The destruction of the Kakhovka dam on the Dnipro River has launched a wave of recriminations as both the Ukrainian and Russian governments blamed each other for the breach. An estimated forty thousand people downriver face potential evacuation, while widespread flooding and large swathes of farmland left with irrigation puts agricultural production in jeopardy. It is, in the words of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the equivalent of “an environmental bomb of mass destruction.” It has direct ramifications for the war in Ukraine, quite literally changing the shape of the battlefield. But the military implications extend beyond that conflict zone and the two sides engaged in the war.
In the US military, the Army traditionally sees flooding as a National Guard concern, specifically the mission of supporting flood relief and recovery operations. However, as Walker Mills recently wrote for the Irregular Warfare Institute’s Project Maritime, “The river has again become a focal point for the ongoing war in Ukraine.” The article describes how rivers have served as maneuver space for Ukrainian forces. Because the dam’s destruction changes the very landscape the war is fought on, it should remind commanders and planners that brown-water and riverine capabilities that can coordinate with land and special operations forces are essential for conducting war. Just days removed from the dam’s destruction, five takeaways stand out.
1. Water Wars: What’s Old is New Again
With the much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive, the Kakhovka dam’s destruction changes planning and operational factors for both the Russian defenders and Ukrainian attackers. Turning land into water through intentional destruction of dikes was a tactic used several times during the Eighty Years’ War in the Netherlands, including to help relieve the siege of Leiden. The British sought strategic advantage through the destruction of dams in Germany’s Ruhr Valley in Operation Chastise, the famous Dambusters Raid in 1943. While ultimately only having limited impact on industrial production, the raid was a boost in morale for the British people and was later turned into an Oscar-nominated movie. In 1944, German defenders in the Netherlands blew up a dike on the Rhine River, flooding the surrounding area and converting the battlefield into an amphibious one. A few months later, British and Canadian forces needed to use DUKWs and amphibious jeeps to move near Kranenburg, Germany, after the dikes were blown. American commanders crossing the Rhine River also feared flooding.
In the prelude to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, American commanders directed the Coalition Forces Special Operations Component Command “to plan for securing the three most important dams in Iraq as well as other hydrological ‘nodes.’” Commanders were concerned that if the Iraqis released the dammed water it would flood the approach to Baghdad needed by maneuver forces. Furthermore, releasing the water or destroying the dams would adversely impact civilian life and the postwar economy.
Even in the area around the Kakhovka dam, there is historical precedent. In 1941, in an attempt to slow a German advance, officers of the Soviet NKVD, a predecessor of the KGB, blew up the DniproHES hydroelectric dam in Zaporizhzhia. Coming just months into the German invasion, with Soviet losses in Ukraine already rapidly piling up and German forces in the outskirts of Zaporizhzhia, blowing up the dam seemed like a good idea. The NKVD was successful in destroying the dam but as many as one hundred thousand unsuspecting Ukrainian civilians might have died as a result. Tactically, the operation was at least partially successful, with German forces taking forty-seven days to seize the city and its now useless dam. How much the dam’s destruction delayed the German seizure is debated but, regardless, its destruction impacted both offensive and defensive operations nearby.
2. To Be Useful, Technology Must Be Available
Riverine, coastal, and amphibious operations all require specialized equipment capable of bridging the water/land divide. In the 1930s, Donald Roebling developed the Alligator, a tracked, shallow-draft vehicle for use in rescue operations. The US Marine Corps expressed interest and, with the US Navy, started developing what would eventually become the Landing Vehicle, Tracked, which saw service worldwide during World War II in a variety of guises, including some being converted into rocket-launching platforms. Nearly simultaneously to Roebling, Andrew Jackson Higgins in New Orleans was developing a shallow-draft boat for use in the Louisiana bayous by timber and oil companies. These eventually became the Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel or, more commonly, the Higgins boat. Some twenty thousand were manufactured during the war and were used in all theaters of operations, including by US allies. Amphibious vehicles like the Ford GPA and the DUKW were also sent, under the Lend-Lease Act, to the Soviets, who found their river-crossing capabilities valuable when pushing west against the Germans.
Properly designed equipment, including amphibious jeeps, landing craft, and amphibious assault vehicles, do not just appear when needed. The Marines’ long effort to replace its legacy Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV) is a case in point. An AAV suffered a deadly mishap in 2020, killing nine. A subsequent ruling kept the AAVs out of the water for training or deployments with the exception of crisis response missions, leaving the Marine Corps without a vital capability. The service had previously attempted to replace the AAV, which was introduced in 1972, with the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV). The EFV was canceled in 2010 after disappointing operational tests and growing costs. Shortly thereafter, the Marines started the Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV) program. While the ACV has been fielded recently, it is still not cleared for deployment with Marine expeditionary units, limiting the ability to project power in amphibious, littoral, or fluvial environments. Having ready and dedicated technology is essential to conducting operations in flooded terrain.
