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Winning The Adaptation Battle
Ukraine and Russia are continuously seeking to out think each other and adapt
Writing in the Royal United Services Institute journal in 1974, Sir Michael Howard described how he was “tempted to declare that whatever doctrine the Armed Forces are working on now, they have got it wrong…it does not matter that they have got it wrong. What matters is their capacity to get it right quickly when the moment arrives.”
This has become an oft quoted aspect of Howard’s broad contribution to the history and theoretical underpinnings of war. However, the reason it is used so often is because Howard was right in describing a common phenomenon where military institutions often get bogged down in reinforcing the lessons of past wars during peacetime or apply insufficient rigor to the study of future warfare.
More importantly, Howard was describing the uncertainty that is inherent in preparing for and conducting military operations. This uncertainty is a result of the interactive nature of war, the friction of masses of humans fighting and influencing each other, and the ongoing search for advantage while deceiving an adversary.
As Karl von Clausewitz wrote in his masterpiece, On War, “Everything is very simple in War, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen War… Friction is the only conception which in a general way corresponds to that which distinguishes real War from War on paper.”
It is because of this absence of friction in peacetime that Howard wrote “whatever doctrine the Armed Forces are working on, they have got it wrong.” In essence, without being tested by the reality of war, even the very best doctrinal foundations will be found wanting. That doesn’t mean they should not attempt to prepare themselves intellectually and physically for the next war. But it does mean they must accept, as institutions, that the initial clashes with an adversary will highlight areas that were given the wrong emphasis or aspects of war that they entirely missed. It is impossible for a military institution to anticipate every eventuality.
Consequently, an important virtue for military organizations to develop in peacetime, and nurture constantly in war, must be adaptability to unexpected events. As American scholar Frank Hoffman, writes in his superb book, Mars Adapting, „the requirement that a force must adapt while it is in combat is built into the inherent nature of war.”
This need for adaptation at various levels within a military force and its supporting institutions has resulted in the development of concepts that underpin understanding of how adaptation occurs and how it can be applied. In military literature, the best-known adaptive cycle is Colonel John Boyd’s OODA (observe-orient-decide-act) loop. Another example is the Australian Army’s 2009 concept called Adaptive Campaigning.
There is also a rich literature that explores how military institutions have either gotten this right, or terribly wrong, in the past. Good studies of military institutions which have been successful at adaptation include Dr Aimee Fox’s superb Learning to Fight, Dave Barno and Nora Bensahel’s Adaptation Under Fire, as well as Murray and Millett’s Military Innovation in the Interwar Period.
A fine exploration of failed adaptation is Eliot Cohen and John Gooch’s book, Military Misfortunes. In part this is because some institutions are not able to quickly or efficiently absorb new technologies and ideas. Alternatively, some institutions fail to anticipate the range of future threats or are unable to assess which of the identified threats are the most serious. A final reason for adaptive failure is that the enemy is actively seeking to interfere with its opponents learning and adaptation processes.
In war, the belligerents involved are constantly seeking to outthink each other. To do so, they develop or steal new technologies, broaden or change the objectives that are fought over, and they explore and introduce new and evolved organisations to leverage new strategies, tactics and technologies.
This battle for supremacy – which I have previously described as the adaptation battle – is a constant in all wars. I have described this phenomenon in War Transformed:
Twenty-first-century military institutions and ideas must be designed to win the adaptation battle at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. Military institutions must be capable of anticipating surprise at the strategic and tactical levels and, if surprised, possess the resilience to survive and adapt. Concurrently, they must support the adaptation of friends and interfere with the adaptive processes of competitors and potential adversaries.
There has been an ongoing adaptation battle since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February this year. I have undertaken a continuous examination of this adaptation battle, and published several threads and articles on each sides approach over the past ten months. But the war continues to evolve, and the way in which Ukraine and Russia have learned and evolved in that time offers lessons for contemporary military institutions on both modern warfare as well as the learning cultures that underpin adaptation. Both sides have adapted throughout the war.
Russia Slowly Learns and Adapts
Russia, expecting to undertake a coup de main in the first days of the war, had to adapt from around D+3 of its invasion to conduct combat operations. It had to reorient the mindset of its troops and adjust its logistics to do this. This adaptation was recently explored in the RUSI publication on its initial observations of the war. It is a very good read.
Throughout the conduct of their invasion, the Russians have also had to adapt their strategy. While Putin’s political objectives have remained relatively steady (the eradication of the Ukrainian state), the military’s approach has evolved. The Russian Plan B after the first 72 hours was a ‘creeping, multi-axis attrition’. It featured more firepower, as well as destruction of smaller cities to set an example for Kyiv. This dispersed strategy meant there was no obvious main effort.
In April the Russian’s again adapted their strategy. There was an obvious shift to focus offensive operations, and as much firepower as possible, in the Donbas to attrit the Ukrainians, while generally assuming a defensive posture elsewhere. At one point, the Russians achieved an artillery ratio of 12:1 superiority over the Ukrainians.
