Much of the current debate around the war in Ukraine is centred on what Clausewitz described as the physical and moral forces of warfighting capacity. In the physical realm, a stalemate over military assistance in the US Congress, the inability of the West to mobilize its defense industry quickly, and the lack of progress on the ground in Ukraine are dominant themes. In the moral arena, debate is currently raging around mobilizing more Ukrainians to fight against Russia, as well as a wider debate about the costs that democracies should bear to defend themselves, other democracies, and democratic values more broadly.
But there is a third element that needs to be considered. Generating battlefield and strategic advantage for Ukraine now, and for Western military institutions in the decades ahead, will require undertaking the mobilization of intellectual capacity.
After two years of destructive mass warfare in Ukraine and beyond, the war has largely bogged down. While there are many hypotheses about how this came about, it is apparent that both sides are fighting a twenty-first-century war with twentieth-century ideas. For Ukraine and its supporters, changing the trajectory of the war over the coming years will demand the synchronized mobilization of three components—a twenty-first-century mobilization trinity of people, industry, and new ideas.
The coming year is an opportunity to address the key intellectual challenges that may allow Ukraine to break out of the battlefield stalemate and generate strategic momentum. To be sure, key strategic debates must be had about defending Ukraine versus defeating Russia and moving beyond the escalation terror that appears to inhabit many political systems. But at the same time, there are multiple operational problems that must be resolved this year. An examination of those operational problems provides the necessary context within which to understand the specific ways that intellectual capacity must be mobilized.
Five Operational Challenges to Address in 2024
Despite two years of adaptation during the war in Ukraine the conflict has bogged down into a strategic and tactical slog-fest. Besides industrial and personnel shortages, a key reason is that the development of new warfighting ideas has not kept pace with the introduction of new technology. There has been a mobilization of people and industry, but many operational challenges remain. I propose five operational problems that should be the focus of a mobilization of intellectual capacity by Ukraine and its partners this year.
Challenge 1: Integrating old and new technology. The first challenge is the more effective and rapid integration of new technology (meshed civil-military sensor networks, drones, and democratized access to digital command systems) with old technology (tanks, helicopters, artillery). Great strides have been made in this endeavor in Israel and Ukraine. But progress is often unevenly distributed throughout a military force, and security of the linkages between different systems remains an ongoing challenge. New tactics for the emergent organizations also lag.
This challenge has tactical, operational, strategic, and institutional aspects, it is also reliant on better links between the military and industry, and faster sharing of battlefield lessons. The integration of the old and new must also be conducted at scale. As Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment William LaPlante recently stated, “If you don’t produce and field to warfighters at scale, the capability doesn’t really matter.” Finally, the problem of how to degrade the Russians’ ability to integrate new and old systems must also be dealt with.
Challenge 2: The massing vs. dispersion predicament. A new-era meshed civil-military sensor framework, developed over the course of the war, has produced an environment where all the signatures of military equipment, personnel, and collective forces can be detected more accurately and rapidly. When linked to an array of precision munitions, this closes the detection to destruction gap in military operations to just minutes. Massing military forces for ground combat operations, large-scale aerial attacks, or naval operations, therefore, becomes a high tactical and operational risk. Even if an array of hard and soft kill measures can protect massed forces, they are almost assured of detection, which makes achieving surprise difficult. This was the case with the Ukrainian 2023 counteroffensive. Modern military forces must be equally capable of operating in dispersed and massed forms, but they must be able to minimize their detection when they do mass in a way that provides an improved chance of surprise and landing a decisive blow against an adversary.
Challenge 3: Lowering the cost of defending against missiles and drones. While enormous investment has been made over the past couple of decades in the development of remotely controlled, autonomous, and semiautonomous uncrewed systems, the capabilities to counter them have lagged in investment. This has changed since the beginning of the Russo-Ukraine War, but there remains a massive gap between the capabilities of uncrewed systems and those that counter them. There is a also big disparity in the current costs of these systems. There remains a dearth of low-cost and distributed engagement solutions that enhance a layered defense concept, increase the magazine depth of interceptors, and increase the dilemmas for those employing attack drones and loitering munitions.
As such, attack drones and missiles represent an effective cost-imposition strategy for the Russians. The aim should be not only to reduce the cost of hard and soft kill systems, but to entirely flip the cost equation. Therefore, a key operating challenge to be solved in 2024 is to develop a variety of very low-cost hard and soft kill systems to be used against uncrewed vehicles and missiles, which also imposes cost on those who use drones, not on those who defend against them.
Challenge 4: The right balance of long-range strike and close combat. Ukraine’s investment in a wide array of aerial and maritime long-range strike systems is maturing and showing results against Russian airfields, defense factories, and oil and gas export infrastructure. This an important capability in Ukraine’s arsenal. But important as it is, long-range strike is not a silver bullet in modern war. The planning, conduct, assessment, and adaptation of long-range strike across the domains must be carefully balanced with investment in close combat capabilities. This forces adversaries to also make difficult choices about the array of military capabilities to develop and deploy, generating uncertainty. Balancing between the deep and close fights also provides redundancy in conventional systems.
