How Ukraine is winning in the adaptation battle against Russia

The axiom ‘adapt or die’ is never more true than in war. The Ukrainian army’s willingness to modify its approach has been integral to its survival. The ability of other nations to learn the importance of adaptation will likely dictate the outcome of future conflicts.
ukraine adaptation winning war
Armed Forces of Ukraine. Credit: Bumble Dee / Alamy Stock Photo.
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It is impossible for a military institution, nor the organisations that it generates and deploys, to anticipate every eventuality in war. There are too many scenarios to accurately predict pre-war and wartime events. The Clausewitzian notion of the fog of war is as much alive today in the information age as it was two centuries ago. Indeed, the uncertainty of military operations is part of the enduring nature of war. Because of this, a key virtue for military organisations in war must be adaptability to unexpected events.

In his famous essay, The Use and Abuse of Military History, Sir Michael Howard described the problem thus: ‘It is not surprising that there has often been a high proportion of failures among senior commanders at the beginning of any war. These unfortunate men may either take too long to adjust themselves to reality…or they may have had their minds so far shaped by a lifetime of pure administration that they have ceased to be soldiers.’ 

The exploration of adaptation has resulted in the development of concepts that underpin understanding of how adaptation occurs and how it can be applied. In military literature, the best-known adaptive cycle is Colonel John Boyd’s OODA (observe-orient-decide-act) loop. Other useful studies of military institutions which have been successful at adaptation include Dr Aimee Fox’s superb Learning to Fight as well as Murray and Millett’s Military Innovation in the Interwar Period

But as Cohen and Gooch explore in Military Misfortunes, not all attempts at adaptation are successful. In part this is because some institutions are not able to quickly or efficiently absorb new technologies — or ideas. Alternatively, some institutions fail to anticipate the range of future threats or are unable to assess which of the identified threats are the most serious. A final reason for adaptive failure is that the enemy is actively seeking to interfere with its opponents learning and adaptation processes

In war, belligerents are constantly seeking to outthink and out fight the other side. New technologies are introduced, new ground or objectives are fought over, and new organisations are introduced to exploit new ideas and technologies. This battle for supremacy — the adaptation battle — has been taking place throughout the Russo-Ukraine War. Both sides offer lessons in how contemporary military institutions might develop and sustain the learning culture that underpins adaptation — and success — at every level of military operations.

The Russian Army Adapts in Ukraine

The Russian military went through a period of transformation and adaptation over the decade before it launched its invasion of Ukraine. Many of these changes were based on its operational experience in Syria, as well as its hypotheses about the character of future war. Adaptation in the Russian military in Ukraine has as its foundations these broader, recent institutional adaptations.

While Russia has been embarrassed at the tactical performance of its forces at times, it has still demonstrated learning at the unit and higher levels during the war. Several areas of Russian adaptation stand out: operational objectives; unity of effort; force generation; and multi-domain integration.

In military operations, the desired outcome must be simple, widely communicated and understood. It must also be with the capacity of the military forces available. Initial Russian war aims were very broad and included seizing large parts of Ukraine’s territory as well as its capital and major cities in the northeast, east and south. It became clear within days that this broad array of desired outcomes was beyond the military capacity of the Russians. 

By March, the Russians — as highlighted in briefings by senior Russian officers — had decided to adapt and consolidate their aims to narrower objectives in the east. They redeployed their forces from the north and northeast of Ukraine to give themselves a better chance at achieving these more limited strategic goals. 

In adapting their objectives, the Russians also had to change the disposition of their forces in Ukraine. In the initial phases of the war, the Russians sought to prosecute their war against Ukraine on four fronts on the ground in the north, northeast, east and south of the country. Another front was air and missile attacks against Ukraine, and a sixth was the strategic influence operations conducted globally. The early failures of the Russians drove them to adapt to a more concentrated deployment, focussed in the east, with smaller supporting efforts in the north east and south. 

Concurrent with this adaptation in the concentration of their forces, the Russians adapted their command and control for the Ukraine ‘special military operation’. The early phase of the war meant the Russians essentially fighting several different wars, each distinct from the other. This was a contributing factor, among many others, to the Russian failures in the north. Consequently, in April, the Russian named a single, overall commander for its Ukraine campaign. It was an adaptation of the initial dysfunctional command and control design, and aimed to bring improved unity of effort to the war. It has done so to a degree, although Russia has removed several senior commanders since.

