Biting Off What It Can Chew: Ukraine Understands Its Attritional Context
Among the vineyards seeded with improvised explosive devices in Zhari, Kandahar, there was no possibility of maneuver. By 2012, the Taliban had place so many improvised explosive devices in the area that any attempt at doing the battle drills taught by the U.S. Army to suppress and maneuver on an enemy were suicide. The Taliban were innovative. They knew that when they ambushed us, we would seek cover and then attempt to maneuver on them. So the Taliban emplaced improvised explosive devices along walls, berms, and any piece of terrain in the flat floodplain of the Arghandab River that we might use for cover. When we received fire, our best reaction was to not seek cover; it was to simply lay down and return fire. It went against all our training, but it was the correct approach for the context of our fight in Zhari.
Today, at a much larger scale, the Ukrainian military is facing an enemy that impedes maneuver. As a result, the Ukrainian army is pursuing an attritional approach appropriate for the context of its fight. U.S. government sources, speaking anonymously to the media, have not appreciated the importance of Ukraine’s current situation. They have criticized the Ukrainian army for not conducting “combined arms maneuver.” One narrative is that some form of American training, with a bit more synchronization and air support, would cut through the minefields and drive the Russian military from their trenches.
Outsiders watching the conflict should have humility, especially when pushing U.S.-led training in combined arms maneuver as a panacea to any military problem. Context matters in war, and the U.S. military does not train to prevail in the context that Ukraine faces.
The U.S. Army trains “combined arms maneuver” as the supposed the secret sauce of its prowess. But combined arms maneuver is a comforting cliché. It mixes two concepts that, while related, do not necessarily follow. “Combined arms” simply means the sum of different capabilities is more than their parts. Separate arms used in conjunction will cover for the vulnerabilities of the others. It is not a novel idea. Thutmose III combined chariots, infantry, and archers at the Battle of Megiddo in 1457 BC. All effective armies use combined arms with context driving the specific mixes of the appropriate capabilities. Moreover, combined arms is not only associated with maneuver. It is useful for both maneuver and attrition.
Understanding Maneuver versus Attrition
“Maneuver” is a new term for an old concept. The idea seeks victory by breaking the cohesion of an opponent. In 331 BC, at the Battle of Gaugamela, Alexander the Great displayed a maneuver approach: He created a gap in the Persian line and charged at King Darius III, causing him to flee and breaking the command structure of the Persian army.
Though maneuver is often confused with simple movement, maneuver should be defined by its intended effect on an enemy. In 1989, the Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting, provided the most succinct definition of maneuver warfare: “A warfighting philosophy that seeks to shatter the enemy’s cohesion through a series of rapid, violent, and unexpected actions which create a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which he cannot cope.” In its ideal form, maneuver repeatedly out-decides the enemy and exploits vulnerabilities until enemy forces are in such chaos that they cease to provide effective resistance.
Maneuver and attrition are on opposite ends of a sliding scale. All combat involves a blend of the two. Attrition seeks the material wearing down of an enemy through the efficient and synchronized use of combat power that results in favorable loss ratios. Attrition focuses on cumulative destruction and allows operational simplicity, provides relative predictability, and minimizes vulnerabilities.
Both approaches have their place in conflict. The Soviet theorist Georgii Isserson recognized that modern conflicts tend to open with a period of movement, which provides open flanks and gaps to exploit with maneuver. Every major war in the 20th and 21st centuries began with a period of movement, as the aggressor used strategic surprise to attack a defender before the defender could fully mobilize and establish a continuous front. If one side does not suffer defeat in the opening phase of a war, wars have tended to ossify as both sides mobilize enough forces to create a deep and continuous front. Today’s commentators should recognize Isserson’s insight when discussing maneuver.
Often seen as the epitome of maneuver, the German victories at the outset of World War II were enabled by specific contexts. In Poland, Germany’s victory was significantly assisted by the Polish army’s incomplete mobilization and its vulnerable forward positioning. In France, the German army took advantage of gaps in the flanks of the French army as the bulk of the French forces moved to reinforce positions in Belgium. In 1941, the Soviet Union forward-deployed its forces in a vulnerable position. This allowed for the German military to again achieve impressive successes. But by 1943, the Soviet Union had fully mobilized its population and adopted effective defense techniques, leading to German tanks floundering during their attempted breakthrough in the dense minefields during the Battle of Kursk.
While the context early in the war for Germany made maneuver appropriate, later in the war, the context for the United States supported attrition. General Dwight Eisenhower pursued a broad-front approach in Western Europe that synchronized America’s material advantages to dependably grind down Germany while minimizing vulnerabilities for the German military to exploit.
The last time that the United States faced a continuous defense in depth was during the Korean War from 1951 to 1953. After the initial war of movement ended and both China and the United Nations had the force densities to form an unbroken front, the U.S. military pursued an attritional approach. Due to this context, the United States did not pursue maneuver, even with air dominance and commanders experienced in the combined arms of World War II.
