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US Army secretary: 5 lessons from the Ukraine conflict

Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth discusses lessons learned on newly fielded equipment with 41st Artillery Brigade in Grafenwohr, Germany, Oct. 27, 2021. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Keisha Brown)

WASHINGTON: Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has provided US Army leaders several lessons in the future of warfare, from how to command troops to safeguarding soldiers against drones and insecure communications, according to the service’s top civilian.

“We are very much looking every single day in real-time at what’s happening in Ukraine, what we’re seeing with the Russian military and trying to glean as many lessons learned as we can for what we think that means for the Army in the future,” Wormuth said.

Army leaders have said that its massive modernization effort, which predated the Russian invasion and ranges from helicopters to secure communications, has been validated by the conflict. The fighting has also raised questions about the potential for a permanent presence of US soldiers in Europe to further deter Russia. Speaking today at the Atlantic Council, she said those conversations are ongoing.

“The heart of the discussion right now is sort of what is the best and most effective way to provide deterrence,” Wormuth said. “I do think you will see an enhanced posture overall when we are on the other side of this.”

Meanwhile, as the conflict heads into its fourth month, Wormuth highlighted five main lesson areas that have stood out in the Army’s view.

Leadership On The Battlefield Matters

While there’s no shortage of discussion about technology and equipment, Wormuth said that Russian military failures in Ukraine highlight the importance of leadership, training and discipline. The Russian army lacks a strong corps of non-commissioned officers, which are an important leaders in units across the US military. Also, many Russian soldiers in Ukraine are conscripts, who tend to be poorly trained.

“I think the terrible civilian atrocities that you’ve seen some of the Russian military commit is directly due to the lack of leadership training and discipline that they appear to have in their ranks,” she said.

Wormuth said NCOs are the “backbone” of the Army and their role gives “very significant competitive advantage for the United States.”

In a related point, she said that Russian military leadership has also struggled to delegate battlefield tasks down to lower-level commanders, which can paralyze tactics and endanger senior officers. Twelve Russian generals have reportedly been killed in Ukraine so far, in part because they have been commanding troops close to the front lines. Delegating, Wormuth said, is a “strength” of the US Army.

‘Logistics, Logistics, Logistics’

Throughout the conflict, the Russian military has struggled with moving equipment around the battlefield — particularly embarrassing given Ukraine’s location on Russia’s western border — underscoring the importance of logistics in protracted conflicts.

“The Russians have displayed a notable and somewhat surprising deficiency in this area,” Wormuth said.

While she said the Army’s current logistics capabilities are a “strength,” the conflict served as a reminder that logistics will be a key factor in a potential future conflict, especially across the vast distances of the Indo-Pacific. Wormuth has said the Army will play a massive role in logistics in the Pacific.

“That’s one of the reasons for example, that we’re investing in more modernized watercraft so that we will be able to move supplies and personnel around the Pacific, where you see just incredibly vast distances,” she said.

Reducing Electronic Signature And The Danger Of Cell Phones

Another curious breakdown by the Russians has been in their communications, including soldiers reportedly using their own cell phones. Each time that happens, Wormuth said, it gives an adversary an opportunity to target them.

The Army — particularly its network team — have worked diligently to mask electronic signals coming off of command posts over the last few years as part of its modernization strategy.

The Army is modernizing its network with a variety of networking tools, including radios and waveforms, to reduce an adversary’s ability to locate troops using the electromagnetic spectrum. Wormuth said Russia has shown how important that work is.

“We’re going to have to look at how can we reduce our signatures — the signatures of our formations — on the battlefield as much as possible because the battlefield of the future will be highly transparent,” Wormuth said.

Beyond that, Wormuth said the Army also must consider the ubiquity of cell phones among US soldiers.

“We are going to have to think about that,” Wormuth said. “Certainly most of our young soldiers are used to having their phones with them everywhere they go.”

Prepare To Defend Against Drones

The battlefields of Ukraine have demonstrated the effectiveness of unmanned systems used for ISR, kinetic attacks and artillery targeting. Ukrainian forces have been particularly effective using the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 to strike Russian armor.

The US military has had its eyes on the threats drone pose for years, but especially since the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Gen. James McConville, chief of staff of the Army, has equated drones to the improvised explosive devices that killed US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army is the leading counter-drone efforts for the Defense Department.

“Drones and other unmanned systems are going to pose significant challenges for us, again, part of why we’re looking at modernizing our air and missile defense system,” Wormuth said.

Keep Munitions Stocked

Since the conflict in Ukraine, the US Army has sent billions of dollars worth of weapons to Ukraine, including Javelins and Stingers. Since then, Army leaders and industry have worked to replenish the supply of these munitions, particularly effective against tanks and aircraft.

“Ukraine underscores the importance of maintaining our industrial base and our munition stockpiles,” Wormuth said. “Munitions are going to be very important in the future, particularly if we get into a protracted conflict.”

Two weeks ago, the Pentagon awarded Lockheed-Raytheon partnership a $309 million Javelin contract to backfill US stocks. At the end of last week, the department awarded Raytheon about $625 million to replace Stingers. Wormuth said the conversations with industry continue.

“We’re also talking with industry more broadly about what can we do to think about stockpiling some of the longer lead items that we may have in some of our critical munitions in the future,” she said.

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