However, the introduction of HIMARS put an end to this, and also presented opportunities to the Ukrainians. It permitted the Ukrainians to disengage from some of the close combat that was causing heavy casualties, and to attack the Russian command and logistics systems at longer range. This new Ukrainian approach forced the Russians, again, to adapt their logistic system to make it more survivable in the face of the very successful and constant Ukrainian attacks.
There were attempts to adapt Russian command and control with the appointment of a ‘unified commander’, General Dvornikov, in early April. His efforts at reforming the command and conduct of the Russian invasion force were to largely come to nothing. After the Russian failures during the Ukrainian Kharkiv offensive, and the attack on the Kerch Bridge, and with Russian forces in western Kherson in a perilous position, Russia again adapted its approach in appointing General Surovikin.
He withdrew the Kherson forces to consolidate his force, and to ensure that it was able to defend the most important and defendable territory seized by the Russians during the war. Surovikin also immediately evolved the air campaign to focus on fewer, large-scale strikes. These massed missile and drone strikes have had a significant impact on Ukraine’s power generation and distribution. It has denied the Ukrainians export revenue after they negotiated an agreement in July to export power to Europe. These attacks probably also deterred foreign investors and have also absorbed precious military resources.
The Ukrainians have also been learning and adapting. Several Ukrainian tactical adaptations early in the war are notable. The Ukrainian Armed Forces, particularly their army, adapted their operations to employ dismounted infantry anti-armour teams to great effect during the Russian advance on Kyiv. Concurrently, they were able to exploit a lack of coordinated rear area security, a slow Russian shift from coup de main to combat operations, and massive military traffic jams to fight the Russians in the rear areas. This attrition of Russian armour, logistics and command nodes began a steady corrosion of Russian combat power and morale. It was an integral part of the initial execution of the larger Ukrainian strategy of corrosion against the Russians.
Other adaptations made by the Ukrainians include their adjustment to the strategic information environment, as well as a the transition from Soviet to western weapons, munitions and logistics systems. Of course, this includes their clever use of HIMARS after its mid-2022 arrival in theatre. Another adaptation, away from the battlefield, has been Ukrainian crowd funding efforts. These have resulted in new vehicles and personnel equipment for Ukrainian soldiers, as well as drones and even a satellite for the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
There are a range of other Ukrainian adaptations: adoption of commercial technologies such as drones and information technology for military purposes; higher-level military campaign planning has constantly adapted; and, absorbing foreign combatants and support personnel. For the Ukrainians, the old truism ‘adapt or die’ is quite literal in its application to their military forces, and their nation.
While they have been successful in the tactical fight and strategic influence operations, their capacity for strategic strike has been limited. That is, until the Ukrainians adapted their approach recently. This month, Ukraine has commenced longer range strikes – using different uncrewed systems – to attack Russian military installations. This has included adapting old Soviet aerial reconnaissance for strikes on two Russian airbases, and the development of an indigenous maritime drone for attacks on Russian naval forces.
These Ukrainian adaptations places the Russians in a dilemma about allocation of military resources to Ukraine versus home base defence. While these are not (yet) causing massive damage to Russia’s strategic assets, particularly its bombers or its naval assets in the Black Sea, we should anticipate that the Ukrainians, as they have done throughout this war, will learn from their early strikes to evolve more effective weapons and tactics.
This program of longer-range strikes on military garrisons on Russian territory will place increasing pressure on Putin directly, as well as indirectly through unease amongst the Russian population. It probably won’t help Russian civil-military relations either, as Putin places demands on the Russian Armed Forces to improve their air, ground and naval defences.
Therefore, an adaptation battle writ large continues to shape the character of this war. But there are also subsidiary ‘adaptation battles’ that are worth exploring briefly. These are worthy of ongoing observation and assessment.
Subsidiary Adaptation Battles
There are three interesting adaptation battles I will use to illustrate the issue that adaptation is multi-layered and occurs over many different time scales. These are: armoured vehicles versus anti-armour weapons; crewed aircraft versus ground based air defences; and, autonomous systems versus counter-autonomy systems.
The first topic is the armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) versus precision anti-armour weapon fight. This has been a characteristic of ground warfare since the Arab-Israeli wars, and has featured strongly in Ukraine, particularly in the Russian advance on Kyiv in the early days of the war.
This has led to much speculation (again) about the death of the tank. The reality is that in war, tanks get destroyed. They have in every past war and will again in the future. Smart tactics, well-trained crews, good leadership and combined arms teaming have been proven to increase the effectiveness of tanks. Early conclusions that the tank is dead are very premature, and often based on poor data or understanding of land combat.
