Russian fortifications present an old problem for Ukraine
- July 20, 2023
- David J Betz
Russian defensive capabilities are rooted in an old but effective twentieth century military strategy.
After more than a month of carnage, the long-awaited Ukrainian counter-offensive south of Zaporozhe looks to be going nowhere. Mired in dense thickets of physical obstacles and minefields, and unable to manoeuvre while lacking adequate protection from the air, Western-supplied Ukrainian armour is being picked off en masse by unsuppressed Russian anti-tank weapons and their infantry shredded by massive and well-directed artillery fire. The most optimistic assessment of Ukrainian advances, which have so far struggled to penetrate the screening layer of the Russian fortified strategic complex, is that they have been slow, very costly, and still far short of the supposed goal of cutting Russia’s land-link to Crimea.
It is true of modern warfare that battles have tended to be reckoned in weeks rather than days. Therefore, to some, as epitomised by the public pronouncements of the just-concluded NATO summit in Vilnius, the lack of Ukrainian progress thus far ought not to excite panic or pessimism but, rather, make it more important to show phlegmatic resolve, to carry on in the face of dire losses, or even to redouble efforts to achieve ultimate victory. While theoretically possible, the practical plausibility of such views is questionable.
For historical comparison to battles of similar scale, the first Battle of El Alamein took 19 days, the second required twenty-six, the Battle of the Bulge was a savage forty-two days long, the colossal Battle of Kursk transpired over fifty-two days of monumental effort, while Allied success in Operation Overlord was achieved after eighty-four days. By that reckoning, the current Ukrainian offensive sits somewhere between the Bulge and Kursk campaigns, with relatively little to show for it so far. Meanwhile, there are tentative signs of a shift by Russian forces back to the offensive in other quarters. In short, the situation for Ukraine is objectively dire, though not completely hopeless.
Why? The following essay is an attempt to explain an aspect of the larger answer to that question, which has been underdeveloped by punditry on the conflict.
The positional and attritional quality of the Russo-Ukraine War has surprised many observers. Many analysts have put this down to deficiencies in Russian and, sometimes, Ukrainian military effectiveness, with neither supposedly being capable of combined arms manoeuvre warfare as understood and practiced by the leading Western armies. I would suggest that this is incorrect.
It turns out that high-intensity conventional warfare in the twenty-first century is simply far more dependent upon the old necessities of mass and the physical and moral ability to endure and replace losses of men and equipment than many people expected. It is doubtful that any Western army would have performed better – most probably worse – and none would be capable of sustaining the losses suffered by either of the current belligerents. Germany, for instance, the richest and largest west European country and a traditional land power, recently announced its aspiration to be able to field a well-equipped army division (approximately 15,000 troops) by 2025. Ukraine probably lost more than that in the month of July while Russian mobilisation has added multiples of that in a year.
The fact is that Western military science, which has not been tested against a peer enemy in more than a generation, has got a major development in warfare seriously wrong, radically overestimating the power of offensive manoeuvre by highly mobile, digitally-networked forces that are relatively light, highly expensive, and in short supply—a ‘basket’ in which it has invested all its metaphorical ‘eggs’. Russia, by contrast, has maintained significant ‘old’ military capability, while at the same time using some new technologies at low cost, adapting its tactics at least adequately in most cases and, I shall argue, exceptionally in the case of field fortification.
If these assertions are surprising to readers, it is because the outpourings of Western military punditry have been so dismal: overly credulous of Ukrainian narratives, locked in a river of thinking that is outmoded, and exceedingly inclined to disparage or ignore obvious aspects of Russian military capability. In war it is perfectly sensible to lie to one’s enemy —indeed it is highly recommended; it is disastrous, though, to lie to oneself which, in fact, has been a main industry of the Western defence establishment for an unfortunately long time. Eventually, though, reality trumps wishful thinking and it is doing so now increasingly obviously on the Russian steppe.
