New Delhi: Akin to the Berlin blockade of 1948-49, when the United States, United Kingdom, and France had to airlift essential supplies, food and fuel into western Berlin, another airlift is under way on the western borders of Ukraine — albeit for weapons supplies.
From the Amari Air Base in Estonia, cargo planes are being loaded with ammunition and weaponry to be delivered to Ukraine’s armed forces. The NATO has also airlifted tonnes of military equipment into Poland and Romania on the western borders of Ukraine from where the weapons are transported by road into Ukraine.
Since the beginning of the conflict, NATO and the US have reportedly sent in 17,000 anti-tank weapons — these have included Javelin missiles, short-range next-generation light anti-tank weapons (NLAW), and rocket-controlled grenades.
Lieutenant General Deependra Singh Hooda (Retd), former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Indian Army’s Northern Command, describes supplies on such scale as “unprecedented in short terms”.
While Ukraine’s troops have been credited for using missiles effectively and harsh climate conditions in northern Ukraine have stalled Russia’s march, larger themes amid the current stalemate need to be understood — what are the anti-tank missiles being used by Ukraine? What military strategies has Ukraine used to hold off Russia? What parts of Russia’s military strategy are questionable? What lessons can India draw for its military doctrine?
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Anti-tank missiles Ukraine is using
The clash between Russia’s offensive military capacities and Ukraine’s defensive capabilities is encapsulated by Ukraine’s Lieutenant Yevgeny Yarantsev, who said to The New York Times, “they have a lot of tanks, we have a lot of anti-tank weapons”.
The Small Arms Survey describes anti-tank missiles as “portable, guided missiles” which are capable of changing course mid-flight to strike accurately at their target. Initially, these were developed to destruct armoured vehicles. However, they are also used against personnel, light vehicles and civilian structures.
The Javelin missiles being used extensively by the Ukrainian forces have been developed by the US. They represent the latest generation of anti-tank missiles and are programmed to attack the weakest part of an armoured vehicle — the top. Prior to impact, the missiles initiate a steep upward movement to ensure a downward strike on the roof of the vehicle.
The Javelin missile has an estimated range of approximately 3 kilometres. Its only shortcoming is that it weighs approximately 50 pounds (22.6 kg), not being the easiest missile to sling around.
The NLAW missiles also strike at the top of armoured vehicles. These fly a metre above the target prior to impact and then initiate a downward strike. They have a shorter range than the Javelin missiles, requiring the target to be within 800 metres. The NLAW weighs around 12.5 kg, and is relatively easy to carry and transport.
Together, these two anti-tank missiles have played a pivotal role in Ukraine’s targeted destruction of Russian armoury, disruption of supply lines and logistical commands, significantly helping the nation slow the invasion — for now.
Military strategies employed by Ukraine
Ukraine has effectively championed the strategies any weaker or smaller military would incorporate against a larger enemy — which is to avoid big, open, battles and conflicts, and focus on targeting supply chains. The attacks on supply chains have limited Russia’s ability to put up a cohesive assault.
In essence, Ukraine has relied on quick ambushes on supply lines and logistic commands —commonly described as “hit-and-run” manoeuvres.
Central to Ukraine’s defence have been attacks on large Russian attack convoys, like the much-hyped 64km convoy that was headed towards Kyiv, which could alter the balance of the conflict, if given a free path.
Further, the way Russia has deployed its armoured vehicles and convoys has also given the Ukrainians easy targets. Logistical and supply problems, compounded by fuel shortages, have left many Russian vehicles simply standing and holding ground. These have then become easy targets for Ukraine’s anti-tank missiles.
Moreover, the Ukrainians have maximised their advantage of “home conditions”, adeptly choosing where and how to use firepower and swiftly transporting troops from one conflict area to another.
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Russia’s military miscalculations could be attributed to biased intelligence reports that guided their approach prior to the war.
Russian intelligence assumed that Ukraine would collapse within a few days of an invasion. The nation’s strategists overestimated their strengths and underestimated Ukraine’s military capacity and national unity.
Symptomatic of the flawed intelligence and military designs guiding Russia’s approach, there has been no use of the “combined arms” doctrine. Therefore, the infantry, tanks, and airpower have not been used simultaneously and cohesively to launch a comprehensive attack.
There has also been a human resource management problem at the Russian side. Inadequate numbers of battalions have been deployed to launch attacks. In many cases, only two or three battalions were deployed to mount an attack.
Further, tanks and armoured vehicles have been sent with an insufficient number of soldiers to protect them. The Russians have also stuck to the highways and main roads — making them easy targets for the Ukrainians.
Another major impediment to Russia’s invasion has been poor logistical planning. Supply chains, communication lines, and command and control protocols have been bungled up, leading to a situation where vehicles run out of fuel and troops do not know their objectives.
Inexperienced forces that have included conscripts and non-commissioned officers have been sent to the frontlines, without being empowered to make decisions, and neither have they previously taken important decisions.
Colonel Vivek Chadha (Retd), research fellow with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, states that Russia has deviated significantly from its recent campaigns in Syria and Crimea. The use of proxies, limited campaigns, and asymmetric warfare should have guided its current approach too.
Finally, Russia has resorted to mass targeting of civilians and has abandoned the idea of “surgical strikes” and hitting only the opposing army. This could potentially give rise to insurgencies that could linger for decades, even if Russia manages to eventually overpower Ukraine.
Military lessons for India
Colonel Chadha said, “for India, Russia’s campaigns provide several lessons”.
“Firstly, the success and learnings from previous military campaigns should be factored into any new military strategy,” he added.
Secondly, any modern-day military campaign should have its end goals clearly stated. These should be achievable, pragmatic, short-term and not “over-ambitious”, he pointed out.
Colonel Chadha added that for any campaign, supply chains and logistic commands are the fulcrum. “These should be given priority, and timely and methodical planning. As we have seen for Russia, without plans set in place for these, the campaign has struggled,” he said.
Finally, he stated, “any campaign in a country where the population doesn’t support you will have significant costs on life and resources. This should be assessed prior to any campaign”.
Although Ukraine has been able to stall Russia and has been aided by western armaments and Russia’s military planning failures, it is difficult to gauge how long this half-stalemate will last.
(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)
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