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War is an ever changing science that has been defined by many strategic thinkers for generations. At the dawn of the millennium, some wrote of a revolution in military affairs. Other prominent strategists have conceptualized warfare as being defined by a dialectic between the primacy of attack or defense, primacy being facilitated by new technology or method – such as the railway, the machine gun, or the tank. Contemporary students of war may be familiar with doctrinal concepts such as Airland Battle, Deep Operations, Unified Land Operations, etc.
The current conflict in Ukraine has signaled the end of a chapter in military science that began in 1916 and culminated in the Russian assault upon Avdiivka – that of the armored thrust. Breaking the stalemate on the western front, tanks have been at the forefront of military science and dominated the formulations of Heinz Guderian, Georgii Isserson, as well as defining the contours of the thought of more contemporary theorists such as John Boyd – contributing speed and depth to ground operations. Bakhmut, the failed Spring (Counter) Offensive, and the Russian Division sized assault on Avdiivka demonstrate the primacy of the tank as the principal exploitation force for modern operations is over. This does not mean that the tank will depart from the battlefield, just as cavalry remained a major element of the Second World War despite being overturned as the force of decision in WW1 and the Soviet-Polish War, the tank will remain a useful and dynamic element of military operations – but it has ceased to be the principal force for maneuver as conceptualized in the 20th century.
Bakhmut has multiple layers of significance for the conflict in Ukraine. To Ukraine and supporters, it is a symbol of heroic resistance in the face of insurmountable odds. For Russia and supporters of the Russian Federation, it is the demonstration of the folly of Zelensky – a military disaster for the Ukrainian Ground Forces prolonged for politics and media operations. On the military science dimension, it is a significant victory for the Russian Federation, attriting Ukrainian Units that were no doubt destined for the long-heralded Spring Offensive. Waged with proxy and irregular forces, Bakhmut, while a human tragedy by contemporary standards, was a military victory for the Russian Federation predicated upon tried and true operational principles – a three sided encirclement that was intended to attrit enemy reserves by destroying units as they entered and exited the battlespace.
Here, Ukraine attempted to leverage valuable Tank, IFV, and APC elements to alleviate the partially encircled garrison. The infamous highway of death signifies that no longer, as in 1917, can armor brave the fire of the enemy to provide a vital lifeline or offensive spreadhead. There have been many articles and studies on the enhanced lethality of modern ATGMs, which have proven anathema to modern tanks from Ukraine to Gaza, reducing Leopards, Merkavas, and T-90s alike to burning hulks. Artillery, the longtime primary arm of the Russian military, also claimed many Ukrainian platforms. The decisive element in Bakhmut was the widespread use of loitering munitions and drones as an element of combined arms; drones allow the near real time correction of artillery fire – correction time that in the past could be used by armored forces to maneuver.
These new artillery tactics came fully into being during the Ukranian Spring Offensive. Minefields and flexible artillery to bolster defense is nothing new – it has been the hallmark of defensive operations since the end of the First World War. The Ukrainian Spring Offensive, like the ill-fated German Operation Citadel, spent its armored strength assaulting Russian defenses in depth. Crashing into prepared positions, ultimately losing the strength necessary for further offensive operations. Russian Military Engineering has a long tradition of excellence, founded upon such successes as precisely the Kursk salient and other offensive destroying instances such as the Bagration Fleches. The Ukrainian assault into the prepared defenses was always going to be difficult, clearing obstacles under fire is a complex and arduous process. With the added variable of drone augmented artillery fire and loitering munitions hunting for targets of opportunity, a significant military problem became markedly more difficult and the attrition suffered by Ukranian units as they entered the disruption zone of the Russian defense was such that further offensive operations were impossible. The maximum offensive depth achieved (20km) does not push beyond the zone of a Russian division sized defense. Drones provided the ability to shift fire or eliminate critical platforms, turning a difficult military problem to a nearly impossible one, ensuring that further offensive (often armored) potential was spent.
US Marine Corps tests a robot dog with a rocket launcher. Source: Forbes
Correctly interpreting the failure of the Spring Offensive, Russia has responded with a wide fronted offensive of its own. There are multiple directions, dissipating the remaining armored reserves Ukraine can mobilize, towards directionally different sections of the front. Avdiivka is one of such direction that the Russians have attacked in division sized echelons. The initial northern pincer was conducted doctrinally – that is to say relying on armored maneuver as the primary exploitation force. The scale of losses is surely overblown in the West as it is underreported in Russia, but regardless of degree of inflation or deflation – it is apparent that platforms were lost. While the siege has progressed in a steadily worsening position for the Ukrainian garrison, the critical failure of the early northern pincer to achieve the operational objective of severing lines of communication to the rear has forced the evolution of the battle to be more similar to Bakhmut than Bagration.
The tanks could not capitalize on a heavily attrited enemy due to loitering munitions, ATGMs, and surveillance by drone. Where before Soviet doctrine was predicated on maneuver and speed, contemporary Russian forces have, out of necessity and experimentation, begun the development of a qualitatively new doctrine. The assaults on Mariupol, Bakhmut, and Avdiivka demonstrate the articulation of trends that were inaugurated in former Soviet space by the ill-fated first assault on Grozny. Modern weaponry and the enhanced ability to defeat armor thus provided to infantry and artillery, have consigned the armored thrust as the force of operational decision to the dustbin of history. While the tank will remain a potent and dynamic element in modern warfare, as a result of modern technology, it and the era of combat it defined, has ended. Despite triumphant displays at 73 Easting in 1991, and Thunder Runs through Baghdad in 2003, the age of armor has ended in Ukraine.
Does new technology always benefit the defense over the offense?
To what extent is the study of military affairs limited by focusing on World War II as the model of modern conflict?
Is military science and military history separable from political history and science and to what extent is war truly politics by other means?
Grau, L. & Bartles, C. (2016). The Russian Way of War: Force Structure, Tactics, and Modernization of the Russian Ground Forces. Foreign Millitary Study Office.
Isserson, G. (2013). The Evolution of Operational Art. Combat Studies Institute Press.
Clauswitz, C. (1976). On War. Princeton University Press.
Red Army (Fiction, but useful for an illustration of a Soviet Offensive in Action) by Ralph Peters