Let’s Talk Game Changers in Ukraine and the Future

Let me give you the bottom line up front–Ukraine’s military units in the Donbass in the area of Lysychansk are now essentially encircled, which means Ukraine is facing the loss of at least 15,000 troops unless they are able to retreat.

Some pundits refer to this as Deep Operational Encirclement:

The basic concept of the Operational Maneuver Group is to fracture the stability of the enemy defense at the earliest possible moment by conducting deep operational maneuver into the enemy’s rear area. Once in the enemy rear, the OMG’s main purpose is to help smooth and accelerate the progress of the main force by eroding the defense from within.

Although Russian troops do not occupy all the strategic chokepoints between Lysychansk and points west, there is only one road open and Russian artillery and air assets can fire at will on that road. Any column of vehicles or soldiers attempting to move west face a high probability of withering fire.

If you want to delve into the nitty-gritty of the tactical situation, please watch the video from the Military Summary channel.

The video briefing clearly shows that Russia is making steady and significant progress in carving up and isolating large contingents of the Ukrainian army deployed in the Donbass. Do you think this qualifies as a “game changer?”

Depends. If Ukraine could mount a large counter-offensive it could stall or weaken the Russian advance. But we are at 13 weeks into the war and Ukraine has been unable to launch such an operation. Which brings me to what are the actual game changers in the 21st Century battlefield.

First game changer–video conferencing. I vividly recall sitting in the Joint Exercise Control Group at a U.S. base in July 2005 and witnessed a Marine Colonel’s first encounter with a portable, secure video conference system. The guy was obsessed with it. Like a kid with a brand new toy. And like any kid given a toy hammer, you quickly discover everything needs to be hit.

Now this was not the first time this technology had been used. I first encountered Secure Video Teleconferencing in December 1989. But that was hard wired technology that connected the White House with key agencies (e.g., CIA, DOD and State Department). What emerged after 9-11 was a portable, deployable capability that gave the leadership in Washington the ability to chat with field commanders–in a virtual face-to-face–in real time.

This is a blessing and a curse. These were classified ZOOM meetings before there was ZOOM and, like the kid with the hammer, the need for video conferences escalated. The blessing was that the guys and gals back in Washington had real time info from the guys on the frontlines. It also eliminated the need to travel in order to hold a meeting. Remember the distances that Churchill and Roosevelt traveled in World War II to meet with Joe Stalin? Those journeys occupied days and weeks. What would have happened in World War II if the Big Three could ZOOM at will? A great subject for a future dissertation.

The curse? People found themselves sitting in front of screens talking instead of being out in the field directing troops and operations.

Drone technology is the next game changer. Prior to the emergence of the drones, commanders had to rely on fixed wing air craft manned by pilots or satellites to gather overhead imagery about the locations and movements of enemy military forces. But each of those systems had limits. Remember the movie Patriot Game? Remember the scene when a British SAS unit is shown via satellite relay attacking an IRA terrorist camp in North Africa? That satellite only was overhead for a short period of time. It could not hover and collect for extended periods of time. Fixed wing aircraft have the same limitation. A high flier like the U-2 or SR-71 Blackbird can take pictures along its line of flight but the film had to be processed and then distributed.

Drones now give a ground commander the ability to see in real time, for extended time, the activity at an enemy position. The drone also can collect a variety of information beyond video and can be used to accurately target fire. This has been a game changer for Russia in the Ukraine conflict. Although Ukraine still has the ability to launch drones, a large number of those are routinely shot down by Russian air defense systems. Ukraine has not been been able to use the drones effectively to target and destroy Russian positions.

The Russians, by contrast, have reaped the benefits of the drone. They are tracking Ukrainian troop movements, they are hitting entrenched artillery and troop emplacements and they are conducting extended reconnaissance in areas of future operations. While this is a clear advantage for the Russians, they have not prevented the Ukrainians from moving troops and materiel to reinforce some units. The Russians also have not been able to prevent sporadic shelling by Ukrainian artillery of a few Russian border villages.

If drones existed in World War II it is doubtful the Soviets could have mounted the offensive that saved Stalingrad because the Germans would have seen the assembling and movement of the Soviet force east of Stalingrad. The Allied invasion at Normandy probably would have been detected and defeated if the Germans had drones. The lack of eyes in the sky left the World War II ground commanders largely blind.

There is another game-changer that, thank God, we have not yet seen (and I pray we never will)–space war. The world has become dependent on satellites orbiting the earth that facilitate communication and intelligence collection. What happens if the Russians, with their back to the wall, decide to take out a majority of U.S. military and intelligence satellites? I think the term, catastrophic, would be appropriate. My intent is not to frighten you. But it is a capability and vulnerability that exists and could be attacked under certain circumstances.


Thanks for sharing!