EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a four-part series of articles on how national security professionals should (and should not) approach the fraught task of learning lessons from something as complex as war. We have assembled a team of sharp minds and pens in the business to apply their varying perspectives to the question opened by the Army War College’s Chase Metcalf, how do we think about learning lessons from war? It is a fitting end to 2023 and, unfortunately, will likely be essential in 2024 as well.
Engaging with these competing viewpoints can provide military professionals with insights to help avoid strategic surprise and prepare for the future.
Studying the Russo-Ukraine conflict is critical to understanding the changing character of warfare—or is it? Respected experts debate if and how the character of warfare is changing and what lessons we can draw from the Russo-Ukraine conflict.
Recent articles by William “Wilf” Owen and by the team of Katie Crombe and John Nagl are illustrative. Writing in British Army Review, Owen takes a somewhat contrarian view, arguing that drawing lessons from incomplete information about the ongoing Russo-Ukraine conflict is problematic. Meanwhile, in Parameters, Crombe and Nagl say that the U.S. Army must “embrace the Russo-Ukraine conflict as an opportunity” to shape its education, training, and doctrine. Engaging with these competing viewpoints can provide military professionals with insights to help avoid strategic surprise and prepare for the future. But this must be done deliberately and with an open mind to avoid learning the wrong lessons from a conflict that is far from over.
Nothing New for Professionals
William Owen argues in “The False Lessons of Modern War: Why Ignorance is Not Insight” that it is problematic to “identify lessons from current or recent conflicts” when few, if any, of these should be “noteworthy” to an informed professional. Owen addresses the “myth” that warfare is becoming more lethal, argues that drones and transparency on the battlefield are not new, and notes that context matters by highlighting that Ukraine lacks equivalent training and equipment as the British Army (as well as other Western militaries). This argument is supported, at least in part, by Steve Biddle’s recent Foreign Affairs piece, “Back in the Trenches: Why New Technology Hasn’t Revolutionized Warfare in Ukraine.”
Taking an almost nihilistic stance, Owen argues that “the future is unknowable,” so observations from ongoing conflicts, absent context and analysis, lack relevance. Moreover, Owen assesses that the British Army understood contemporary warfare before Ukraine and warns that “lessons” from Ukraine, like those focused on platforms, risk diverting attention and resources from existing plans and programs. He further claims the idea that one can draw useful insights about future wars from current conflicts is not as “safe nor as historically valid as many assume.”
Strategic Inflection Point
In contrast, Crombe and Nagl, in “A Call to Action: Lessons from Ukraine for the Future Force,” note the U.S. Army faces a strategic inflection point as it transitions from 20 years of counterinsurgency operations to refocus on large-scale combat operations. The authors argue that the Russo-Ukrainian conflict is an opportunity to study the changing character of warfare, and the U.S. Army must do so to inform its future education, training, and doctrine. This argument is amplified by Max Boot’s Washington Post opinion piece, “The Ukraine war is revolutionizing military technology.”
Crombe and Nagl’s article previews a forthcoming monograph examining lessons from the Russo-Ukraine war and issues for further exploration. Given Owen’s article, three issues are of particular interest: 1) an assessment that an increase in pace and precision of adversary kill chains will require changes to how the U.S. Army executes command and control; 2) that casualty levels and reconstitution requirements may drive reconceptualization of all-volunteer force; and 3) that AI and other technology will continue to accelerate the pace of conflict and potentially level the battlefield for a range of actors. Given these issues, Crombe and Nagl argue the U.S. Army must do as they did after the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict by deriving and integrating lessons from the conflict to prepare the force for future conflict.
The Truth is Somewhere in the Middle
On the surface, the authors disagree on what, if anything, can be learned from the Russo-Ukraine conflict. So, who is right? A deeper examination of the specifics illustrates that both are, at least in part.