Another area of adaptation has been how the Russians have conducted close combat. Early in the war, the Russians sought to conduct sweeping manoeuvres that coordinated airborne and airdrop operations with ground offensive operations. Unfortunately for the Russians, air-land integration as well as ground combined arms tactics were poorly conducted. This permitted the Ukrainians to attack Russian logistics and rear areas, while also killing many of the dismounted infantry soldiers of the Russian invading force. It ultimately led to the Russian retreat from Kyiv and Kharkiv.

It also drove the Russians to adapt their design for battle in the Donbas. Instead of more maneuverist tactics, they adopted a more attritional model. Because of the large losses of infantry early in the war, this meant the Russians turn to massed artillery guided by UAVs to ‘lead the way’ in their offensive thrusts. It resulted in the Russians advancing more slowly, and more caution to not expose their logistics to attack.

This has led to some tactical success for the Russians in the east. At the beginning of July, the Russians were able to finally secure Luhansk Province. This was a campaign that drew the Ukrainians into an attrition fight, often resulting in over 100 killed in action per day from both sides. However, the costs probably did not justify the small amount of territory the Russian Army secured in its Luhansk operations. 

So, while the Russians had adapted their tactics and the geography of their deployed forces, the military successes were minimal. And, despite an operational pause in the wake of the Luhansk operation, Russian forces since then have made even less battlefield progress in the east. There are several reasons for this. First, the Ukrainians redeployed to better prepared positions in the Kramatorsk region. Second, as the Russians adapted their force posture, and stripped forces from other regions to focus their offensive power in the east, it made the Russian occupiers vulnerable elsewhere, especially in the south. Finally, introduction of HIMARS has not only allowed the Ukrainians to strike the Russians at long range, but it has also permitted the Ukrainians to conduct a counter-adaptation activity against Russia’s adapted tactics in the east. This will be explored in the next section.

A final Russian adaptation has been their improved integration of ground and air operations. Early in the war, it was clear that there was poor coordination between the Russian Army and the Russian Air Force. The later Russian operations in the east have demonstrated a degree of learning in the conduct of air-land integration. The Russian air force sortie rate increased, and it was able to concentrate its efforts to support Russian Army ground operations in the east. But the air-land integration, honed to an art by western military organisations, remains underdeveloped by the Russians.

Russia has demonstrated some capacity to learn from its tactical failures. It has adapted on the battlefield, and this has had an impact. But short-term tactical adaptation is simpler than longer term strategic adaptation. Russia’s ability as a nation to learn and adapt to the economic, diplomatic, informational and other impacts of its flawed strategy to invade Ukraine remains to be seen. 

Ukrainian Armed Forces Adaptation 

Several Ukrainian adaptations during the war stand out. The first is their tactical adaptations early in the war. They recognised that the Russians were very light in their infantry forces, and this led to poor combined arms activity, as well as poor rear area security. Therefore they adapted their operations to employ dismounted infantry anti-armour teams to great effect during the Russian advance on Kyiv. At the same time, they were able to exploit a lack of coordinated rear area security (and massive military traffic jams) to fight the Russians in the rear areas. 

A second Ukrainian adaptation was their adjustment to the information environment. They quickly appreciated that information operations were going to be critical to gaining international support for the defence of their nation. Consequently, Ukraine implemented a highly effective international influence campaign. Led by their President, who stunned the world with ‘I need ammunition, not a ride‘, Ukraine’s strategic influence campaign has underpinned provision of significant levels of military, humanitarian, economic and intelligence support. 

A third adaptation by Ukraine is their transition from Soviet era weapons and support systems to NATO systems. This has involved a rapid induction of different anti-armour, air defence, artillery and armoured vehicles from a variety of donors. It has required an extraordinary level of institutional adaptation by the Ukrainians as they not only absorb many different weapon types in a short period of time, but also fully reform their logistic support systems to align with NATO standards.  In western military institutions, it can take several years to introduce new weapons and their accompanying training and support elements. That the Ukrainians have been able to do so in a matter of weeks – HIMARS is just one example – speaks to the adaptive capacity the Ukrainian Armed Forces have developed in the past six months.

Another adaptation, away from the battlefield, has been the Ukrainian crowd funding efforts to support the war. While war bonds have been used in previous conflicts to raise additional revenue to fight wars, the crowd funding undertaken in the past six months is quite innovative. One reason why this is important is because it provides support in addition to that funded by the government. This has included drones, trucks, medical aid, humanitarian assistance and recently, a satellite. However, this adaptation is more important because of how it allows the Ukrainian people – as well as many citizens of other nations – to provide financial assistance as an expression of support for Ukraine’s resistance against Russia.

