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Dr. Phillip Karber Lessons Learned from the War in Ukraine

Discussion in 'Geostrategic Issues' started by Feanor, Sep 20, 2019.

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  1. Feanor

    Feanor Super Moderator Staff Member

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    This video was posted in relation to a recent discussion of the Su-57 fighter jet and its capabilities in another thread. Given the quality of the material presented and the information it did (and did not) contain, I felt it would be helpful to make a separate thread to discuss the presentation, with context, and a detailed look at some of the things Dr. Karber only covers briefly.

    First and foremost, this is a presentation given at West Point presumably to a class of future US Army officers. From this we can immediately understand what the purpose here is: to educate future US commanders about the threats they may face in future wars, and the lessons they can take away from the current conflict in Ukraine. Inherently this video is not a direct comparison of Russian and US military capabilities or doctrine, nor is it an attempt to predict an outcome of a conflict between the US and Russia in Ukraine or elsewhere. The purpose is to educate and prepare US military officers for what they will likely have to face in the event of a war against an opponent like Russia.

    It's also important to note the point of view he speaks from, mainly from the Ukrainian side, as an outside observer. He has a good understanding of realities on the ground, but remember the state of the Ukrainian armed forces and the US armed forces is very different.



    Dr. Karber provides a decent but very brief overview of the Russian military in general. However he skips around a lot, from the Second Chechen War reforms, to Serdyukov overhaul. He does correctly identify the Russian practice of pulling composite battalion tactical groups from various brigades, and deploying them in pieces.

    Next he talks about Russian hybrid warfare, and about Crimea. He describes it as an "air-assault operation". In my opinion this is a highly contentions claim at best. Russia already had a large force in Crimea, and brought in additional forces not by capturing airfields from an opponent and landing troops, or my parachuting or helo-landing troops behind the enemy, but instead by flying them in unopposed and landing them at preexisting and well established bases. He also mentions that this was done "almost without firing a shot". This is true but this highlights the issue, this wasn't an air assault operation at all, it was something else entirely. There are incidents from Crimea where it turned out that Russian units blockading Ukrainian bases were at the same time being housed and fed at the same base they were blockading. There are multiple instances of interactions between Ukrainian and Russian military personnel that come across as administrative squabbles rather then hostile action. To be clear, his summary is not entirely wrong, but definitely skewed to the Ukrainian narrative. There is much ado made in Ukrainian press and among Ukrainian politicians regarding the "what ifs" of Crimea, and he seems to at least partly be influenced by that.

    He then discusses Russian use of nuclear deterrence and the threat of nuclear weapons in international diplomacy. I think that he equates statements from Russian politicians regarding the existence of nuclear weapons and their clear intent to serve as a deterrent to NATO at every turn, and translating that into a threat. This is not entirely wrong but misses a bit of nuance. He also talks about nuclear patrols, I'm not sure about this. I was not aware of patrols with live nuclear warheads but I may be behind the times.

    (13:20) He then circles back to Crimea, and I am drawn to his map with arrows of Russian troop movements, that make it look like a well executed offensive. The reality was different. Units were running around back and forth around the peninsula to and from various Russian bases, and there was even a case of a Russian light armor column returning to base because they were drawing the wrong kind of attention from locals and law enforcement (the column contained BTR-80 APCs and Russia refrained from using armored vehicles as much as possible, except for the Tigr armored car). The initial checkpoints at the northern entrance to Crimea weren't even manned by Russian troops, they were manned by local Ukrainian Ministry of Interior forces, many of them the same people that participated in suppressing the Euromaidan.

    (13:52) He talks about the "agent in charge". This is insightful and in my opinion accurately portrays Russian operations in many places (including Ukraine).

    (15:15) He starts talking about civil unrest in the Donbass, but he ignores the context, how they were a response to the takeover in Kiev, and how Yanukovich was from the Donbass and the strong ties he had there. It's not clear at least to me why he sees a principal distinction between the Euromaidan and the anti-Maidan.

