Best Defense
Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Hybrid war’s sword arm: The Russians have found good tactical innovations

A quote widely attributed to Julius Caesar goes something like this: “Men worry more about what they cannot see than what they can.”




By Adrian Bonenberger
Best Defense office of Russo-Ukranian affairs

A quote widely attributed to Julius Caesar goes something like this: “Men worry more about what they cannot see than what they can.” So far as I can tell, this is an interpretation from a passage in Caesar’s Gallic War, in which he relates how he played upon a Gallic army’s fears to lure them into ambush: Multae res adhoc consilium Gallos hortabantur: superiorum dierum Sabinicunctatio perfugae confirmation, inopia cibariorum, cui reiparum diligenter ab iis erat provisum, spes Venetici belli, etquod fere libenter homines id quod volunt credunt.

The U.S. military is a long way away from ancient Rome, both in time and in space, the variables by which all great leaders estimate battlefields. Nevertheless, U.S. strategists and thinkers have wisely decided to estimate their likeliest next foe: Russia, a country that had insisted on staying the course with 19th century nationalism and empire, while the rest of the world has spun increasingly toward globalism and interdependence. Many words have been spilled trying to capture the idea of what’s called “hybrid war,” with limited success.

Majors Amos C. Fox and Andrew J. Rossow recently co-authored and published a paper with the Institute of Land Warfare, titled “Making Sense of Russian Hybrid Warfare: A Brief Assessment of the Russo-Ukrainian War.” While the paper fails to “make sense” of Russian Hybrid Warfare, it succeeds in accomplishing something much more important by focusing on certain specific Russian doctrinal innovations that pose serious threats to U.S. force organizations. Fox and Rossow deserve applause and encouragement for their efforts, and one hopes that this assessment leads to more papers that pose similar questions and spend more time fleshing out answers.

A Too-Brief Assessment

On to the analysis of their assessment. To begin with, 16 pages is not much space. The paper’s thesis revolves around hybrid war, and its authors spend too much of their limited room grappling with the fundamental question of what makes hybrid war hybrid or special. They offer a series of unsatisfying summaries of other experts’ unsatisfying claims, and come up with an unwieldy version of “hybrid war = information operations + unconventional + cyber + conventional, spread out along an axis of covert and overt operations.” If this feels jumbled and confused, that’s because analysis of hybrid war is jumbled and confused, intentionally so. The authors take Russia and Russia’s strategic goals into account, which is informative but not particularly useful for analysis. A theory of war isn’t specific to a nation — that’s a theory of nationalism or national identity. Blitzkrieg isn’t “Germany’s Blitzkrieg,” it’s a series of tactical and administrative or institutional innovations that anyone can replicate given sufficient resources (and many have).

The authors would have done just as well to state a basic theory about hybrid war in plain terms. For example: “Hybrid War is conflict that occurs at intersections between different civic, political, and military sectors where a hostile country can apply strength in ways that disadvantage its enemy with the goal of breaking up diplomatic or territorial integrity.” Boom, done. The most buzzwordy and least tangible (though, arguably, the most important) component of the paper has been dealt with in a sentence or paragraph, and the authors can move on to the part that’s far more measurable and interesting.

Russian Doctrinal Innovations

Beginning on page six of the paper, with the section titled “The Battalion Tactical Group,” Fox and Rossow deliver the goods that many have been waiting for about the structure of Russia’s military as it exists on the ground in Russia and in neighboring countries like Ukraine. They observe and measure Russian military capabilities at the Battalion level, compare them with equivalent U.S. formations, and conclude that Russian military formations at the Battalion level compare favorably with U.S. formations at the Brigade level. That this argument could be made should give every U.S. planner pause. Where Fox and Rossow are wrong about hybrid war (in much the same way almost everyone is wrong) is while they’re correct to say that on a strictly military level, the Russians have figured out how to present force overmatch by decentralizing C2 — command — while potentially disrupting U.S. C2.

This may or may not actually be a threat to U.S. forces — I believe that it is not, currently, and will go into why momentarily — but it easily could be, and the chances that this possibility will metastasize into reality improve dynamically when strategic planners do nothing to confront the threat. In this sense, Fox and Rossow are issuing what amounts to a dire but timely warning: Prepare for Russian capabilities or prepare for unanticipated losses.