The U.S. Army Does Not Train for Such a Context
Commentators on the Ukraine War have sought to place North Atlantic Treaty Organization and particularly American training as central to Ukraine’s success. It provides a comforting story for American military superiority. While training on weapon systems and battle drills undoubtedly has proven valuable, it is unclear what insights the United States has offered Ukraine in understanding a threat it has been fighting since 2014.
As the Ukrainian military conducts its counteroffensive, it is pursuing an appropriate attritional approach. Ukraine faces an enemy that has created a continuous defense in depth. Russia has spent months scattering minefields, digging trenches, and emplacing obstacles. The Russian military can mass artillery on any force attempting to breach minefields and has reserves prepared to counterattack any breakthrough. It is possible that Ukraine was pushed too hard by overly optimistic Western advisors to gamble on a mechanized breakthrough of Russia’s defense at the start of its counteroffensive. During this offensive, the Ukrainian military lost an estimated 20 percent of the equipment provided by the West.
The U.S. Army does not train for this type of attritional fight. Any commentator who thinks that Ukraine is failing due to insufficient training from the West in “combined arms maneuver” should observe an American brigade training rotation at a combat training center. Any of the failings found in Ukraine’s attack — such as the timing of a suppressive artillery barrage or vehicles not identifying a cleared lane through a minefield — I have personally observed with nearly every brigade training at the 30 rotations I have participated in at the National Training Center and Joint Readiness Training Center. While the combat training centers provide these brigades with superb training, they are not replicating the problem set experienced by the Ukrainian army (nor should they; they should replicate the context in which the U.S. military expects to fight).
The last time the U.S. Army exercised a division with all its subordinate elements in a force-on-force exercise was during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. During the last few years, U.S. Army Forces Command’s training guidance has prioritized training at the company level and below. The rare time when U.S. Army brigades train as a whole unit is when they deploy to a combat training center, which occurs approximately once every 18 months. At these training events, brigades face a reinforced battalion of opposing forces that are only notionally a part of a larger scenario. During training, opposing forces are not tied into a continuous defense in depth. They are thinly spread and provide attacking forces opportunities for enveloping or bypassing them. Opposing forces do not employ mines anywhere near the density faced by the Ukrainian military, they do not mass artillery with decisive effects (it is unproductive to wipe out a battalion after a few minutes of training an attack when it spent millions to come to the training), and they do not employ operational-level reserves for counterattacks.
Meanwhile, when working with the Army, the U.S. Air Force focuses on the corps-level deep fight against high-payoff targets. Some commentators think that American airpower would clear enemies from their trenches, but the Air Force has moved away from close air support and is not employed for such tasks during the Army’s simulated warfighter exercises. Furthermore, the Army is centralizing artillery in divisions to concentrate on the deep fight, so it is unclear how the United States would provide massed, sustained, and responsive fires during an attack on a large-scale trench system to achieve a breakthrough.
Within this attritional approach, the Ukrainian military has employed effective combined arms at a small unit level that is not seen in U.S. forces. Based on simulations that lack context and the friction of war, the U.S. Army has been moving toward centralizing assets in a manner similar to France’s methodical battle of the 1930s. This approach will continue to slow decision-making and operational tempo. When situations at the front change, soldiers will need to wait for the prolonged planning processes of headquarters removed from the fight to make a decision. They waste precious minutes and will risk being overrun as they call for a fire mission that is routed from battalion, to brigade, to division, then back down to a divisional artillery headquarters, a field artillery battalion, and finally a firing battery. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military has decentralized to an impressive degree with unmanned aerial systems tied into platoon operations and artillery working on demand with an Uber-like app. The Ukrainian approach is a much quicker and more flexible form of warfare than the centralized target working groups and 72-hour air tasking orders that drive American operations.
A further critique has been that “Ukraine hasn’t been able to master combined arms warfare at scale.” Instead of attempting a single, massed breakthrough, they are attacking along three axes in dispersed attacks. Soviet interwar theorists, such as Aleksandr Svechin and Vladimir Triandafillov, examined the difficulty of overcoming a continuous defense in depth. They recognized the value of multiple axes of attack to prevent an enemy from massing their operational reserves on a single breakthrough. They highlighted the Brusilov offensive in 1916 as an example of a broad front offensive with multiple breakthroughs that overwhelmed the Austro-Hungarian reserves. Ukraine is attempting a similar approach, which is even more appropriate given the contemporary threat of Russian unmanned aerial systems providing observation for concentrated artillery fires on any massing of Ukrainian forces.
Biting and Holding
To deal with these threats, Ukraine leads attacks with small groups of infantry supported by tanks and artillery in a combined arms approach. This method is similar to Australian General John Monash’s synchronized, limited attacks in 1918. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery later said, “I would name Sir John Monash as the best general on the western front in Europe.” Monash valued his soldiers’ lives and pursued well-synchronized, limited attacks at favorable casualty rates compared to the war’s earlier offensives. Monash wanted to avoid the “inefficiency” of previous victories.
