UPDATE: Wednesday, Nov 30, 2022 · 10:05:21 PM +00:00
There are reports in the last few hours that Russia has managed to capture both Kurdyumivka and Ozarianivka south of Bakhmut.
If confirmed, this would be a significant advance for Russia. Unlike some other areas that have been in dispute or changed hands multiple times, Kurdyumivka has been consistently under Ukrainian control since the conflict began. Taking this area could allow Russia to continue to pressing northwest, with the intention of encircling Bakhmut.
Back in 1969, engineer and science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke made a statement that speaks to the future of one particular technology and one matching bit of semantics.
“If man survives for as long as the least successful of the dinosaurs—those creatures whom we often deride as nature's failures—then we may be certain of this: for all but a vanishingly brief instant near the dawn of history, the word 'ship' will mean- 'spaceship.'” — Arthur C. Clarke, Voices from the Sky
Every major war seems to have some technology that comes into its own. Helicopters were invented decades before World War II, and throughout that war there was a rapid exploration of that technology that included everything from massive transport helicopters to backpack helicopters to helicopters with rotors driven by jets. But it wasn’t until Vietnam that the technology and tactics around helicopters gelled together to make that piece of kit almost the defining instrument of the conflict.
In Ukraine the tanks still roll, artillery still pounds, and the eight-decade struggle between missiles and air defense goes on. But the weapon that continues to emerge as the centerpiece of this war is the drone. Russia is using drones as a cheaper form of missile to attack Ukrainian cities and as an alternative to artillery in hitting Ukrainian units near the front line. Ukraine is using drones to go after Russian tanks and armored vehicles, and to root Russian soldiers from trenches along a heavily fortified front. Drones have even taken to the seas as Ukraine has used automated vessels to attack the Russian fleet at anchor in Crimea. Soon enough, drone land vehicles will be joining the fray. The first ones are being used to deliver supplies or carry away the wounded, but should Russia’s invasion carry on for more than a few months longer, it’s almost inevitable that at least some of the weapons rolling across the fields will have no one inside.
Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s a prelude to a Terminator-style terror. Maybe that’s the opening move toward one of those Star Trek episodes where automation has so removed humans from the horrors of war that the war goes on forever. Maybe. Only there’s no one in Ukraine right now who isn’t fully aware of the horror.
In any case, like all wars, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is redefining tactics for the next war, and right now it has become a hotbed of experimentation for what can be done with a weapon that had seen battle in previous conflicts but never really been taken off the hook as it has in Ukraine.
And that makes this school, as reported on by NPR, particularly interesting.
The Female Pilots of Ukraine is the country's first school dedicated to solely teaching women — both civilians as well as those serving in Ukraine's security forces — how to fly drones.
When we think of the word “pilot” today, we may think of the blue-uniformed women and men who nod and thank us for traveling with them as we step off a Boeing 767 or Airbus A319. Or we may think about Tom Cruise grinning madly as he sets a record for breaking the most rules, and laws, in a single minute. But for the future, unless the neologists get busy and come up with a new term, most uses of the word “pilot” are going to involve someone who has their feet on the ground.
Eighty percent of the women who train at the drone school in Ukraine take their newly acquired skills to the front lines. The first class has now graduated, and 40 more women are signed up to learn to be pilots in this new age. Right now their biggest constraint is budget. The school is not an official part of the Ukrainian military, and the founder is paying the $3,000 a month bills out of his own pocket (and yes, I am looking into how funds might be sent to this school).
In the next war, AI might take on this role. Maybe we will come to trust the devices themselves to decide on targets, launch those missiles, drop those grenades. But for now, that’s a hard line that few seem anxious to cross. Right now, Ukraine needs pilots. And these women—who are also models, journalists, artists, and marketing professionals—are becoming pilots.
And, unlike the “mavericks” on the movie screen, they are helping Ukraine win this war.
Military technologist Samuel Bendett points out that Wagner Group mercenaries are also reportedly using drones to direct the movement of conscripted prisoners in the endless assault on Bakhmut. According to Ukrainian journalist Yuri Butusov:
"During combat, the movement of (Wagner) units is controlled by drones, the headquarters receives all the data online. Based on this information, if necessary, the groups receive commands to stop or move."
That may make it seem that the Wagner supervisors are being somewhat careful with their human waves; that they’re only advancing at times when they can advance without coming under heavy fire. Yeah, that’s not exactly the case. As Butusov notes:
"Even when they come under fire, assault groups do not retreat without a command, and independent withdrawal is allowed only for the wounded. Unauthorized departure without a command or without injury is punishable by shooting on the spot."
In this case, the mechanical drone is being used for observation, but it’s a different kind of drone that is doing the fighting. Like a pilot sitting back and moving around a tiny craft with a joystick, Wagner is running these men by remote control, sending them forward by relayed commands, observing their progress from a safe distance.
