Lessons from the Donbass

Lots of people are observing the fighting in the Donbass and taking notes, and it’s time for me to add my two bits. I’m going to weigh in and try to get some solid lessons from the observations.

Observation: Russian drones are excellent, often-present spotters
First, drones are useful for more than pegging terrorist assholes with a hellfire missile while they take a dump. Drones can also spot for airstrikes or artillery, and that’s just how the Russians use them. Bonus that spotting drones can be smaller and cheaper, and there are some interesting questions on what the largest unit size that should have organic drone support. We’ll have a follow-up article on that, but yeah. Drones are useful! So get you some of that, and use them. Second, from a defensive perspective, drones might be watching you. So one should give thought to camouflage and anti-drone measures, both in terms of ECM and anti-aircraft measures that can shoot them down. This is an argument to perhaps revisit the late-war Panzergrenadier organization table, which called for company level organic AAA assets. Third, it’d be a good idea to train with drones and practice using them for spotting, and working against them so that troops are familiar with their limitations and killing them. It can be demoralizing to feel like one is always being watched.

Observation: Russian artillery is a brutal killer
The Russians love their artillery. Duuuuh. They’ve increased the number of rocket artillery launchers per artillery unit, and deployed these at the tank/infantry battalion level. They’re also not ruled by stupid hippies, so they’ve kept their cluster weapons. These are very, very effective weapons. Shock, cluster munitions work well. Again, time to consider how best to avoid being seen, and survivability against shaped-charge bomlets. Also, artillery fragments kill. This should be remembered while we’re working up body armor loadouts, and not get too obsessed with big heavy rifle plates. This point also brings up the importance of counterbattery radar systems and drill to stop enemy fires. Also, all those “icky” cluster munitions, thermobarics, and top-attack submunitions might be worth another look. Russia’s buying…are you?

Side note: The Russians are using about three rocket artillery vehicles for every four gun-artillery vehicles.

Side note 2: Range is good. More range is better. Get some range. Get more. It’s never enough.

Side note 3: For different reasons, both sides use their artillery in direct-fire mode. Training in such fire missions shouldn’t be neglected.

Observation: Russians make effective use of ECM
This is harder, since ECM capabilities are super-classified. Plus, the Russian ECM systems are pointed at Ukrainian radars/radios, mostly, which have less funding and are based on the same familiar Soviet systems. Not sure how well they’d do against American or Western European stuff. I’m not saying to have no fear, but I’m also not saying to panic. Key takeaways are knowing that excessive emissions can let the enemy pinpoint your position for artillery, and understanding that radios might get disrupted. Practicing with less than perfect comms/datalinks is important. Friendly ECM is also something that shouldn’t be neglected, and can be used for spotting or for disrupting enemy comms. So while the pundits keep babbling about “cyber”, ECM is still awesome. Proof of concept in the Donbass: ECM can be used to ground or otherwise neutralize drones. Something to train with and against, and a very useful capability to have. Also, frequency hopping radios are the kind to buy. Anything to make the life of the jammer more difficult.

Also note that GPS is pretty easy to jam. We’ll have another post up to talk about alternatives, but for now it’s important not to assume GPS will always be there. Because it won’t. Go buy a map.

Observation: Russian IADS grants air superiority
Nothing new here, other than we get to see this in action. Again, these aren’t peer opponents, so this isn’t surprising. Similarly, we expected the USAF to have no trouble establishing air superiority over Iraq. The Russians have sunk a lot of money into their air defenses and it shows. So, SEAD is a key capability to have, as is stealth. This is a big reason why I love the F-35. But this is nothing new. SAMs are useful and the Russians have lots of them, news at 11. You’ll have trouble too if you’re not prepared.

Observation: Tanks generally survivable against the artillery/missile threat
Again, nothing new. Minor checks ought to be done to make sure sufficient overhead armor is placed on tanks and other heavy armored fighting vehicles, and active protection systems should also be strongly considered. But the late-Soviet stuff with a full ERA kit seems to be doing just fine. Of course, it should be noted that because this is Not A Peer Conflict, the ATGM threat is pretty old-school. The Ukrainians do not have TOW II or Javelin, both of which are designed to put the hurt on tanks equipped with ERA.

Further, lacking any kind of ATGM equalizer, light infantry is at a tremendous disadvantage against the tank threat. There’s a lot of good, mobile, fighting retreat tactics out there that go out the window when your ATGMs are old and don’t work. So get the good missiles. And perhaps consider mounting them on vehicles so you can move and shoot.

Observation: IFVs and other lightly armored vehicles aren’t survivable
Nothing new here, but people apparently need reminding of this one. Again. Ukrainians and Russians are riding on the outside of their BMPs in the Donbass, because those are thin-skinned deathtraps. The Russians did the same in Chechnya. Americans rode on M-113s in Vietnam. Almost makes you question if roofs are worth it. IFVs fall to old school mid-Cold War era, single-warhead ATGMS, to submunitions, and to 30mm autocannons. Maybe we should have an infantry carrier with proper armor. I wonder where we could get one of those?

The Russians and the Ukranians are developing heavily-armored IFVs. Hmm. Seems they agree with the Israelis on survivability.

Of note here is the lack of ERA kits on the vehicles. I’m not sure if this is a question of cost or if the base armor somehow isn’t enough to take advantage of ERA or if the suspension can’t take the weight. Anyway, no ERA is to be found here, and slat armor kits aren’t enough against the bigger missiles. Or against 30mm gunfire, obviously. There’s not a lot of armor on a BMP to start with, and they’re not built around a lot of weight. If you like your IFVs, consider their armor. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Americans added multilayer ERA kits to the Bradley and the sides of the Abrams, and found these very effective against RPG type threats. They’d likely prove effective at least against the missiles encountered in theater.

Observation: The Russian Army is relatively small, and conscript based
The Russian Army is based on conscripts, and as such morale is low. They don’t fight hard, they die in droves. And here is a weakness–the Russian mothers. Casualties are an issue. The Ukranians haven’t rolled over as expected. Smaller nations in Eastern Europe should make plans to make an offensive as bloody as possible.

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