    (16:38) He accurately portrays the poor state of the Ukrainian armed forces in terms of manpower and equipment, but fails to note the poor quality of their training, especially officers and NCO. He also talks about intercepted Russian comms guiding the decision not to commit Russian troops to the Donbass. I'm not sure if this is true. More importantly there were multiple points in the spring of 2014 when it looked like Russian troops were ready to go, and then stood down, and then were ready to move in again, and then stood down. It's possible that they wanted to avoid a full on war, and the ability of Ukrainian forces to move played a key factor.

    (18:45) He shows a chart of firefights, and I don't doubt it's accuracy within the specified parameters. However it creates a misleading picture of the war as something that goes on at a high level for a long time. Realistically after the winter offensive, fighting settled into a positional war of artillery exchange, sniper warfare, and small skirmishes. There might be many firefights but the overall intensity is very low, and little ground changes hands.

    (20:56) He is not wrong about Yanukovich. But I think he misses the support that Yanukovich had in the Donbass. Not support for him as him, but support for him against other political figures. He briefly recounts the Euromaidan and the sniper situation and then rapidly glosses over the ending, ignoring the February accords, and the assault on the government quarter by armed radicals that caused Yanukovich to flee. He also mentions that the Euromaidan swelled to "half a million". I'm not aware of any reliable figures that high, or anywhere near that high. To the best of my knowledge it remained in the tens of thousands though perhaps I'm missing something.

    (22:22) He accurately explains how many former Ukrainian security forces ended up with the rebels, and this reveals the roots of the war as a civil conflict, though with heavy Russian involvement.

    (24:00) He links the lulls in the fighting to Russian diplomatic efforts. I've seen similar claims but in the reverse claiming that spikes in the fighting coincide with Ukraine's diplomatic efforts to remind the west in general and the EU in particular that they are still fighting a war. He accurately explains the permeation of the rebel forces upper echelons by Russian officers. He doesn't explain that this wasn't always the case but rather came about gradually during late 2014 and early 2015, and involved even Russian private military or special forces taking out several rebel leaders (arrest and in some cases alleged execution) that wouldn't play ball.

    (25:40) He talks about the new Russian formations on the strategic and operational-strategic level appearing directly across from Ukraine, and these are direct responses to the ongoing deterioration in relations with the west as well as the continued conflict in Ukraine.

    I'm stopping at (26:30) because I'm out of time for today. I will continue with the video tomorrow and likely into Saturday to discuss the conversation around air defense, EW, and other areas.

    I'm aware that this is a highly contentions subject, as such please be aware of our forum rules, and be mindful of keeping the discussion on defense and geo-strategic topics. Politics may only be discussed in as much as they directly pertain to the military and defense scenarios we are discussing.
     
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  2. Boagrius

    Boagrius Active Member

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    One little tidbit I did find interesting is that he attributed observed cases of Ukrainian ATGM flying up into the sky moments before impact to the Arena hard-kill active protection system. I was under the impression that this system had not been fitted to Russian tanks on a large scale - at least not their T90s and T72 derivatives. I would have expected something like Shtora to have been a more likely culprit?
     
  3. Feanor

    Feanor Super Moderator Staff Member

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    I have heard the claim of this happening in the current war, and it was cited as evidence of Shtora use, i.e. the presence of T-90 tanks. I'm not sure if I believe this, since ATGMs don't just take off like a space rocket into the sky when they lose their laser guidance. On the other hand a miss, with a general upward trajectory could be interpreted as "flying up into the sky" so its fuzzy.
     
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  4. Boagrius

    Boagrius Active Member

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    Yes I found it curious as well. It didn't necessarily strike me as indicative of a hard-kill system being used either. For instance what I've read about Israeli use of the Trophy system suggests it catastrophically damages the ATGM in flight. This leaves it incapable of then pitching up and rocketing into the clouds(!)
     
