The misfortunes of war

  • Themes: War

Recent military failures in Ukraine and the Middle East shed light on the future of warfare while reaffirming the age-old truth that, in conflict, little is ever truly new.

A field and road covered with craters and wreckage near Kharkiv in Ukraine.
A field and road covered with craters and wreckage near Kharkiv in Ukraine. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

The experience of failure is one of the best ways for individuals and institutions to improve their performance. Many institutions use military failure as a core element of training to bring out important teaching points, for both individuals and teams. The US Army’s National Training Center and the Australian Army’s Combat Training Centre, for example, both employ failure as a mechanism for learning. This approach recognises failure not as a setback, but as a powerful catalyst for growth and adaptation in military contexts.

By understanding patterns of failure, strategists can better prepare for potential pitfalls and enhance the resilience of their operations. In The Logic of Failure, Dietrich Dorner provides valuable insight into this process, noting that ‘failure does not strike like a bolt from the blue; it develops gradually according to its own logic… We can learn, however. People court failure in predictable ways.’ This perspective transforms failure from a feared outcome into a strategic tool, one that can significantly enhance military effectiveness and decision-making when properly understood and utilised.

From the failure of the Athenians on two expeditions to Syracuse during the Peloponnesian War to the destruction of the Roman legions at Lake Trasimene in 217 BC, to the French at Agincourt in 1415, and the Iraqi failure in the Gulf War in 1991, history offers a multitude of examples of defeat that can and must be studied to inform, adapt and improve the effectiveness of contemporary military institutions.

As Eliot Cohen and John Gooch have written, military failure fits into at least one, or often all, of the following categories: failure to learn, failure to anticipate, and failure to adapt. Every type of failure, individually or in the aggregate, provides an opportunity to learn. This learning opportunity is most powerful when failures are studied, as the historian Michael Howard once recommended, in ‘width, depth and context’.

To these historical failures must now be added those that have taken place in this new century. In the first two and a half decades of the 21st century, examples of military failure include that of the Iraqi Army and Air Force in 2003, the failure of Armenia in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, and the United States’ chaotic withdrawal from Kabul in 2021, which ended the Western military campaign in Afghanistan. Each represents a useful case study of failure in contemporary warfare.

Even more recent examples of military failure are available from the past year which offer lessons that might be tactically, operationally and strategically effective in war under modern conditions. Three in particular stand out: first, the Battle of Kyiv in February and March 2022 between Russia and Ukraine. Second, the 2023 Ukrainian counteroffensive in southern Ukraine. Finally, the October 2023 Hamas attack on southern Israel.

The Battle of Kyiv in early 2022 involved the clash of Russian and Ukrainian forces in a large-scale conventional conflict over the Ukrainian capital. Not only did it see the massive use of armour, artillery and air power, but it also featured the vast application of uncrewed aerial systems to streamline the time between the identification of an opponent and the attack.

In the lead-up to the 2022 invasion, Russian intelligence provided an inaccurate picture of Ukrainian military capacity and national resolve to Putin and his military planners. The Russian airborne attack on the Ukrainian town of Hostomel, near the capital, in February 2022, was audacious but it foundered on Ukrainian resistance and its use of air defence weapons to prevent the re-supply of the elite Russian airborne troops at the local airfield. With the primary assault plan to seize Kyiv failing, the Russians adapted their strategy and commenced a large-scale ground advance towards Kyiv.

The Russian army had not prepared for a fighting advance toward Kyiv. Many of its troops had not been given advance warning of the invasion, believing they were on military exercises. This denied commanders the time to prepare and rehearse their units and formations.

Once they advanced to the River Irpin, the Russians discovered that the bridges across the river had been destroyed and the area flooded. This forced an operational pause of Russian ground forces. The break allowed the Ukrainians time to reinforce their defences north of Kyiv, and to begin identifying the Russian logistics convoys that would be savaged in the following weeks. Throughout their attempts to advance into Kyiv from the north, most Russian units proved unable to execute combined arms operations in a way that overcame Ukrainian resistance.

The Battle of Moschun is another example of inadequate Russian military performance in their northern campaign. For several weeks in March 2022, the Ukrainian 72nd Mechanised Brigade – ably supported by local civilians, territorial defence force personnel and some special operations forces – was able to hold off a determined push by at least two elite Russian airborne divisions over multiple assaults. This demonstration of Ukrainian will from soldiers and civilians not only turned the tide of a tactical battle along the Irpin, but was also the culmination of the failed Russian campaign to take Kyiv. The victory at Moschun had significant strategic importance, as the Russian defeat was broadcast throughout Ukraine and across the globe as a demonstration of Ukrainian will.

