Russia’s war has lessons for the ADF

| April 1, 2022

The war in Ukraine has several features with which we in Australia are already familiar. The Ukrainian state has dominated the information war in our news cycles and social media.

We have seen images of smashed Russian truck convoys, Ukrainian farmers towing off Russian armoured vehicles and air defence systems, and Russian tanks being destroyed in great numbers by Ukrainian artillery, armed drones and infantry wielding lethal, mobile anti-tank guided-missile systems such as the Javelin and NLAW (next-generation light anti-tank weapon).

The Russian military is pursuing too many objectives with too few forces, a mistake compounded by logistical and intelligence failures, and a wildly over-optimistic assessment of Ukrainian morale and resolve. Most startlingly, the Russian military seems to be bedevilled by poor morale, incompetence and an inability to conduct combined-arms warfare and air–ground integration.

Russia’s much discussed military transformation has proved illusory. Perhaps we can draw some small comfort from the fact that procurement failures occur in foreign militaries as well as our own.

What does all this mean for Australian defence planning? Is the tank now obsolete? The war seems to have provided new impetus to the discussion of the replacement of the Australian Army’s fleets of obsolete armoured cavalry vehicles and armoured personnel carriers, as well as the purchase of updated Abrams main battle tanks.

The acquisition of new tanks, heavy armoured combat reconnaissance vehicles, heavy infantry fighting vehicles and self-propelled guns has received some robust criticism from commentators, including Greg Sheridan in The Australian. Curiously, there has been little or no rebuttal from either the government or the Australian Army.

In order to learn the lessons of the Russo-Ukrainian war, we must first be confident about what those lessons actually are. Here are some that I would suggest are relevant to armoured forces.

Ubiquitous uncrewed aerial systems ensure a transparent battlefield. The increased availability of real-time overhead surveillance and target acquisition (plus direct engagement in the case of armed drones like the Bayraktar TB2) have strengthened the trend towards dispersal, deception and camouflage (including of thermal and electromagnetic signatures).

Massed area fires, multiple-launch rocket systems, and the proliferation of anti-tank guided missiles with tandem warheads (Javelin has a range of up to 4 kilometres) have all produced a new level of lethality and intensity in modern conventional combat.

Full-spectrum electronic surveillance of emissions and communications has been integrated with artillery fires. All emissions are targetable. In Ukraine, electronic warfare capabilities have been applied to electronic support (signals intelligence, or SIGINT), active electronic protection (counter-drone operations) and electronic attack (jamming). Effective electronic warfare may help explain why Russian generals are being killed at such an extraordinary rate. State-of-the-art electronic warfare systems have implications for high-technology armies that find themselves fighting in a GPS-denied environment with degraded communications.

High-intensity combat on a low-density battlefield favours decisiveness. The increased range and lethality of massed fires and precision strike has driven ever-greater dispersal on the battlefield, with heightened emphasis on camouflage, depth and deception. Perhaps ironically, high-intensity fires and low force-to-space ratios favour decisive manoeuvre. Light infantry in defence still require armoured forces for counterattack to avoid being outflanked, isolated and defeated by enemy armour.

Lighter fighting vehicles that have prioritised mobility and firepower over survivability are extremely vulnerable to the increased lethality of artillery munitions, anti-tank weapons and the medium-calibre (30-millimetre) automatic cannons mounted on other light armoured vehicles. These lighter armoured vehicles are extremely vulnerable to artillery submunitions and thermobaric warheads—weapons that Australia is treaty-bound not to deploy under the UN Convention on Cluster Munitions, but which remain in the arsenals of Russia, China and others.

Successful tank assaults require the increased survivability of mechanised infantry. Given that the lethality of lighter armoured vehicles is disproportionate to the vehicles’ protection, they tend to be used in an overwatch suppressive fire mode rather than fighting onto and through the objective. Assaults are therefore conducted by dismounted rather than mounted infantry.

As a consequence, tank attacks are less effective because they no longer have accompanying mechanised infantry with equal mobility to protect tanks from enemy infantry. Motorised infantry don’t survive in the direct fire zone; assaulting infantry need to be mechanised.

Main battle tanks, combat reconnaissance vehicles and heavy infantry fighting vehicles are only truly effective if they are part of a combined-arms approach, deploying all of the land, air, maritime, electronic warfare, cyber and information capabilities that are relevant to the mission.

So, what do these lessons mean for the Australian Army’s acquisition of armoured vehicles?

The Australian Army is acquiring the armour that is required to confront a peer or near-peer adversary in close combat. Land 400 is no simple vehicle replacement project.

The increased lethality of the battlefield means that land forces must rely on either prepared defences (fortifications, mines and fires) or, if they need to manoeuvre to launch an attack or counterattack, heavy armour and mobility.

Lighter armoured vehicles and unsupported tanks don’t survive in conventional combat. Land forces that intend to manoeuvre and engage in close combat to fight onto and through an objective must have mechanised infantry that are protected by heavy armour, so that survivability is combined with mobility. Upgraded armour, effective night or all-weather vision, active-armour defence systems and vehicle-mounted anti-tank guided missiles (such as Rafael’s Spike) are valuable additions to the Australian Army’s vehicles.

A lighter force would be easier to support logistically, simpler to sustain, more readily sea- or air-lifted into Australia’s neighbourhood, and better suited to conduct regional stability operations. But all that is trumped by the fact that a lighter force would be swiftly wrecked on the battlefield by a peer or near-peer enemy.

Unlike with the Russian military, we trust that the Australian Defence Force has the professionalism and experience needed to conduct combined-arms warfare. The army’s armoured force will possess sensors and networks for situational awareness, firepower, mobility and force protection; be supported by effective communications, surveillance and reconnaissance; and possess a joint fires team that can effectively coordinate and control artillery, mortars, precision strikes, close air support and naval gunfire.

Possessing the combined-arms battle group necessary to manoeuvre and engage in close combat on the modern battlefield inevitably creates other challenges. Where does the Australian government envisage such a force fighting? What is the ADF’s capacity to transport such a force? And to sustain it? How is such a force consistent with Australia’s professed ‘maritime strategy’?

This article was published by The Strategist.