Western reforms critical for Ukraine battlefield success

Russia war will continue into next year with Nato needing to improve training techniques to avoid heavy casualties, think tank says

Ukrainian servicemen fire small multiple launch rocket systems towards Russian troops near a front line in Zaporizhzhia region. Reuters
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Major fighting will continue in Ukraine into next year with improvement of Nato training and equipment support critical to Kyiv's success, a leading think tank has said.

A Ukraine victory will depend on its allies overhauling manufacture of key equipment such as artillery with Kyiv’s troops currently fielding 17 different types of guns, the Royal United Services Institute reported.

The report made clear it was vital for western powers to “invest now to give Ukraine protracted advantages”, warning that “failure to make timely adjustment to support will come at a heavy price in 2024”.

Russia was also rapidly changed its tactics in particular focusing on producing laser-guided artillery shells rather than making shells for mass barrages that have proven unsustainable to manufacture.

“It is vital that Ukraine’s partners assist the country’s preparations for winter fighting, and subsequent campaign seasons now, if the initiative is to be retained into 2024,” said the report, Stormbreak: Fighting Through Russian Defences in Ukraine’s 2023 Offensive.

Authors Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds, who visited the Ukraine battlefield for their research, urged its allies to “overcome their habitual sluggishness” in fulfilling necessary requirements.

Nato needed to formulate a streamlined industrial strategy to produce uniform arms and equipment rather than the multitude of types so far donated, including a variety of guns and armoured vehicles.

“It is now clear that major ground combat operations will continue in 2024 and so improving support to Ukraine’s force generation process now is critical,” said the report.

Much of Ukraine’s success has been down to its 155mm artillery have a greater range than the Russians, denying them the crucial ability of counter-battery fire.

Firing multiple rounds has rapidly worn down gun barrels making them significantly less accurate but, with 17 different gun systems, replacing them has been complicated and taken time.

Nato needs to introduce a streamlined system in which it can mass produce barrels as well at 155mm ammunition. A “more limited range of guns at greater scale” was required otherwise “it will undermine the preconditions for Ukraine to continue to make progress next year”.

The authors also urged manufactures to create steel cages above the guns to protect them from Russia’s Lancet kamikaze drones.

While the initial stages of the counter-offensive, that began on June 4, saw heavy losses of tanks and armoured vehicles, the quality of western kit was “vastly superior to their Soviet-legacy” models leading to much greater “crew survivability”. It has been reported that no crews have been lost to the estimated 15 Leopard tanks damaged or destroyed, mostly to mines.

The report also urged allies to provide “algorithmic image analysis” to allow Ukrainian drones to map Russia’s deadly minefields more quickly.

The Russians have significantly adapted their minefield tactics by lengthening their depth to 500 metres rather than 120 metres as the short distance had allowed the Ukrainians to use a special snakelike explosive device to clear a six-metre-wide track.

The report said Nato has also been ineffective in training staff officers, generally at a rank of major or beyond, to give them skills to conduct battalion and brigade-wide operations.

Nato’s safety restrictions meant that Ukraine’s troops were not being given effective combat training, for example under live artillery and machinegun fire.

Furthermore, there was very little realistic training given for the drone menace – as many as 25 can be flying over a particular battlefield – as Europe’s strict civil aviation rules inhibit their use.

“Collective training outside Ukraine is hampered by the fact that, because of the safety culture in Nato, Ukrainian troops cannot train as they fight,” the report said.

The lack of combat training meant that each battalion of around 600 men could only field “two platoons of troops [about 60 soldiers] which are considered fully capable of leading assault actions”.

While improvements would not help the current offensive, they would be “critical for Ukraine next year in its next round of force generation” and any delays “will impose a considerable cost on Ukraine”.

It was also important to recognise that Russian forces were “fighting more competently and with reasonable tenacity in the defence”. While losing some ground they were conducting orderly withdrawals and inflicting damage on the attackers.

Russia’s strong defence had, until the recent apparent breakthrough around the Robotyne area, meant that the Ukrainians on average only advanced up to 1,200 metres every five days.

But “the attrition being afflicted on Russian forces” would see a “degradation in the defence over time, and once a critical mass of losses is reached, that degradation may become non-linear”, the report said.

Updated: September 04, 2023, 1:56 PM