The Russian soldiers attacking Bakhmut aren’t just human waves. They are meat drones.
Kos has talked many times about the difficulty of executing combined arms tactics and how Russia’s heavy reliance on artillery and the basic flaws of their battalion tactical group structure make it almost impossible for them to successfully fight the kind of battles that U.S. forces conduct. But between the muddy trenches east of Bakhmut, Russia is creating a new sort of combined arms: lancet drones augmenting artillery, surveillance drones extending vision, meat drones dispatched to capture positions. It’s an experiment that has cost them tens of thousands of men so far.
But it may be this ongoing experiment, more than the meters of ground gained, that has kept Russian forces engaged in this area for so long.
Speaking of combined arms, here’s what the real thing looks like. The full video is 20 minutes long, but you don’t have to watch it all to understand why executing this kind of operation is both so devastating to opponents and so difficult to carry off properly.
One big thing to note: Check out just how similar the fortified enemy position in this video is to the structures Russia is actually building. That’s not because this seven-year-old video predicted events in Ukraine. It’s because that structure has demonstrated effectiveness in thwarting armored assaults.
Here is how U.S. forces deal with such fortifications. (Bonus: When they’re handing out awards for “scariest looking thing on the battlefield that actually will not kill you,” give that trophy to the M104 Wolverine.)
Once again, Russia is claiming to have completely secured multiple towns in the area around Bakhmut. However, Ukrainian sources are disputing these reported advances. For the moment it’s clear that heavy combat continues in the Bakhmut area, with Russia continuing to focus on the areas immediately south of Bakhmut.
To the north, the Ukrainian advance toward Svatove remains essentially where it was two weeks ago, held up just west of the highway intersection west of that city, and a couple of kilometers short of positions that would allow Ukrainian forces to fire directly downward on Russian positions. Russia apparently launched multiple attempts aimed at retaking towns liberated by Ukraine along the line between Svatove and Kreminna over the last three days, but all of those attacks appear to have failed. That includes the destruction of a Russian column that was led by a rarely seen T-90M tank.
With much of the current line of contact in the east defined by the same sets of trenches that have existed since 2014, here are some notes from retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, who served in the Obama White House and was an instructor on military tactics at West Point. Hertling points out that the area along the eastern front has been mined and fortified over a period of eight years. There are multiple layers of defenses on each side, extensive trench networks, and vast mine fields. That’s a large part of why Russian efforts to push through this area have largely failed, as have Ukrainian efforts to punch through the line in the other direction.
What to do about fighting through a trench line? That video of combined arms tactics above is from Hertling’s suggestion on how the U.S. handles these situations. Neither Russia nor Ukraine has the equipment, training, or skills to conduct an operation as described in that video.
So what happens now? What Hertling suggests is that Ukraine doesn’t beat its head against the trench line the way that Russia has been doing since the war began. Instead, they make another bold move in a war that has so far been defined by bold moves on the part of Ukrainian forces.
The whole thread is absolutely worth reading for the history of trench warfare, why it remains effective, and why it’s so difficult to assault prepared positions. But it’s also a good signal that even if Ukraine doesn’t immediately follow Hertling’s advance to move across the Dnipro River in Kherson, they have options.
They can attack where Russia is weak and always know that they have the support of not just the West, but the people in the towns and cities they are liberating. Because those people are Ukrainian.
Russia was attacking Bakhmut when Ukraine retook Kharkiv oblast from Kupyansk to Izyum. They were attacking Bakhmut when Ukraine strategically took village after village to liberate Lyman. They were attacking Bakhmut when Ukraine freed first the north, then all of Russian occupied territory west of the Dnipro. Russia will probably still be attacking Bakhmut when the tap those Wagner guys on the shoulder and tell them to put down their joysticks. Because it’s all over.
During World War II, the U.S. produced a series of films called Why We Fight that ran before features at movie theaters. In Ukraine today, no one needs a reminder of the stakes in this conflict, but just in case …
Securing funding for Ukraine before Republicans throw the House into chaos is a priority. To that end, President Joe Biden has asked for $1.1 billion specifically to assist in helping to restore destroyed infrastructure in Ukraine. As CNBC reports, the package also contains funding for 18 additional HIMARS, a very significant amount of HIMARS and M777 ammo, 150 APCs, 150 tactical vehicles to tow weapons, 40 trucks and 80 trailers to transport heavy equipment, two dozen radar systems, communications gear, and additional body armor.
Expect an update soon that details all the gear the U.S. has sent to Ukraine, as well as what’s been promised but hasn’t yet appeared in the field (looking at you, Switchblade 600, though 10 units have now reportedly been sent).
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