Adaptability, Discipline, Deception and First Strike: Warfighter Lessons from the Russo-Ukrainian War and the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War

By Evan Ringel, MTI Contributor

“In order to construct this decoy OP, you will need a shovel, a thermal blanket, and a candle.” As the Lithuanian Reconnaissance Platoon Sergeant continued with his block of instruction on decoy OP emplacement, my Soldiers were stunned at the simplicity and ingenuity. During a two day training operation, the Lithuanian and US reconnaissance platoons were successful in being undetected by any of our thermal or optical systems. In the months that we trained alongside Lithuanian and other NATO forces, we were constantly reminded that as the United States, we did not have the same sort of neighbors that everyone else in the world does. Simple things like adaptability, discipline and deception, and first strike advantage were the deciding factors in our force-on-force training events. 

The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War and the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War are a wake-up call for those who are listening. I am not a professional analyst, nor do I have advanced degrees or years of working in strategic billets. But what I do have is the perspective from the leader on the ground, making the best decisions he or she can make to balance accomplishment of the mission with the welfare of Soldiers. And with that perspective, the modern war, fought with combinations of assets that can always see you and strike with precision at distance, is terrifying. 

The First Modern Conflict: The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War

The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War was fought between the countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan between September and November 2020, with Azerbaijan claiming victory. The deep-seated reason for this conflict was control over a culturally significant area of 1,700 square miles in between the two countries that has been fought over since World War I. However, the region itself is not why the conflict was significant. This was the first war that used robotic systems to gain a sweeping and decisive result in a relatively short period of time. COL(Ret.) John Antal’s recently published 7 Seconds to Die is a military analysis of the conflict. His analysis is thorough and highlights the tactical, technological, and training overmatch between the two countries in the conflict. 

Armenia has been in a military alliance with Russia since the signing of the Collective Security Treaty, creating an alliance between six countries in the wake of the Soviet Union collapse in 1992. This means that their training and equipping is based on Russian tactics and equipment exported between 1992 and 2010. Prior to the conflict, the Armenians spent years improving defensive positions in Nagorno-Karabakh and had a regional defense plan that made sense against a 20th century aggressor. Azerbaijan on the other side has been long supported by Turkey. Their relationship was described by former Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev as “one nation, two states.” As Turkey and other regional actors have modernized their military in recent years, Azerbaijan has reaped the benefits. In contrast to Armenia, Azerbaijan is a 21st century military. 

Starting in 2005, Azerbaijan began purchasing newly developed loitering munitions (LMs) and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) from Israel and Turkey. LMs, like the Israeli Harop and Orbiter 1k carry an explosive or penetrator payload and can fly above suspected targets for hours or return to base. UCAVs like the Bayraktar TB2 are a drone that strikes with various types of munitions and returns upon mission completion. The TB2, Harop, and Orbiter 1k became the bulk of the Azerbaijani unmanned aerial weapon systems leading up to the conflict. All three assets acts as both collect intelligence as well as strike the target, providing an extremely fast kill chain.

On September 27th 2020, the Azerbaijani military began their advance from the north east to secure key cities within the region. The Armenian defensive positions, while well dug, did not have overhead cover or any method of deception. A fly over by UAVs could clearly identify Armenian positions and destroy them as they waited to make contact the Azeri forces on the ground. In this way, the Azeri used precision fires followed by bold maneuver to disable the Armenian defenses and Armenian armored vehicles and artillery were hit before they could occupy their defensive positions. Their target prioritization matched this plan by targeting air defense and electronic warfare systems first before artillery, armor, and infantry elements. 

The overmatch of ISR and precision guided long range munitions that drove successful ground advances became quickly apparent. It was confirmed by Oryx, an open source military analysis group, that over 500 pieces of military equipment, including air defense, tanks, and other armored vehicles were destroyed specifically by UCAVs and LMs in the conflict. Ground maneuver by infantry and special operations elements won the decisive capture of key cities that led to the surrender. But Azeri ground forces might not have had success had it not been enabled by the heavy toll that precision munitions had on the defenders leading up to key cities. 

The Russo-Ukrainian War

While the conflict in Ukraine still rages, there are still lessons to be applied for the warfighter from the conflict. Many of the same principles that emerged in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War became magnified in the Russo-Ukrainian War. While the Russians conducted a bold joint forcible entry in Ukraine in concert with a ground assault, their forces quickly became stalled. Their issues with logistics, concealment, communications, and morale cost them their early success in the war. A transparent battlespace has become the norm in these conflicts. Russian forces believed that their superior armored fleet and artillery, which practices massing vs precision fires, would be unstoppable. That proved not to be the case as Ukrainian forces identified Russian advances visually and electronically and were able to use their concealed top-attack weapons to quickly destroy and demoralize the Russians. Sensing the enemy across the full spectrum will be the norm in future conflicts. 

