The Ukrainians are about to conduct one of the most high-risk operations in modern warfare, the combined arms breach. If a few ill-trained mobiks are cowering in half-finished trenches behind improperly emplaced dragon’s teeth, then great — even if the Ukrainian attack like an ill-organized mob, they’d probably succeed. If the Russians actually managed to set up a sophisticated defense, then this is how the Ukrainians could defeat it.
There’s a lot of information here that I tried to distill for the lay person to understand while still remaining doctrinally correct. Let me know if I succeeded, or if I need to clarify anything.
Previously, I posted Part I, which describes some basic tactics, including force ratios.
I also posted Part II, which describes how the U.S. Army thought the Russians would design a defense.
Prior to the breach, the Ukrainians will need to shape the battlefield. They are likely doing that right now, destroying high payoff targets (HPTs) like command nodes, counterfire radar systems, air defense assets, artillery, and logistics assets. By removing key capabilities from the enemy, they make it harder for the Russians to stop the eventual breach. The shaping operations will be across the front, not just in the area of eventual attack, to keep the Russians from knowing where it will occur. As the attack gets closer, the Ukrainians will likely conduct deception operations to confuse the Russians about the location of the attack by massing forces elsewhere and spreading disinformation. Currently, the Ukrainians are attacking near Bakhmut and threatening to surround the town, drawing Russian reserves. As per design, the Russians do not know whether this attack is the main effort, or whether it is designed merely to draw Russian reserves. It sounds like the Russians are hedging their bets by deploying some reserves to Bakhmut but not all. Additionally, the cross-border raids is likely going to draw some Russian Soldiers out of Ukraine to defend border regions.
Just prior to the attack, the Ukrainians are likely to launch multiple attacks in the general vicinity of their eventual breach. Other Ukrainian units will attack to fix Russian units in position to the left and right of the eventual breach location by launching fierce attacks and making it look like each attack is the main effort. Many of these Ukrainian units will be task organized to actually breach at these alternate locations in case of failure of the Ukrainian main effort or unexpected Russian weakness in front of them, but the main goal is to prevent Russian units from repositioning. As a second goal, these multiple attacks will also make it nearly impossible for the Russians to figure out where to commit close air support or the reserve until it is too late. If the Russians accidentally launch a counterattack against the wrong location, they will kill some Ukrainians, but they will fail in their goal of preventing a breach in their defenses.
A proper breach requires good intelligence on what the obstacle looks like and what the defenses look like. The Ukrainians can maximize their chances of success by exploiting a boundary between two units, who may not have coordinated direct fires, indirect fires, engagement and displacement triggers, or the use of reserves. The VDV, conventional Russian Army, Wagner, Chechens, Rosgvardia, and LNR/DPR armed forces do not have good working relationships, creating numerous "seams."
The Ukrainians have hopefully been rehearsing breach operations across Europe over the past months, and the more thoroughly all participants know how to do it, the more likely the breaches are to succeed. The Ukrainians must also organize themselves to be able to be able to mass fires at the appropriate point and synchronize all the effects. A breaching force in NATO doctrine should have a support force, a breach force, and an assault force. The support force provides suppression that enables the breach force to penetrate the obstacle, and the assault force attacks the enemy on the far side. The Ukrainians are likely to conduct multiple breaches in somewhat close proximity - at least two and potentially more. Each task force is probably built around a mechanized battalion, with augmented companies used for both the support force and breach force, and 2-3 companies for the assault. Stationed behind these task forces will be additional brigades and battalions to exploit the breach once a foothold is secured on the far side.
The fundamentals of breaching are Suppress, Obscure, Secure, Reduce, and Assault.
The support force needs to suppress the enemy with both indirect and direct fire to degrade the enemy enough that they cannot stop the breach. Suppression prevents the enemy from repositioning, and also reduces both the volume and accuracy of his fires by forcing the enemy to stay behind cover where he cannot engage effectively. Dismounted infantry is relatively unimportant in the support role, because their weapons typically do not have long enough range. Tanks are the weapon of choice, as each tank can destroy several enemy vehicles every minute at ranges of several kilometers, so long as they can identify targets. Chain guns, like the 25mm on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, can fire continuous suppressive fire on infantry and destroy most vehicles other than tanks. Antitank guided missiles (ATGMs) are also an effective weapon, though they are more capable in destroying individual targets than truly suppressing because of their slow rate of fire and limited number of rounds.
In this video from A Bridge Too Far set in WW2, the British XXX Corps used indirect suppression effectively. However, when the suppression stopped prematurely, the Germans managed to destroy the lead British company within moments. The use of infantry, tanks, and aircraft in a combined arms attack destroyed the remaining German defenders.