First, let’s consider drones and transparency on the battlefield. Owen is correct in noting that drones have been employed for decades and that the transparent battlefield has been with us since at least World War I. However, as Crombe and Nagl highlight, drones and other technology have improved detection capabilities and will continue to accelerate the pace of warfare when combined with artificial intelligence. Here, Owen is looking at the components of the kill-chain while Crombe and Nagl are focused more on the combination of systems and technologies and the impact that has on the pace of warfare.
Discrete technological advances are interesting. The combination of multiple technologies with new tactics and active experimentation can upend balances of power.
Both have a point on this issue, but it is unarguable that military professionals must understand how old and new technologies are employed, individually or in combination, and the implications thereof. Given the increased scale on which drones are being used and the ability of machine learning and artificial intelligence to crunch data, it is a change similar to the development of blitzkrieg or naval airpower during the period between World War I and World War II. Discrete technological advances are interesting. The combination of multiple technologies with new tactics and active experimentation can upend balances of power. For that reason alone, military professionals must study this conflict.
A second major issue is the question of casualty rates and reconstitution. Owen uses the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict to support his assertion that the attrition of people and platforms in contemporary conflict does not come close to that of the past. Conversely, Crombe and Nagl argue that casualty rates in the Russo-Ukraine conflict and a recruiting crisis in the U.S. Army highlight a systemic vulnerability: while casualties may not be higher than in the past in absolute terms, the U.S. and Western militaries are undeniably far smaller than in the past. Additionally, America’s political willingness to deal with the anticipated casualty levels of large-scale combat operations is uncertain and even unknowable.
A third issue is the importance of context. Owen argues that Ukraine’s lack of equivalent training, doctrine, and equipment limits one’s ability to draw useful insights from the conflict. Crombe and Nagl disagree on the ability to draw lessons despite differences between Ukraine and Western militaries. Context matters, and Owen is right to highlight the differences between the Ukrainians and the British regarding training and platforms. Armies must always be sensitive to recency bias and mirroring in their analysis of conflict. However, professionals can still derive useful insights from conflicts involving different contexts through deliberate study.
So What Now?
The Russo-Ukraine war has amplified the debate about the scale and impact of the changing character of warfare. This debate remains unsettled, even though it is undeniable that changes in technology are affecting how militaries do and will fight.
While the authors above may disagree on the extent to which we can or should be drawing lessons from the Russo-Ukraine war, they both make important points that military professionals should consider. Owen’s warning that there is little new and concern that the wrong lessons risk diverting resources provides a crucial perspective that should lead military professionals to be deliberate in their analysis and changes based on lessons from the conflict. Crombe and Nagl are certainly correct that technology is driving changes to how militaries do and will fight, a point recently made very clear by General Mark Milley, outgoing United States Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Further study will help military professionals understand how and what they might do about it. For that reason, both are worth reading and contemplating.
History abounds with examples of professionals across many domains failing to anticipate change. Warfare, being an instrument of last resort and an inherently human endeavor, is notoriously difficult to study. Ukraine offers military professionals the opportunity to examine how old and new technologies are employed and the implications this can have for force design, development, and experimentation. Even if professionals understand modern warfare, as Owen claims, they should study this conflict to validate their understanding and avoid strategic surprise. This includes fully exploring the Russo-Ukraine conflict’s similarities and differences with anticipated conflicts and ensuring deliberate analysis of any lessons to avoid misusing what are likely to be increasingly tight resources in the future.
Military professionals have an obligation to study this conflict, but they should do so deliberately and through engagement with a broad range of perspectives. Through this type of detailed study, military professionals can prepare their minds and organizations for the fog of future war.
Chase Metcalf is a colonel, an Army strategist and an instructor at the U.S. Army War College. He most recently served as Deputy Director of the Russia Strategic Initiative at the United States’ European Command.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.
Photo Description: Caption reads; Russian reconnaissance drone “Eleron T-16” landed by Ukrainian border guards by an anti-drone gun “on Kharkiv direction”. The inset caption reads “Steel Border”
Photo Credit: Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine Facebook page via Wikimedia Commons