The Ukrainian Offensives are Coming (Part 2)
What Might Success and Failure Look Like?
Assessment during war is critical. The challenge has grown far beyond the simple metrics of combat. As current conflicts expand to military operations other than war…the tasks of operational and strategic assessment may change and expand in kind.
From “Assessing War” (2015)
Undoubtedly, H-Hour (the time set for a planned attack) for the forthcoming Ukrainian offensives is drawing near. For months, Ukrainian planners and strategic leaders have been reviewing different plans, as well as wargaming options as well as branches and sequels for those options. Ukrainian training institutions have been preparing soldiers and leaders, which has been supplemented by tactical and technical training being undertaken in NATO countries. Brigades and battalions have been conducting collective training and rehearsals.
For months, a reconnaissance battle will have been taking place across the front. This will have seen Ukrainian and Russian forces fighting for information while also fighting to deny information to the enemy. It is a very important preliminary activity for any offensive or attack. This reconnaissance battle takes place with dismounted and mounted troops, as well as UAVs, electronic warfare and strategic intelligence support from satellites and other sources.
Logistics stockpiling will have been taking place for some time. Food, fuel, water, spare tires and vehicle parts and ammunition are all part of this grand hording of materiel and supplies to support an army on the advance. At the same time, masses of new equipment have been accepted, absorbed into the Ukrainian military and issued to units. Multiple new Brigades have been formed, a topic which is explored by Military Land. Pre-existing units have been withdrawn from combat operations to be re-issued equipment, rest, be reinforced with new personnel and prepare for the coming months.
These new or reinforced units don’t just include combined arms brigades, but there is artillery, marines, logistics, engineers, attack drone units and other elements of the larger combined arms team that will be necessary to break into, and penetrate, Russian defensive lines. Then exploitation, destruction of Russian forces and recapture of Ukrainian territory.
At least, that is the plan. And while all this planning and preparation is vital, once H-Hour is reached for the different attacks, leadership, unit cohesion, adaptability and individual will determine battlefield success.
With this as context, what might success or failure for the Ukrainian offensives look like once H-Hour has passed?
Measures of Success
In my previous post on this topic, I described the rationale for measures of success. I also listed five principles for their development and application. Success in the coming offensives can be measured at different levels and over different timescales. Progress or otherwise at the tactical through to political levels will be assessed by multitudes of analysts, journalists, politicians and citizens. At the same time, some will quickly jump on short term tactical setbacks instead of waiting a few days to assess the full implications of such incidents.
Therefore, I propose a set of measures of success for the forthcoming offensives. Some of the measures are tactical, some are more strategic or political. Others have both tactical and political impacts. Together, they are a linked set of measures that can be used to assess whether the Ukrainian offensives are ‘successful’ or not.
Before I describe them, I wish to offer a quick recap of the four levels at play. Each measure includes these to assess where success or failure will have the most impact:
The tactical level is where battles and other forms of engagements between opposing military forces are conceived, planned, and executed in order to achieve military objectives. Tactical forces employ tactics to achieve the outcomes they have been given, informed by a mission statement from a superior headquarters.
The operational level is where tactical objectives and actions are sequenced and orchestrated (often as campaigns) to achieve military and strategic objectives. Importantly, much of the prioritization for allocation of forces, logistic support, intelligence, transport, and interdomain collaboration takes place at this level. It acts as the interface between the tactical and strategic levels of warfare.
The next level is the strategic level of war. After World War I, strategy became a national, rather than a military, activity. In essence, the strategic level is about turning political objectives into action at the operational and tactical levels across multiple theatres as well as in non-physical domains such as influence operations and cyber activity.
Finally, there is the political level. It is at this level where political objectives are formed, and where resources are decided upon that permit military organisations to act strategically, operationally and tactically. But political effectiveness is also about gaining the support of a population, working with allies and partners and influencing opinion inside and beyond one’s national borders.
Measure 1: Ukraine achieves surprise (tactical and operational levels, some political impact – short term). Generating tactical and operational surprise should lead to shock. This shock, at tactical and operational levels of the Russian military, should lead to slower decision making and responses to Ukrainian operations, while also breaking down the tactical and operational cohesion of the Russian plan for defending occupied Ukraine. While relatively easy to assess on the ground, limitations on sharing information with news organisations may make this harder to assess in the short term. It is, however, a key component for the success of the Ukrainian offensives.
Measure 2: Ukraine is able to destroy or degrade Russian tactical and operational reserves, C2 and logistics before the offensive (tactical, operational and strategic impacts – short term). The Ukrainians will want to limit the Russian’s ability to respond to their attacks, particularly if they are able to achieve a breakthrough in Russian positions. Therefore, finding and neutralising mobile Russian reserves before - and at the beginning of - the offensives will be important. And just as the identification and neutralisation of reserves is important, so too is the identification of Russian headquarters. Their destruction or degradation in effectiveness helps break down the cohesion of the Russian response to Ukrainian attacks. Concurrently, identification of Russian logistics – especially artillery ammunition stocks – will be vital in Ukraine generating a firepower advantage. Achieving this is reliant on excellent intelligence, various long range strike mechanisms, as well as air, missile and drone defences.
Measure 3: Ukraine takes back its territory (tactical and operational impacts, but with political ramifications).This might seem obvious, but this needs to be an explicit measure of success. Underpinned by tactical and operational battlefield successes, recapturing large parts of its territory and liberating Ukrainian citizens from the predations of the Russians is a key measure of success for the offensives. Part of this will be Ukraine’s capacity to reduce and fight through the various obstacle zones created by the Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine. I don’t propose a certain percentage of territory that should be recaptured, but if most of Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are recaptured, this would be a very successful outcome. And it would be good foundation for subsequent operations against Crimea and Donetsk in the future.
