Thursday, April 17, 2014

Preserve the Army

Trying to figure out just what Ukraine's military could do to defeat the Russians keeps leading me to the conclusion that the Ukrainian military simply isn't reliable enough to risk in a major battle. This makes scenarios a paper exercise based on paper units that likely won't reflect reality. The key objective of the army isn't to hold the east--but to survive the loss of the east while inflicting casualties on the Russian invaders.

Leadership is always the important factor in whether units hold together. When the 25th airborne brigade lost 6 of its armored vehicles recently (defection, theft, purchase--I don't know), it showed one problem with sending troops to the east.

That unit will be disbanded:

Acting President Oleksander Turchinov said on Thursday the entire paratroop brigade would now be disbanded and those who surrendered would be punished.

So scratch one paper unit. Perhaps the troops and officers can be filtered to reconstitute a smaller but more reliable unit. I'd focus on punishing officers and not troops.

Putting units up against civilian mobs is also a mistake, since the troops likely only have the option of shooting to defend themselves and that would make for very bad relations with the locals. And add to Russia's list of sins that they will use to invade.

Add in the fact that any Ukrainian troops pushed into the far east near the Russian border could be cut off by Russian pincers moving into Kharkov and Donetsk and then closing the gap by securing the north-south road between them where pro-Russian forces (organized and paid for by Spetsnaz) are already active.

So what can Ukraine do with their military?

One, the Ukrainians have to inflict casualties on the Russians and extend the campaign. If Ukraine can't hold their eastern (and possibly southern) regions, they have to deny the Russians "style points" by giving the Russians a quick and low-cost victory. Ukraine needs to pull a Finland and inflict enough losses on Russia to make them think twice about fighting Ukraine again in the near future.

This means that the Ukrainian military can't march off to battle to be destroyed in the first clashes in the east. The army has to survive.

So what would I do?

The Ukrainians have police, army, intelligence, and National Guard forces on the ground plus air force and a negligible navy that was unimportant before the loss of ships in Crimea.

In the east, before the Russians invade, the Ukrainians need to send police and special forces to the east for the main effort to use less-than-lethal force against the Spetsnaz rent-a-mobs to avoid bad optics. And to tangle with the Russian Spetsnaz and to organize pro-Ukrainian locals to resist the Russian occupation should it come.

Troops in contact with the mobs is a bad idea and risks either defections or collapse if units don't shoot and risk provoking a Russian invasion if they do shoot.

Only token army combat units plus some engineer units should be in the far east region between Kharkov and Donetsk, along invasion routes but away from civilians. Units should be mobile and asked only to destroy some invading armor, lay mines, fell trees, blow bridges and tunnels, and otherwise slow the Russian invaders a bit. They should know that they are expected to retreat and survive with rally points all the way back to the Dnieper River established.

Indeed, I'd have minimal mobile forces in the entire eastern region east of the Dnieper River. Let the initial Russian blow hit empty air. As the Russians push west, hit them with helicopter and air strikes and try to ambush them with small anti-tank units that keep falling back rather than trying to (vainly) halt the Russians.

Once the Russians move, I'd push National Guard troops into cities with orders to hold in place as road blocks. They can be stiffened with small units of the army with anti-tank and other heavy weapons to support these enthusiastic if poorly trained men. Hold in the cities to slow down the Russians and inflict casualties. And then scatter when resistance fails to see if they can either form partisan bands or escape west. Remember, the Russians will have a low troop-to-terrain ratio if they push west. Escape should be possible.

Main Ukrainian combat units should be held at the Dneiper River or deeper from the border in the south to prevent an easy link up between Russia and Crimea overland.

As Russians move west, Ukraine should use their attack helicopters to strike the spearheads of the Russian columns while transport helicopters move in anti-tank equipped infantry into blocking positions for ambushes and then withdrawal to do it again somewhere else.

Aircraft should be used to hit the spearheads, too. The Ukrainian air force can't win control of the air. And I doubt that they can deconflict air defense missiles with air operations. So rely on ground-based air defense missiles to inflict losses on the Russian air force while using aircraft to bomb, missile, and strafe the invaders. Burn the air force out to affect the ground war. If the planes wear out, so what? You don't get points for losing a war with planes surviving. Besides, there are lots of second-hand F-16s out there to re-equip after the war (and some A-10s, it appears).

Ukrainian artillery units could be organized into small units of a firing battery and a company of tanks or mechanized infantry for local security and an engineer detachment to move within range of Russian units, fire a volley--and then displace west to try it again. The engineers would plant mines or fell trees across roads or otherwise block chokepoints with obstacles to slow pursuit.

Hopefully, by the time the Russians are reaching the end of their first lunge into Ukraine, they've used up supplies, suffered casualties, and failed to decisively engage Ukraine's army even though the Russians will have taken territory.

If the Ukrainians can manage it, they should use their mobile units to counter-attack the Russian spearheads at this point. I don't anticipate a general offensive to regain ground. Just local battles to inflict losses on the Russians while keeping their own units intact.

Reservists who are mobilized and the new National Guard forces should be kept in cities to hold them and be a sponge to soak up Russian mechanized forces that try to enter the cities.

At the neck of the Crimean peninsula, I'd hold a thicker line. I hope Ukrainian engineers have been busy bulding bunkers and obstacles since the Russians took Crimea. And use artillery units to bombard the Russians holding their end of the neck. Helicopter gunships in smaller numbers could also raid the Russian line trying to pick off vehicles and heavy weapons.

I'd burn my long-range surfact-to-surface missiles in a bombardment of Russia's Sevastopol naval base.

These operations would keep Ukraine's 8th and 6th corps (division-sized units) busy. The western-most 13th corps should defend against a thrust from Belarus and mount the only real Ukrainian offensive by moving into Transdniestria as quickly as possible against the small Russian garrison there.

I'd want this done fast in order to free up the corps' aviation regiment and artillery brigade for use in the east or around the Crimea neck.

I'll add that this would require NATO intelligence support with satellite, AWACS, and JSTARS information shared quickly with the Ukrainians.

As for Ukraine's surviving navy, I'd be grateful if they can manage to lay a few mines and launch brief bombardments of Sevastopol before getting out of harm's way.

The end result if enough goes well, is that Russia has occupied a chunk of Ukrainian territory in the east and south--I don't know how much Putin wants or how much his military tells him they can capture.

But Sevastopol naval base is a shambles. A large burning Russian ship settled on the bottom of the harbor is a bonus.

Russia's army has suffered embarrassing losses.

Ukrainians are still resisting as partisans in the east (and south).

Transdniestra in the west is in Ukrainian hands.

And the Ukrainian army is still largely intact.

At that point, the Ukrainians can start infiltrating small irregular units, special forces, and intelligence agents into Russian-occupied Ukraine to organize and wage guerrilla war against the Russians while the Ukrainian army continues to use artillery to harrass Russian forward units occupying Ukrainian territory.

Just refuse to be beaten despite the loss of territory and compel Russia to fight a long war with too few troops to secure the area conquered.

Offer to talk, of course. But don't declare a ceasefire otherwise the talks are just a means to ratify Russia's victory with only the details to be determined. The goal should be the evacuation of the Russians. That's the only reason to talk.

Could this work? Don't know. But I know that Ukraine has to keep their army intact. And they have to inflict casualties on the Russians and drag out the fight to deny Russia a quick win that bolsters Putin's boast of an awesome Red Army reborn.

And the Ukrainians have to fight just to establish that they are a real country with a right to exist and not just a lost province of Russia waiting to be pulled into the empire when the time is right.