At the same time, the Ukrainian government, instead of evacuating to the West at the start of Russia’s invasion, remained in Kyiv and rallied the nation to arms. Along with the many demonstrations of Ukrainian resolve at the battlefront, this resulted in commitments of Western support and the rapid provision of arms, such as Javelin anti-tank weapons, other munitions and military materiel.

In their attack on Kyiv, the Russians had grossly underestimated both the capacity and the will of the Ukrainians at every level. Their assumptions about the lack of national unity, and the fighting power of the Ukrainian military, were proven wrong early in their large-scale invasion. At the same time, the assumptions made by Putin and his intelligence services about potential support from NATO and other Western nations were also proven wrong. Had the Russians been more diligent in their estimation of Ukrainian resistance to their intended takeover, and not assumed they could subjugate the country in ten days, February 2022 may have turned out very differently for Ukraine and Russia.

The tactical, strategic and political impacts of this Russian military failure were widespread. Tactically, the Russians had been beaten in a major campaign by a smaller, less well-equipped adversary that had proven to be highly adaptive, fast-moving and able to rapidly absorb new technologies such as drones as well as new Western weapons. The Russians lost thousands of troops, killed and wounded, while also losing tanks, other armoured fighting vehicles and trucks in very large numbers.

Strategically, the world looked anew at the Russian military. In the decade before the war, the reforms led by General Valery Gerasimov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu were generally assessed by many Western analysts to have created an effective, modern fighting force. The Russian defeat in the Battle of Kyiv showed that this was far from the truth and that Russian military effectiveness, competence and leadership were poor. The concept of the Battalion Tactical Group – Russia’s combined arms and highly manoeuvrable unit – was thoroughly shredded by the inadequate performance of its undermanned units on the road to Kyiv.

Perhaps most profoundly, the heroism and battlefield success of Ukraine exceeded Western expectations and led to a massive surge of diplomatic, military, and financial support for Ukraine, as well as sanctions against Russia. Russian aggression reinvigorated a stagnant NATO alliance, which, in its newly revived form, has coordinated the provision of military hardware, training support, logistics, cyber operations, and defence industrial production over the past two years. This was not just a military failure but a profound political failure on the part of Putin and his advisors. It is a demonstration that military failure is often accompanied by political costs.

Over a year into the war, in June 2023, Ukraine launched its much-anticipated counteroffensive against Russia in southern Ukraine. Leading with newly formed and Western-equipped brigades, the Ukrainian assault quickly bogged down, however, in the deep defensive zones constructed by the Russians in the preceding six months. After suffering significant casualties, and liberating only limited Ukrainian territory, the counteroffensive was acknowledged by the Ukrainian president as a failure in December 2023.

There were an array of contributing factors to Ukraine’s military failure. The Ukrainians deployed many newly raised brigades for this offensive. While the Ukrainian army was supplied with the latest Western armoured vehicles and weapons, the lack of combined arms experience limited their capacity. Brigades were unable to generate battlegroup level assaults, normally relying on company level attacks. The quantity, density and intensity of artillery fire, only around 2:1 in Ukraine’s favour, was inadequate and went against normal doctrine and historical evidence about the need for an even greater advantage in fire support. The integration of supporting elements, particularly engineers, was, furthermore, inadequate, and those engineers that were allocated were poorly equipped.

Most significantly, the Ukrainians did not mount an attack with the appropriate level of surprise to push the Russians back. At the strategic and operational levels, it was clear well before the counteroffensive that Ukraine’s main effort for the second half of 2023 would be in southern Ukraine. This ensured that the Russians did not have to face any significant dilemmas about its force positioning in the lead-up to, and during, the Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Ukrainians were facing a Russian army in the second half of 2023 that was vastly different to the one it had faced in earlier operations. It had learned some of the lessons of the previous year and had adapted its structures and tactics for a successful defensive operation.

After military failures in Kharkiv and Kherson, the Russian army had focused on the construction of an extensive belt of fortifications in southern Ukraine. Known as the Surovikin Line, after the ruthless commander dubbed ‘General Armageddon’ by the Russian media, it was constructed in full view of Ukrainian and Western surveillance. New technologies such as drones added to Russian tactical learning, and deep defensive installations of millions of landmines made the Russian plan of defence extraordinarily effective.

Perhaps the greatest failure of the Ukrainian counteroffensive was its inability to meet the high expectations raised by months of strategic influence operations, and media reporting in the lead-up.

Some, like the then Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov noted that expectations were ‘definitely overheated’ and tried to lower expectations, to little effect. Regardless of who was responsible for raising expectations for Ukrainian success in southern Ukraine, these were dashed upon the minefields, trench lines and improved kill chains of the Russian army. The Russians had been underestimated by Ukraine and its NATO supporters. This was a collective failure by Ukrainian political and military leaders, as well as politicians in Ukraine and beyond.