Indeed, the Ukrainians and Russians, despite their losses still use tanks in large numbers because of their battlefield utility. Not only do they provide very precise, mobile firepower in all weather, they are more and more a protected hub for digital battlefield command networks. And, as the Ukrainians have found, they can be useful indirect fire platforms as well. Their role may evolve, but there remains a place on the battlefield for them.
As Rob Lee has written:
Drawing similar sweeping conclusions based on Russian tank losses from this period would also be a mistake. The evidence from Ukraine reveals that tanks are still very relevant in modern warfare.
The survivability of dismounted anti-armour teams bears more scrutiny. These teams were a focus of US Army planners and tacticians in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Lessons from the war informed a range of combined arms and air-land integration solutions. That said, they remain a viable option in certain circumstances (close terrain in particular). But it will be much harder to assure the survivability of dismounted anti-tank teams when an adversary is using combined arms teaming which also includes uncrewed systems and predictive AI in the near future.
A second adaptation battle between Ground Based Air Defence (GBAD) and crewed combat aircraft is interesting. The Ukrainians have cobbled together a deadly integrated air and missile defence system, composed of legacy Soviet systems and cutting-edge Western systems such as IRIS-T and NASAMS air defence systems. The Ukrainians have also become adept at frequently moving radars, launchers and command sites, ensuring they stay a step ahead of Russian reconnaissance targeting and systems.
As a RUSI report on lessons from the air war in Ukraine notes:
It is purely thanks to its failure to destroy Ukraine’s mobile SAM systems that Russia remains unable to effectively employ the potentially heavy and efficient aerial firepower of its fixed-wing bomber and multi-role fighter fleets to bombard Ukrainian strategic targets and frontline positions from medium altitude, as it did in Syria.
Russian crewed aircraft rarely fly over Ukraine. They use missiles and drones, launched mainly beyond Ukraine’s borders, for the majority of its strikes on Ukrainian targets.
There are important lessons here for western air forces, particularly about integrated and resilient ground-based air and missile defence, as well as the balance of crewed versus uncrewed aerial combat platforms. Interestingly, despite the Russian losses of aircraft in this war, no one has yet called the death of the crewed fighter like some have with tanks.
The third and final subsidiary adaptation battle is that of autonomous systems versus counter-autonomy systems. Many reports from military institutions and think tanks over the past decade have forecast the widescale use of autonomous technologies on the battlefield. While we have seen them, we are yet to see their widescale, multidomain use.
It is an expanding adaptation battle in Ukraine. One expert who has been following trends in autonomous systems well before the war, and throughout the war this year, is Sam Bendett. His reports and threads are well worth reading. https://twitter.com/SamBendett
Autonomous systems have featured throughout this war, with both sides employing dozens of military and civil aerial systems. Drones have been used for reconnaissance, correcting indirect fire (artillery, mortars and tanks) and employed as loitering munitions. Increasingly they are being used for longer-range strike. The Russians have done this since the start of the war. The Ukrainians, while not having the same depth of missile reserves, have begun to undertake their own long-range strikes on maritime and ground targets.
The other side of this adaptation battle is counter-autonomy. Counter autonomy has generally been a ‘lagging capability’. This is a topic explored by the US Defense Science Board in 2020. Their (short) report is available here: https://dsb.cto.mil/reports/2020s/CA_ExecutiveSummary.pdf
A range of electromagnetic and kinetic solutions are now being deployed. However, there is still much work to be done when small commercial drones with grenades and mortar bombs can still hover at will over enemy forces (as numerous videos on social media attest) and successfully drop their munitions. Military institutions need to be supplemented with other new systems that bring down the cost of counter autonomy operations for military organisations.
To even up this fight, military institutions need a new generation of counter-autonomy systems that are cheaper to purchase and deploy widely than it is to purchase and deploy the autonomous systems they defend against. They might even then comprise a future ‘cost imposition’ capability. But, the key lesson from this subsidiary battle is that military forces require a new generation of counter-autonomy systems that are cheaper to purchase and deploy widely.
These are just three examples of different adaptation battles occurring beneath the larger Ukraine-Russia adaptation fight. There are many more, and they are all worthy of further examination and analysis.
Winning the Adaptation Battle Takes Preparation
The key message of this article is that the adaptive capacity of an institution – its ability to adapt on the battlefield and as an institution – is critical to success in war. As Barno and Bensahel write, “preparing to adapt in the next war is just as important as preparing to fight itself.” This preparing to adapt must take place at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of military forces.
Succeeding in the adaptation battle, founded on robust institutional learning, is a core part of war. It is the most human of endeavours. Creativity, innovation, and a tolerance of failure are important components of a successful, adaptive military institution. It demands good leadership, experimentation and the humility to learn lessons from the mistakes and successes of others.
Keeping ahead of Russia in the adaptation battle has been an important component of Ukraine’s success so far in this war. All military institutions have an opportunity to observe and learn from the Russo-Ukraine adaptation battle. They must make the most of this opportunity.
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