Bind Ukraine Closer to American Military Learning
Is the United States doing everything it can for itself in Ukraine? Unfortunately not. While American support for Ukraine is admirable and worthwhile, Washington ought to be bolder in using the ongoing war as a testbed for emerging technologies and operational concepts that could be of use to deter or, if necessary, defeat its adversaries on the battlefield. There are many ways in which the Biden administration could be more forward-learning in this regard, including experimenting with uncrewed systems, exploring new ways to produce munitions, and using battlefield observers. Readers may not agree with all of my suggestions — and that’s fine — but I hope to at least impress upon leaders the value of having a set of policies and programs that are more serious and deliberate about learning from what is happening in Ukraine.
A Preliminary Note on Learning
In the classic 1990 text Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War, Eliot Cohen and John Gooch intone, “The failure to absorb readily accessible lessons from recent history is in many ways the most puzzling of all military misfortunes.” As someone who has long bemoaned the yawning chasm between “lessons identified” and “lessons learned,” I am sympathetic with this claim. However, the reality is far more complicated. While data is often readily accessible, the lessons are not. The picture is noisy and the process of turning data into analysis into lessons is fraught with pitfalls, diversions, and biases. The best militaries and analysts can usually hope for is what the late Michael Howard called a “doubtful fix.” The passage is worth quoting:
A soldier … in peacetime is like a sailor navigating by dead reckoning. You have left the terra firma of the last war and are extrapolating from the experiences of that war. The greater the distance from the last war, the greater become the chances of error in this extrapolation. Occasionally there is a break in the clouds: a small-scale conflict occurs somewhere and gives you a “fix” by showing whether certain weapons and techniques are effective or not; but it is always a doubtful fix.
To successfully learn, a military organization requires access, objectivity, interpretation, and generalizability. In short, access means being there and having good data. Objectivity is exactly what it sounds like and this is often where attempts to learn stumble. Interpretation requires the organization to understand what is happening and why. It also requires an understanding of how and whether events and developments are significant. Finally, generalizability happens if the observation can be transferred from its context to projected future scenarios. A future scenario need not involve a war proper. It could be the successful navigation of a crisis or confrontation with the aid of deterrence, for example. One thing is certain: America’s rivals are surely using the war to learn lessons of their own. And U.S. defense leaders ought to feel obligated to not fall behind on the learning curve.
Access and Battlefield Observers
There is only so much human beings can learn from afar, even in the age of satellites, instantaneous communication, and video streaming. (In fact, some of these newer communications technologies distort rather than clarify what is actually happening on a given battlefield, as Michael Kofman and I have discussed on the War on the Rocks podcast.) I have understood this viscerally since my time as a civil servant in Afghanistan and this lesson was only reinforced during a visit to southern Ukraine in late October of last year. As such, it is surprising that the U.S. Defense Department has not launched a formal battlefield observer program that would send military personnel from all the services and a variety of occupational specialties to learn as much as they can through direct observation and communication with Ukrainian forces where the war is happening. It would be worth sending them with civilian military analysts, such as the various teams that have already organized their own battlefield research. This is far beyond what the U.S. Defense Attaché Office in Kyiv is currently resourced and authorized to do.
It only makes sense to send battlefield observers to Ukraine if U.S. military leaders are ready to hear what they have to convey in terms of both interpretation and data. Senior leaders often say they want to learn, but their enthusiasm sometimes dampens when reports call into question current efforts to develop the U.S. military’s means of imposing generalization via new doctrine, organizations, training, and technologies. Sometimes, new information cannot overcome the momentum of existing efforts, as my late friend Dave Johnson discussed in these pages last year. Lessons can be identified, but whether they are learned is a different matter. The U.S. Army dispatched observers to the battlefields of Europe during World War I before the United States entered the conflict. But their insights did not inform military doctrine. American soldiers and marines paid the butcher’s bill, dying in the thousands when employing outdated tactics that led them to charge en masse against German machine-gun units (and one could argue that the impact of machine-guns could have been learned well before World War I).
I can anticipate three major counterarguments: First, if U.S. servicemembers in Ukraine are killed, hurt, or captured, this could risk escalation into a major war against a nuclear-armed foe. This is no small matter. Any decision that puts American servicemembers into a war zone comes with great responsibility. But is there a plausible risk of escalation? Probably not. American volunteers have already been killed and captured by Russia, and yet World War III has not yet happened. And of all the wars to which the United States has dispatched battlefield observers, casualties have never been the cause — approximate or otherwise — of further U.S. involvement in that war. Relatedly, others will fear the risk of mission creep. They might say that battlefield observation will become advise-and-assist, which will then become direct U.S. military intervention against Russia. This concern should be taken seriously. Still, it can be guarded against with strong civilian control and congressional oversight focused on avoiding those things that create mission creep such as “task accretion,” “mission shift,” and “mission transition.”