The impacts of this failure were widespread. Most obvious was the large number of Ukrainian soldiers killed and wounded during the counteroffensive. Irreplaceable to their families and friends, these soldiers were also very hard to replace for the Ukrainian military, and their loss has had a significant impact on all subsequent operations. It also provided a strategic opportunity for the Russians in Ukraine to reset and reconstitute in other areas.

It was the political repercussions that had the most profound significance, however. Ukraine’s failure generated widespread dismay in Western nations, caused reputational damage to Ukraine and contributed to the prolonged debate in the US Congress about assistance for Ukraine. The Ukrainian failure reinvigorated Russian misinformation campaigns about the war and reinforced their central message of ‘inevitable Russian victory’. It was also a contributing factor in the December 2023 civil-military crisis in Ukraine, which saw the removal of the Ukrainian commander-in-chief, Valerii Zaluzhnyi. Ever since the failure of its counteroffensive, Ukraine has been militarily on the back foot and, for it to regain the initiative, it will need to learn the lessons for its next major advance on Russian forces.

The October 2023 attacks on southern Israel by Hamas is perhaps the greatest military failure in the history of modern Israel. At dawn on 7 October, thousands of Hamas terrorists poured through nearly 30 breaches in the security fence separating Gaza from Israel and attacked multiple kibbutzim. Nearly 1,000 Israeli civilians and around 300 Israeli military personnel were killed responding to the attack.

A wide array of factors contributed to the failure of the IDF to protect its citizens – and even its own military headquarters. An over-reliance on remote intelligence and strike was a significant factor, and this resulted in an underappreciation of open source and human intelligence. There have been multiple stories of senior officers ignoring young soldiers and non-commissioned officers who reported Hamas preparations before 7 October. The Israelis even had a copy of the Hamas plan, known as ‘Plan Jericho’, but these warning signs about Hamas’ intention to implement the plan were not acted upon.

At the higher levels of the Israeli military command, and among the political leadership, there was a widespread belief that the leaders of Hamas were moderating their behaviour and that Hamas was more interested in the governance in Gaza than attacking Israel. The force posture of the IDF reflected this. Many army battalions had been moved from the Gaza area to the West Bank, leaving only three combat battalions in the area ready to respond.

The IDF divisional headquarters for Gaza was located with its brigade headquarters, which meant the possibility that two entire command levels could be destroyed if the base was attacked. The readiness of many Israeli units in the Gaza area had been found to be suboptimal in the months before the attacks. There is little evidence that efforts were made to improve this readiness before 7 October, given Israeli soldiers in several locations were killed in their beds or inside their barracks.

Overall, there was a drastic underestimation by the IDF leadership about the will and capacity of Hamas to plan and execute the assault on Israel that it executed in October 2023. Hamas undertook a carefully planned operation, which relied on simultaneity, attacking military headquarters – including that of IDF’s Gaza division – and sensors to overwhelm the IDF. It effectively used deception before the attacks to lull the Israelis into a false sense of security. When Hamas launched its cross-border assault, it relied on speed and shock action to rapidly move forces into settlements across southern Israel.

While the immediate impact of the Hamas attacks was the deaths of around 1,200 Israeli civilians and military personnel – and the taking hostage of hundreds more – there have been far more serious strategic and political impacts. The Israelis had underestimated an enemy with a public agenda to destroy the state of Israel who had rehearsed its plans for attack in the open. This was a failure of intelligence analysis and strategic risk assessment. The inability of the IDF to defend the kibbutzim in southern Israel resulted in a crisis of confidence among Israeli citizens, indeed a civil-military crisis, because Israelis feared their military could no longer defend them.

The 7 October attack led to the collapse of Israel’s deterrence strategy, which has been a foundational aspect of Israel’s national security policy, since the country was established after the Second World War. Hizbollah and Iran have been emboldened to undertake their own attacks on Israel. Finally, the failure of 7 October led to Israel seeking to ‘re-establish deterrence’ with its attack on Gaza, which has resulted in the deaths of thousands of Hamas fighters, Gazan civilians and Israeli soldiers. This has had a very significant impact on the reputation of Israel, and its political support in places such as the United States, while, as of yet, it has failed to re-establish a sustained system of deterrence.

There are a number of lessons to be learned from the recent experiences of war between Ukraine and Russia, and Israel and Hamas. First, over recent years, the term ‘transparent battlefield’ has gained wide currency. Used in media reports to describe the impact of modern surveillance technologies and their applications in seemingly making warzones entirely visible, ‘transparent battlefield’ is a misleading and unhelpful term.

As these three examples of modern military failure show, there is no such thing as battlefield transparency. The Russians had very good visibility of Ukrainian units and their commanders in 2022 yet still failed in their offensive. The Ukrainians had an excellent picture of Russian defences in southern Ukraine before their counteroffensive. And Israeli commanders had precise details of the Hamas plan of attack.

