U.S. Military Observers And Why They Are Needed In Ukraine
After his first ride through the city, Capt. George McClellan remarked that “Sebastopol is knocked into a cocked hat.” The siege works outside the Crimean city had been “ploughed & reploughed up by shot & shell–exploded magazines–ruined traverses–broken guns, disabled carriages–charred timber.” Cockaded caps, bent bayonets, and bloodied blouses lay around the French, British, and Russian bodies. British supplies flowed off steam ships and onto railroads that carried arms and reinforcements smartly from Balaklava to the siege lines. Flowing the other direction, telegraphs carried reports from the British command in Crimea back to Whitehall, as Florence Nightingale treated soldiers evacuated from Crimea back to Constantinople.
In 1855, war was changing.
Fortunately, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis had dispatched the Delafield Commission a year earlier. Seeing the Crimean War as an opportunity to learn, Davis handpicked and dispatched Maj. Richard Delafield, Maj. Alfred Mordecai, and Capt. George B. McClellan. He also gave detailed instructions. In a two-page letter, Davis instructed them to focus on organizations, supply, troop transportation, field and siege operations, coastal defenses, and even camels. After an incredible journey that took them through Venice, Verona, London, Marseilles, and St. Petersburg as they navigated diplomatic and bureaucratic hurdles, the commission members arrived in Crimea just as the siege ended.
And bring back lessons they did. Then, as is the case now, artillery had an obvious impact. Rifled artillery provided greater range and accuracy, but the sheer concentration of cannon foreshadowed the future of conflict. The British brought 911 guns and the French more than 1,700 to the Russian 500. Delafield calculated a total allied “shot and shell” consumption of an incredible 2.4 million. Where artillery provided mass, the rifled musket provided precision. Minié balls fired by riflemen outranged muskets by hundreds of yards, forcing troops to entrench. But these were not the only lessons – and the commission certainly missed lessons as well. Ultimately, this first foray into combat observations had limited impact but marked an important initial effort to learn lessons from foreign wars.
As it has in the past, the United States should seek to learn the right lessons from a foreign war. The stakes are high. Understanding the war in Ukraine might shape future U.S. decision-making as it considers potential flashpoints like Taiwan, Iran, or North Korea. The Pentagon should also decide each year how to make the most of its annual $800 billion budget. Lessons from Ukraine might shift the balance from the tanks, airplanes, and ships of yore toward drones, cyber, or something new. But the United States will not know for sure unless it makes a deliberate effort to learn.
This is why, since the early months of the war, I’ve been advocating for U.S. military observers to be sent to Ukraine. Ryan Evans made a similar argument in these virtual pages. These observers should have a clear mandate and requirement to publish a version of their reports in a public and unclassified form.
Learning From Foreign Wars
Learning from foreign wars is hard. Propagandists on all sides play up success and obscure failure. Early video clips from Ukraine of Javelin missiles destroying Russian tanks led observers to conclude that tanks were “being pushed into obsolescence,” a conclusion that is hard to square with Rob Lee’s analysis or the current fielding of Leopard tanks. Additionally, intelligence about how wars are fought is not a high collection priority. U.S. intelligence agencies focus on the biggest and most strategic questions, not on the lessons from Ukraine for countering uncrewed vehicles or changes to soldiering. Additionally, the intelligence produced about the war will likely be overclassified and out of reach of military concept writers. The recent intelligence leak that played out on obscure online servers will only exacerbate the challenge of turning intelligence into lessons for the U.S. military. Finally, the military must open itself to changes. Despite intense combat, U.S. Army leaders have not changed the service’s modernization priorities. Lessons from Ukraine may challenge assumptions and tightly held beliefs. The United States should be grateful not to learn those lessons the hard way.
Once political conditions are feasible, a modern Delafield Commission would interview participants, study battlefields, examine wreckage, and write reports. The observers should capture both raw information and chart a way forward for the U.S. military. Observers could tease the truth from the conflict’s propaganda, drawing conclusions on the future of the Javelin or Stinger, integrating drones and loitering munitions, or understanding what undergirds Ukrainian resistance. Then, the Department of Defense should unite support around reforms rooted in the applicable lessons of the war in Ukraine at low cost and risk. Satisfactory conclusion of this conflict should remain the United States’ top priority. The Department of Defense should move on this now, before the lessons are lost and Ukrainian wheat obscures the battlefields.