In 2024, a key operational problem to solve for Ukraine, as well as for Western military institutions, is the appropriate balance in the deep battle and the close fight (with the appropriate support mechanisms for both). And not only must the balance of investment be at least mostly right, but there should also be an effective operational synchronicity between these two military endeavors.
Challenge 5: Closing with the enemy. Modern combat forces require new-era techniques that are quicker, lower signature, and more survivable at crossing the operational and tactical spaces between them and their objectives. The failings of current Western military doctrine were exemplified by Ukraine’s struggle in 2023 to penetrate Russian minefields and defensive belts in southern Ukraine. These were a combination of traditional (read old) obstacle zones, minefields, trenches, and pillboxes with meshed civil-military sensors, assessments, and fires. The technologies and techniques of combined arms breaches have barely changed in half a century but the defensive zone to be penetrated has changed drastically due to new technologies.
Ukrainian and Western military institutions need to develop new warfighting concepts not only to penetrate and fight their way through these defensive schemes, but to ensure they have sufficient combat power to exploit such breaches. Solving this problem is linked to the second challenge described above, solving the massing vs. dispersion predicament. Even before conducting such combined arms breaches, military forces must be able to mass, rehearse, and march to their respective lines of departure in a lower-signature manner. As Ukrainian General Valerii Zaluzhnyi notes in his recent treatise, “On the Modern Design of Military Operations in the Russo-Ukrainian War: In the Fight for the Initiative,” there is a need for new concepts that “increase[e] the mobility of own troops” and ensure the “safe access to certain lines.”
Solving these problems—and identifying the specific ways intellectual capacity can be brought to bear to do so—can be facilitated by an examination of historical military transformations. Military institutions have always faced difficult problems, on the battlefield, during long campaigns, and in national efforts to build military power and fight wars. This has required formal and informal adaptation mechanisms, which sometimes produced transformative solutions to battlefield, operational, and strategic problems.
Until the First Industrial Revolution, military innovation generally moved at a slow pace. However, when the technologies developed during that period of rapid industrial advancement—such as railways, massed manufacturing, and the telegraph—were applied in military institutions, the pace accelerated. Theorists such as Ardant du Picq and Jan Gotlib Bloch examined how military organizations might adapt, and how military effectiveness might be improved, in the wake of the new technologies that emerged during the First Industrial Revolution and were beginning to emerge in the Second Industrial Revolution in the early 1900s.
The interwar period, between World Wars I and II, was also a productive era for exploring the application of new technologies like aircraft and tanks to avoid the stalemates and massed attrition of 1914 to 1918. Theorists sought to produce new warfighting concepts that integrated new technologies into existing organizations, or that produced new organizations such as tank divisions, air forces, and higher-level war colleges. New theories of war, and operational concepts for air, land, and sea, were also driven by new strategic tasks, such as the US Rainbow plans.
The concept of military revolutions was introduced by British historian Michael Roberts in 1955 to cover military innovation. This idea was further developed in the 1960s by the Soviet military to describe how new sensors, computers, and precision weapons were influencing late twentieth-century military thought. Described as a military technological revolution by Soviet military theorists, the concept soon evolved into one described as revolutions in military affairs.
In reviewing the literature on historical military innovation and adaptation, several fundamentals that are common to successful military transformations emerge. These are applicable to addressing contemporary operational challenges, such as those described above that Ukraine faces in 2024, as well as reinvigorating Western military intellectual capacity for other potential twenty-first-century conflicts.
Honest assessments of the enemy. A common thread in successful military innovation is honest assessment of one’s enemy. Without a robust and evidence-based appreciation of the enemy (or likely enemy), military innovation and adaptation is likely to fail. Basing organizational change on fragile knowledge about the enemy’s capabilities, technologies, intentions, and will is a sure way to fail. Early in the Russo-Ukraine War, there was a drastic reassessment of Russia’s military capability. This has led to an underappreciation of their adaptation over the past year. The Russian Army of 2024 is not the same one that existed in 2022; it has improved. This must be accepted (yet constantly reevaluated) as part of developing new warfighting methods.
Specificity. Institutions must have clear ideas of the operational problems to be solved. As Williamson Murray and Allan Millett note in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, “A number of factors contributed to successful innovation. The one that occurred in virtually every case was the presence of specific military problems the solution of which offered significant advantages to furthering the achievement of national strategy.” The problems that emerged in World War I, such as shifting from attrition to a war of maneuver, were a focal point. Combined arms integration, air-land collaboration, and strategic bombing were the results. Penetrating dense Soviet-era air defense environments and stopping multi-echelon ground penetrations into Western Europe were the challenges of the 1970s and 1980s.
