The Other Big Lessons That the U.S. Army Should Learn from Ukraine
The war in Ukraine is the first major land war between two modern militaries equipped with advanced conventional weapons in decades. Its emerging lessons could fundamentally upend our understanding of conflicts that are primarily fought on land, and thus dramatically reshape the future of the U.S. Army. But the U.S. Army risks missing the most important lessons from the conflict, or, even worse, learning the wrong lessons entirely. The key lessons that could threaten its evolving new doctrine and expensive investments could too easily be abandoned or ignored, leaving the Army unprepared for the future battlefield.
At the end of May, Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth publicly identified several key lessons that her service is learning from the war in Ukraine. Russian battlefield failures, she argued, affirmed the critical importance of leadership, training, discipline, and effective logistics during protracted conflicts. She also stressed that the Army needs to reduce electronic signals, especially from cell phones; defend against advanced drones; and maintain munitions stockpiles and the defense industrial base.
These are all worthy lessons, some of which we’ve written about before. But they do not go far enough in examining the ways in which this unexpected conventional war in Europe challenges some of the Army’s deeply embedded assumptions about future war. The fighting in Ukraine has revealed at least five additional lessons that the U.S. Army must learn in order to adequately prepare for future battlefields. The Army needs to prioritize Europe over Asia; recognize that it may not be able to hide on future battlefields; accept that its helicopters may not be survivable in future high-intensity conflicts; exercise how it will continue to fight in the face of heavy battlefield losses; and sustain and expand its security force assistance capabilities.
Europe Over Asia
For the past several years, the Army has spent untold energy on justifying its relevance in a potential war with China. Without question, the Army would provide essential support for any war in the Pacific, including theater logistics and engineering, air and missile defense, and potentially long-range fires. But its new concept of multi-domain operations emphasizes offensive operations, especially in the Indo-Pacific. Yet as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has noted, the Indo-Pacific is primarily an air and maritime theater, which necessarily limits the Army’s ability to employ its ground maneuver forces there. Moreover, many observers now suggest that the defense is becoming the dominant form of warfare, challenging the Army’s long preoccupation with the offense. Furthermore, Russia’s naked aggression against Ukraine reminds us that Europe is also a vital U.S. national interest and that the continental European theater is dominated by the threat of land wars. The Army must embrace its vital role deterring future Russian threats to Europe and, if necessary, fighting to defend America’s NATO allies.
One of the most notable strategic consequences of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has been the decision by Finland and Sweden to jettison their long-standing traditions of neutrality and to apply to join NATO. Though Turkish objections are delaying (and could ultimately block) their entry, the United States has reportedly offered security assurances to both countries, lest Russia seek to punish them before they are covered by NATO’s Article 5 collective defense provision. This will require the Army to shift priorities quickly and focus on helping deter and defend against the Russian threat along these newly expanded borders.
Protecting Sweden will largely fall to the U.S. and allied navies, as the Baltic Sea becomes what some have called a “NATO lake.” But Finland shares a jagged 800-mile land border with Russia, which nearly triples the length of land borders with Russia that the United States and NATO must now protect from direct aggression. Finland has fairly robust military capabilities (including the ability to surge to a force of 900,000 troops in an emergency), and has prepared to meet a Russian threat for decades. Those threats, however, have increased substantially, which will require closer mutual cooperation. Finland (like Sweden) has participated in NATO activities and operations for years, but the U.S. Army can learn a great deal from its Finnish counterparts, especially about cold-weather operations. It can also improve interoperability and crisis-response mechanisms with Finland — through increased combined training and exercises, sustained security force assistance, and possibly even a rotational presence of Army combat forces. The Army’s new Alaska-based division could also contribute to such efforts. Finally, the Army should consider formally linking the Alaska National Guard with Finland’s military through the State Partnership Program (discussed below) to ensure long-term continuity in military cooperation and to further improve Army readiness for Arctic warfare.
No Place to Hide
Since February 24, Russian forces in Ukraine have become bright butterflies pinned to the world’s display board. The explosion of open-source intelligence — the vast array of social-media posts, smartphone photos, commercial drone videos, and cheap commercial satellite imagery — has revealed the precise locations of Russian military forces in ways that are unprecedented in the annals of warfare. Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are using cell-phone videos, social media, and a wide range of private networks to report on Russian movements. Anyone with a smartphone or a laptop can now follow real-time information about Ukrainian attacks on Russian troop movements.
