WASHINGTON — Months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, experts say the conflict is providing new lessons across the land, air and sea domains, potentially shaping future strategies for the U.S. military.
Last week, the Department of Defense announced another security package of $270 million for Ukraine, including High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems and Phoenix Ghost unmanned aerial systems. That would bring the total number of Ukrainian HIMARS to 16 and send 580 additional Phoenix Ghosts to the frontlines, according to a DoD statement.
The battle on land
Speaking at the Heritage Foundation on Thursday, David Johnson, a retired U.S. Army colonel and now a principal researcher at the think tank Rand, described the fight on land as a war of attrition. In part, though, Russia’s war of attrition is against the will of the West to aid Ukraine, not just the will to fight against Ukraine’s armed forces, he noted.
“Putin’s supposition is ‘I will outlast them, and I will break their will,’” Johnson said. “‘And I’m also going to work on the West because winter is coming.’”
This type of war, he said, is something the modern U.S. military has not experienced. The U.S. should prepare for this kind of “shock to the system” as it faces rising threats, Johnson added.
“This is what real war looks like, and we haven’t seen it in so long, we’ve forgotten,” he said.
Capitalizing on Black Sea vulnerabilities
Despite much of their naval forces being depleted early on, Ukraine has managed to capitalize on Russian vulnerabilities, including the weaknesses of its ships against precision missiles and Moscow being boxed out of the Black Sea.
Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said at the same event last week precision missiles shot from land have delivered some of Russia’s most visible blows in the conflict, including the sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
“Ukraine really hasn’t been able to do much at sea, but what they have been able to do ... is leverage their anti-ship weapons that are launched from shore to be able to hold off the Russian navy,” Clark said.
The sinking of the Moskva, he said, makes clear “it just takes one missile to get through” to a warship that will leave it “at least out of action and potentially out completely.”
Russia’s naval strategy has also stalled due to the geopolitics of the Bosporus Strait, the one waterway leading out of the Black Sea. Turkey, who controls the strait, closed it off to all warships in March, making it impossible to switch out any damaged warships in the blockade.
Now, Russia is left to leverage its blockade against the rest of the world. In recent weeks, Russia has been in negotiations that would allow Ukraine — one of the world’s largest exporters of grain — to move its products out of the port city of Odessa.
A ship carrying 26,000 tons of corn left the port city of Odessa on Monday. In a separate deal, Turkey agreed to open the Bosporus Strait so Russia can export its own grain and fertilizer, according to reports from National Public Radio. The negotiation did not affect the movement of warships in the strait.
According to the United Nations World Food Program, nearly 50 million people are threatened with famine due to disruptions in the global food supply caused by Russia’s blockade.
“The biggest challenge we are facing today worldwide is the food shortages that are resulting from the Russian blockade of Odessa,” Clark said. “In a lot of ways, the naval fight is the one that is the most consequential for the rest of the world.”
Underperformance by Russia in the air
While many consider Russia to have the second most powerful air force in the world, Russia’s inability to achieve air superiority throughout the conflict has cast doubts on Moscow’s projection of air power.
Rebecca Grant, president of IRIS Independent Research, said during the panel Russian pilots commonly take off, only to reach altitude, launch a missile into Ukraine and then immediately go back to the airfield. That kind of performance, she said, makes her doubt previous perceptions of Russian airpower.
“Russia’s performance in the air has been terrible,” Grant said. “Turns out, really, they were just sort of a continental air force. They don’t like to fly at night. They don’t like to fly very far into Ukraine.”
Another area of underperformance, Grant said, has been joint military campaigns among branches of Russia’s armed forces. She pointed to a poorly coordinated offensive during the airborne assault on Hostomel Airport outside of Kyiv in the opening days of the invasion, where Russian troops were pushed back and eventually ended their planned siege on Ukraine’s capital.
“How did we happen to overestimate the abilities of the Russian air force and most of all their abilities to work in ... a combined armed or joint campaign?” Grant said. “It has been a surprise the lack of the level of integration.”