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What Can The Average U.S. Military “Grunt” Learn From Ukraine?

Updated: Jun 3, 2022

People now more than ever are constantly receiving news and information updates on their mobile devices. Members of the military are no different, being increasingly curious about military conflicts and the interesting details within them. The war in Ukraine has become one of the first major European conflicts to be viewable on social media, updated by the minute. Analysts, veterans, experts, and even the regular soldiers are all dissecting the action as it unfolds. With this amount of information, what can the individual service member learn from the conflict on the ground?

While many Americans have joined the Territorial Defense Forces of the Ukraine military, some have come out with a warning to others seeking to sign up. Many of those are veterans of the United States operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other places. They have heavily advised prospective volunteers that the conflict in Ukraine is nothing like many service members experiences in the Global War on Terror (GWOT).

Fighting an exceptionally well equipped and professional military force is observably different from what we saw, even during the early days of the invasion of Iraq. With near-peer conflict ever on the horizon, it can prove as a learning opportunity even for the lowest ranking infantryman. Three of these lessons are; the fallacy of the infallibility of tanks, a refocus on the basics, and awareness of the electronic battlefield.

For decades, the United States has enjoyed both air and ground armor superiority. With some exceptions in the very early phases, America and her NATO allies were without armored opposition. Service members have largely let the block of instruction on anti-armor fall out of their training routine, saving money for more relevant tasks.

Ukrainian soldiers firing an American FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile. (Photo from AFP)

In addition, units that were designated as anti-armor infantry or cavalry were employed as light or mechanized units by commanders. These units will now need to shift their training schedule to reintroduce the core of their old doctrine. Conversely, armor units have been largely uncontested. Many units in Europe have begun seeing the armored action in Ukraine and taken to the ranges to remaster their tank warfare skill sets.

This alludes to the next key point for junior soldiers; the basics. Much has been made of advanced battlefield technologies, drones, and loitering munitions. However, it is the fundamental warfighting tasks that have proven the most effective for Ukraine. Small unit tactics and junior leadership has set aside the defenders apart from their Russian counterparts at the tactical level.

Social media has shown a large quantity of video evidence of these small unit tactics being used. Urban and suburban operations against a heavy enemy are complex in nature. Despite this, Ukrainian defenders have thus far held many of the city centers using agility and junior leadership decision-making. Both are among the few advantages they have against the Russian forces.

Ukrainian and NATO Non-Commissioned Officers conduct a leadership workshop at a training center in Ukraine in 2019. (NATO Photo)

Russian leadership is notoriously reliant on doctrine, shying away from the advice of experienced junior soldiers. This is a component of the Russian philosophy on the concept of an non-commissioned officer, or NCO, role in combat. Russian sergeants are not used in the same leadership and squad or platoon management roles as the West. NATO and similar armies have focused on making well-rounded and capable leaders. Russian NCOs are more disciplinarians and managers.

The ability for combat decision-making to be done at such a low level is unique to Western forces. Additionally, it is something the Ukrainian forces have largely adopted from their time being trained by NATO assistance teams. This is all a part of a refocusing effort on warfighting fundamental tasks, led by a competent NCO corps.

Finally, an awareness of the electronic battlefield has been a recent area of weakness for many militaries. For the West, encryption of communication and satellite devices is routine, social media access is restricted, and personal electronics are highly discouraged. NATO soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan were keenly aware of the traceability of their unsecured devices.

Ukrainian army soldier Dasha, 22, checks her phone after a military sweep on the outskirts of Kyiv. (Rodrigo Abd/The Associated Press)

However, Russian forces seem to be less aware of this. Usage of personal phones as a means of tactical level communications has been seen, as well as the interception of these calls leading to strikes against the users. Both ground and aviation units have been seen using commercially available civilian GPS systems. These systems are easily trackable by Ukraine’s cyber units.

Maintaining an awareness of this aspect of the modern battlefield is a shortcoming for all forces involved, but most notably by the invaders. Being one of the first “social media accessible wars” allows everyone to witness in live action the horrors of war like news could never cover. Soldiers themselves have become the primary sources of information from the front.

Combining all three of these lessons gives the modern “grunt” in the West an idea of what to expect in the next war between global powers. While it's unclear when and even if this will come to fruition, keeping these lessons in mind will increase the survivability of the young warfighter. Lessons from the asymmetric wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other localities of the GWOT are certainly invaluable, but these may be overshadowed by the new and monumental obstacles presented on the battlefields of World War III.

Cover image: U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Lance Cpl. Alexandra Amor Santos Arambulo.

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