As part of my work on comparing wargames with future conflicts I examined low level tactics in the war using various videos. Then I starting using the current US Army wargame rules as modified by the first 6 months of the war. Note: the work is for research, not entertainment.
At the start of the war, the Ukrainians were bad at war, they were fortunate enough to be against an opponent who was very bad. As the war progressed actions have moved from Bn attacks, to company to routinely platoon. For example, the latest decisive Ukr counter attack NE of Kharkiv had a whole 15 tanks in it. Darwinian selection has increased survivability on both sides, as has Western training (in person and via the ubiquitous virtual Zoom).
Examples from the early stages of the war include:
- Ukr entrenchments were inadequate and field discipline poor.
- Ukr shooting down a helo from the front. This is risky as the helo may get upset if you miss and if you hit it may crash on you. Shooting from the rear is preferable.
- A single Ukr with an NLAW climbs over village houses roofs, swearing in Russian all the way (they are ethnic Russian) and fires at Ru BMP. Probably misses, so Ru platoon then mounts up and retreats from village. i.e. one man faced off a platoon and apparently recaptured the village on their own with a miss. There were probably more Ukr infantry in support off camera
- A single Ukr tank hides behind house and ambushes Ru armoured convoy on its own. It misses twice at point blank range, a common mistake for novice tankers, before it knocks out several Ru armoured vehicles. The Russian column stops when engaged, but would have had time to drive out of the kill zone while this was going on. However, the Ukr tank was probably destroyed by dismounted Ru infantry and this was edited out of the footage. A better tactic would have been to ambush the end of the convoy, not the middle, and fire from 1.2km away. Then withdraw into dead ground.
- A Ru depleted platoon successfully ambushed two Ukr towed artillery vehicles. The latter were too close together that allowed both to be hit by the same ambush. The Ru move up the road and ambush two Ukr BTRs who come to investigate. This is brave move as the Ru had no anti-tank capability. The BTRs stop in the kill zone and the Ukr infantry debus, instead of driving straight through the ambush. Both sides throw lots of grenades and the BTRs mount up, then retreat up the road. The Ukr BTRs should have withdrawn to a safe distance and then shot the Ru pln to pieces (as the Ru had no AT).
How have the Americans updated their wargaming rules after studying the detail of the conflict?
Ru still apparently directs its powerful artillery using pre-planned strikes. Ukr calls it in when it has a target in sight. Ukr artillery must keep moving as Russian ‘divisional’ level assets will fire back. i.e. Ru has apparently not developed its artillery support methods since WWII.
Ru attacks with a thorough plan and moves at speed, until there is a change of the plan e.g. a road is blocked. Then they pause for orders. (in wargaming terns roll 5 or 6 on D6 for a 12 minute turn). i.e. the Ukr players gets perplexed by the Ru columns randomly stopping for a number of game terms.
The Ukr T64BV tanks are more effective than Ru T72BM , therefore Ru need 3 to 1 odds to succeed in a hasty attack from column of march. For those interested in stats at effective range, video indicates a Ukr tank stands an 80% of knocking out a Ru tank that is stationary in the open at effective range. At short range, less than 800m, the chance goes down to 65% of a kill, perhaps as the Ukr lack of training then shows.
Looking at the 2020 version of the rules, the American’s underestimated the hit rate of their weapons v Ru hardware. They thought their M1A2 tank would knock out a Russian T72 55% of the time per shot. Conversely, they over estimated the Russian effectiveness.
At the risk of a tirade of objections, I find in many ways tactical combat in the Ukraine War is similar to 1944/45 North West Europe. Artillery proceeds armoured advances. Tactical air is not that good (SAMs stop aircraft at high level and cheap point air defence makes low level also risky). However. tactical air is replaced by drones and long-range artillery; drones replace air reconnaissance. In the end, infantry have to debus from their APCs, 4 wheeled drive vehicles etc and clear the objective. Logistics centred around roads and rail is crucial.
The reassuring message for the west from the war is Russia is not very good at a tactical level. They can move large amounts of armour very fast, as per their doctrine, but their combat capability is poor. A UK armoured platoon of say 2 Challenger 2’s with 3 sections of infantry would be likely to use a hasty defence (i.e move into an unexpected ambush location after the Russian pre-planned IDF of likely defensive positions), and knock out a Russian company of 4 T72s and 10 BMPs on its own. Of course, in reality, the Ru would retreat after losing the first few vehicles. The only UK problem would be ammunition, we have given a lot of our war stocks to Ukr.
After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Wellington said that if he had the experienced army of veterans from the Peninsular War, instead of his composite allied army, he would simply have advanced over the top of Napoleon’s larger army. It is difficult not to imagine a NATO army with British, Poles or American’s doing the same if it came to a confrontation with Russia.
After writing the above I came across an interview with a Ukr Tank Commanders 28th June 2022
- Tanks have not become obsolete on the modern battlefield, their role has become more significant and the variety of tasks has increased. Comment: I noted YouTube videos that tanks carrying wounded back from the front lines as well as munitions to the front line.
- During 2014/15 Ukr tanks operated in groups of 1 or 2, now they operate in company groups and infantry understand combined arms tactics with them. Comment tanks without infantry support are very vulnerable.
- The Ukr operate in coy groups of 3 platoons with 3 tanks each plus 1 tank for coy commander. Sometimes they use 4 tanks per platoon plus 2 for coy commander.
- Ukr is capturing and reusing Russian tanks, including manning them with infantry. Comment: captured enemy tanks were routinely reused in WWII.
- Russian tank losses were routinely because of poor training or just running out of fuel in the middle of the road. They were captured in good working order. Comment did they hope to retrieve the tanks or was there some other reason why the crews did not wreck the tank when abandoning it?
- The Ukr offers a bounty for capturing enemy equipment and handing it in.
- Ru uses tanks in groups of company level or more, with 10 tanks per 500 metres. However, they do not have enough armour left for a 2nd wave. They are operating their tanks in line with their doctrine.
- Tanks on both sides move their damaged tanks back 6 hours, 200-300km behind the lines to repair. Both sides cannot risk their limited repair capacity near the battlefield.
- There are just 3 tank repair plants in Russia and they can repair/ refurbish from storage 100-200 tanks per month.
- The Ukr specialist repair factory was mentioned on TV, then got hit by a missile. Destroying the plant and killing many key tank repair staff. Ukr gets 20-30 tanks repaired per month in a factory somewhere in eastern Europe i.e. 2-3 companies per month.
- Both sides are adding reactive armour when upgrading (Russia uses KONTAKT-1, Ukr Nozh). This takes 2-3 welders one day per tank.
- Ru 90% of T80BVMs have been destroyed.T72 B3BMS and B72B3, 900 have been lost, 800 are still in combat (June 2022). That is why T62, old T72 and T80s have been brought in to battle manned by older crews who served on these tanks in the past.
- Ukr is struggling to use thermal imaging equipment due to poor training.
- Training a tank crew on a modern Western tank takes 1 month. Training the repair crew takes 3-4 months. Ukr wants the remaining T72 from Europe (but not old ones from Africa, as these are badly maintained).
- Ukr is almost out of T64’s and all new units use T72’s