Testing and experimentation. Once an operational problem has been recognized, the nature of the challenge clarified, and the idea to solve it identified, solutions must be tested. This is important for several reasons. First, it ensures that expensive, time-consuming organizational change is not launched without some notion of whether the changes will work. Second, it provides transparency into new ideas allowing for more robust examination and critique. Finally, experimentation is an important part of building institutional buy-in for change. As Donn Starry wrote in his 1983 Military Review article on institutional reform, “Changes proposed must be subjected to trials. Their relevance must be convincingly demonstrated to a wide audience by experiment and experience, and necessary modifications must be made as a result of such trial outcomes.”
Different measures of effectiveness. An important aspect of successful adaptation is an institutional view of what makes that organization effective in the operational environment. In his book surveying successful military innovation, Winning the Next War, Stephen Rosen found that “wartime innovation . . . has been most effective when associated with a redefinition of the measures of strategic effectiveness employed by the military organization.” Large-scale intellectual reinvigoration of military institutions demands a rethinking of what makes a particular military force effective in modern (and future) war. For the Russo-Ukraine War, this will include notions of effectiveness for human-machine integrated operations, the integration of long-range strike and close combat, and the ability to survive and fight in a more transparent battlespace.
New ideas embedded in doctrine and training. Once operational problems have been specified and solutions identified, tested, and approved, these changes must be rapidly encoded in new military doctrine. New doctrine is crucial because this is the fundamental foundation for all individual and collective training that occurs within military institutions. This is the way that true institutional change occurs. And it ensures that new ideas are standardized across the entire military organization.
Tactical innovation linked to industrial output. Transformation occurs not just inside military institutions. New ideas—and the new organizations that accompany them—guide the adaptation of existing materiel and the development of new equipment. US Army reform in the 1970s and 1980s was accompanied by the development and production of the Big Five: the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, the M-1 Abrams tank, the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, the M-2 and M-3 Bradley fighting vehicles, and the Patriot air defense system. New ideas developed for Ukraine to address its operational challenges will also require changes in how current equipment is used. But it is highly likely that new kinds of equipment and munitions may be required. The process that links new ideas and new defense production must be streamlined, and potentially distributed among allies.
Leadership drive. A final, vital element of successful military innovation and adaptation over the past century has been leadership. The most senior military leaders in an institution, as well as political leaders, must not only advocate change but drive it to fruition. These leaders must develop and implement the vision for change that will solve operational problems, and as Andrew Krepinevich writes in The Origins of Victory, they require continuity or extended tenures in their appointments.
Returning to the Big Five Operational Problems
There exists a very useful body of knowledge about solving complex military problems when advances in technology outpace advances in tactics, operational thought, and organizational models. This knowledge provides the foundation for adapting current approaches to warfighting. The coming year offers Ukraine a potential respite from large-scale offensives that permits it to undertake large-scale innovation and intellectual reinvigoration. To break the current stalemate in the war, and return to successful offensives in 2025, this investment in mobilization of intellectual capacity and its application to major operational challenges is vital.
Beyond the five challenges described earlier in this article, there are likely to many others that will present themselves in the Russo-Ukraine War—challenges that will also demand attention in 2024. Some will be anticipated and others will to be surprises. But for military institutions, the big five operational problems described above will be foundational to Ukraine regenerating large-scale offensive capability over the coming year.
We should be assisting Ukraine with these challenges. But these operational problems are not solely a challenge for Ukraine now. In helping Ukraine, therefore, we are also helping ourselves in developing a more effective twenty-first-century version of military fighting power. To achieve this outcome, however, demands good leadership, testing and experimentation, new methods of effectiveness, better linkages between battlefield adaptation and industry, and the broadest embedding of the solutions to the big five operational problems into doctrine and both individual and collective training.
This year, Ukraine and its supporters must invest in this crucial intellectual task. While mobilizing more people and defense industry are critical to reconstituting Ukraine’s military, mobilizing intellectual capacity may prove to be even more vital still. As General Zaluzhnyi wrote recently, “We can in no way reject fully existing doctrines that describe the process of preparing and conducting operations. We just have to realize that they will be constantly changing and filled with new content.” Change and new content must underpin Ukraine’s resolution of these five operational problems. Because if Russia can solve these operational problems before Ukraine, it will probably win the Russo-Ukraine War—and those that are likely to follow in Europe in the years ahead.
Mick Ryan served for more than thirty years in the Australian Army and commanded at platoon, squadron, regiment, task force, and brigade level. In his last position before retiring, he commanded the Australian Defence College. He is the author of War Transformed: The Future of Twenty-First-Century Great Power Competition and Conflict and White Sun War: The Campaign for Taiwan. You can follow him on Twitter, @WarintheFuture, and on his Substack, Futura Doctrina.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Mil.gov.ua