Indirect fire by artillery will support the suppression. Conventional artillery munitions require a direct hit to kill a tank or other armored vehicle. Because of accuracy issues, it takes on average several hundred rounds to destroy each vehicle. However, near misses cause tank crews to close hatches, reducing their effectiveness. Shrapnel shatters primary optics, requiring the use of cumbersome backup systems. As tank gun bore evacuators are damaged, guns may jam, and leaking roadwheels may seize up when the crew tries to move the vehicle. Vehicle crews are likely to stay hidden longer in their fighting positions, shooting less, to avoid damage or destruction of their vehicles, while infantry may also fire ATGMs and other weapon systems less effectively. Units will generally avoid repositioning when artillery is incoming.
The Ukrainians have a limited number of specialty artillery rounds, which we can expect them to use here. The most effective are the Dual Purpose Improved Cluster Munitions (DPICM), donated by Turkey. These 155mm rounds open over the target, releasing 24x small anti-tank shaped charges on parachutes that can destroy the top armor of tanks, mixed with 48-64x small antipersonnel explosives. Most NATO countries have banned their militaries from using these rounds, and the United States has refused to provide them to Ukraine for public relations reasons. The Ukrainians also have a small number of French/Swedish 155mm BONUS rounds, which open over the target, releasing two submunitions with winglets and sensors that identify and destroy any tanks in the vicinity, as well as the German 155mm SMArt round that has a similar mechanism. The Ukrainians also likely have several thousand American M982 Excalibur rounds, which use a rocket assistance for additional range, and then guide into their target using preprogrammed GPS coordinates. As an expensive precision weapon, the Excalibur is not typically used for destroying tanks and is more likely to be used for identified stationary targets like headquarters, radars, and air defense systems.
Counterfire radar systems with dedicated artillery batteries will be on standby to fire counter battery. The radars will detect the arc of incoming rounds towards the Ukrainian breach or support positions to identify the Point of Origin (POO). Before the rounds impact, the Ukrainian gunners will have a ballistic solution to fire back at Russian artillery, which will attempt to move before being destroyed. Russian counterbattery will fire back at the Ukrainian guns in turn, which will have another battery fire at the Russian guns, and so on until one side has no additional batteries left to shoot. The resulting artillery duel will consist of multiple batteries on each side firing a few rounds before displacing and firing a few more times, as each side gets occasional hits. This counterbattery fight will reduce the volume of fire on the breach. The Russians have several times the number of artillery, a significant advantage in range, and often outclass the Ukrainians in the size of their guns and rockets. The Russians also have an advantage in the ability to mass fires, since their artillery is often controlled at a centralized but inefficient Integrated Fire Command (IFC). The Ukrainians have more precision weapons and are faster at dynamic targeting with more responsive fires. With enough surprise, the Ukrainians can achieve a local advantage in artillery. Hopefully, prior to or during the fight, the Ukrainians can identify and destroy either the Russian counterfire radar systems or their IFC headquarters, crippling Russian effectiveness.
Close air support from fixed wing aviation is a huge force multiplier. A single Mig-29 sortie can destroy multiple enemy vehicles in critical defensive positions in just seconds. Rotary wing aviation is also specifically designed to destroy enemy tanks and armored vehicles rapidly from outside the range of direct fire weapons. Each Ukrainian Mi-24 Hind helicopter can fire 4-8 AT-9 Spiral 2 (Ataka) anti-tank missiles from about 6 kilometers away, and the Ukrainians would likely mass helicopters in support of the attack. If employed, aviation assets are likely to kill a significant percentage of the enemy and perhaps even the majority in the vicinity of the breach, greatly increasing the chances of success.
Unfortunately, the Russian Integrated Air Defense System (IADS), consisting of a mix of short-range, medium-range, and long-range air defense systems with multiple radar systems, is capable of annihilating an attacking force. To use aviation, the Ukrainians need to degrade and suppress enemy air defenses in the area. The most critical targets are the air defense radar systems, which work by actively emitting radar energy in a known frequency. Certain weapons, such as the AGM-88 HARM missile donated by the United States, can home in on these frequencies and destroy Russian radar systems. The only effective way to prevent destruction by HARM missiles is to turn off the radars, only activating them for short bursts, significantly degrading the system, and using decoy emitters. By suppressing enemy air defenses (SEAD) with precision artillery and HARM missiles, the Ukrainians can temporarily gain air superiority over the breach area. They will lose some aircraft, but if they decide to employ aviation, they will greatly increase their chance of having a successful breach.
