For US military leaders, Ukraine is a golden learning opportunity

The capabilities of the Russian military have been on display for several days now, its strengths, its weaknesses and general operational doctrines.

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The capabilities of the Russian military have been on display for several days now, its strengths, its weaknesses and general operational doctrines. For how U.S. military leaders are likely monitoring it and taking notes, and what they hope to learn, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to Hudson Institute senior fellow Bryan Clark.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Bryan, good to have you back.

Bryan Clark: Thanks, Tom. Great to be here.

Tom Temin: And in some ways, I’m harkening back to your naval days, when, am I right in that assumption that this is a great learning experience?

Bryan Clark: Absolutely, absolutely, I think but for both sides, for us to be able to observe how Russia is going to operate against a more modern military than they faced in Syria, or even in their gray zone operations against Ukraine. So kind of at that peer level closer to it, they’re going to be using the high end capabilities that they’ve been developing over the last decade or so since they really turned to a big modernization agenda.

Tom Temin: And what do we know, by the way, as an aside here about the actual Russian military? Because their platforms, like some of the helicopters, they’re using effectively, were first fielded in the 1960s and 1970s. Similar trucks are old, some of their bombers go back to the ’50s, kind of like us in some ways, but they can modernize them.

Bryan Clark: Yeah so what they’ve done is it’s sort of a bifurcated military. So on the one hand, you’ve got some very modern equipment. So they’ve got very modern cruise and ballistic missiles and the associated launchers. They’ve got some very modern electromagnetic warfare systems, obviously cyber capabilities are pretty robust. And they’ve got pretty good space capabilities that they’ve been keeping up at the current level of the state of the art. But then they’ve got this older equipment that dates from the Cold War that they’ve been just keeping up and modernizing and keeping in an operation over the last several years. So you got this very different set of old and new systems. But in a land war against Ukraine, a lot of those old systems are still very relevant. Armor really is the king when it comes to fighting a conflict like we have in Ukraine.

Tom Temin: And fair to say that if you have a modernized missile, say, for example, the same old iron tube that launches it is irrelevant once the intelligence is in the missile itself and in its communication with some other network.

Bryan Clark: Absolutely, you’ve got these 30-year-old trucks hauling around brand new cruise missiles that are intelligent, and in some cases can fly at hypersonic speed. So you got this mixture of the old and new that sort of exemplifies the Russian military.

Tom Temin: So in some ways, the modernization of the military by Russia mirrors what the United States branches are trying to do with modernizing themselves in an age when they can’t afford unlimited new platforms. But they can bring cyber and network capabilities. That seems to be the theme that runs through a lot of what the three major military branches are trying to do?

Bryan Clark: Right, yes, I think what what you what you see on the American side is this desire to try to shift a lot of the emphasis on to the payload, right, to the missile, the UAV, the thing you carry is the thing that’s got the sophisticated capabilities in it and the platform itself kind of stays relatively primitive, not modernized necessarily to the same degree. The problem we have is that a lot of our stuff is so highly integrated our ships, our airplanes, that it’s hard to get that separation between the payload and the platform that carries it. Whereas in the Russian military, they’re very modular, so their truck that’s 30 years old, is not integrated very much with the weapon that it carries. So you can build it, you can change the weapon over time and not have to change the truck, we don’t have that same system in the U.S.

Tom Temin: All you need is a torque wrench basically.

Bryan Clark: Right, exactly.

Tom Temin: Well, in thinking about how the U.S. military wants to modernize, again, more networked smarter weapons and so forth, more AI, is it possible, do you think for them in watching Russia to discern whether Russia has those networked and smart weapons capable? I guess we know some of what their weapons can do. Can we see how well networked and how well coordinated they are?

Bryan Clark: We can. So what’s interesting is Russia has not done as much in terms of building out the kind of space based surveillance systems that the U.S. has, or the long range satellite enabled communication networks, where the U.S. can control operations over an entire theater or region. Russian forces just don’t have that same, they don’t have the budgets, they don’t have the same level of infrastructure. But what they have done is invest in local networks. So they use a lot of unmanned systems, a lot of drones, to do surveillance and targeting, and then pass that information kind of over the hill to the missile that’s going to use that information. It did a very good job there of being able to create these small area networks that allow them to get targeting back to the weapons and then use either artillery, or missiles, or even rockets to be able to attack forces. They’ve used that against Ukraine very effectively.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Bryan Clark, he’s senior fellow and director for the Center of Defense Concepts and Technology at the Hudson Institute. So in many ways Russians have learned how to work well in what our folks call austere environments.

Bryan Clark: Correct, yeah so Russia has done a great job of modernizing their military for their particular purposes. So for example, their navy has a lot of these older ships that they from the early Cold War even, but they put new missiles on them. The new ships they have these smaller corvettes and frigates that operate in their inland seas. They’re operating in the Black Sea, and they’re much more effective for the kinds of operations that Russia has to do today where they’re looking to try to attack neighbors in their near abroad not go after the United States an ocean away. So they’ve been very smart about how they’ve modernized.