3. Plugging Holes in Doctrine
In Ukraine, operations below the blown dam will inherently now look different because of the change in terrain. While operations will not quite be amphibious in nature and the battlefield will be neither fully maritime nor riverine, Ukrainian forces will need to account for planning factors present in both environments. For US forces that might face a similar challenge in the future will need to be able to turn to doctrine for an understanding of these factors. The Army’s Field Manual 3-0, Operations has a chapter devoted to maritime operations and a section on amphibious operations, which offers a good starting point. While focused at the operational level, the planning factors and considerations the manual lays down are useful for commanders and staffs preparing for and conducting operations in a newly flooded area, including force protection, logistics, intelligence, the role of fires and effects, and maneuver.
Still, doctrinal attention to this type of terrain and the way forces operate there is incomplete. Joint Publication 3-02, Amphibious Operations, for instance, only uses the word riverine three times, perhaps revealing a gap in how the joint force views ambiguous environments like the recently flooded terrain in Ukraine, where a mix of capabilities are needed. Historically, there were riverine doctrinal publications but current doctrine is lacking in clear guidance.
4. The People Problem: Civilians on the Flooded Battlefield
Downstream from the Kakhovka dam lie numerous settlements, including Kherson, with its preinvasion population of three hundred thousand, which was seized by Russian forces last year before being retaken by Ukrainian forces in November. Evacuations have already started to occur in both Ukrainian-held and Russian-occupied territory, adding complexity to any operations in the area. Evacuees become, in effect, displaced persons who have life-support requirements, compete for limited space on lines of communication, and are themselves vulnerable to exploitation by criminal groups or predation by armed combatants. Furthermore, displaced persons have historically provided cover for infiltration or at least instill the fear of infiltration. Armed combatants also pose a risk to the evacuee.
For the tactical commander, support to evacuees can take multiple forms. Depending on the assets available and services needed, support to displaced persons can involve anything from providing traffic control on roads and guiding them to safe location to housing them in camps or holding areas. Most maneuver units are not equipped or set up to conduct long-term humanitarian operations but need to be ready to do so on an informal but coordinated manner at the micro-tactical level. Cooperation with relief organizations, local civilian authorities, and others is also likely when interacting with displaced persons.
5. When a Challenge is a Special Operations Opportunity
While Russia may now see the terrain south of Kherson as safe, Ukrainian special operators should see opportunity. With new coastline and fewer opposing forces, the southern Kherson oblast could become a special operations playground.
While the Dnipro River’s old banks presented a relatively narrow target for Russia to observe, the Russians just opened the floodgates for special operators. Russia could more easily control the historical banks and narrow channels, but the maritime patrol area has now expanded by as many as tens of thousands of hectares. The flooding also allows special operations forces to move heavier or larger equipment farther than they could on foot, perhaps on Ukraine’s new patrol boats or civilian craft. The bustle of current civilian evacuations could create an opportunity for Ukrainian special operations to insert teams or stash equipment for future use. In all, the expanded Dnipro provides an increased attack surface allowing Ukrainian special operations forces to penetrate deeper with more material than they could previously.
Special operations become more viable too if the flooding encourages Russia to reposition forces elsewhere. If Russian leaders see the area south of Kherson as a secure rear area, Russia may relocate significant conventional forces north to reinforce their lines.
From their sanctuary in Kherson, Ukrainian special operations forces could threaten Russian lines of communications. In southern Kherson, the two primary ground lines of communications that flow supplies out of Crimea are the E97, heading northwest toward Kherson, and the E105, running northeast toward Melitopol. From the south side of the Dnipro, Ukrainian special operators could threaten either line of communication with short-range drones or even TOW missiles. Russian air assets, and especially helicopters, traversing the southern Kherson oblast could also be put under threat. Engagements of Russian aircraft with Stinger missiles on previously safe routes might cause Russia to reroute aircraft to safer and longer routes over the Sea of Azov. As Russia draws significant sustainment from Crimea, disrupting lines of communications with increased special operations in southern Kherson could certainly support the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
In Tigris Gunboats, his memoir of fighting in Mesopotamia during World War I, Vice Admiral Wilfred Nunn remarked, “There was usually too much water for the soldiers, but not enough for the sailors.” While gunboat operations along rivers are more doctrinally and logically a naval requirement, the ambiguity of brown-water operations combined with the need to conduct land-based operations means commanders and staffs must prepare for a different kind of warfare than one they had probably envisioned even a week ago.
Timothy Heck is the deputy editorial director at the Modern War Institute at West Point. His most recent work is Armies in Retreat: Chaos, Cohesion, and Consequences, released by Army University Press.
Zachary Griffiths is an Army officer who edits for the Irregular Warfare Initiative.
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: The Armed Forces of Ukriane, via facebook