levels, have innovated to produce new tactics, new organisations and apply new technologies.
The competitive learning environment of war reinforces the requirement to develop and exploit the adaptive processes of military institutions. Adaptation takes place at the individual level, but also occurs at many levels in units, formations, and armies within military organisations. In military literature, the best-known adaptive cycle is Colonel John Boyd’s OODA (observe-orient-decide-act) loop. Other useful studies of military institutions which have been successful at adaptation include Dr Aimee Fox’s Learning to Fight, Frank Hoffman’s Mars Adapting and Murray and Millett’s Military Innovation in the Interwar Period.
Ukraine should not have to do all the heavy lifting with adaptation itself. There is much that Western nations can do to assist.
Rapidly trialling and implementing a shift from legacy fleets to new-era massed fleets of mixed human-machine teams is necessary in every domain. So is fast tracking the meshing of the next generation of civilian and military sensor nets and their integral AI-supported decision-making tools. Instead of having Ukraine trial these systems – and the new organisations needed to operate them - constantly in the crucible of battle, we should be employing every western combat training centre and warfighting experiment to assist. We should be their extended brain for innovation.
We also need new warfighting concepts for the execution of war in modern conditions. The Ukrainian military before the southern counter offensive were prepared with Cold War era combined arms doctrine, using breaching equipment designed in the early Cold War (or during the Second World War). This breaching equipment was provided in lower densities than doctrine recommends – even when hundreds of armoured engineer and breaching vehicles sit idle in army vehicle storage compounds across Western Europe and beyond.
Magnifying the challenge is the more transparent battlefield where the detection to destruction time is an order of magnitude shorter than in the Cold War. We had learned this lesson in the year before the Ukrainian 2023 southern counter offensive but appeared to believe that old 20th century doctrine would still suffice. It was an intellectual failure by several institutions, and by the military profession more generally.
A transformed and more rigorous intellectual approach is needed to think through the best tactical, operational and strategic concepts, combining new technologies, ideas and organisations, to break out of the Positional Warfare that Zaluzhnyy explores in his articles. It will also provide the foundation for an updated and improved individual and collective training system for the Ukrainian armed forces. This will be a critical element of a renewed commitment to help Ukraine defeat Russia in 2024 and beyond.
IV. An Informational Commitment
Finally, the democracies of the West need to recommit to challenging Russian messaging, and disinformation, in the infosphere. This includes better community education about Russian and Chinese influence operations in democracies to harden the minds of our citizens against the pernicious and corrosive messages promulgated at rapid speeds through social media and other mechanisms.
Governments also need to improve their ability to explain modern war to their citizens. This has been a conspicuous weakness in nearly every democratic society in the past 21 months. Few politicians have educated themselves in the strategic arts or possess a familiarity with military affairs. It has meant that in an era where large-scale, high intensity warfare has re-emerged, Governments have had great difficulty explaining to their citizens what they are seeing on the television and on the screens of their personal devices.
And if Western leaders are challenged by explaining what is occurring, they are even worse at explaining purpose. Few nations, with the exception of those in eastern Europe and the Baltic countries, have been led by politicians who possess a talent for describing the purpose of supporting Ukraine. This is a vital skill for national leaders in an epoch where there is a deluge of online content demanding the attention of our citizens.
The leaders of democracies must commit to being better explainers of the strategic situation, and why authoritarian predators must be confronted in the short term before it gets even harder to do so in the future. But most importantly, these politicians must commit to explaining purpose to their citizens. This should encompass why democracies will probably need to expand defence budgets and take more risk with our institutions, ideas and people, to ensure the prosperity and sovereignty of democratic nations throughout the 21st century.
Transformative Commitment is Required
With elections in the United States, Taiwan, Russia and some European nations in 2024, the demand for a renewed – and expanded - commitment to Ukraine probably will not be welcome news. However, as we have seen in the past year, Russia and its aging yet brutal president have recommitted to their conquest of Ukraine and the extinguishment of its existence as a sovereign nation.
This new situation demands a new level of commitment from us all. And it requires new thinking in strategy, industry, innovation and information warfare. In his 1862 Annual Address to Congress, Abraham Lincoln spoke of such a challenge.
The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.
We have faced down vicious predatory fascists and authoritarians before. It was not without great cost, but that cost is less than if we do not confront them. The time has come, as Lincoln described, for us to think anew, and act anew. Defending Ukraine, and defeating Russia, demands not just interest, but commitment.
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