Doctrinal Failures mark Current Conflicts Ukraine and West Asia Conflicts-Much to Learn from

Sub Title : Macro issues that emerge from the two ongoing conflicts

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 6 Jan – Feb 2024

Author : Col Ashwani Sharma, Editor-in Chief, South Asia Defence & Strategic Review

Page No. : 22

Category : Military Affairs

: January 27, 2024


This article discusses doctrinal failures in current conflicts, focusing on Ukraine and West Asia. It highlights the importance of adaptive military doctrines, challenges faced by Israel’s security doctrine, and the shift towards smaller, well-coordinated tactical operations. The essay also explores the significance of kinetic warfare, precision munitions, combined team operations, and the debunking of myths regarding the duration and nature of future wars. The evolving role of platforms like tanks and the engagement of targets in depth areas are also analysed in the context of modern warfare.

Ukraine Russia and West Asia conflicts represent two diametrically opposite ends of the armed conflict spectrum. The first one is conventional, force on force, albeit between two unequal adversaries, the other one is 4th gen warfare between an armed group and a regular military; between a planned military operation Vs a surprise raid by the armed group; an offensive operation Vs a raid across defences based on hi tech. Lessons thus are different yet there’s ample similarity to derive lessons.

In this article we address issues at macro level only which are relevant to modern warfare and the way it obtains in our region.

Doctrinal Failures

Hamas’ raid across the heavily guarded (technologically) fence with a wall underneath came as a surprise even though there’s fair evidence to suggest that the IDF would have expected a breach by Hamas at some point in time. Was this raid a failure of technology of which several layers were in place at the fence – or was the IDF simply caught napping?

The technology didn’t fail really – it’s just that Hamas found ways to beat it.

So what failed on part of the IDF which has a glorious past dotted with victories against its enemies?

Israel’s security doctrine that Ben-Gurion devised was based on the idea of achieving military victory in every confrontation. During a time when the Jewish population was 1.2 million and vying against countries whose populations totalled about 30 million, Israel’s advantages derived from a combination of human excellence, along with national spirit and the ability to exploit the topographic conditions that facilitated rapid mobility of concentrated groupings of forces in order to create local superiority in every arena.

Ben Gurion stated- “If they attack us in the future, we do not want the war to be waged in our country, but rather, in the enemy’s country, so that we will not be on the defensive, but rather on the offensive”. This war was waged by mobile forces equipped with rapid vehicles and strong firepower.

Over the years the landscape changed a bit. Despite the clear gaps in the power ratios between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 and between Israel and Hamas in 2014, the IDF took too much time to achieve only partial achievements in the campaigns.

Principal reason for the inability of the security establishment to provide a response to the challenges that the State of Israel was facing was not a shortage of resources, but rather derived from a weakening of the structured systems inside the IDF.  The IDF, whose foundations of quality constituted a key component of its strength, had become imbalanced over time – its center of gravity had moved increasingly from the quality of its doctrine to the quality of its technology.

During the first few decades of its creation after 1947, the IDF enjoyed exceptional conditions – commanders with extensive operational experience acquired during the wars, a security concept and doctrine that were formulated during the 1950s and 1960s that constituted the basis for military thinking and knowledge, coupled with the “intellectual arm” of officers who were trained in foreign militaries; these officers wrote the combat doctrines and laid the foundation for the IDF’s Doctrine and Training Division.  However, as time progressed, the IDF started laying excessive stress on technology in the mistaken belief that its success was rooted in its superior technology. They turned a blind eye to the reduction in the technological gaps. Even as new technologies had emerged during conflicts with its enemies (during air and ground confrontations with Egyptian forces during the War of Attrition), the IDF disregarded such developments and suffered from thinking paralysis. As the IDF failed to learn lessons from other conflicts around the world, it failed to develop a comprehensive conceptual and tactical response to them

Instead of doctrine being the engine driving the conduct of war, technology took its place. It is the doctrine that must drive the conduct of warfare and Not technology. War waging philosophy must flow out of the doctrine for war.