Another objection will be that Ukrainian forces are too busy to babysit U.S. battlefield observers. I can assure you that — based on my conversations with Ukrainian military leaders in Ukraine last October — this is not the case. As I discussed with Michael Kofman, they are eager to share what they are learning on the battlefield in closer proximity and the Ukrainian support required to move observers around the battlespace would be minimal (speaking from personal experience).
Drones in the Skies and on the Seas
Ukraine is a useful proving ground for concepts and technologies that might be applied in future contingencies against peer and near-peer adversaries. While the war on and over land gets the most attention, this is — as B.J. Armstrong has reminded us — also a naval war. A company called Saildrone offers wind- and solar-powered surface drones equipped with impressive software. They look sort of like big surfboards with sails on them. Richard Jenkins, the founder of Saildrone, explained to me that they come sized from 23-feet long to 65-feet long and can be equipped with a variety of sensor packages that can detect everything from what’s passing by on the surface, to what’s lurking down below, and what’s flying overhead. They are capable of journeys of up 12,000 nautical miles and as long as six months without maintenance. One can easily imagine a number of use cases for Ukraine, including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; mine and counter-mine warfare; and anti-submarine warfare. The United States and its allies could also use them to stand watch over undersea cables and pipelines and play key roles in sanctions monitoring and enforcement. Another company called Anduril offers a formidable submersible drone called Dive-LD. Why isn’t it lurking under the surface of the Black Sea conducting some of the same missions named above for Saildrone? These are all missions that Anduril’s submarine can do.
These are stated Navy requirements, after all. In the Middle East and now South America, the U.S. military has made much of its efforts to use uncrewed vessels in maritime environments. Navy leaders have tied these investments to learning lessons to counter aggressive Chinese actions in the Indo-Pacific.
What about the war in the skies? Enter the MQ-9 Reaper: a multi-mission uncrewed aircraft that the Air Force plans to divest, with 48 Block 1 models scheduled for retirement already. And the manufacturer, General Atomics, wants to gift two Reapers to Ukraine. The Biden administration insists the MQ-9 would be of limited use to Ukraine. It hasn’t even approved the manufacturer’s attempted gift. This is the wrong call. Not only could it be useful for Ukraine, it could also be useful for the United States to learn from how Ukraine could employ the MQ-9.
The most common objection I hear to the provision of the Reaper is they will simply not survive the skies over Ukraine, and the example of the TB-2 Bayraktar is then referenced. These Turkish-manufactured drones were heralded by many early in the war, but they were shot down in droves. The MQ-9 would suffer the same fate if tasked with hunting for and striking ground targets in contested environments. If MQ-9s are used differently, back from the front lines, and focused on specific tactics and problems, they could be more effective. There may also be concerns about datalinks and encryption technologies that cannot be shared with Ukraine for a variety of reasons. Sorting these things out is always tricky, but I am confident there is a way to mitigate these concerns and sufficiently protect sensitive technologies. And it would be advantageous to figure out procedures for such problems today, well in advance of future conflicts and crises, such as one involving Taiwan.
What does the United States have to learn here? This is an opportunity to test various concepts for re-establishing localized air superiority in contested airspace and defending airspace without sufficient numbers of crewed aircraft. The Reaper could be armed with AIM-9X missiles — which are “imaging” infrared missiles — to create dilemmas for the relatively limited number of Russian fighters sent into Ukrainian airspace and to protect against cruise missile strikes. Most cruise missiles are sub-sonic and travel at low altitude. And cruise missile routes are typically planned to avoid surface-to-air missiles that could shoot them down (although Russia’s targeting teams have not been impressive in this regard and others). Those routes could be covered by missile-armed Reapers, flying outside the range of Russian air defenses, to protect Ukrainian infrastructure and the civilian population. And with the right sensors, Reapers could cue other strikes on these missiles.
The Reaper could also be equipped with the Miniature Air-Launched Decoy and its jamming variant for protection against Russian integrated air defense systems. As another example, why not equip them with AI-navigation and targeting pods like Agile Condor or sensing systems offered by Metrea to test how drones could fly missions in communications-denied environments and under enemy radar? Or the digitization of close air support? There are also lessons to be learned about different ways of deconflicting ground-based fires, such as those from HIMARS, from air operations.