So, is air support required for a breach? I would say no — the Ukrainians can achieve a similar effect from massed artillery. However, the destructive power from aircraft is significant against armored vehicles (bombs and missiles are bigger than artillery rounds).
The Ukrainians will likely also suppress with cyber attacks on any identified Russian communication nodes and electronic warfare (EW) attacks on any identified Russian headquarters in the area. The cyber and EW attacks may disintegrate the Russian attempt to synchronize their defense and delay the employment of the Russian reserve.
Obscuration requires certain conditions to be effective. If the wind is too high or the wrong direction, the smoke will dissipate, leaving the breach team vulnerable and likely dead. Most likely, the smoke will be provided by a battery of 152mm or 155mm artillery firing Hexachloroethane (HC) smoke between the obstacle and the enemy positions for 20-60 minutes, with a lot of rounds at the beginning, then at a slower interval to maintain the smoke. Other types of obscuration are also possible, though many, like smoke pots (think carrying a 5-gallon Home Depot bucket to the breach lane) entail additional risk with less overall smoke. 152mm or 155mm White phosphorous smoke provides even more obscuration that HC, but will hinder the eventual attack through the breach lane, since any exposed personnel risk injury for a significant period of time. While firing, the obscuration battery is highly vulnerable to Russian counterbattery fire, but if it stops, then the breach is likely to fail, providing a planning challenge for the Ukrainians. Of course, since the Russians are likely to fire massive artillery into any smoke cloud, the Ukrainians may consider deception operations of obscuring a different location in the vicinity first to draw Russian fire and enable Ukrainian counterbattery prior to starting the actual breach.
The video shows 155mm HC smoke. The smoke billows slowly, but even a single round can produce a lot of smoke. For this type of operation, more smoke rounds will be fired at a time to increase the total quantity and size of the obscuration. As each smoke round only lasts 40-90 seconds, the smoke needs to be continually refreshed with more rounds, likely for 20-60 minutes total. During this time, the artillery battery is unable to move and highly vulnerable to Russian counter-battery fire.
Once the obscuration has hidden the breach site from the enemy, the Ukrainians need to set up security next to the breach site. For this, they are likely to use tanks or infantry fighting vehicles with chain guns or small cannons. This local near-side security will protect the breach team from any enemy forces that are very close, or from further targets if the smoke has a short gap.
This is the biggest challenge. If the Russians have emplaced a complex obstacle, the Ukrainians will have to maneuver different types of breach assets into the lane in sequence. Each vehicle will extend the breach lane a little further and then have to back up through the lane to let the next vehicle extend the lane again. For example, the Ukrainians might need Mine Clearing Line Charges (MICLICs), followed by a bridging asset for the tank ditch, and followed by additional MICLICs. As the lane is created, it needs to be proofed, probably by a tank-mounted mine roller, to detonate any mines left in the lane. Then, the lane needs to be marked so that vehicles don't accidentally veer off into the minefields, and the entrance needs to be marked so that units can find it in the smoke and dust. Once the lane is reduced, proofed, and marked, a small security force, likely a tank platoon, will race through the breach and set up security on the far side.
If any vehicles are destroyed in the breach, the lane risks being blocked and rendered unusable. For this reason, and also because the throughput of a single lane is fairly low, the Ukrainians will breach multiple lanes simultaneously. Keep in mind that the breach lane is likely obscured by smoke and conducted at night, making coordination extremely difficult. Even though the enemy may not see the breach lane itself, they know it is happening, so they will blindly fire direct and indirect weapons into the vicinity of the breach, hoping for a lucky hit. If the obscuration fails, the breach will likely fail too. The Ukrainians should plan to lose as many as half of all breaching assets on a successful breach.
A large force will rush through the breach and seize a foothold on the far side. The force will consist of a mix of tanks to destroy enemy tanks and other armored vehicles, with infantry to clear out enemy infantry that could destroy the Ukrainians tanks. As the assault goes through, the direct and indirect suppression will continue but will shift to the flanks or deeper targets to avoid fratricide.
However, this creates the next big challenge. The defending Russians should have a local reserve of company or battalion size that is positioned to attack within minutes, assisted by rotary wing and fixed wing aviation. To avoid sending the reserve to the wrong location, the Russians should wait for the breach to occur before sending the counterattack, but that means it is now a race against time. The Ukrainians have to establish a hasty defense to defend their breach lanes and foothold on the far side by emplacing tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and infantry with engagement areas to defend the Russian avenues of approach. If the Russians attack before the hasty defense is established, they are likely to win if they can achieve a force ratio of at least 1:1. If the hasty defense is established before the Russians arrive, they will need approximately a 2.5:1 ratio to likely succeed. Speed is critical, as well as effective air defense.