The United States has a history of dispatching observers overseas. Since Col. William Stephen Smith’s military tour of Prussia in 1785, more than 2,000 American observers have learned from foreign conflicts. Successful observer teams stimulate debate about the lessons from a conflict and then the validity of those lessons for their military. Those sending observers must balance a variety of factors to ensure lessons are learned and not just encountered.
The Delafield Commission of 1855, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, and the Yom Kippur War of 1973 show the range of outcomes and provide lessons for structuring an observer mission today. Despite its efforts, the Delafield Commission did not substantially change the U.S. Army. The observers arrived with a limited scope and narrow focus. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis dispatched these highly competent military officers with explicit instructions to learn from the Crimean War as part of a modernization effort. While in Europe, the commission aimed to gain insights from the French, British, Russian, and Ottoman parties involved in the conflict. Unfortunately, political tensions between the United States and several European nations hindered access to battlefields during the war. The observers only examined French and British trench lines and abandoned Russian fortifications after the conflict had ended. Upon returning to the United States, the commission produced three separate and narrowly focused volumes between 1857 and 1861. The last volume was published four years after Davis’s departure from the War Department and seven months after the onset of the American Civil War. The recommendations were too late and too narrow to substantially alter the course of the war.
Half a century later, the Russo-Japanese War provided valuable insights that fueled almost a decade of intense, albeit inconclusive, discussions about the precise military implications. During the conflict, the United States rotated 12 officers through Japanese field armies, with five experiencing active combat. Medical observers with the Russian side captured innovations in military medicine. With ongoing support from the War Department, several observers penned detailed accounts and spoke of their experiences throughout the war. General John Pershing, in particular, described his time in Manchuria as “invaluable” to his later leadership during World War I. Unfortunately, the inability to draw clear conclusions from the conflict, doubts regarding the war’s relevance to the American military context, and budgetary constraints impeded the implementation of significant changes within the U.S. military leading up to World War I.
About 50 years ago, American observers drew lessons from the 1973 Yom Kippur War. That war, between Israel and its neighbors, rocked the Middle East. Egyptian AT-3 Sagger anti-tank missiles cut through 100 Israeli tanks on the conflict’s first day. By the end of the war, Syria and Egypt had lost as many tanks in 18 days of battle as the United States had stationed in Europe at the time. Diplomatic concerns kept American observers out of Israel until the war ended, but the Department of Defense’s senior leaders rushed observers in to learn immediately after.
Lessons from the Yom Kippur War galvanized change in the Army and Air Force. While debate over the Yom Kippur War’s impact continues, the U.S. Army’s primary observer, Maj. Gen. Donn Starry, noted three primary observations from that war: armies could fight outnumbered and win, modern weapons were incredibly lethal, and the tank still dominated the battlefield. Based on his observations, the Army invested in the “big five” weapons systems and changed how it fought, culminating in the AirLand Battle doctrine that won the Gulf War.
To learn from foreign wars, the United States’ most successful observer missions published timely and public summaries of their findings to anchor debate. Senior leaders, such as Secretaries of War/Defense or the country’s most senior military officers, selected talented individuals and dispatched them with clear guidance. Battlefield access and the exact timing of the trips made less impact on their success. The war in Ukraine offers another opportunity to galvanize investment around a reform agenda, but only if we send a team of observers to learn.
How To Learn From The War In Ukraine
Based on these historical examples, the Department of Defense should consider four points when assembling an observer team.
First, timely written public reports are critical. They spark debate and ensure data can be reconsidered as new ideas arise. Current concept development models do their best with wargames and simulations but cannot truly test hypotheses outside of major conflict. Accordingly, robust debate followed the Russo-Japanese and Yom Kippur wars about the validity of the lessons, and such debate should be encouraged in our war and staff colleges and military academies today. Discourse on the lessons from Ukraine must be encouraged and channeled into a robust reform agenda.
Despite producing public reports, the United States can also compartmentalize the most sensitive lessons. By being public about the things the United States can share, adversaries may not look as hard for the hidden.
Second, clear guidance from the department’s most senior leaders will focus the team and ensure the influence of their recommendations. To ensure the military services took the Yom Kippur War observers’ recommendations seriously, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger mandated an observer mission and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral T.H. Moorer outlined the mission’s aims and composition, just as Secretary Davis had dispatched the Delafield Commission. As senior leaders transition this year, their teams should make sure the Department of Defense is learning everything possible from the war in Ukraine.