The farther that the IDF marched along the path toward a technological military, the less that attention was given to exercises, equipment, emergency stores, and reserve duty; all of them became secondary. The technological approach was not questioned even after the IDF suffered failures in the battlefield (the security strip, the Second Lebanon War, and the various operations in the Gaza Strip). There were many explanations for this, all of which led to the inevitable conclusion – that the IDF must continue strengthening its technological advantage. Forming predetermined conclusions based on preconceived notions about the eventual outcomes of mock exercises is a prevalent issue affecting many militaries, leading to conceptual deficiencies.

This quality imbalance resulted in a shift in priority from the combat doctrine units to the units developing war materials, from operational solutions to technological research and development.

Next, moving on to the Russia- Ukraine conflict – Why did the Russian offensive fail initially despite overwhelming superiority?

Air land Battle concept at Hostomel and Kiev. On the 24th of Feb 2022 Antonov Airfield (Hostomel) was attacked by Russian Airborne Troops ‘VDV’. Security analyst Andrew McGregor described the battle for Antonov Airport as “Russian Airborne Disaster”. According to him, the initial Russian operation had aimed at securing an early access for the invasion forces into Kyiv to end the entire war within a day or two.

They did not cater for Eyes in the sky and other modes of intelligence collection by CIA and Military Intelligence who had pre-warned the Ukraine military of Russian military’s intent.

Russian intelligence failed to assess the concentration of Ukrainian defenders around the airport, and assumed only token defences which existed at the time of planning the assault. The initial Russian landing force was too small to hold the airport, while the Russian military was unable to secure air transport for reinforcements as well as prevent Ukrainian counter-attacks.  McGregor argued that the failure to take Antonov Airport and another airport at vasilkiev at the invasion’s start ended Russia’s chance to bring the conflict to swift conclusion. Air Land battle including the establishment of an air bridge thus became a failure on account of superior ISR that existed with the US and other allies of Ukraine.

It marked another failure of military doctrinal and strategy as the same was not adaptable.

Military doctrines thus need to be dynamic and adaptable due to changing nature of military technology.

Kinetic Warfare Matters

Modern warfare is seen as multidimensional, where a comprehensive approach that integrates various tools of statecraft is necessary for success. Non-kinetic measures serve as force multipliers, creating conditions that make kinetic actions more effective or facilitating the achievement of strategic objectives without necessarily resorting to direct physical confrontation. But the essence of war lies in kinetic actions aimed at physically impacting the enemy.

Kinetic warfare involves direct engagement with the enemy, such as military manoeuvers, ground offensives, air strikes, naval operations, and any other form of direct combat. The core idea is to physically destroy or neutralise the enemy’s capabilities, whether it be their military forces, infrastructure, or strategic assets. This destruction is seen as a decisive factor in achieving victory, as it weakens the adversary’s ability to resist and undermines their capacity to continue the conflict.

While kinetic actions are considered the primary means of achieving victory, the importance of non-kinetic elements which include diplomatic efforts, economic sanctions, information warfare, cyber operations, and psychological strategies is not to be undermined.

Precision Munitions

Notwithstanding the massive collateral damage in both the conflicts, percentage of precision munitions used in operations in Ukraine and Gaza is unprecedented. IDF claims to have used almost 100% precision munitions in Gaza through various forms of warheads, while Russia and Ukraine too, have relied extensively on precision delivered through drones, missiles, rockets and artillery bombs.

One of the stated aims of using precision munitions is to avoid collateral damage. But it is quite evident that the militaries are more and more turning to precision munitions for several other advantages. Other than avoiding collateral damage, precision munitions enhance operational efficiency tremendously, cut down on logistics, reduce inventory and save on platforms’ life through considerably reduced wear and tear.

