A while back, I did a post on the real lesson to be learned from Ukraine in year one. For all that people were jumping on drones, I pointed out that the real lesson was on data. Today, I would like to amend that to add flexibility in the form of innovation.
Don’t get me wrong, drones have reshaped operations on land and at sea. However, the real game changer has been the data and the flexibility to adapt and overcome. Right now, the usual bandits, beltway and otherwise, are out there with plans for specialized drones costing thousands (if we are lucky) and taking years to get into production. The procurement process in all its glory.
What really has made drones effective, and allowed Ukraine to prevent being overrun in the early days, however, was data and the ability to take that data and get inventive with responses. Data really comprises two interlinked facets.
First, there is the raw intelligence data: who is where, when, and what are they doing and saying? Thanks to Russian corruption, Ukraine and a host of others were literally listening in and getting massive amounts of data. Thanks to Starlink, wifi, cellular, and other data systems, they were able to not just collect data, but transmit information to troops and others and literally guide systems into place.
It still might not have saved them if not for the ability to be flexible, to innovate responses and tailor them to specific situations. The decisions to flood, blow select bridges and other infrastructure, blunted the major attack and gave Ukraine the ability to halt the advance against Kiev and go on the offensive. It gave them the opportunity to begin targeting not just Russian commanders at all levels, but to selectively engage effective commanders while leaving incompetent commanders in place. It also allowed them to engage in psyops and more.
That flexibility has carried over into drones, where innovation has come largely from the front, not the rear. Net result is observation drones turned into delivery platforms with good effect. Someone, somewhere, looked at all the anti-tank mines being collected after being helpfully left by the Russians, and got the idea of using about two feet of broomstick and a two-liter pop bottle to stabilize such, and then turn it into a grenade-detonated device with the punch of an artillery shell.
Inexpensive, effective, and developed and deployed within a very short time (hours/days). Devastating to Russian vehicles and positions thanks to data for intelligence and command and control. The same holds true for naval operations, and the Russian fleet has paid a price.
The key is, Ukraine appears to be allowing its forces to innovate, experiment, and modify on the front and down to unit level. This used to be a hallmark of U.S. forces.
Many years ago, I was part of some discussions on why American troops did so well in WWII, and how to shift that to modern battlefields. Two factors came out in our discussions in regards WWII. One was that rural, and even some urban, troops had extensive experiences with shooting and marksmanship. Thanks to the Great Depression, a lot of people got very good at hunting simply so they could eat. Guess who made good scouts, snipers, and general troops? The second was that American troops of all stripes were adept at improvised repair and adaptation. Truck or other vehicle break down? Rather than call for specialists, our troops quite often simply improvised a repair and kept going until a proper repair could be made. Something not working as it was supposed to? Adapt, improvise, and get creative.
The problem with translating that to modern battle was two-fold. First, the crucible that was the Great Depression was long gone. The hardship that had shaped and prepared so much of the population no longer existed, and by comparison modern youth had/has never truly experienced hardship (topic for another day). That, in turn, shaped a very different mindset. While there were, as always, a few exceptions it was clear they were exceptions. Even the drive to do your best and test yourself against others was being eroded by societal factors and education. It’s still there, just buried and vilified. Second, it was felt by many that where we needed that ability to improvise and adapt had shifted from conventional equipment to specialized equipment like computers.
Worse, to my mind, were those who did not like the idea of innovation and adaptation at all. At the root of that was both a desire to micromanage (can’t make the “wrong” decision if you are not allowed to make a decision) and a desire not to rock the boat. Innovation could interfere with current modes of operation, procurement, and development after all. Never mind that it might lead to better equipment, operations, or such… Sadly, I have seen this mindset expand.
A few years ago, when I was in the Indiana Guard Reserve (State Guard, not National), I had the pleasure of taking part in Junior ROTC. In fact, I got to teach basic landnav to the participants. The different teams then got dropped off to navigate a course to see how well they did. Most did fairly well, though I was betting we might have to go find a few as I watched them head in without orienting their maps.
One team, however, did something of which I am still pleased and a bit proud. Once in the exercise area, they stopped, improvised camo/ghillie suits, and decided to essentially E&E their way to the endpoint, avoiding detection by other teams — and our monitors. They pulled it off brilliantly. To my horror, an officer in the command tent huffed up and wanted to reprimand them for their actions. Think he was surprised when several of us, of all ranks, dogpiled him and told him that was a stupid fucking idea and that we needed to be commending them as that type of innovation and creative thinking was exactly what troops (esp. combat troops) need. He backed down, somewhat reluctantly as I remember, and the rest of us went out to congratulate and commend that team.
That mindset now, however, appears to have grown and become the dominant mindset in far too many commanders. Troops that innovate might do something that attracts negative publicity from the media, rights groups, and others. It can upset plans in place, even though in many cases it might allow those plans to be improved, and that can’t be allowed.
A few weeks (?) ago, Cdr. Salamander did a good post on inexpensive drones and giving troops a chance to experiment with them. It is a good post, and I agree that if we did so we probably would be richer by several new concepts/adaptations for a very low price. I just don’t think our current leadership, at almost any level, is capable of doing something that smart and simple. Isolated cases, perhaps, but not in the whole.
In looking at the decision to flood and destroy infrastructure in Ukraine in those first days, I wonder if any of our current leadership would make that decision or implement it? If raised, I fully expect a chorus of ‘environmental damage, destruction of expensive property, impact to indigenous people’, and a host of other dreck to come out.
To my mind, if you want to win, data and flexibility are going to be the key. To borrow from John Ringo, he who thinks fastest will be the one to laugh last. Thinking fast, and taking decisive action, have always depended on data and innovation. In future conflict, that will be even more important.
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