Each of the institutions that suffered failure was unable to turn their battlefield knowledge into military success. Even if modern technologies have enhanced the visibility of military operations for commanders and politicians, being able to see many things is different to possessing the wisdom to understand what is happening, why it is so, and what might happen next. No technology can peer into the minds of enemy commanders and politicians and then accurately predict their next action. Until that occurs, if ever, the idea of a transparent battlefield remains a seductive but unattainable myth.

Second, the three case studies explored in this article all feature new and innovative applications of uncrewed aerial vehicles in the preparatory phases of battle, as well as during combat itself. The successful belligerent in each of the examples demonstrated a more effective application of drone technology. During the Battle of Kyiv, the Ukrainians used a patchwork of military and civilian drones to ascertain the positions of Russian forces and to coordinate artillery and ground attacks. The Russians demonstrated little capacity to defend against them.

In the Ukrainian 2023 counteroffensive, both sides used drones, but the Russians had learned from the Ukrainians about the use of aerial surveillance and loitering munitions to streamline their defensive kill chains, particularly in the targeting of high-value, low-density targets such as Ukrainian mechanised engineer equipment. On 7 October 2023, Hamas employed drones to destroy cameras and remotely operated weapons on guard towers proximate to the border wall and used them to disable ambulances at Israeli healthcare facilities.

In all of the examples, the failed military organisation had inadequate drone countermeasures. In the Battle of Kyiv and the Hamas’ attack, this was the result of inadequate anticipation that such technologies would be effectively employed against Russian and Israeli forces. In the case of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, this was a mixture of inadequate learning about how Russia had improved its application of drones, as well as a technological shortfall in drone defences. Regardless, in all three cases, the utility of uncrewed aerial systems was a contributing factor in the failure of the opposing side.

Third, a failure of humility occurs when a military force fails to undertake the intellectual efforts to understand its adversary or refuses to believe its own assessments of the enemy – as occurred with the IDF before 7 October. In essence, it is a symptom of failing to respect the capabilities of one’s enemy. While there may be many historical examples of failures of humility in military institutions, the modern era also has exemplars we need to study. The common theme of these modern failures is the inability to either understand the enemy or give one’s enemy adequate credit for being a thinking, complex and adaptive entity that studies its adversary and plans accordingly.

One might surmise that the surprise that results from this failure of institutional learning, adaptation and humility is just an inevitable part of war. In the modern era, military institutions can at least minimise its occurrence through the study of previous military failures and advanced analysis using artificial intelligence. Not doing so is a failure of leadership, imagination and, yes, humility.

Fourth, every example of military failure explored in this article also resulted in significant political consequences. The failed battle for Kyiv resulted in a transformed European security architecture. A previously moribund NATO alliance was re-energised and expanded and has since played a vital role in supporting Ukraine. The failed Ukrainian counteroffensive in 2023 had the opposite effect. It led to a civil-military crisis in Ukraine as well as declining confidence and support for the war among Western political elites and citizens.

Perhaps the most profound political backlash of the three case studies explored in this article occurred after the 7 October 2023 attacks on Israel. Not only did Israeli citizens turn on their prime minister, but the Israeli response to the attacks has also led to significant tensions with its key supporters, including America, massive demonstrations against Israel’s operations in Gaza and the rise of antisemitism across the globe. Military commanders in the modern era, just like their predecessors across history, cannot escape the political consequences of their military failures. Regardless of the causes of military failure, political repercussions inevitably follow.

In conclusion, while there remain information gaps about all of these failures, the great tragedy of the lessons from these recent military failures is that almost none of them are unique. Almost nothing in war is new. A deeper analysis is required to deduce the systemic and institutional causes of these failures. Understanding these will also assist modern military institutions to better avoid failure.

The only truly new element is the role of drones in these failures. They have played a role in each of the battles. However, if a broader view about the impact of new technologies is taken, this may not be such a new lesson. Whether it is the application of chariots in the Battle of Kadesh between the Egyptians and the Hittites in the 13th century BC, the use of steam-powered trains in the American Civil War, or the radar and electronic warfare of the Second World War, new technologies have always appeared in war. And, at least initially, they have made an impact before the other side adapted. The use of drones in these three case studies appears to accord with the lessons about the historical absorption of new technologies during war.

There is much that should be learned, or relearned, from these modern military failures. They provide the most recent, and perhaps more relatable, examples for the current generation of military and national security professionals. Military failure should be an essential aspect of study for aspiring military leaders and effective military institutions. It may not be the ultimate guarantor of battlefield success or victory in war, but it is certainly a better strategy than ignoring lessons from the past in order to personally learn the agony of defeat.


Mick Ryan