Two years of war in Ukraine: What the Pentagon has learned

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FORT IRWIN, Calif. — As the general paced the briefing room, he displayed a piece of lethal technology and detailed the death and chaos it has caused in Ukraine.

Almost 90 Russian soldiers were slain in a single attack in 2022, explained Army Maj. Gen. Curtis Taylor, when Ukrainian forces dropped U.S.-provided rockets on buildings pulsing with electronic signals.

Here in the Mojave Desert, where Taylor oversees simulated war designed to prepare U.S. troops for the real thing, the same behavior abounds, he warned.

Taylor held up his cellphone. “This device,” he said, “is going to get our soldiers killed.”

The U.S. military is undertaking an expansive revision of its approach to war fighting, having largely abandoned the counterinsurgency playbook that was a hallmark of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan to focus instead on preparing for an even larger conflict with more sophisticated adversaries such as Russia or China.

What’s transpired in Ukraine, where this week the war enters its third year with hundreds of thousands dead or wounded on both sides and still no end in sight, has made clear to the Pentagon that battlefield calculations have fundamentally changed in the years since it last deployed forces in large numbers. Precision weapons, fleets of drones and digital surveillance can reach far beyond the front lines, posing grave risk to personnel wherever they are.

The war remains an active and bountiful research opportunity for American military planners as they look to the future, officials say. A classified year-long study on the lessons learned from both sides of the bloody campaign will help inform the next National Defense Strategy, a sweeping document that aligns the Pentagon’s myriad priorities. The 20 officers who led the project examined five areas: ground maneuver, air power, information warfare, sustaining and growing forces and long range fire capability.

“We immersed them in this conflict to make sure they were really understanding the implications for warfare,” said a senior defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the initiative.

The “character of war” is changing, another official said, and the lessons taken from Ukraine stand to be “an enduring resource.”

The Ukraine conflict has challenged core assumptions. The war has become an attritional slugfest with each side attempting to wear down the other, a model thought to be anachronistic, said Stacie Pettyjohn, director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank.

It also has complicated a long-held belief in the Pentagon that expensive precision weapons are central to winning America’s conflicts, Pettyjohn said. GPS-guided munitions provided to Ukraine have proven vulnerable to electronic jamming. Its military has adapted by pairing older unguided artillery with sensors and drones, which can be used to spot targets and refine their shots. U.S. military commanders have almost certainly taken notice, she said.

‘The new cigarette in the foxhole’

Ukraine has demonstrated that everything U.S. troops do in the field — from planning missions and patrolling to the technology that enables virtually every military task — needs to be rethought, officials say.

Fort Irwin is home to the National Training Center, or NTC, one of two Army ranges in the United States where troops refine tactics and prepare for deployments. The training area, known to soldiers as “The Box,” is a patch of desert about the size of Rhode Island.

In years past, the facility replicated what U.S. forces could expect to face in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now trench lines zigzag across positions intended to replicate the battlespace in Ukraine.

Over the winter, the facility was occupied by the 1st Armored Division. As soldiers fought simulated battles, Taylor, the commanding general here, explained Ukraine’s transformational imprint on how the Army thinks and trains for combat. “Russian artillery has rendered maneuver difficult and command posts unsurvivable,” one of his briefing slides noted.

Vitally, commanders warn over and over that most electronic gear is a potential target. Soldiers are instructed to not use their phones in the training area, and observers, known as OCs, carry handheld detectors trying to sniff out any contraband.

Taylor told the story of an Apache helicopter pilot who successfully avoided air defense systems during a simulated attack. Personnel portraying the enemy forces were unable to determine the path the helicopter took, but after examining commercially available cellphone data, they were able to map the journey of a device traveling across the desert at 120 miles per hour. It revealed where the Apache flew to evade the defenses.

The general is adamant about stamping out such behaviors. He likens the threat to that posed by cigarette smoking on the front lines during World War II, when enemy forces looked for bright orange flickers to help identify their targets.

“I think our addiction to cellphones is equally as threatening,” Taylor said. “This is the new cigarette in the foxhole.”

Troops also have to consider the cellphone use occurring around them. Personnel tasked with portraying noncombatants capture photos and videos of troop locations and equipment, and upload the imagery to a mock social network called Fakebook. There, it populates in a feed used by service members playing the part of enemy forces who then use that data to attack.