False assumption of the ‘Modern System’
Until very recently, Western military theory has tended to regard fortification as having been made obsolescent by advances in the power and accuracy of weapons and the development of combined arms manoeuvre tactics. In Robert Leonard’s The Art of Manoeuvre, an important reference on the art of modern warfare, the subject is confined to an appendix on military engineers, in which it is stated:
… friendly obstacles serve mostly to fix the friendly force in place and do little to delay the enemy. The creation of complex obstacles often exhausts the defenders, and instead of focussing on defeating the enemy the friendly force gets distracted by its perceived need to defend the obstacle. This is an outgrowth of methodical battle.
Likewise, the ‘modern system’ of warfare, to use the term coined by the US defence analyst Stephen Biddle, presupposes that static fortifications have been fatally vulnerable for over a century. As Biddle put it:
While survival on the attack was especially problematic (how could one cross the fire-swept ground to advance on the enemy?), survival on the defence was no trivial matter either. Defenders could dig into the ground for protection, but even thoroughly dug static positions could be blasted out by the new artillery given time.
The crux of the matter is that ‘complex obstacles’ have proven in contemporary operations to be quite effective. Moreover, while it is undoubtedly true that modern weapons can be highly accurate, static positions seem still to be quite durable — indeed, they are highly effective when part of a sensibly designed fire system, which has the potential to strike back accurately at attackers from relatively protected positions. In short, a central assumption of Western military theory would seem to have dubious validity: reports of the death of fortification have been greatly exaggerated.
Conformation of the defence
Superficially, it is not that Russian military is employing defensive fieldworks in a way that is particularly new. For example, consider these lines from an article by Colonel A. Lebedev in the Russian military journal Voennaia Mysl’ entitled ‘Permanent Defence Systems in Light of War Experiences’:
Impenetrability is secured by echeloning fire structure in depth and establishing fortified zones comprising several sections. The attacking enemy troops should be left with only one type of manoeuvre, namely a frontal blow aiming at a breakthrough. After breaking through the front and neutralising the defence structures along the axis of his blow, the enemy is gradually drawn into a ‘pocket’, bordered by fortified structures echeloned in depth, compartments of terrain and a second zone; as he has very limited possibilities to expand towards the flanks, he is doomed to destruction in that ‘pocket’ by the fire and counterblow of the defenders.
What he describes is a fair description of the challenge faced by Ukrainian troops and armour today, struggling frontally through layers of mines and barriers, all the while being savaged by the missile and artillery fire of dug-in Russian forces.
Except the article was written in 1945 and the war experiences to which he refers are those such as the gigantic Battle of Kursk fought almost exactly eighty years ago in the summer of 1943. The sheer size of the current fortifications, which exceed well over a thousand kilometres in length and up to fifty kilometres in depth, and the speed with which they were constructed is a sign that Russia has retained significant military engineering capabilities. In current conditions this turns out to be an approach to defence in depth which is still important.
In basic form and means of construction, Russian field fortifications would seem to differ little from those prescribed in doctrine during the 1960s. The stability of the defence, particularly against armoured attackers, depends upon a combination of elements. Company and platoon strongpoints with their own anti-tank weapons and capable of all-round defence, are dispersed throughout the defended area. These are disposed so that their fire intercepts the most probable directions of attack, which in turn are prepared with anti-tank mines and physical barriers. Powerful tube and rocket artillery, anti-tank missiles, and air defence systems controlled by higher-level commanders are also dug in, as are control centres, supply points, and so on.
The pattern of defensive fortifications as described above should be taken as a guideline rather than as a rigid set of rules. Commanders vary the order, depth, and location of elements as the terrain and threat suggests. Lines of defence may be repeated several times over depths of many kilometres, creating a powerful interlocking system where perceived threat is the greatest. Moreover, rocket artillery, able to create new minefields remotely in areas which an enemy has cleared, allow the defence to rejuvenate itself even while combat operations continue.
None of this is to ignore advancements in the ability of armed forces to conduct integrated military operations driven by the effective employment of relatively new and cheap information technologies. Likewise, one cannot discount the impact of things like low-cost drones, loitering munitions like the Russian Lancet system, now being produced in large numbers, and so on. These represent powerful changes, but they are occurring within a context of operations that is broadly continuous: old rules still apply and supposedly outdated military instruments have turned out not to be.
