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Weekend Update #45
The Counteroffensive; ATACMS?; The Pentagon and the Future of War
Going to range a little widely today (particularly at the end), as there have been a host of interesting stories over the last week. However, Im starting with some thoughts on the state of the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
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In this case I thought it would make sense to expand on some of the points made in the first Ukraine Russia War Talk podcast, which Mykola Bielieskov and I recorded on wednesday and released on thursday. In it we spent almost 40 minutes discussing the state of the counteroffensive, and ranged widely over the what has happened over the last 3 months. If you havent heard it (like these weekend updates—it will be free, we see it as a public service). You can find it here.
Mykola and I are extremely flattered with the interest and feedback. We have now more than 9000 downloads, and its only been 4 days (I think that would put it in the top 1% of all podcasts released). Right now its only available through this substack though the plan is to get it on Apple Podcasts and maybe Spotify going forward. We were not quite expecting the high level of interest, and had what might best be termed a soft, low key opening. We plan now to have one approximately every two weeks. We also plan to start adding some guests, particularly from Ukraine.
In the podcast there were three points in particular that I want to expand upon, because I think they are really important in understanding how the counteroffensive has gotten here and where it might be going. They are Russian defensive choices, the importance of maintaining Ukrainian strength, and the fact that people might be assuming weather will play a greater role in slowing/ending the counteroffensive than may indeed be the case.
The Russian defense question, as Mykola laid out, is interesting because even though the Russians have built many lines of defenses across Zaporizhzhia Oblast, they seem to be putting almost all their forces in the front line—indeed they are transferring forces from other parts of the fighting to hold the front line in Zaporizhzhia as much as possible. This seems to have become a particularly acute problem for them as the Ukrainians, slowly but methodically, are pushing out what might best be called Robotyne-Verbove bulge (see below).
Now the Russians packing the front line indicates a few things—possibly. One of the most interesting, as Mykola indicated in the podcast, is that they might not trust their army to have either the morale or the training to execute strategic withdrawals. In others words, they are pressing people forward, and keeping them there, out of a fear of being more flexible because they don’t trust their own army. If this is compounded by the fact, as Ukrainian sources said two weeks ago, that the Russian second and third defensive lines are not nearly so well constructed (the Ukrainian estimate was that the Russians had put 60% of their effort into building the front line, leaving much less for the rear lines), then you can see the overriding importance of Russia trying to hold the front.
If so, the problem the Russians would face is that if they ever do have gaps appear because of high losses and pushing their forces forward, the Ukrainians may finally be able to exploit these openings. We seem to be a ways from that—but the fact that they are packing the front line is worthy of note.
In the podcast we also expressed our mutual frustration with the ridiculous criticisms made by analysts and anonymous sources about the Ukrainian reluctance to suffer heavy casualties, perhaps best exemplified by the Ukrainian decision to discontinue direct, mass vehicle assaults on Russian lines. Im sure you remember the ridiculous claims that Ukraine needed to fight more like NATO (more about that at the end).
These criticisms seemed based on the fallacy that this war was being bought by NATO forces according to NATO rules—when it isnt anything like that. NATO would never attempt an offensive like this without air supremacy—and to be honest, NATO has never fought a war anything like this. Ukraine needs to be careful with its soldiers lives for a number of reasons. First, the average Ukrainian soldier has shown him/herself to be superior in initiative and learning to their Russian counterpart. Throughout the war the skill of the Ukrainian soldier has been an important part of Ukrainian success (exemplified by the fact that over the last year Ukraine has liberated far more territory than Russia has seized, while Ukraine has suffered significantly fewer casualties). Second, as a democracy, Ukrainians care about their own casualties far more, it seems than the Russian population. A democracy has great advantages in war, being supported strongly by its society, and as such its important that Ukrainian society not believe its soldiers are being wasted. Third—Ukraine’s one significant numerical disadvantage in war fighting terms is that its population is considerably smaller than Russia’s. It cant afford to sacrifice its motivated, democratically supported soldiers unless the goal is worth it. Right now, in the counteroffensive its not. As such, preserving Ukrainian soldier strength is vital.
