By Can Kasapoǧlu
1. Small Unit Tactics and Ukraine’s Emerging Methods of Drone Warfare
As one crosses the border from Poland, Ukraine’s vast, green plains evoke a pastoral scene at odds with the harsh realities of a country at war. With near-constant frequency, the railways of these borderlands carry vital supplies to a nation fighting for its survival. While the conflict continues, Ukrainian society remains determined to resist Russian revanchism.
Yet Ukraine’s military is in a state of transition, a post-Soviet fighting force aspiring to NATO standards. As a result, many Western analysts have noted that it often seems to be fighting not just for victory, but for its identity.
The Soviet roots of Ukraine’s army manifest in its higher echelons, where rigid orders and battle plans frequently display only a developing familiarity with advanced concepts like combined arms maneuver warfare. The lower echelons of Ukraine’s military, however, are often the products of training programs aligned to NATO standards.
This is why, at the battalion level and below, Ukraine fights innovatively and often resembles a Western army. Indeed, its small unit tactics have proved most effective against Russian combat formations.
Drones have been incredibly helpful at these levels. When fighting with small unit tactics, Ukraine’s drone warfare assets of choice have been the mini drone and the first-person view (FPV) loitering munition, a kamikaze drone that empowers infantry formations. Ukrainian officials are proud of their fast-growing FPV program, indicating that FPVs and mini drones play to their advantage. Every week, these small and low-cost weapons of war destroy hundreds of pieces of Russian equipment, according to Kyiv’s Ministry of Digital Transformation. They will likely continue to play an integral role in the conflict moving forward, as Ukraine’s military grows into its potential as a fighting force.
2. Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation Empowers the Nation’s Soldiers
Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation, headed by successful businessman Mykhailo Fedorov, runs the country’s emerging and disruptive technologies (EDT) projects. These high-end and high-tech capabilities produce an asymmetric impact on the battlefield, equipping the Ukrainian military with innovative concepts of operations (CONOPS).
Unsurprisingly given Fedorov’s professional background, Ukraine’s drone program reflects an understanding of defense economics. In the ministry’s calculus, using drones that cost a few thousand dollars each to destroy Russian platforms worth millions of dollars gives Kyiv a leg up on its adversary. The ministry’s officials, including Fedorov, do not refrain from touting their efforts in asymmetric warfare. The ministry has its own crowd-funding source, too—its United24 program has generated millions of dollars for its drone warfare effort. This year, the ministry aims to increase drone manufacturing by a factor of at least one hundred.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Digital Transformation also cooperates with Ukrainian Defense Intelligence (GUR), which innovatively employs robotic warfare assets like the Sea Baby surface kamikaze naval drone. Fedorov’s team is also the country’s largest trainer of drone operators.
At present, the Ministry of Digital Transformation has three objectives: generating a sustainable long-range strike capability to deter Russian attacks, augmenting Ukraine’s drone warfare prowess across the spectrum, and mitigating the effects of Russian drone salvos on Ukrainian population centers.
Confirming open-source defense intelligence statistics, Ukrainian officials acknowledged last week that Iranian-supplied Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 loitering munitions account for the bulk of Russian strike packages. Further complicating things for Kyiv, Tehran will likely soon introduce the jet-powered variant of the Shahed-136 family, with increased speed that provides it with improved battlefield survivability and hit rates. This new variant will also reportedly bear a nose-mounted camera, which would bring a new capability to the Shahed baseline’s pre-programmed attack mode. A planned drone plant in the Tatarstan region of Russia, to be operated jointly by Moscow and Tehran, would also boost Russia’s production rates of Iran-designed loitering munitions.
3. Augmenting Kyiv’s Long-Range Strike Deterrent
The Ukrainian battlefield debut of the US-transferred ATACMS tactical missile system heralds a potential game changer for Kyiv. If provided in sufficient numbers, the ATACMS has the potential to shape the battlefield by decisively pounding the Russian military’s rear area. Last week’s Berdyansk strike hinted at these possibilities by eliminating numerous Russian tactical aviation platforms deep behind defensive lines.
More than a year of experience enduring Russian salvos has taught Ukraine’s decision-makers that defensive strategic weapons systems only go so far, and that counterpunching against Russia was necessary to protect critical infrastructure. This is why building a long-range strike deterrent is so important to the long-term security of Ukraine.
In building this deterrent, Kyiv knows that it will have to invest in its own defense technological and industrial base (DTIB). Thus far, Ukraine’s efforts to boost its offensive capabilities have involved loitering munitions and missile warfare.
In boosting its loitering munitions capacities, Kyiv has focused on the UJ-22 and Beaver drones. In missile warfare, the country’s arms makers prefer investing in cruise missiles rather than ballistic missiles. Here the Neptune program is the crown jewel of Ukraine’s efforts, and Ukrainian officials last week continually emphasized the importance of boosting this production line at home.
4. Equipping Ukraine for the War Ahead
After failing to deliver a knockout blow at the outset of its invasion, Russia’s guiding strategy in Ukraine has become one of attrition. It seeks to erode the capabilities of Ukraine’s military, wear down the will of its Western supporters, and exhaust its civilian population. The Ukrainians know that they are likely in a marathon rather than a sprint, especially as Kyiv’s spring counteroffensive fell short of delivering decisive results. Nonetheless, hopes are high in the country for a reloaded counteroffensive by the spring or summer of 2024, augmented by incoming shipments of F-16s.
