The End of Offensive Warfare

The End of Offensive Warfare. By Christopher Roach.

Ukraine’s vaunted counteroffensive is not going well. … [But] the front lines have barely budged, and Ukraine has lost enormous numbers of men and equipment.

This debacle provides important lessons for the United States and students of warfare more generally.

Technology has swung back in favor of the defender since WWII. That war featured tanks but no anti-tank missiles or smart weapons, which allowed the offense to gain the upper hand briefly. Otherwise, more accurate firearms and machine guns had been swinging warfare in favor of the defender ever since Napoleon.

Extensive minefields, drone-sighted artillery, and entrenched defenders mean Ukrainian forces can barely advance into “no man’s land.” They are being stopped at the skirmish line and have gotten nowhere close to the second and third echelons of Russian defenders. Dozens of Leopard II tanks and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles — NATO’s state-of-the-art land warfare equipment — have been blown up and set on fire by mines, kamikaze drones, and artillery during the stalled offensive. …

The ill-fated offensive seems to illustrate a broader change in warfare. If World War I was a stalemate, and World War II featured significant amounts of maneuver, one must ask whether current conditions favor the attacker or the defender.

The Israeli Six-Day War and the American Gulf War suggested modern wars would be fast-paced, airpower and tank heavy, and characterized by “big arrow” offensives.

For both campaigns, there are even more recent counterexamples. Israel’s wars in Lebanon, both in 1982 and 2006, bogged down significantly. In the first, the requirements of urban combat favored the defender. In the second, Hezbollah’s anti-tank missiles imposed significant casualties and interfered with the attacker’s momentum. This was not an entirely new problem; difficulties with Soviet surface-to-air and wire-guided anti-tank missiles caused the IDF significant trouble during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

While the Gulf War was an impressive victory — and it resembled the Six Day War in its speed — Americans fought against an extremely unmotivated enemy. Ever since, American military leaders have treated the war as a vindication of western doctrine and the harbinger of a technology-based “revolution in military affairs.”

This has proven both premature and risky, because the Iraqis could not have been more cooperative in refusing to maneuver, surrendering en masse, and conducting de minimis air defense. The Iraqi military was similarly unmotivated, disorganized, and incapable during the 2003 American invasion. In both cases, the enemy did not put American doctrines and technology to a serious test.

The United States has not had a significant conventional fight against a near-peer opponent since the Korean War. In Korea, despite some large movements in the early years, the war bogged down into a low-mobility war of attrition between heavily entrenched opponents.

The Ukraine War also illustrates the difficulty of conducting a war of maneuver. During the initial stages of the invasion, Russia deviated from its own conservative doctrine and conducted deep thrusts into the Sumy, Kherson, and Kiev regions, and avoided the entrenched defenders opposing Donetsk. These under-manned assaults, while they penetrated deep into Ukraine and caused a degree of panic, proved to be highly vulnerable to ambushes of their supporting units. These ambushes, in turn, left the tanks and armored personnel carriers leading the assault stranded without gasoline and other supplies far from friendly lines.

Images of destroyed and abandoned equipment fueled an outpouring of western propaganda dismissing the Russian military as incompetent and incapable. Russia’s “shock and awe” tactics turned out to be either a major mistake or a gamble that failed. Russia has since returned to a more conservative, plodding attritional strategy along the heavily-fortified frontline. …

After the long and costly Russian victory in Bakhmut and the apparently failing Ukrainian offensive in the Zaporozhye region, an important question presents itself: how can military power be used effectively on the offense?

This question is particularly important for the United States, because our entire foreign policy is devoted to power projection, and Ukraine is using our equipment, ammunition, doctrine, and intelligence. In other words, Ukraine’s results are a test case for the American way of war against a conventional opponent.

If Ukraine is incapable of imposing its will offensively — or only able to do so after long, grinding campaigns of attrition — that would presumably apply to the United States as well, whether in a direct NATO confrontation with Russia, but also in any future war with China, Iran, or some other conventional opponent.

The Ukraine War is the largest conventional conflict since World War II. It has little resemblance to the low-intensity guerilla wars that characterized American, NATO, and Russian conflicts during the preceding 75 years. There is much to be learned.

The most important emerging lesson from this war is that the defender is strongly favored, because defensive strategies leverage modern technology — particularly drone, mine, and missile technology — better than offensive strategies. As Clausewitz observed, “the defensive form of war is in itself stronger than the offensive.”

This is not, however, a permanent condition. It is likely some new technology will provide attackers an advantage and permit maneuver to resume. This happened in earlier wars, with the tank providing a way through the trenches of World War I, and the helicopter allowing vertical envelopment in Korea and Vietnam.

But, presently, the antidote to massive numbers of artillery, mines, trenches, surface to air, and anti-tank missiles has not emerged, save for nuclear weapons. And if either side resorts to those, everyone loses.

After the first two months, Russian advances in the Ukraine war stopped. The Russian military obviously cannot win the war.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive might be judged a partial success because it is taking some ground, but it is too slow and the cost is too high. So the Ukrainians probably now realize that they, too, cannot win the war militarily.

The predicted military stalemate has arrived.

In addition, Putin was shown by last weekend’s short-lived coup to have a surprisingly weak hold on power.

So, finally, negotiations are possible. No one is holding reasonable hopes of “winning,” and the costs keep mounting for everyone. Time for talking.