Combined Team Operations 

Not a new concept, but technology and communications make it more seamless today.   During the Russia – Ukraine war, however, we have not really seen this kind of tight combined arms operations being mounted by the Russian defence forces even though they possessed the capability.  Strangely, they struggled to do this. Instead what we saw were disconnected Russian elements which meant that often the Russians were moving into positions which was well defended and hadn’t been softened. Which is why as the war moved on to the sixth, seventh, eighth month the Russians changed tack to massive bombardment of the cities that they wanted to capture. They were reduced to rubble before Russian forces rolled in to pick off the remnants of defenders.

Small Team Operations. The Cold War-era T-72 tanks were originally designed for large-scale tank battles, typical of the Cold War military doctrine. However, in the current conflict scenario in Ukraine, engagements have taken place on a smaller scale, involving platoons and companies rather than larger divisions and corps. The advancement in Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities has played a significant role in this shift.

The era of massive force concentrations and large-scale manoeuvers, which the T-72 was originally designed for, might be outdated. The ongoing conflicts indicate a trend toward smaller, more agile tactical operations. The use of small, versatile teams comprising various arms working together, yet independently, is becoming more prevalent. This shift in tactical operations is seen as a potential indicator of future military strategies.

In this evolving landscape, the emphasis is on smaller, well-coordinated teams that can operate effectively together. This approach is expected to enhance the survivability of troops and assets in the Theater of Battle (TBA). By focusing on smaller, more flexible units, military forces aim to adapt to the changing nature of warfare, ensuring greater agility and responsiveness in future tactical operations.

There has also been an absence of close air support, a crucial tool for supporting tanks as part of combined arms operations. Either we ensure adequate aerial assets and cater for supressing ground based air defence or ensure adequate support by way of grouping attack UAVs with the ground forces.

Shattered Myths

A number of myths that had become prevalent in militaries across the world have been shattered as the wars in Ukraine and West Asia progressed. Some of them are:

Future Wars would be Short and Swift. Historically, conflicts have varied widely in duration, and the factors contributing to the length of wars are complex. While technological advancements can influence the speed and efficiency of military operations, they do not guarantee short and swift wars. Political, economic, and strategic considerations, as well as the evolving nature of warfare, contribute to the unpredictability of future conflicts.

At the beginning of the Russia – Ukraine conflict, and before that it was widely believed that future wars would always be short. swift and lethal; that the damage caused would be colossal and the world community would not permit prolonging military operations. The ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and West Asia have effectively broken these myths. The warring sides do not appear to be in a hurry to end military operations and the international community is stoking the fire rather than dousing the flames. Nations and their militaries thus need to be prepared for all eventualities which implies- stock up adequately and retain the capacity to ramp up production of war waging stores when required.

Tanks and Guns are Obsolete Platforms. Battle tanks have been most affected by this debate as unmanned systems, loitering munitions and Precision warheads caused havoc with them during recent conflicts. Similar damage has also been caused to artillery guns, rocket batteries and infantry concentrations, but tanks always make for better and more glamorous pictures. The tank crews and commanders however, learnt their lessons quickly and with a little help from anti drone systems and similar technologies developed effective counter measures to enhance their own survivability. Tanks are now the only alternative when land forces need protected mobility along with adequate firepower. Artillery guns too continue to dominate the battlefield with firepower. Writing a tank’s obituary thus was a bit premature even though its form and employment philosophy must adapt to the demands of modern battlefield.

Engaging Targets in Depth Areas. It used to be the exclusive domain manned combat aircraft. But it is no longer the case. Targets in depth areas are being effectively and accurately being engaged by missiles and rockets. As the ranges of these weapon systems are increasing by the day, and guidance systems become more precise, they are emerging as more cost-effective alternatives to manned combat aircraft. It is not to dilute the efficacy or relevance of manned aircraft, but it would be practical to recognize the increasing operational relevance of cruise missiles, long range rockets and their variants to engage targets deep inside the enemy territory.