This video shows a U.S. Army doctrinal breach as performed at the National Training Center (NTC). All U.S. Armored Brigade Combat Teams practice this operation every 2-3 years when they visit the NTC in the Mojave Desert, California.
Once the Russian reserve is defeated or fails to arrive, the Ukrainians need to exploit their victory. At this stage, the battalion conducting the breach has culminated, and the Ukrainians need to pass additional battalions and brigades through the breach to continue the attack. As the next unit is passed through the breach, the engineers will begin making additional lanes in the obstacle and widening existing lanes.
The exploitation can go in multiple directions. One way is to attack the new assailable flank to either side of the breach. It is possible to envelope Russian forces, who will be trapped against their own obstacle if they do not rapidly retreat. The Ukrainians will likely attack a short distance in either direction to protect their positions. However, more important is advancing into the forward into the Russian Support Zone. Here, the major challenge is tempo. The Russians have multiple defensive belts, and the survivors of the first defense will augment the forces already set up in the second line of defense, moving through predesignated lanes through the obstacles and then closing the lanes with mines after they pass through. If the Ukrainians attack fast enough, they can hit the second line of defense before it is fully set, overcoming it with far less resistence. Depending on where the Ukrainians attack, they may have to break through a third and fourth line of defense. These will be weaker still, assuming the Ukrainians attack them fast enough. The Ukrainians will bypass any enemy that is too small to threaten the main body, leaving these isolated Russians for follow-on Ukrainians forces. If the Ukrainian attack is delayed, then the Russian defenses will quickly stiffen and again require enormous planning and resources to break through.
During the exploitation, the Ukrainians are likely to receive a counterattack from a large Russian operational reserve of brigade or division strength. Some reserve forces may be used to augment defenses to the Ukrainian front, but most of it is likely to be used to attack the Ukrainian flank. Good intelligence will prevent surprise, and a good deception plan can reduce the size or speed of the Russian reserve element, hopefully diverting it into attacking an unimportant target prematurely. The Ukrainian attack, if it is to be successful, has to cover dozens of kilometers in a few days. As each defensive belt is breached, the Russians will have to reorient on either flank to avoid envelopment and destruction. The Ukrainians have to leave significant maneuver forces on either flank to defend against Russian counter-attacks and must continue to attack to the front with few operational pauses to maintain offensive pressure on the enemy. Stopping to re-task organize, bring up artillery and air defenses, or await logistics risks allowing the enemy defense to increase. Running out of enough maneuver forces to continue guarding the extended flanks or failing to retain significant forces to continue attacking forward is an operational risk, as either can result in culmination.
The biggest risk of the offense, however, is premature culmination due to logistics. The Ukrainians need significant fuel to keep attacking. The reason the U.S. did not want to send Abrams tanks is because of the fuel usage. Each Abrams tank holds 500 gallons of fuel and has to be refueled approximately every 8 hours on the offense in an operation that requires bringing thousands of gallons of fuel forward to each tank company. If the fuel stops, the tanks stop. The T-64, T-72, T-90, Leopard 1, Leopard 2, Challenger 2, and other tanks can go a few more hours on the offense than the Abrams but still need refueling twice daily (the T80, on the other hand, has the same fuel constraints as the Abrams). Fuel, ammunition, spare parts, and other supplies need large stockpiles near the breakthrough with sufficient trucks and roads to bring it to the front. As the Ukrainian Army advances from its supply depots, which will probably be just out of range of most of the Russian artillery at the beginning of the operation (25+ kilometers from the front line), each truck will go from making three trips a day (<70 km / 45 miles), to two trips a day (<140km), to one trip a day (<280 km), and then less than once per day (>280 km). If the logistics break down due to lack of sufficient stockpiles, lack of trucks, too much road congestion, or lack of planning/coordination, then the attack will culminate.
This video shows a training exercise where the U.S. Army set up 16x refueling points and conducted a Refuel on the Move (ROM) for tracked vehicles. The vehicles kept their engines running and each received a predetermined amount of fuel to extend their range. A two-minute splash of fuel (120 gallons) for each Abrams tank would fill up a quarter of the fuel tank, adding another 2-3 hours of maneuver time before needing more fuel. With about 400 tracked and 800 wheeled vehicles in an American armored brigade, refueling operations are time-consuming and resource-intensive. Dozens of 2500-gallon fuel tanker trucks need to continually drive back to the fuel depot and return to the front to refuel vehicles.
So, in short, the Ukrainians need to be good if the Russians set up a competent defense. A combined arms breach is damned hard. However, they have the equipment, the motivation, and the leadership to pull it off. By all accounts, they also have the skills and training.