The risks of learning the wrong lessons in Ukraine

May 15, 2023 

As seen from an aerial view, a destroyed Russian T-80 tank, its turret blown upside down, sits on a former frontline on February 27, 2023 in Bogorodychne, in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

The Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress’s Joshua Huminski argues that while it’s good that the US is learning from the war in Ukraine, it must be selective in what it applies more broadly.

The war in Ukraine is giving US strategists and war planners an unprecedented look at modern conventional combat. But in the op-ed below, analyst Joshua Huminski said there’s a risk in relying too much on what’s happening in Eastern Europe, when a fight halfway around the world would be very different.

The militaries of the United States and its European partners are rightly watching the war in Ukraine and seeking to divine lessons from Kyiv’s tactical and operational activities. The hope is that in closely observing both Ukraine’s successes and failures, Western militaries will learn, adapt, and find themselves better prepared for future conflicts. This observation and ingesting of lessons learned is part and parcel of adaptation and innovation.

Yet, especially for the US, there are two attendant risks in slavish observation and the “lessons learned” processes, both of which are intimately tied to the most pressing geopolitical, military, and security challenge of the 21st century—China.

First, there is the risk of learning the wrong lessons and ignoring critical context of the right ones. Operational lessons drawn from Ukraine’s successes are not wholly applicable to a conflict in the Indo-Pacific over Taiwan. Second, and equally as important, the US is not the only military watching what is happening in Ukraine. China, too, is observing the successes and failures of Moscow, Kyiv and Western supporters of Ukraine – meaning any revelations the US would hope to turn to its advantage in the Pacific could run headlong into countermeasures by a prepared and learning People’s Liberation Army.

American leaders from each branch of the military have been saying for months how closely they’re watching Ukraine and are already integrating the lessons they have learned, while some argue the US hasn’t gone far enough. But though there are undoubtedly advantages Western officials should recognize that the testbed of this Eastern European land war is not wholly indicative to future conflicts or applicable to the challenge of the Indo-Pacific for several reasons.

First, logistics. The US and its European partners have, in effect, a safe haven from which to support Ukraine’s forces. It has secure rear areas across Europe for training, resting, re-arming, and refitting — protected as it is by NATO’s Article Five. Its supply lines are close to the battlefield, though certainly strained as evidenced by the inability sustain Ukraine’s high demand for munitions. It is supplying a war at a pace of its choosing, largely free from realistic threats from Russia’s forces despite hostile rhetoric from Moscow. Russia is using non-military tactics such as disinformation to target Ukraine’s European partners, but thus far they have demonstrated increased proficiency at countering these threats.

These conditions would not exist in the Indo-Pacific. America’s sea lines of communications and logistics pipeline would be at the maximum of its physical reach. The US has neither the sea- nor airlift to sustain operations at distance in the region, and certainly not the capacity to do so under threat from the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN). While America does have regional logistics and operational bases, and can leverage partner facilities, the tyranny of distance and logistics is very real. China would almost certainly target all these locations, attack American air or naval supply lines, and exert political pressure to ensure that partner countries deny Washington’s use of their bases.

The — thus far — long duration of the war in Ukraine and the accompanying slow increase of aid to Kyiv has also created opportunities to test new technologies, but also driven this experimentation by necessity. Ukraine’s marrying of SpaceX’s Starlink receivers, commercially available satellite imagery, and conventional artillery was driven both by necessity and practicality. The paring of commercial-off-the-shelf drones with retrofitted mortar shells speaks to necessity as much as innovation. One would hope that in a confrontation between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan, allied forces would not find themselves jury-rigging solutions in such large numbers — as a field expedient perhaps, but not as a sustained matter of course or operation.