The Air Force could test some future-looking concepts as well. The Air Force has championed the idea of a “loyal wingman” and “collaborative combat aircraft.” These are related but distinct concepts, but they might involve the same aircraft. For the loyal wingman, the Air Force wants drones that can be “tethered” to crewed aircraft. The idea of the combat collaborative aircraft is meant to address the problem of mass – getting iron in the sky – in an era when crewed aircraft are exquisite and expensive: Combat collaborative aircraft would be “untethered” drones that could be put into the sky in large numbers and independently perform missions. The service is conducting modeling and simulation to support these aims and one of the generals in charge of this effort reported there are “100 mini-milestones this year” alone. (This family of capabilities is bundled as a part of “Next Generation Air Dominance” in the latest Air Force budget submission.) The MQ-9 is unlikely to be the solution of choice for either concept, but their employment in Ukraine could still be supportive of Air Force testing.
Munitions at Scale
If Ukraine’s efforts to retake the initiative in this war stumble, it will likely be because its Western backers cannot maintain an adequate supply of munitions — especially artillery munitions — for shell-hungry forces in the Donbass. This experience has laid bare challenges in replenishing traditional munitions manufacturing lines. It costs a lot of money and significant time to restart them. There are newer companies in the U.S. defense industrial base that are successfully using 3D printing to produce munitions at scale, such as Firestorm, which produces a loitering munition that can be manufactured in less than 24 hours and operationally ready one day later (this recalls the vision a group of authors from the U.S. Marine Corps laid out in 2018 in these pages). Ian Muceus, co-founder and chief technology officer of Firestorm, told me that his company can start printing 155-millimeter and various other artillery casing molds as soon as this summer in the United States, followed by portable munitions factories they are developing that could potentially be deployed forward in Europe.
These high-technology production methods offer major advantages. They can be activated quickly and at no additional cost by simply sending the software design to an industrial-grade printer for fabrication. There are hundreds of such printers in the United States. This makes production agile and scalable, able to expand or contract in a matter of days with minimal increases to cost and schedule. Contrast that with facilities that produce the workhorse of this war: the 155-millimeter artillery shell, which is produced in four government-owned facilities operated by defense companies.
The Pentagon should want the defense industrial base to be able to rapidly pivot to support a surge in production and then pivot to something else once stocks are refreshed or if a more urgent need arises. Why not give Firestorm, or another company that offer similar solutions, financial and bureaucratic support to see how fast they could spin up a 155-millimeter shell production line in Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, or Latvia? Part of this should involve producing with partners, not just in their territory. Defense is still usually a national business and protected industry that resists cost-effective cross-national coordination. This is due to bureaucracy, policy, technology restrictions, and concerns about risk. As such, making it easier for business to scale (read: multi-year procurement for munitions and “bulk buys”) and to co-produce and co-develop in a manner that keeps multiple factory lines open in multiple countries would be worth doing now. (As Paula Alvarez-Couceiro argues in these virtual pages, Washington should be more actively supportive of a stronger European defense industry.) Such real-world experiments could save American lives down the road while also strengthening Ukraine’s defense.
Wars are no doubt tragic. Yet they offer learning opportunities that can help preserve a more stable future peace. The Biden administration owes the American people a more vigorous, deliberate, and enterprising effort to extract lessons from this war that could help us all avoid or win the next one. I have identified some possible lines of effort here and there are others. To be sure, Ukraine and the Black Sea present a different geography and adversary than the vast stretches of the Indo-Pacific. But there remains in Ukraine lessons to learn, fixes to find, assumptions to question, and technologies and concepts to assess.
Such an effort would serve a political logic as well: As skeptics of American military assistance grow increasingly vocal and traditionally manufactured munitions stocks dwindle, the Biden administration would be wise to demonstrate that what it is doing for Ukraine serves broader U.S. interests elsewhere, to include the Indo-Pacific where the U.S. military likely has a great deal to learn to preserve stability, peace, and prosperity in the face of an increasingly belligerent People’s Republic of China.
In order to make all of this possible, the United States and Ukraine will need to improve the way they work together from a defense industrial perspective, especially when it comes to technology transfers, export restrictions, local production, and intellectual property concerns. Figuring out how to do this today with Ukraine could make it easier to do it tomorrow if another tragic war erupts in Asia or elsewhere. Finally, there is the issue of speed. One might think that Ukraine’s wartime military bureaucracies are working with great alacrity and velocity. Unfortunately, this is often not the case.
Image: U.S. Air Force