A transparent battlefield poses immense challenges for the U.S. Army. For decades, the Army has been organized around massive, hard-to-conceal military formations that include tanks as well as infantry combat and fighting vehicles. These formations closely resemble the types of units the Russians are employing in Ukraine. Moreover, advanced sensors can increasingly penetrate the cover of darkness, which would strip away a major battlefield advantage that the United States has enjoyed for decades. And this problem will only intensify in the future, as the rapidly expanding use of artificial intelligence to track and target subtle patterns of military movements promises even more deadly detectability.
Furthermore, the intricate web of U.S. reinforcements and logistics extending from the United States and nearby friendly bases is also becoming dangerously transparent. Army units rely heavily on complex logistics that flow through overseas staging bases and are delivered by long transport convoys, often involving unsecured commercial supply chains. These vast networks will all become visible to America’s most capable adversaries — and if they can be seen, they can be targeted. In fact, a determined adversary might find that it is both easier and more effective to render U.S. Army units inoperable by destroying these vital logistics pipelines instead of targeting fighting units directly.
The future transparency of this expansive web of support should be nothing short of terrifying to U.S. military planners. The ability to achieve surprise, to protect one’s logistics, and to conceal the force from persistent detection is evaporating. These factors have staggering implications for future Army doctrine, organizations, and platforms. And as we have heard from some of those who serve there, these growing vulnerabilities are rarely incorporated realistically into Army exercises, especially at the combat training centers, because they are simply too disruptive. That needs to change.
Rotary Wing at Risk
Since Vietnam, the Army has relied heavily on its extensive fleet of more than 3,500 helicopters to provide battlefield mobility, reconnaissance, supporting fires, and resupply for its soldiers. But it has been reliably able to do so mostly because its opponents have often lacked an air force, been unable to muster any real air defenses, and were largely incapable of effectively attacking U.S. helicopter bases. Moreover, on the rare occasions when adversaries fielded an air force, the U.S. Air Force quickly achieved unchallenged air supremacy over the battlefield. As a result, the Army has been able to rely on helicopters for a wide range of operations, including close air support, large-scale troop assaults, and reliable resupply deliveries.
No longer. Few, if any, of those permissive conditions exist today in Ukraine, and even fewer will likely exist in future high-intensity conflicts. Both sides have suffered enormous helicopter losses so far — with the Russians alone believed to have lost more than 170 helicopters to date. That compares with fewer than the 75 U.S. helicopters lost in combat during two decades of fighting Iraq and Afghanistan — far less deadly conflicts where the enemy had no air force and virtually no shoulder-fired missiles, much less swarms of lethal drones or advanced air defenses.
The war in Ukraine raises very serious questions about whether and how helicopters can be used effectively — or even survive — on the modern battlefield. Yet one of the Army’s most important modernization priorities is the Future Vertical Lift program, which invests in new and more advanced platforms for its troop lift and reconnaissance missions. On a transparent battlefield, long-range enemy fires, man-portable air defense and anti-tank missiles, drones, and loitering munitions will make even the newest helicopters vulnerable to multiple means of destruction. These capabilities will also threaten fixed helicopter bases and make it nearly impossible to protect short-term staging areas, flight routes, and troop pickup and landing zones. Furthermore, these future airframes will have top speeds that are significantly slower than the Air Force’s Cold War vintage A-10 ground attack jet — which many consider obsolete precisely because of its slow speed.
The currents of modern warfare are rapidly turning against the Army’s most important type of aircraft, and one of its most expensive modernization priorities. The Army must prepare to operate on a future battlefield where helicopters may be unable to fly and survive — or, at best, can only be used sparingly owing to the extensive supporting efforts that will be required to protect them from attack. It needs to invest more heavily in expendable drones and loitering munitions for reconnaissance, surveillance, and close air support missions, and rely more extensively on survivable Air Force and Navy jets. Cargo may need to be delivered by expendable supply drones, or be dispatched by crewed or robotic ground vehicles. And instead of flying to targets deep in the enemy’s rear, troops may need to maneuver in more survivable armored vehicles, or infiltrate with dispersed light infantry forces on foot. The considerable resources that the Army is investing in its future rotary wing fleet would be far better spent on developing many of these unmanned and alternative capabilities.