The current battlefield does, as other have noted, provide a test bed for Western drones and loitering munitions, and it has spurred intense US military interest in such capabilities, as well as defenses against them. But the use of such new tech is wholly predicated on a largely permissive tactical air domain. Russia is known to have counter-drone capabilities — both electronic and conventional — but has thus far failed to deploy these at scale. While it is impressive to watch Ukrainian drone teams take out T-72 tanks and target Russian personnel in trenches, it requires a tactically permissive environment, which is not guaranteed against the PRC.

Lastly, Russia’s forces have proven to be a Potemkin military, proving far hollower than pre-war Western estimates. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this piece, but it is not entirely clear that this will be the case with China’s military, and assuming so is a risky proposition. To be sure, the Chinese forces have not fought a conventional war since 1979 and there is no crucible like that of actual war to demonstrate performance and efficacy and expose institutional and structural weaknesses.

This, then, raises the second key risk in institutional adaptation: ignoring the fact that Beijing is learning too. As noted above, and whilst already part of China’s strategy of denial, there is little reason to suspect that Beijing would allow any long-distance supply operations or allow the free use of safe havens or rear areas for operation. China’s efforts to secure its first and second island chains are wholly designed to ensure control of the waterways in the Indo-Pacific and to deny the US the freedom of navigation in these areas.

The Chinese military also will almost certainly seek to establish electronic, cyber, and space dominance over Taiwan and in the surrounding region. China has demonstrated both a capability and intent to secure these domains and to deny them to both Taiwanese and American forces. Ukraine’s use of drones is almost certainly reinforcing the importance of securing the tactical air domain, but also the operational and strategic domains, as well.

China is learning the urgency of both speed in its operations, and the value of denial and deception activities. Russia’s slow-build mobilization on Ukraine’s borders, seeming demobilization/repositioning of forces, and the disposition of those forces prior to the February 2022 invasion gave significant indications and warnings of an impending attack. The US used this time to work to warn its European partners and Ukraine itself of the urgency of the threat. Strategic denial and deception operations will introduce doubt into American and allied defense calculations. At a tactical and operational level, the ubiquity of commercially available satellite imagery, drone surveillance, and the provision of Western intelligence support to Ukraine is likely driving a reevaluation of deception and concealment operations for China’s forces. Spoofing radars and satellites, using physical decoys and warheads interspersed amongst real platforms, and cyber operations will become increasingly important and strain America’s ability to identify and interdict. Interrupting the chain between sensor and shooter will rapidly become the name of the game.

All of this also demands a recognition of the political context of the war in Ukraine, one that will be dramatically different in a contest over Taiwan. Severing Russia’s economy from the global market was markedly easier than any comparable effort against China would certainly be. Beijing’s integration into the world economy is so deep and wide that the pressure it can exert and pain it could inflict would be orders of magnitude greater than that of Moscow. Here again is a key lesson Beijing is learning — insulate itself from Western financial countermeasures, develop a measure of autarky, and seek alternative sources and outlets for its goods and services. Beijing’s political, diplomatic, and economic reach into Latin and South America, Africa, and the Middle East sees it in a far better position than Russia, who already enjoys a favorable position in these regions. Isolating Moscow over its aggression is a decidedly easier affair than doing the same to Beijing over Taiwan.

Ukraine’s successes against Russia are worth of praise and reflect the willingness of Ukrainians to fight and, equally as important, the poor preparation and performance of Moscow’s forces. There are, absolutely, lessons to be learned. Yet, there is a risk in seeing only the trees and not the forest. The context in which those lessons are learned is as important as the lessons themselves.

The only thing worse than not learning battlefield lessons is learning the wrong ones, and forgetting that your adversaries are learning, too.

Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.

One comment

  1. So, what have we learned from all of this?
    For sure, that having too little weapons and getting them too late is bad. Renaming US Army forts instead of concentrating on real world issues is also bad. And, according to the Biden administration, air power is not important, is also bad … very bad.
    I hope that the next administration will reverse what’s been happening with the current one. If not, we might as well just give up on our military might, raise the rainbow flag and kiss our asses goodbye.

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