This builds up to the third point made on the podcast, the counteroffensive will continue well into the Autumn. There has been some talk that the Ukrainians will have to cease operations in the Autumn when the weather turns. This seems based on, once again, assuming this war is what people expected it to be—not what it is. As fast, long distance AFV penetrations are no rare, and much of the advances we see are made up of steady, incremental, relatively short range movements, weather wont make the kinds of significant difference people expected. Ukraine (if it preserves its soldiers and equipment—which it is doing) can keep this up for a while.
Btw, after these points were made on the podcast, it was fascinating to see Kyrylo Budanov say exactly the same thing.This offensive will not stop for bad weather.
So add it all together—the Russians packing the front line, the Ukrainians trying to conserve their soldiers and equipment, and the possibility of fighting well into the Autumn—and hopefully Ukrainian strategy makes sense.
The signs are looking good for the eventual transfer of ATACMS to Ukraine (or should we say disgracefully late transfer). ABC News published a story that claimed to rely on anonymous administration officials, which said the decision had been made to transfer them in a coming defense package.
"They are coming," said one official who had access to security assistance plans. The official noted that, as always, such plans are subject to change until officially announced.
A second official said the missiles are "on the table" and likely to be included in an upcoming security assistance package, adding that a final decision has not been made. It could be months before Ukraine receives the missiles, according to the official.
If this happens this will be most welcome, but its so weird that once again the US is providing systems too late to have made a major difference (or any difference at all) for the counteroffensive—which is more than three months underway. Had Ukraine had these in the late Spring, the could have helped devastate Russian logistics, particularly in and coming out of Crimea, leaving all those Russian forces packed into the first defensive line in worse shape. Basically the gamble at the end of 2022 and early 2023 was that massed armored assaults could still work. Now the understanding seems to be that they are of limited value unless an enemy has been so weakened that they can only weakly resist. Which is actually now something that is informing US defense plans.
The Pentagon and the Future of War
Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks has given two absolutely fascinating talks in the last two weeks, which discuss US defense plans against China. You can find the texts for them both here.They are fascinating not only for the candid nature of some of the remarks, but also what Hicks is saying about the future of war. Basically, the US has looked at the Russo-Ukraine War and decided that a key element of US defense going forward will be masses of AI operated vehicles, which she termed All Domain Attributable Autonomous (ADA2), systems. The plan to develop and deploy these autonomous systems is known as the Replicator Initiative.
The Replicator Initiative is now a major Pentagon priority—and its stated purpose will be to allow US forces to counter heavy Chinese ‘mass’ in any war. Mass, as Hicks outlined it, is expensive, older technology systems including warships, missiles, etc. The Pentagon has decided that large numbers of self directed, cheap, ‘attritable’ systems can basically thwart large heavy forces based on the old paradigm. Ive excerpted a section of one of the speeches where she makes this clear.
With Replicator, we're beginning with all-domain, attritable autonomy, or ADA2, to help us overcome the PRC's advantage in mass: more ships, more missiles, more forces.
Before Russia invaded Ukraine again last February, they had that advantage too. Yet we've seen in Ukraine what low-cost, attritable systems can do — not to mention other commercial technologies.
They can help a determined defender stop a larger aggressor from achieving its objectives, put fewer people in the line of fire, and be made, fielded, and upgraded at the speed warfighters need, without long maintenance tails.
At DoD, we've already been investing in attritable autonomous systems — across the military services, DIU, the Strategic Capabilities Office, and the combatant commands themselves — and in multiple domains: self-piloting ships, uncrewed aircraft, and more.
Now is the time to scale, with systems that are harder to plan for, harder to hit, and harder to beat than those of potential competitors.
If the Pentagon follows through, this will be a massive sea change in the technologies that determine the outcome of war (which is very different than saying its a revolution in warfare). She is very much pointing to the growing obsolesence of the heavy expensive tank, ship and even plane. Watch this space.
Have a good rest of the weekend everyone.
https://www.defense.gov/News/Speeches/Speech/Article/3507156/deputy-secretary-of-defense-kathleen-hicks-keynote-address-the-urgency-to-innov/ (and) https://www.defense.gov/News/Speeches/Speech/Article/3517213/deputy-secretary-of-defense-kathleen-hicks-remarks-unpacking-the-replicator-ini/