By Matt Lensing, MTI Contributor
For the last year and a half U.S. Army leaders have scrutinized their combat readiness in the wake of Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine. Strategists and historians of modern warfare continue to analyze how Ukrainian forces are holding up against a perceived superior opponent while many U.S. commanders wonder if their own units are truly ready to face a near peer adversary.
The myriad of issues that stymied Russian forces at the beginning of the conflict became the basis for revised training directives that prioritized which collective tasks subordinate leaders would spend the most time and resources training. However, the lessons learned from the months of conflict are not novel, or the result of recent improvements in technology. Most areas of concern were challenges that have plagued commanders for centuries and pre-date even Cold War doctrine. The most tangible takeaways are:
- Protection – using cover and digging fighting positions at every halt in movement.
- Camouflage – implementing individual and vehicle concealment to disrupt enemy targeting.
- Deception – confusing the enemy to expend ammunition and resources needlessly.
- Sustainment – verifying maintenance readiness through maneuvers in the field instead of relying on maintenance reporting.
Digging fighting positions ranks amongst the most despised duties for an infantryman. After hours carrying their fighting load infantry Soldiers drop their ruck sack only to be told to pull out their entrenching tool (E-Tool) to dig fighting positions. Their only break is to pull security while their buddy continues digging. Many infantrymen who entered the Army after 9-11 are not accustomed to digging, but the immense amount of indirect fire used in the RUS-UKR conflict demonstrates the need for cover from enemy fire to survive.
My first experience digging fighting positions was as a cadet during summer training before I commissioned as a lieutenant. During an introduction to defensive operations we spent two entire days digging and improving our fighting positions. No matter how much work we put into the positions our leadership would always tell us they weren’t deep enough, or we needed more overhead cover. Truthfully this is the last time in my Army career that I dug a fighting position to standard.
After I commissioned in the Army tactics were focused on counter insurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although the enemy possessed the ability to launch indirect fire with mortars and rockets it was extremely rare to be under constant barrages like Soldiers in Eastern Europe are today. Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) and Combat Outposts (COPS) had hardened positions there were built up over years, so the skill of digging positions atrophied. Even Infantry Basic Officer Course (IBOLC) and Ranger School sometimes incorporated patrolling from reinforced bases in lieu of traditional patrol bases.
The current fighting in Ukraine demonstrates that junior leaders and non-commissioned officers will benefit from teaching Soldiers how to dig fighting positions to standard again. One of our infantry Rifle Company Commanders understood this when he used his precious, “white space,” on the training calendar to teach his Soldiers to dig dismounted anti-tank fighting positions instead of heading to the range. Especially in light and Stryker infantry formations the use of anti-tank systems is the tactical advantage infantrymen hold against mechanized forces. Although shoot, move, and communicate have been the long standing, “big three,” for training priorities, “survive,” is now relevant again after 20 years.
Another lost skill from the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) is the application of camouflage. Most senior leaders’ published training guidance specifies that all Soldiers will apply personal camouflage with face paint, and mask vehicles from observation while training in the field.
In the RUS-UKR conflict both sides are attempting to maximize resources of personnel and equipment, so keeping positions and movements hidden from observation is vital. Like digging with my E-Tool, the last time I had regularly applied face paint was as an IBOLC student. Ranger School did not even include face paint on the packing list when I attended. Camouflage was a rarely trained skill for units deploying to the Middle East since our objective was to be visible to the population we interacted with. However, the terrain of eastern Europe lends itself better to the use of camouflage, and this conflict puts a higher value on being covert. Additionally, in the RUS-UKR conflict aside from not being seen by the enemy leaders are actively trying to deceive the other side, which is resulting in large payoffs from inexpensive decoys.
Military deception has not been seen at scale since World War II when the allies implemented, “Operation Fortitude,” (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-the-ghost-army-of-wwii-used-art-to-deceive-the-nazis-180980336/). Similarly, Ukraine is using inflatable tanks, artillery pieces, and combat vehicles (https://www.forbes.com/sites/ericmack/2023/03/06/russia-may-be-wasting-tons-of-munitions-blowing-up-inflatable-decoys-in-ukraine/?sh=193c9c3b64f7) to confuse and cost Russia precious artillery, rocket, and missile munitions.
Aside from being tough to distinguish through binoculars these mockups also fool infrared sensors by generating heat signatures detectable through thermal imaging. This is significant because successful deception operations provide windows of opportunity for one side to seize a tactical advantage. These decoys deliver false indications of troop buildups, which may lead an opponent to prepare for a counterattack in the wrong location.
The U.S. Army does not typically incorporate deception into their training plans because leaders usually expect to have a marked advantage against its opponents. However, when there is parity between each side gaining an edge is critical. Senior leaders need to challenge junior commanders more by incorporating deception tactics during collective training events to force more thorough and detailed reconnaissance to avoid falling for a trap.
The area where I saw senior leaders show the most renewed interest after the RUS-UKR conflict began was unit maintenance status. Instead of merely being concerned about operational readiness (OR) rates published in weekly reports leaders wanted units to demonstrate their readiness by moving entire formations out of the motor pool with all their equipment. While this may seem commonplace to go to the field with all your gear it had become taboo in some organizations for fear that vehicles would break as soon as it left the motor pool resulting in many days of being reported as non-mission capable (NMC).
Tactical sustainment was also a concerning area during the early days of the RUS-UKR conflict. The internet and news reports presented images of abandoned Russian tanks and vehicles, some that had run out of fuel. U.S. senior leaders realized that if combined arms formations did not stress their sustainment systems regularly U.S. Soldiers could suffer a similar fate on a future battlefield. The solution for infantry commanders is to use their organic fuelers from the battalion’s Forward Support Company (FSC) at every field training event.
As a BN XO the number of fully mission capable (FMC) fuelers was a critical running estimate that I knew off the top of my head. When one of these vehicles went down it was a significant negative indicator to our higher headquarters. I learned to prioritize parts for these vehicles over combat vehicles even though it did not directly contribute to my battalion’s maintenance ranking compared to other units. Arguably a fueler’s maintenance status is more indicative of a battalion’s true readiness since you can’t move a battalion far without the ability to refuel.
Leaders must be comfortable using all their equipment to train despite a potential hit to their readiness rates. Its pointless to have a flawless equipment status report (ESR) if Soldiers are untrained operating their assigned systems. Necessities for building readiness in an infantry battalion:
- Bring all your gear to the field as often as possible.
- Eliminate practices like cannibalization where one vehicle becomes a donor to give parts to other vehicles. This produces a short spike in operational readiness but instills lazy maintenance practices.
- Avoid using training sets of vehicles where many crews rotate through a single vehicle to maximize throughput and training costs. While qualification statistics increase rapidly with this approach it robs Soldiers of opportunities to maintain and operate their vehicle in a field environment.
For veterans of conflicts prior to September 11th, 2001, the major lessons from the RUS-UKR conflict likely seem repetitive. Unfortunately, the U.S. Army has a history of learning past mistakes over again. Senior leaders are also aware of this trend and hope that by keeping a close eye on the mistakes made in this current conflict will prevent suffering first battle losses the next time the U.S. Army faces off in combat. The theme I hear echoed is that there is no substitute for live combined arms maneuver in a realistic tactical environment against a thinking enemy.
Matt Lensing is an active duty infantry officer who has served in the U.S. Army since 2007.
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