Measure 4: Ukraine is well placed for actions to return Crimea at the end of the offensives (Operational, strategic and political impacts – medium term). As I have written previously, the last campaign of the war may be the campaign to for Ukraine to take backs its Crimea territory. President Zelensky has been clearon this as one of the Ukrainian war termination conditions. Therefore, the coming offensives will be successful if the Ukrainian armed forces are well placed for follow on operations to take back Crimea – either through making it untenable for the Russians to stay, or an actual military operation to seize it.
Measure 5: Ukraine captures or destroys Russian forces (tactical and operational impacts, but with political and strategic ramifications). Related to the recapture of its territory is the capture or destruction of Russian forces. The Russians have to be beaten and they must be seen to be beaten. A successful Ukrainian offensive will reduce the quantity of Russian forces that the Ukrainians have to fight, and it will also force the Russian strategic commander Gerasimov to make hard decisions about pulling forces from other areas to replace those destroyed. This leads to other opportunities for the Ukrainians. And, it should go without saying, it will have an impact of Putin’s calculus. A successful Ukrainian offensive will also ensure sufficient Russian combat power is destroyed to prevent Russia conducting any follow-on offensives for the remainder of 2023. Clearly it will also aim to degrade Russia’s military capacity in the short term, but it could have a significant impact on politicians in nations friendly, and not so friendly, towards Ukraine.
Measure 6: Ukraine preserves sufficient combat power to continue defending some areas and conduct subsequent offensives in others (Operational and strategic – medium term). While the Ukrainians will invest a significant part of their air and land combat power in this offensive, they will want to do so in a way where they don’t sustain massive casualties. Not only is this a tragedy for individuals killed and wounded, but it would also hinder further defensive and offensive efforts by Ukraine for the remainder of 2023. The degree to which Ukraine can inflict disproportionate casualties and destruction on the Russians in the coming offensives will be a an important measure of success.
Measure 7: Ukraine’s supporters believe the offensives have been a success (political and strategic impact - short and medium terms).Not only must Ukraine achieve considerable tactical and operational success in its operations, the Ukrainian people, foreign leaders and populations will need to think they have succeeded. One does not automatically follow the other. Therefore, ongoing strategic communication from the Ukrainian government will be essential to tell the story and achievements of the offensives. This can be challenging at times, given the imperatives of operational security. But news of success is essential to Ukrainian morale, as well as ongoing support for Ukraine and pushing back on Chinese and Russian ‘peace’ overtures that would essentially freeze the conflict to Russia’s benefit.
Measuring Possible Failure for the Ukrainian Offensives
Just as the measures of success are vital, so too is understanding where failure might, or has, occurred. To that end, I would propose the following measures as indicators that future Ukrainian offensives have not been successful – or as successful as we might have hoped.
Measure 1. Failure to recapture territory. (Strategic and political impacts). If the coming offensives don’t re-capture large swathes of Ukraine (which is what has occurred in the Russian offensive of 2023), the coming offensives are likely to be seen as a failure. Not only will large amounts of Ukraine remain illegally occupied by Russia, but many Ukrainian citizens will continue to be terrorised by their Russian overlords. This would be a military, political and humanitarian failure.
Measure 2. Failure to destroy large parts of the Russian Army. (Tactical, operational and political impacts). Destroying, or forcing the withdrawal, of large parts of the Russian Army in Ukraine is an essential part of the offensives. Not only does this underpin liberating Ukrainian territory, it deprives the Russians of combat forces for short and medium term offensive activities in 2023. It also makes their retention of other parts of Ukraine harder where offensives don’t take place. A failure to destroy significant parts of the Russian Army would probably result in a stalemate in the war for at least several months, and potentially longer.
Measure 3. Failure to learn. (Tactical and strategic impacts). If the Ukrainian military does not demonstrate significant learning, especially about combined arms operations, during the offensives, they are less likely to generate tactical and operational battlefield success. More broadly, it will force a reappreciation of the kinds of aid provided to Ukraine by foreign countries. While the Ukrainians have demonstrated a significant learning capacity during the war, this is always a risk that needs to be monitored and mitigated.
Measure 4. Failure to anticipate or adapt. (Tactical, strategic and political impacts). The inability to anticipate threats or adapt to them when they eventuate is a constate threat to combat forces. For the Ukrainians, this failure to anticipate could take the form of under-estimating Russian combat power, reserves or will, generally or in specific parts of the country. At the same time, even if it generates initial successes, Ukrainian forces have to be able to exploit opportunities and adapt on the move to get inside Russian decision-making cycles and destroy as much of the Russian Army as possible. Suboptimal anticipation or adaptation can pose a threat to battlefield outcomes, which would then have a significant impact on Ukrainian political objectives and relationships with its supporters.
Measure 5. Failure to project success. (Political and strategic impacts). Even if Ukraine does generate significant tactical and operational success, it still needs to project its success to its people and to foreign audiences. Russian (and Chinese) misinformation will clearly be focussed on these efforts to degrade trust in news that reports Russian losses. That the offensives are successful, and seen to be successful, will be essential for Ukraine’s ability to defend itself and defeat Russia as quickly as possible.
Success and Failure: We Will Know Soon
It will not be long until we can put these measures into action. The Ukrainian military has been preparing for its offensives for some time, and they are clearly ready to force the Russians out of as much of Ukraine as possible.
The aim of these two articles on measuring success and failure has been to provide some sense of ‘what victory looks’ like for Ukraine in the coming months. It is not an exclusive list. And none of the measures are designed to predict specific outcomes. There are probably many sub-elements of each measure, as well as other measures that I have not thought of. But on the whole, if taken together, these measures of success and failure should provide a useful yardstick for those observing – and measuring success – in the Ukrainian offensives to come.
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