To sustain their military and avoid Russia’s attritional trap, Ukrainian officials have requested implementing a hybrid under-license manufacturing model that would extend certain Western arms production lines—such as for arms products by Rheinmetall—to Ukraine.
Rheinmetall supplies Ukraine with a wide range of ammunition, including 20mm and 40mm rounds, 155mm artillery shells, 105mm rounds for its Leopard 1 and 120mm rounds for its Leopard 2 main battle tanks, and 35mm-class rounds for its Flakpanzer Gepard air defense system, a key asset for intercepting Shahed kamikaze drones.
Ukraine also has to do more to keep up with its battlefield drone losses. According to field study reports, Ukraine loses some 10,000 drones on average in a month. To compensate for mounting losses, Kyiv needs to keep a drone manufacturing supply line flowing.
With China increasing restrictions on its drone industry, importing commercial drones and spare parts is becoming harder. Ukrainian officials emphasized last week that producing key sub-systems at home—and being able to establish supply routes over third parties—is essential to winning the game of drones.
5. Ukraine’s Quest for a Postwar Plan
In their planning for the postwar world, officials in Kyiv see both challenges and opportunities. Ukraine’s border areas, especially those abutting the Russian Federation and Belarus, are important for European security, and Kyiv’s access to the Black Sea is a strategic asset for the West. Ukraine, with its legacy of Soviet industrial and technological prowess, runs its own drone and missile warfare programs, can generate one of the largest fighting forces in Europe, and possesses a military that has gained invaluable experience from waging a large-scale war for two years.
Because Kyiv uses much of the same post-Soviet material that Moscow utilizes, it has the potential to poach Russia’s arms export suppliers, especially in India. Moreover, the Ukrainian special forces and GUR can target Wagner forces outside Ukraine after the war. Some officials did not exclude this policy option, and others portrayed Wagner as the primary threat to Ukraine’s diplomatic outreach to Africa.
NATO membership remains Ukraine’s primary geopolitical goal. In the meantime, Kyiv’s ten-point peace formula remains the nation’s principal political, military, and economic framework for a postwar peace. The formula envisions the complete withdrawal of Russian occupation forces from Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, the implementation of adequate food security and energy security measures, the unconditional release of all prisoners and deportees, the total restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and the ratification of the end of the war.
Kyiv’s peace formula also suggests the establishment of a special tribunal to punish war crimes perpetrated during the Russian invasion. Ukraine’s attorney general has advocated compensating the country for its wartime losses through the confiscation of Russian assets, arguing that any other option would amount to donations and economic aid rather than genuine war compensation.
An examination of the role other countries—particularly Iran, Belarus, and North Korea—have played in the invasion of Ukraine is also probably in the offing. While Kyiv has not disclosed the details, a special investigation into the Iranian government’s involvement in the invasion is likely forthcoming.
6. Battlefield Update
Although last week saw a small decline in the number of Russian missile and kamikaze drone strikes, it is premature to conclude that the threat has diminished indefinitely. While the reduction in strikes has offered Ukraine short-term relief, it could also hint at a larger wave of attacks in the coming months. As the mercury drops, the probability increases that Russian air attacks may target power generation facilities and electrical grids. Thus, the prolonged pause may presage a tough winter war in Ukraine.
While the battlefield geometry has not drastically changed over the past week, the Russian offensive in Avdiivka has carried on. Yet open-source intelligence suggests that Russia’s military has been facing significant challenges there, as it has thus far failed in its efforts to conduct successful envelopments around Ukrainian forces. Ukraine is successfully holding the main defense line in Avdiivka, inflicting heavy losses on the Russian side, which itself is seeing only marginal gains. Some sources claim that the share of troops Russia has lost in Avdiivka amounts to one-third of its 2nd Combined Arms Army (CAA), while the number of armored vehicles lost in its offensive has exceeded one hundred in two weeks. In the absence of once-influential figures like Wagner’s Yevgeny Prigozhin and General Sergei Surovikin, Russia’s chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, may intensify the Avdiivka offensive in the days ahead to please his boss, Vladimir Putin, even in the face of mounting losses.
In the meantime, Pyongyang has begun to supply Moscow with weapons to fight its prolonged war. The recent supply of artillery shells and ammunition from North Korea has boosted Russia’s diminishing stocks of these resources. According to the head of the Estonian Defense Forces, Russia receives around 350,000 artillery shells per month from Pyongyang. Some estimates suggest that if North Korea were to maintain this level of aid for a year, it would be providing Russia with one and a half times the number of artillery shells Moscow’s own production capacities could sustain, including roughly two and a half million 152mm-class shells.
Despite this influx of arms, Ukraine’s military has managed to hold its ground in the south. The Robotyne bulge remains intact, and the Ukrainian Armed Forces continue to maintain a presence on the left bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson. In the coming weeks, exploiting Russia’s vulnerabilities, particularly in defense planning and logistics, will be crucial for Kyiv. Moving forward, Ukraine will need to maintain its high-precision attacks on Russian logistics and supply chains, continue using sophisticated assets such as ATACMS to strike high-value Russian assets, and boost its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.
About the author: Can Kasapoǧlu is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute
Source: This article was published by the Hudson Institute