There are other Ukrainian adaptations. Their adoption of commercial technologies such as drones and information technology for military purposes, has occurred quickly and demonstrates significant imagination. Their higher-level military campaign planning has constantly adapted throughout the war, using conventional forces, special operations, and partisans to respond to Russian offensive thrusts, while also conducting operations to place the Russians in a dilemma about their force locations and main efforts. The Ukrainians have also adapted their tactical force structure to absorb foreign combatants and support personnel into an International Legion — although this has not always proceeded as smoothly as the Ukrainian military may have wished.

There will be many other adaptations on the ground we are not seeing. However, as this brief exploration has demonstrated, the Ukrainians have been thinking, fighting and adapting constantly since the beginning of this war. For the Ukrainians, the old truism ‘adapt or die’ is quite literal in its application to their military forces, and their nation.

The Counter Adaption Fight

By understanding how their own learning and adaptation process’s function, military institutions can also influence their adversary’s ability to adapt. This theory of counter-adaptation has played out in the real world in Ukraine alongside the adaptive processes of Ukraine and Russia. 

Russia has actively sought to counter the Ukrainian adaptions to absorb a range of different military and civilian uncrewed aerial systems. This assists Russia in neutralising Ukraine’s artillery and further enhances the Russian advantage in the massing of tactical fires in places such as the Donbas. The Russian counter adaptation has featured the application of electronic warfare to jam communications, as well as links between drones and ground stations. While Ukraine was able to use its uncrewed aerial systems widely in the early weeks of the war, the Russians have instituted an integrated system that involves electronic warfare, as well as missile systems and connected sensors, to degrade this Ukrainian battlefield reconnaissance capability.

The Ukrainians identified the Russian adaptation of their tactics in the east. In response, the Ukrainians sought to target Russian artillery, but the asymmetry in range and quantity left the Ukrainians without a systemic means to do so. To combat this, and counter the Russian adaptation, the Ukrainians undertook both diplomacy and an open strategic influence campaign to secure accurate, long range strike weapons. In July, the first of these systems – the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) – arrived in Ukraine. The Ukrainians then employed their new long-range rockets to target and destroy large Russian artillery supply depots in the east of the country. 

The impact of these strikes has significantly curtailed the Russian advantage in artillery, with estimates that Russian artillery ammunition expenditure has reduced from 12-15,000 rounds per day to around 6000 per day. An analysis of the NASA Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS) satellite imagery by UK academic Dr Phillips O’Brien has also shown a significant decrease in artillery fire concentration since the arrival of HIMARS.

Others are Observing and Adapting Too

The war in Ukraine has shown how a well-led, motivated and well-supplied defending force can effectively disrupt or even defeat an adversary with superior size and military means. At a minimum, the strength of contemporary defensive regimes means that defenders can significantly inflict significant costs, and prolong the duration, of an aggressor’s military aggression. Lessons in areas such as leadership, multidomain integration, signature management, closing ‘detection to destruction’ time against an adversary, massed use of crewed and uncrewed systems, information operations and industrial scale warfare are likely to be prevalent in these studies. These will all drive institutional adaptation.

Both the United States and the Chinese have been watching the war in Ukraine carefully. It is very likely that the observations and analysis of the war by the U.S., and China, will result in adaptation to their weapons programs, warfighting concepts, organisations and the training of their personnel. 

The U.S. Army, based on its desire to learn from the war, has already delayed the release of the next version of its doctrine Multi Domain Warfare. It has dispatched a team to Europe to gather lessons, and these will inform an adapted version of the doctrine, as well as the equipment, organisations and training regimes to realise it on the battlefield.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army, which is nowhere near as transparent in its force planning as western democracies, is also watching the war in Ukraine closely. It is likely to draw lessons around operational integration and speed, information operations, covert warfare to remove political leaders, and war at industrial scale. Keen observers will be watching the next annual report from the Pentagon on Chinese military developments for where its adaptation based on Ukraine lessons might be apparent.

Conclusion

American scholar Frank Hoffman has written that ‘the ultimate test of military preparation and effectiveness does not end once a war begins. On the contrary, history strongly reflects the enduring phenomena of learning and implementing change during war…The requirement that a force must adapt while it is in combat is built into the inherent nature of war.’ The rapid pace of change in war results in an interactive approach where belligerents are constantly seeking advantage and adapting at many levels concurrently. This adaptation battle, witnessed throughout the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is a core part of warfare. The ability to succeed in this adaptation battle, underpinned by institutional learning culture, must be a central part of contemporary military force design.

Mick Ryan

Mick Ryan is a recently retired Australian Army Major General. He is currently an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and is the author of War Transformed, a book on future war published February 15, 2022, by U.S. Naval Institute Books.

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