Tom Temin: And can U.S. telemetry discern how well trained their troops are, or maybe the differences among different troops, some of which are conscripts, some of which are a professional volunteer type of force?

Bryan Clark: Right, it’s interesting that for the Russians, what’s interesting is they’ve been using their operations, the gray zone operations in Ukraine and then their operations in Syria as a training ground for their troops. So they’ve been cycling even their conscript forces through these operations to be able to get them proficient, and more importantly, to get their senior leaders that are not conscripts, more familiar with how to manage military operations in a networked kind of high tech environment. So they’ve been doing that even though they’ve been doing these relatively low-end operations in Ukraine and Syria. So we’ve seen that they’re fairly proficient. And they’re pretty good at using the capabilities they have in these local area kind of network bytes. So yes, I think we do have the telemetry to get that. I mean we’ve been watching them over the years get better at it.

Tom Temin: So this is a good chance to see how it actually works under pressure because Ukrainians have fought back here in there.

Bryan Clark: Absolutely. So you’ve seen some good resistance on the part of Ukrainians using their own guided weapons, some of which came from the United States. They’ve been using these UAVs that they got from Turkey that were similar to the ones that were used in the Nagorno – you read of the the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict recently against Azerbaijan. So I think those those capabilities have been employed pretty effectively by the Ukrainians. So we get to see how the Russians respond to a more capable military than what they’ve been facing thus far.

Tom Temin: And this idea of precision warfare, getting over to the hardware side has evolved, of course. In World War II, precision bombing meant, well, it landed in Germany, and that’s about all they could say about it. Today, we have these targets of this car or that window. Can we tell how good the Russians are, do you think?

Bryan Clark: You can see that. Yeah, you can definitely see that our surveillance or satellite and UAV surveillance, we’ve got MQ-4C – RQ-4 Global Hawks flying over Ukraine. We’ve got satellites that are watching Ukraine to see how well they operate. And Russia interestingly, they’ve been using aircraft for some of these airstrikes. And what’s important about getting an airstrike correct is actually navigating the airplane to the right location, rather than the weapon getting there. But now you’ve got the ability to precisely navigate the airplane and the weapon. But the Russians have used a lot more of the surface-to-surface missiles. So the Iskander and the Kalibr missiles they’ve been using are very precise. We’ve been able to see that thanks to the surveillance capabilities of the United States and even commercial services have.

Tom Temin: So to the pilots, they can still shout “Look out the window, Boris!”

Bryan Clark: Right, exactly. If you get to the right place, that’s the most important part of making sure that you can get the weapon and location it needs to be.

Tom Temin: This invasion, then, you could characterize it as a rare data gathering exercise for the U.S. forces?

Bryan Clark: Yeah, definitely, it’s an opportunity to see how Russia’s going to operate against a more capable military that’s been equipped with some U.S. systems and some western systems, so they’re not facing the Syrians who we’ve been actively preventing from getting those kinds of weapons and seeing how they respond, and seeing how they’re able to network together their forces using kind of this local set of capabilities that are more UAV-focused than satellite focused.

Tom Temin: So with this big data gathering and happening, I presume across all the services, then the hard part is translating it into refreshed doctrine or operating principles for the U.S. Do you see that happening and how does that happen?

Bryan Clark: Well, there’s a feedback loop that the U.S. has, but it’s not very effective. So this is one area that the U.S. military has been trying to improve is both in its own experimentation and exercises and then in watching other countries actually do military operations, translating that into changes to tactics and how you fight and then actually going and exercising those in a real, in a training environment or in a real world environment. That loop is not completely closed for the US.. military. And part of the problem is, you need to have a drumbeat or a frequency of doing exercises that’s fast enough so that you can practice it, mess it up, start it again, do it again. So that iterative process is not quite there for the U.S. military. And that’s partly a funding problem. But it’s partly also a cultural problem that you got to get used to doing things on a faster cycle than we have had to in the post-Cold War environment.

Tom Temin: But in the short term, would you say that perhaps the data gathering they’re doing now could at least help the accuracy and applicability of the tabletop exercises?

Bryan Clark: Yeah, absolutely. So it’s definitely, and it’s going to help with developing the requirements for the next generation of capabilities. So we can kind of see, based on how the Russians fight, what kinds of network capabilities are going to be useful against them? How can we use electromagnetic warfare to degrade or to interfere with their ability to communicate or past targeting information? And then what kinds of missile defense capabilities might work against the next generation of Russian precision weapons?

Tom Temin: The silver lining in this at least is the lessons we can learn, sad as the situation itself is.

Bryan Clark: Yeah, we can make the best of it, by exploiting the opportunity to learn more about how Russia fights and what they’re going to fight with.

Tom Temin: Brian Clark is senior fellow and director of the Center for Defense Concepts and Technology at the Hudson Institute. Thanks so much for joining me.

Bryan Clark: Thanks, Tom. It’s great to be here.

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