Radios, drone controllers and vehicles all produce substantial amounts of electromagnetic activity and thermal energy that can be detected. To confuse enemy surveillance, the Army is teaching soldiers to hide in plain sight.

The troops are learning, leaders said. But a walk around The Box showed room for improvement. The division’s command post, essentially a folding table with four Humvees parked around it, was draped in camouflage netting that helps dampen electronic and thermal signatures. The post was hidden well — except for the bright white Starlink satellite internet terminal placed outside.

The netting interfered with its signal, a soldier explained. It risked standing out to drones or surveillance aircraft, Taylor told them. “Put a blanket on that,” he advised.

The Russian and Ukrainian militaries each flood the sky with one-way attack drones that are inexpensive and able to skirt detection. Their prolific use has forced American military leaders to consider where there are gaps in their capabilities.

Whereas recent U.S. conflicts featured big, expensive drones employed for missions orchestrated at very senior levels of command, in Ukraine leaders have put powerful surveillance and attack capabilities in the hands of individual soldiers — a degree of autonomy for small units that the U.S. military is only recently trying to emulate.

The technology’s proliferation has also created a new urgency at the Pentagon to develop and field better counter-drone systems. In Jordan last month, three U.S. soldiers were killed after a one-way drone, which officials have said likely went undetected, crashed into their living quarters.

The Army, taking cues from the Ukraine war, has begun experimenting with dropping small munitions from drones, a tactic used by the Islamic State that has since become a mainstay in Ukraine. It also has made a decision to do away with two surveillance drone platforms, the Shadow and Raven, describing them as unable to survive in modern conflict.

“We are learning from the battlefield — especially in Ukraine — that aerial reconnaissance has fundamentally changed,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Randy George said.

The Ukrainians have discovered some innovative solutions to detect drones, Gen. James B. Hecker, the chief of Air Force operations in Europe and Africa, said during a recent symposium.

He told the story of two Ukrainians who collected thousands of smartphones, affixed microphones and connected them to a network capable of detecting the unique buzzing sound of approaching unmanned systems. The information then gets relayed to air defense soldiers who can take action. The effort was briefed to the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency and referred to NATO and U.S. commands to potentially duplicate, Hecker said.

Hecker also described recent drone and missile attacks targeting merchant and military ships in the Red Sea. The violence by militants in Yemen has been met with an aggressive response by the United States. Gesturing to his counterpart responsible for defending against potential threats from China, he said that “What the Houthis did, what Russia is doing, is nothing compared to what we’re going to see in your theater.”

In the woods at Fort Johnson, an Army post in western Louisiana, American troops inspired by the lessons of Ukraine have a motto: Dig or die.

Soldiers who rotate through the Joint Readiness Training Center there are learning to create trenches and dugouts, relics of past conflicts brought back to provide protection from bombs and drones. At one position, soldiers scooped up handfuls of sticks and brush to better conceal their foxholes, saying they put shovel to earth for hours in preparation.

“I hope they come,” one said. “I didn’t dig this for no reason.”

Personnel playing the role of opposing forces used AI software and cheap drones to throw their compatriots off balance, then showed them what they uncovered to help them improve.

Although troops are getting better at physical camouflage, their digital trail is still a vulnerability. One drone used by opposing forces at Fort Johnson is capable of detecting WiFi signals and Bluetooth-enabled devices, an officer noted.

In another case, a command post was identified through its network name: “command post.”

While the Ukraine war has pushed battlefield innovation, some observers surmise the Pentagon will move only so quickly without forces in extremis.

There are plenty of signs that the legacy of the post-9/11 wars, which shaped the careers and experience of today’s military leaders, still looms large. U.S. forces remain under threat in the Middle East, and troops there are still assigned to — and attacked at — the same bases their predecessors occupied years ago.

At Fort Johnson, the new soldier in-processing center has three digital clocks on the wall. One displays the local hour. The others flash the time in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Pettyjohn, with the Center for New American Security, acknowledged that the U.S. and Ukrainian militaries operate differently, meaning some takeaways from the war with Russia may not be applicable.

But she noted that some American military leaders she has spoken to have seemed circumspect that there’s much for them learn. They underestimate, she said, how the nature of fighting has changed, holding tight to the risky assumption that the United States would simply do better in similar circumstances.

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