  5. Feanor

    Feanor Super Moderator Staff Member

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    (26:00) He begins by stating that since the end of WWII the US had air superiority. He notes that today the US fighting in parts of Eastern Europe or the Pacific near China will involve contested airspace. He briefly summarizes previous US GBAD, and notes its current absence from US formations. He also mentions that there are fewer bases then before in Europe, implying reduced air support capability. He also states that "steathy" aircraft operating out of England would require refueling to fight in Eastern Europe and mentions sortie rates of 1 per day. I'm not sure what to make of this. If the conflict in question involves NATO as a whole why can't those same "stealthy aircraft" be operated out of bases in Germany or Poland? A buy of F-35s for Poland was approved recently, so in the future they might even have the logistics in place to support those operations. NATO does have some GBAD among them, though not much compared to a Soviet-style mech formation.

    (27:50) He shows a map of the conflict with range rings of alleged Russian SAM positions. Note the map is from a particular time in the conflict. On the one hand you can see the Debal'tsevo bulge, on the other hand in the south rebel forces are 2/3rds of the way to Mariupol' (from Novoazovsk). This map is of the situation between the first and second Minsk accords. He proceeds to claim that this is the largest interconnected air defense system on earth. I strongly disagree. Moscow has a much bigger air defense grid, and much denser, and it's also mobile (remember deployment times for S-300/400 family systems can be as low as 5 minutes from the march). More importantly if each ring represents a single system, then an average Russian motor-rifle brigade can conjure up similar densities (it contains a btln of Tor/OSA systems, and a battery each of Pantsyr, Strela-10, and MANPADS). Emphasis on densities, obviously a single brigade would do this over a much smaller total area. Even if each position represents a battery, this is still not all that amazing. The Buk systems on the map would represent either one 3 btln brigade, or ~1.5 2 btln brigades. 5 batteries of Tors would be just shy of two btlns, same with 5 batteries of Osa. The Pantsyr would be the biggest presence at 7 batteries, but this is highly unlikely. All the images of Pantsyr systems I've seen operating in the Donbass appear to be single systems or in rare cases pairs caught on camera. He emphasizes the strength of this air defense grid, but really it's the weakness of the Ukrainian airforce, and their complete unpreparedness for dealing with modern air defenses.

    (28:15) He claims all the systems in question are datalinked glossing over the details. I have serious doubts that vintage Buk-M and M1 systems (or the venerable Osa for that matter) across such a large area are ALL linked with the latest Pantsyr and Tor variants, in real time, and at all times. I'm sure parts of this grid are linked together and I'm sure there is overall coordination but the abilities of some of these systems to talk to some of the others is limited at best. But again, consider the audience and the context. A future US Army officer fighting an opponent like Russia can expect robust, mobile, and datalinked, GBAD coverage. And this is the point he's trying to get across in at least some cases.

    (28:19) He mentions that the Ukrainian airforce was shot out of the sky. From what I recall, and I followed this conflict fairly closely, rebel air defense was lethal but far from dominant against the Ukrainian airforce, who continued to fly missions. After the downing of the airliner, Buk SAMs suddenly became very scarce (I don't recall any sighting of the rebels operating anything bigger then a Strela-10, MANPADS, or AAA after that) and instead sightings of Tor, and Pantsyr systems suddenly began to crop up. The Ukranian airforce started losing aircraft at an unsustainable rate, and was effectively forced to stop flying. The conclusion I made at the time (and I still think it's true) is that this was a reaction to the mistaken downing of the airliner. The rebels were stripped of any serious organic GBAD, and instead line Russian Army (PVO SV) troops were brought in with the latest equipment, and closed down the sky.

    Also if you look at his chart you will notice it includes the Tunguska 2S6 on it. His map did not. I know of at least one battery of 2S6s that entered Ukraine together with the 136th Motor-Rifles (allegedly they were also the unit that operated T-90A tanks in the battles around Lugansk airport but I was never able to positively confirm it).

    (29:20) Look carefully at the bottom of the chart. He gives an accurate breakdown of the structure of PVO SV units inside mechanized and armored brigades. Normally motor-rifles brigades have two btlns, one using SAMs (either Tor or Osa) and one using a mix with one battery of radar-guided AAA (Shilka or Tunguska depending), one battery of Strela-10 (a new Sosna is being tested as a replacement right now) and one battery of MANPADS/ZU-23-2s. The air defense btlns contain C4I assets that work with the newest MANPADS, including radars not to guide the missiles to potentially assist with alerting them to the target. MANPADS do work in pairs just as he described, and also work joint with other elements of these formations.