The BTG’s Perceived Strengths

Fox and Rossow give the Russians every benefit of the doubt, which is a useful rhetorical device to point out the threat to U.S. formations. Brigade tactical groups (BTG) possess greater firepower that they can deliver at a much greater distance than an armored bolt carrier group (BCG) — while their tanks and equipment are inferior in quality, a BTG possesses rocket artillery, self-propelled artillery guns (152mm), and anti-air assets sufficient to deter close combat attack (CCA) and defeat drone reconnaissance. On paper, a BTG would be a serious problem for BCGs, as 152mm self-propelled guns (SPG) could engage from 6,000m out on “direct fire” mode, and rocket artillery has range in the dozens of kilometers depending on what sort of rocket artillery is along for the ride. An Abrams main gun can effectively engage targets out to 2500 meters — there are no artillery or rocket artillery assets with a U.S. Armored or Mechanized BCG, nor are there AA assets.

As every commander knows, once a unit begins taking casualties a battle can bog down very quickly, even if one has superiority over an enemy. One or two U.S. tanks go down 4-6,000 meters away from a Russian BTG and an entire operation could grind to a halt.

A less obvious claim within the piece is the implicit idea that Russian BTG commanders could be given an unusual amount of flexibility to accomplish tactical or strategic tasks in their area. When fighting an enemy, it is important to understand and anticipate how their doctrine conditions them to accept risk and make decisions, and it is a hallmark of Soviet and post-Soviet doctrine that individual subordinate initiative in battle is viewed with skepticism bordering on hostility. But the incorporation of such a flexible assortment of combat assets in the BTG implies that U.S. commanders could face unpredictable improvisation from their Russian counterparts. By its composition, the BTG inspires and demands individual initiative and unorthodox thinking.

Other Considerations

The paper had 16 pages in which to lay out claims and arguments, and with a great deal of that dedicated to wrestling with the chimera of hybrid war the authors gave themselves little space to conduct deeper analysis into actual Russian capabilities as well as Russian weaknesses. Here are some observations and considerations that may help others think further on the subject:

1) Overall, the authors attribute a level of sophistication to Russian equipment and personnel that is still hypothetical. A good example of this is the 152 SPA platform used by Russia, the 2S19 MSTA. The authors note that this system can engage targets out to 6,000 meters in direct fire mode, and the device’s technical specifications are impressive. All of this neglects to acknowledge that (a) this is not how Russia (or Ukraine, which also possesses the vehicle asset) has regularly employed the MSTA, and (b) it is unclear whether they intend to do so. The 2S19 MSTA has many capabilities, including direct fire and also the ability to fire tactical nuclear warheads. While it’s important to acknowledge and prepare for the possibility that an Abrams tank could receive effective fire from Russian SPA, the fact that a Russian BTG possesses this capability doesn’t necessarily mean that they can or will use it. As the authors point out elsewhere in the piece, wisely, Russian doctrine does not view civilian casualty reduction as a necessary or even wise component of warfare — and without moral or tactical incentives to produce precision munitions or the delivery systems necessary to use them (the Russians can simply saturate an area with rocket and conventional artillery, destroying units within), it seems unlikely that a Brigade S3’s worst fears about a system like the 2S19 MSTA taking out Abrams after Abrams on the battlefield will come to pass.

Having said all that, again, the authors do an excellent job of describing what could happen, worst case, and preparing for the worst case (even when that is not particularly likely) is how U.S. planners go about achieving stunning victories when aligned against symmetrically-aligned enemy forces.

2) Speaking of symmetry, the place where the authors could have invested much more attention, and which should be of great interest to planners, is the very time they dismiss with a hand-wave that “pre-partisan/partisan” period of April-June, 2014. Almost no formal research has been dedicated to understanding on a tactical level what occurred during partisan/conventional match-ups in Ukraine. Given that this is the very moment that the war sprang into being, and is therefore the most likely scenario to be encountered by U.S. forces operating alongside NATO allies in Eastern Europe, it would be wise for Army planners to dedicate more energy to the events that unfolded across the length and breadth of Ukraine during those crucial three months.