Field fortifications are by definition expedient: the point is to use the ground one must defend sensibly, deploy whatever resources are available creatively, and estimate enemy intentions, tactics, and weapons accurately. The evidence suggests that Russian commanders have done this well. A noteworthy and generally misinterpreted Russian military practice has been the effective redeployment of supposedly antiquated military systems, including old tanks and naval anti-aircraft gun turrets, specifically integrated into defensive positions where they provide good service as field artillery and useful, if rudimentary, short-range air defence against cheap commercial drones and quadcopters.
The measure of a modern field fortification’s utility is not whether it halts an enemy attack on its most forward elements. On the contrary, the defence against a major combined arms attack presupposes that penetrations will be worn down in depth by the fire system which the fortified area comprises. Russian doctrine has long emphasised the function of fortifications as being part of an integrated fire system, understood as the organised deployment and use of protected weapons to destroy attackers on the deep approaches to the defence, in the immediate forward edge of the battle line, on the flanks, and when the enemy wedges into salient of the defence.
Such ideas are hardly unique to Russian military thinking. Much the same ideas were part of the 1980s era ‘AirLand Battle’ concept developed by NATO to defend Western Europe against an attack by the materially preponderant Warsaw Pact. In that case, the plan envisaged a combination of ‘mobile’ and ‘area’ defence. The former ‘orient on the destruction of the attacking force by permitting the enemy to advance into a position that exposes him to counterattack’. The latter ‘orient on retention of terrain by absorbing the enemy in an interlocking series of positions and destroying him largely by fires’. In addition, deep strikes against supply concentrations, transport hubs, and reinforcements were intended to further degrade and enervate an attack.
On one level, it is notable that Russia seems to be successfully operating something like the form of defence envisaged by the West nearly 40 years ago to confront the Warsaw Pact’s armoured mass by superior application of its advantages in computing and micro-electronics – capabilities which the Soviet Union did not possess. The thing is, however, that Russia does now possess such capabilities, while also having a military-industrial mass and wherewithal to match. Quite astonishingly, Ukraine does not, even when backed by the collective West.
The central question comes down to a calculation of certain factors. What is the ultimate object of the offensive against which the fortified system is intended to defend, and what is the strength of the attack? The answers, in turn, govern the necessary depth and density of the defence. In the case at hand, while it is impossible to know for sure the minds of the Ukrainian generals in charge, it would seem sensible that the object is, at least to sever Russian supply lines to Crimea by recapturing Melitopol. By that measure, after over a month of Ukrainian assaults, they are not so much being worn down in the depths of the Russian defence, but are instead being stymied in the ‘crumple zone’.
This bleak assessment will dismay some readers. It is possible still that the Ukrainian armed forces might achieve the longed-for breakthrough of Russian defensive lines. It is possible that the much-predicted collapse of the will of Russian soldiers to continue to resist so sturdily will transpire. The likelihood of either, however, has been considerably exaggerated in Western accounts and is diminishing daily. It must be said, moreover, that Russian defensive doctrine is clear that the point of defence is ultimately, simply, to serve as the launchpad of a successful offence. That matter would seem increasingly imminent.
Generally, field fortifications possess a salience in contemporary warfare that is contrary to the expectations of military theory. Russia is capable in this form of warfare because it possesses a depth of equipment and skills which are old but effective. It also innovates sensibly and at low cost with deep strike weapons that have enhanced the power of its defence in a way that is reminiscent of Cold War-era NATO plans for the defence of Western Europe.
It follows that the prospects for the Ukrainian counteroffensive are dim. Should that conclusion strike readers as especially disappointing it might provide some consolation that, perhaps in relatively short order, it will be up to Russia to find a solution to the conundrum of renewing the decisiveness of the offensive in warfare against contemporary field fortifications which has so far eluded everyone else. The likelihood, barring significant alteration of the geopolitical positions taken by the main belligerents, is that it will be a long while before it ends.