    (30:50) He mentions that the US Army will have to expect enemy airstrikes, fixed wing and rotary, making a case for organic GBAD. I generally agree with this.

    (31:00) He tells a story of getting hit by a Grad strike, while out with a Ukrainian unit, and describes the tactics between the quad-copter for short range recon, and the fixed wing UAV actually being used to make the strike. What he doesn't mention is that they got hit by a Grad missile strike, and yet their small convoy was not incinerated and they did not take horrific casualties (at least he doesn't mention any of this, given that had this happened it would have reinforced his point, made his story much more poignant, and been a seriously traumatic experience overshadowing the play of the UAVs right before it, I'm assuming that this did not happen). I.e. the strike was not all that effective.

    (32:30) He mentions Israeli UAVs in Russia, continued to be sold with US ITAR components (ITAR is a US categorization of certain goods and services as subject to arms control legislation) despite sanctions.
     
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  6. Feanor

    Feanor Super Moderator Staff Member

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    (32:55) He talks about company level and platoon level UAV use in Russia. This is very, very misleading. This is one of the reasons I continue to draw a strong distinction between the Ukrainian rebels and Russian regular forces. The LDNR forces are constantly on the front line, regular exchanges of fire, regular casualties, and far less bureaucracy and restrictions on what they can and can not use, operate, etc. If a LDNR company or platoon wants a quadcopter, all they have to do is go online and order one. There are volunteer groups in Russia that donate equipment to these structures (though less so then before), and the first DNR UAV unit was actually operating UAVs donated by a Russian volunteer group, who brought them in together with a batch of medical supplies and boots. In regular Russian Army units UAVs are not so common. They are rapidly becoming more and more common, and artillery recon platoons, and recon formations in general, almost certainly have them, but line motor-rifle units are a different story, and they are not nearly as common as he claims. They will, almost certainly, be more common in the future then they are today, so a UAV per platoon or even per vehicle, in some cases, is not unimaginable but is nowhere near the reality of the Russian Army today. On a side note the use of a hodge-podge of different civilian UAV models by the LDNR means that their ability to send data and communicate with other assets is significantly more limited.

    (33:47) LDNR forces have certainly used their share of improvised UAVs as strike platforms, but this is mostly improvised, or semi-improvised. His point regarding munition and fuel dispersal is however quite relevant.

    (34:45) Combat use of EW is huge in the Russian Armed Forces, and will become even more common in the future. He is correct here. He also criticizes US Army EW capabilities (or lack thereof) and while I'm not qualified to comment, if his facts are straight, then he's not wrong about the conclusions. Russia has been rather effective in their use of EW to disrupt Ukrainian communications.

    (38:55) He mentions a use of Russian artillery officer students in the Donbass, in 3 artillery btln formations. I have not heard of this particular instance, but I have seen and shared on here a presentation from a Russian site where military educational presentations are uploaded by students, and one of them was a discussion of UAV use in support of a arty btln of 2S1 SP Arty, with claimed real data. This might be the second half of that particular incident.

    (38:33) He talks about jamming GPS, and even electornic mortar and artillery fuses, and all of this is correct to the best of my knowledge.

    (39:30) He talks about multi-spectrum emission sensors on Russian UAVs. This was somewhat new to me, and I have to wonder how widespread this actually is. He also talks about UAVs being organize to the fire support units, separate from intel or recon assets. Which is indeed the case.

    (41:09) He talks about the emissions of US Army headquarters units and the need for dispersion, and concealment. This looks correct to me, but perhaps someone with more knowledge can weigh in. Personally I do know that the USMC at least definitely practices multiple fighting positions for infantry units. A primary position, a secondary position, and an alternate position.

    (42:33) Again the need for concealment, including against ELINT/SIGINT and UAVs.

    I will end here for the day. I will try to pick this up over the weekend, if I have time. If not, I apologize, it will have to wait until Monday.
     
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