As of September 2022, Ukraine has also expanded the use of their drones, including the TB2, against Russian targets. This present multiple dilemmas for the Russian forces, who fight the best in a contiguous battlespace without strikes behind their lines. Their defeat in the First Battle of Grozny was, in part, due to their disjointed advances of not enough troops, lack of clear understanding about Chechen and friendly positions, and inability to use their devastating fires from BM-21 and BM-30 rocket launchers effectively. In 2022, we again see Ukrainian forces piecemealing the advances and using aerial assets to create fear and uncertainty within the Russian Army. UCAVs and LMs, as well as ground fired Javelin, TOW, and NLAWs have had devastating effects against Russian armored targets. Even after Russian tanks have added additional protection to the top of their vehicles to protect against top attack, these munitions continue to have great effects. 

In the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia, Information Warfare proved to be a critical component. The Russian Federation controlled the narrative quickly and was then able to achieve their objectives quickly before other actors became involved. They did not have the same result in 2022. The Russian Army had believed that they would be seen as liberators from the Ukrainian people. The opposite has proven to be true, with Russian Soldiers becoming demoralized after hearing they are seen as brutal invaders who target schools and hospitals. In future conflicts as in which has domestic and foreign media that can broadcast instantaneously, a divergent narrative will be hard to achieve. 

Lessons for the Modern Warfighter

At the Combat Training Centers (CTCs) across the world, the US Army integrates modern technologies and TTPs into the training scenario. Survivability against a foe that can always see you and kill you has become a focal point. UAVs are flown during training rotations to identify friendly positions and give training units a picture of what they would look like to the enemy. 

At the tactical level, individuals and small units need to focus on the following areas that have proven success or failure in recent conflicts: adaptability, discipline and deception, and first strike. Adherence to a well-rehearsed defense plan meant Armenian forces were not adaptable during the Second Nargorno-Karabakh War and it cost them the war. In Ukraine, new weapons, new defenses, and bold counterattacks have kept the Ukrainians strong in the fight against a better equipped and larger force. To be successful on the modern battlefield, leaders and soldiers need to have the flexibility through understanding of mission and intent that allow innovation and violence of action. This means training in changing and ambiguous scenarios at home station as well as CTCs to develop leaders who can think outside the box and are empowered to seize the initiative and exploit success. Use of civilians on the battlefield (COBs), degraded infrastructure, and other dilemmas without clear cut battle drills will build this confidence up and down the formation. 

Discipline and deception are two sides to the same coin in the modern conflict. Simple decisions such as using exclusively black-out drive in limited visibility conditions, staying away from improved roads, and camouflaging vehicles, personnel, and especially command posts can be the difference between life and death. Russian Soldiers on the advance in Ukraine became soft targets for ambushes by using main roads with little to no spacing between vehicles. In Nagorno-Karabakh, Azeri Special Forces were successful in capturing the city of Shusha by making the painful and correct decision to approach the city by climbing up the cliffs. Light, noise, and electro-magnetic discipline are key. Make command nodes disciplined by trimming the fat. Make them smaller, decentralized, concealable, and integrated in the terrain, whether urban or rural. Empower command nodes and subordinate commands to own their piece of the pie with mission and intent and limit long radio transmissions. 

Deception required discipline. Building a decoy position on the best terrain in addition to your own defensive positions takes hard work and time. But the advantage in making an adversary fumble their first strike by giving them the juicy decoy is well worth the sweat. Exercise tactical patience and give the enemy opportunities to lose theirs. On the modern battlefield, warfighters will be always seen. The Lithuanian Reconnaissance Platoon Sergeant was right in his assessment about the effectiveness of his small decoys, as tanks and infantry struggled to determine the reconnaissance platoon observation posts. His final nugget of wisdom was “In the end, you must dig. Everyone hates it. Everyone must dig.” Through discipline and deception, the warfighter can gain the upper hand. 

Finally, gaining the first strike advantage is critical. Overwhelming the enemy to the point where they have lost either the means or the will to continue the fight results in victory. The Azeri forces knew and used this principle. What the Armenians didn’t know during the last days of the war was that the Azeri forces had out run their supply lines and had culminated. But they had gained the first strike advantage and therefore the Armenians had lost the ability and will to continue the fight at the risk of civilian casualties. The modern warfighter must synchronize the use of all domains of warfare to achieve overmatch quickly and decisively. 

Many technological advances have and will continue to change the face and pace of warfare. However, change can be implemented now at the tactical level. Changes to the way we think about the enemy and the way we think about ourselves are crucial to growth. We cannot assume overmatch in any future conflict, and we must plan accordingly. To survive and win the next war we must implement the hard training now and hold ourselves to a higher standard. 

Evan is a 14 year Soldier in the US Army and is a current Observer-Coach Trainer. He has served in a variety of Armor, Infantry, and Reconnaissance formations at the tactical level.


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