3) The assessment of the BTG’s capabilities and power depends mostly on fighting that occurred between June, 2014 and March, 2015. The authors draw important conclusions about Russian capabilities, but it is equally important for readers to understand the context of that Russian success.

a) The Russians were fighting against reconstituted Ukrainian armed forces and volunteer units made up mostly of badly (or not at all) trained conscripts facing conflict for the first time. The Ukrainians have since established trench-lines, with fortified fighting positions and dugouts. Maxim Machineguns from World War I are in use on Ukraine’s line. We’re not even talking about Saddam Hussein’s Army from 1991, here, in other words.

b) The sophistication and upkeep of Ukrainian military equipment was decent on paper and not good in practice. When one discusses order of battle and deliberate preparations for offensive or defensive operations with Ukrainian veterans of the conflict, one hears stories about having to bribe superior commanders for access to armor, artillery support, and spare parts when vehicles broke down. The Ukrainians were fighting 25 years of entropy within their army — they had had their territorial sovereignty guaranteed by Russia, the United States, and the U.K. after they gave up their nuclear arsenal in 1994. Their military was sufficient to stamp out an insurgency by force, but it was not prepared to fight against modern conventional forces.

c) There was a tacit agreement after the first months of the war not to use air power — on the Russian side for fears of provoking a broader conflict and involving NATO (as well as losing aircraft to sophisticated Ukrainian AA assets), and on Ukraine’s side because it was losing helicopters and planes to Russian AA (Russian AA also shot down a civilian airliner, MH17). The Russian BTG, then, remains hypothetical as a modern construct in the sense that fighting against a U.S. air force that can put a 2,000 lb. bomb on a dime from six miles up doesn’t bode well for armored vehicles moving in the open, or even fighting from improved positions. In other words: The Russo-Ukrainian war, much like the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, provides little in the way of active metrics by which to judge a unit’s efficacy in combat with another near-capability unit.

A corollary to this observation is that it’s difficult to imagine one of the Army’s 40 some-odd combat basic combat trainees (BCT) going on an offensive without any recourse to close air support or CCA. Saying that a BCT doesn’t match up well with a BTG, then, is somewhat deceptive — that’s not how the U.S. military fights.

d) The Zelenopillya rocket attack is used by the authors as evidence of Russia’s Reconnaissance-Strike Model using drones and long-range strike capabilities. This incident is presented as evidence of how Russia can synchronize assets and use a variety of devices to identify and destroy hostile forces. It’s important to point out that (a) Russia fired across the border of Russia —so, from within Russian territory, or outside where anyone expected them to shoot (in other times and places, something called “an act of war”), and (b) the Russian units were targeting a unit that was staged (not even laagering) in an open field, preparing for counter-terror operations against separatists that were on the retreat.

Not to put too fine a point on things here, but if, in the course of the war in Afghanistan, a U.S. Army unit had laagered in the open near several Afghan villages suspected of harboring Taliban or Taliban-aligned militants, and a battery of Pakistani artillery had subsequently bombarded that laager, inflicting casualties on said U.S. forces, what conclusions would you draw about that incident? That the Pakistanis had an innovative and strange new tactical capability? Or that they were backstabbing sons of bitches?

The two lessons to be drawn here are (1) never laager in an open field [poor training and field discipline of hastily-conscripted and poorly-trained if highly-motivated Ukrainian soldiers] and (2) never trust the Russian Army.


Reading Fox and Rossow’s paper was enjoyable and informative, and the gaps do little to diminish its importance to military thinkers and planners. The two authors have done an extraordinary job, presumably with limited resources. The places where they err are places where the U.S. military has limited them by neglecting to permit them front-line experience as observers in the Russo-Ukrainian War — it is certain that with more direct encounters with Russian tactics and techniques, U.S. thinkers and planners would be able to derive practical solutions to the problem of Russian tactical innovation.

The Russians themselves are unconstrained by any possible negative consequences from observing or even participating in the Russo-Ukrainian War, and are thus learning, innovating, and adapting at a great pace. While U.S. military doctrine and equipment is, I believe, still superior to that of Russia and other former Soviet countries, Russia is closing an important experience gap. It won’t be fun to face a Russian military where commanders are accustomed to fighting force-on-force with Ukrainian tank formations and artillery, and the closest thing the United States has to this is … Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster.

Adrian Bonenberger is a former U.S. Army officer who is now a writer living in Ukraine and studying the conflict there and its effects on Ukrainian society.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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