In their guidance, the Department of Defense’s senior leaders should require assessments of both legacy systems and emerging technologies and especially the way Ukraine employs them. Russian tanks have proven vulnerable, but observers should determine whether poor training, strong Javelins, or ineffective doctrine is responsible. Additionally, the United States could certainly learn from Ukraine’s expert information campaign. Observers could also sketch out doctrine for integrating newer technologies, like loitering munitions, artificial intelligence, or cyber attacks. Clear guidance will help determine which observers to send and how they should focus their attention.
Third, the mission should consist of talented officers and noncommissioned officers with the appropriate experience and specialties for their task. One goal of this trip must be to learn about Ukrainian drone employment and force structure. To draw these lessons, the Department of Defense should send experts on drones, air defense, and air-ground operations who can probe the conflict’s lessons alongside experts on tanks, anti-tank missiles, air defense, cyber, and other areas.
The experts must also communicate clearly in writing and speech so their observations can be widely shared. To learn from the Yom Kippur War, the Army chose well, selecting Donn Starry, a promising brigadier general and Armor School commandant. Starry later rose to command the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, drawing from the lessons of the Yom Kippur war to train and educate a generation of soldiers.
Fourth, effective observers require access to battlefields, key military leaders, and observers from other countries. Placing observers onto Ukraine’s battlefields presents risk, both in escalating the conflict and to the observers themselves. However, the risk of sending observers may be overstated. The Delafield Commission came under fire only once and once had a mine explode nearby. Only five of the 12 observers of the Russo-Japanese War came under enemy fire. Later, to mitigate this risk during the Yom Kippur War, observers were sent to the battlefield less than two months after the conflict concluded. American observers were hungry for information. They met with leaders like General Moshe Peled, who led a decisive counterattack in the Golan Heights. They even observed company-level live fires, writing reports and building relationships. Prestaging observers in Poland could jumpstart the lesson-learning process and ensure they were ready to enter Ukraine when conditions become suitable.
Sending military observers into the country is important. While learning from foreign locales might seem like an obvious task for our intelligence agencies, they recently struggled to assess Afghan and Ukrainian military capabilities. Furthermore, collecting information on how wars are fought is not their focus, and their findings will be classified, limiting the impact of their observations. Finally, there are risks of escalation and casualties when sending observers, but history suggests these risks are milder than imagined.
Likewise, neither journalists nor think-tankers bring a focus on how the war is fought or the resources necessary for systematic and robust study. Those studying the war need access to see through the tightly controlled media where everyone is lying to everyone. Expert American military observers are our best hope to see through the chaff and flares toward the truth.
Send Military Observers
As Delafield drew early military lessons from the battlefields of Ukraine for the United States, a modern military commission could do the same today. Comparing the approaches to learning from the Crimean War, Russo-Japanese War, and Yom Kippur War yields four critical considerations for an observer mission. First, observers must publish a public and unclassified report to spark debate and unify the military around a modernization agenda. Second, Department of Defense leaders should personally oversee and provide specific guidance. Changes in the Department of Defense’s senior leadership this summer offer an opportunity to bolster whatever efforts may be under way. Third, senior leaders should hand-pick talented officers and noncommissioned officers who communicate well and can draw from their experiences for years to come. Finally, observers must walk battlefields and meet with Ukrainian commanders and observers from other countries.
After sending observers, an unclassified and public report may be the most important factor for learning. A report from a well-resourced observer mission with high-level support will anchor public debate around modernization, limit bias in debates about future force structure, and force others to address the report in their commentary. The Department of Defense could also open data for investigation by military and civilian academics and students at war and staff colleges to encourage deep thinking about war’s many lessons. Furthermore, adversaries assume the United States learns lessons from foreign wars, so an open report will help align the Department of Defense, U.S. government, and allies, while signaling to adversaries.
Rather than relying on bureaucratic processes that protect parochial interests, send observers to capture lessons and then open that data for deep debate about the future of defense.
Zachary Griffiths is an Army officer. He tweets at @z_e_griffiths.
The view expressed here is the author’s alone and does not represent the U.S. military or Department of Defense.
Image: Library of Congress