By 1918, the Allies had recognized that the context of the war meant that a massed “big push” as so murderously attempted at the Somme would not create a breakthrough against an enemy defending in depth with large operational reserves. In 1917, the German military had developed an effective, elastic defense that could absorb attempts at a breakthrough. The German military’s elastic defense placed fewer troops in the first lines of trenches, which minimized losses from artillery barrages. Troops were postured in successive trench lines to counterattack the flanks of vulnerable Allied troops after the attackers culminated by pushing out of artillery and logistics range. The Russian military follows the fundamentals of Germany’s elastic defense today in Ukraine.
In response, the British military developed the “bite and hold” approach that Monash perfected. The approach put Germany’s elastic defense in a dilemma. British attacks did not attempt to exploit initial successes but instead transitioned to the defense and defeated Germany’s expected counterattacks. “Bite and hold” took advantage of the German military’s thinly defended forward trench lines and did not risk culmination. The Germany military could either abandon its elastic approach or gradually lose in a war of exhaustion.
Instead of the Allies, it was the German military that attempted a decisive breakthrough in the 1918 spring offensive. The German army massed forces brought in from the Eastern Front after Russia withdrew from the war. It used stormtroopers trained in fast-moving infiltration tactics that had previously produced lopsided victories in the battles of Riga in the Baltic and Caporetto in Italy. Germany’s offensive no doubt seemed like what many commentators hoped Ukraine would have attempted. But Erich von Ludendorff launched the German offensive in an act of desperation. He did not understand that a decisive battle of annihilation was impossible in the context of the Western Front. It did not provide the same opportunities as the collapsing Russian army in a postrevolutionary crisis or the shaky Italian army clinging to mountainsides. While the German military had some initial success by exploiting a vulnerable seam between the British and French armies, the offensive bled and exhausted its army as the Allies brought in their reserves. The offensive broke the German army and its hopes of victory.
Have Humility in Ourselves and Faith in Ukraine
The U.S. military should not push the Ukrainian military to conduct a high-risk form of warfare in the hope of a spectacular victory. Hans Delbrück explained that Ludendorff tried to wage a war of annihilation that revolved around a single, decisive victory, not recognizing that the strategic context of World War I was fundamentally different from the wars of the 19th century. Delbrück contrasted a strategy of annihilation with a strategy of exhaustion, which sought to gradually wear down an enemy across military, political, and economic fronts until continuing a war was no longer worthwhile. In its current context, Ukraine, with the support of all countries that are against wars of imperial conquest, should pursue an attritional operational approach as part of a broader strategy of exhaustion.
Some might fear that such a theory of victory plays into the Russian military’s strategy, but there is no perfect alternative. Prematurely pursuing maneuver will only allow Russia to attrit Ukrainian forces. Ukraine will need to destroy Russian artillery and inflict casualties that thin Russian reserves at a favorable rate that outstrips Russia’s ability to replace those losses. It will be slow and grinding with constant competitive adaptation. It may not produce spectacular victories for social media consumption. Winston Churchill said of defeating the German U-boats’ campaign of exhaustion in the North Atlantic: “It did not take the form of flaring battles and glittering achievements, it manifested itself through statistics, diagrams, and curves unknown to the nation, incomprehensible to the public.”
At some point, vulnerabilities might begin to appear in the Russian lines and present Ukraine with an opportunity for spectacular victories. Such an opportunity previously arose with Ukraine’s Kharkiv offensive in 2022. Similarly in 1918, the Allies finally could conduct a successful massed attack during the Hundred Days offensive when the German army began to collapse. Any attempt to conduct large-scale maneuver before then would be suicidal.
It can be hard to convey the context in which Ukraine fights. In western Kandahar, I did not have to deal with triple-stacked T-62 mines designed to cripple any breaching vehicle. But I still remember the strange sense of freedom of movement that I felt when, the day after returning from Afghanistan, I went for a hike in the evergreen trees of Washington. Being able to step anywhere without following closely behind two mine detectors seemed a surreal luxury. Ukraine does not have the luxury of conducting maneuver. It needs to pursue unglamorous attrition, and we must be prepared to support it until it exhausts the Russian invaders. And the United States should not forget how poorly its last attempt to remake an army in its image fared.
Maj. Robert G. Rose, U.S. Army, is the operations officer for 3rd Squadron, 4th Security Forces Assistance Brigade. He previously served at the National Training Center and the Joint Readiness Training Center. He deployed to Afghanistan as the J35 counterthreat finance planner for Operation Freedom’s Sentinel and with 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, for Operation Enduring Freedom. He holds an undergraduate degree from the U.S. Military Academy and graduate degrees from Harvard University and, as a Gates scholar, from Cambridge University.