Exercise to Reality
Russian and Ukrainian forces have both sustained crippling losses of units, equipment, and personnel during the past four months, and will likely continue to do so until the war ends. Staggering losses of troops and materiel will be an unavoidable characteristic of any future high-intensity conflict. That means that the Army must figure out how to weather steep losses in soldiers, aircraft, and armored vehicles of all types while continuing to fight effectively. The U.S. military actively prepared for this eventuality during the Cold War, since a massive Soviet invasion of Western Europe would have inevitably caused enormous attrition. But the plans and skills required to adapt and effectively continue to fight in such a grim situation eroded quickly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and were never required in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Though Army leaders have acknowledged the need to rebuild this resilience in the force, very little concrete progress has been made. Back in 2016, we argued that the Army needed to practice how to rebuild units after devastating casualties, and improve the resilience of those who must continue fighting in such challenging conditions. Yet it took until last year for the Army to publish its first new doctrine on this topic since 1992, and we’ve been told that major exercises involve little if any practice operationalizing these techniques. We also argued that the Army should practice standing up entirely new units, reinvigorate the Individual Ready Reserve, and build an Army mobilization plan that would enable it to expand rapidly if necessary. As the war in Ukraine settles into a long war of attrition, it will continue to be a sobering reminder that the Army must be able to fight and win in future wars with potentially crippling losses.
Double Down on Security Force Assistance
One of the clear success stories in Ukraine is the degree to which the U.S. military has helped strengthen the Ukrainian military since the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea. In an effort that largely went unnoticed by the media and most military observers alike, a wide range of U.S. forces has quietly rotated in and out of Ukraine to train its military. These efforts have included training in both conventional and unconventional tactics, in using advanced U.S. weaponry, and in professionalizing its officer and NCO corps.
Though regular U.S. Army units and special operations forces have been involved in this training, the unsung hero of the Ukrainian training effort is a little-known National Guard initiative called the State Partnership Program. Since its inception in 1993, the program has created lasting partnerships between the National Guard of a U.S. state and over 80 foreign countries. The partners conduct a wide range of security cooperation activities together, and since the Guard personnel do not transfer to new units every couple of years like active troops do, the partners are able to deepen their cooperation and trust over decades. Ukraine and California have been partners since the program’s inception, and have intensified their cooperation since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The chief of the California National Guard, Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, has been working with Ukrainian forces for decades, and started helping them prepare for a potential invasion several weeks before it occurred. His phone started ringing immediately after the invasion started, as senior Ukrainian senior leaders started asking for help, and he has been in daily contact with his Ukrainian counterparts ever since. The value of such enduring contacts and relationships of trust in both directions during this war has proven priceless.
For the U.S. Army, this notable success reaffirms the Army’s investments in its security force assistance capabilities, including the relatively new security force assistance brigades. The assistance provided to Ukraine can serve as a model for how to help U.S. partners prepare to fight against adversaries that the United States may not want to fight directly because of the risks of escalation (especially against nuclear powers). The reasons why President Joe Biden has chosen not to intervene directly in the Ukrainian conflict might replay themselves in a wide range of future contingencies, up to and including Taiwan. The successes of its security force assistance programs in Ukraine should energize the Army to continue resourcing and expanding these efforts with critical partners around the world.
The war in Ukraine is the first large-scale conventional conflict of the 21st century, with two relatively advanced militaries facing each other on the battlefield. Military observers around the world are watching closely, and drawing a host of preliminary lessons for those trying to understand the character of current and future wars. As David Johnson has rightly noted, the U.S. military cannot simply assume that it would do better than the Russian military if their roles were reversed. He also argues that the war in Ukraine gives the Army “the same opportunity for introspection” as the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which caused the Army to completely overhaul its warfighting doctrine. But as he pointedly observes, the Army may fail to grasp this unique preview of future war and simply find lessons in Ukraine that buttress its current thinking.
To take advantage of this opportunity, Army leaders need to go beyond the broad lessons that Wormuth discussed last month. They need to rigorously reexamine the ways in which the service trains, organizes, and equips its soldiers, and must be willing to change the Army’s trajectory wherever necessary. They cannot afford to miss the lessons of this terrible modern war, so that the Army is as prepared as possible for the challenges that it will face in the future.
Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (ret.) and Dr. Nora Bensahel are visiting professors of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and senior fellows at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. They are also contributing editors at War on the Rocks, where their column appears regularly. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.