On The Actual Lessons Of Russian Equipment Losses In Ukraine

It has been said that a frequent problem of Wars Happening To Other People is that one learns decidedly the wrong lessons to be drawn from them.

This applies both to militaries – but also to other external observers. Particularly where there are ‘propagandtastic’ reasons for doing so.

The present conflict in Ukraine is already producing quite the escalating pile-up of these.

Yesterday’s strike on the Russian flagship of the Black Sea Fleet – the Moskva – is going to be another one.

Except here’s the thing.

There’s been a lot of corresponding jubilance from Westerners (I am not going to say it’s all Americans, but it has significantly seemed to be Americans) about this. That’s understandable. Everybody likes backing the underdog.

But the way some of it has been phrased, is as if this event indicates that there’s a laughably bad trait to Russian military hardware. And that a “real” warship, a “proper” warship, an “American” warship, would be untouchable by comparison.

Literally, the thing that sparked my mind here was seeing an American doing basically the above and attaching a picture of a current US aircraft carrier and declaring that if the Moskva was what the Russians thought a large warship was – well, this was what a REAL large warship looked like.

Personally, I saw something rather different – a large target.

And that’s just the thing.

The reason the People’s Republic of China is currently festooning various atolls and islands throughout the South China Sea with missile-batteries is because they see the same thing. A large, expensive, and vulnerable asset that has to get ‘lucky’ quite a few times in fending off a missile bombardment – whereas the side carrying out said bombardment only has to get lucky a very few times to do significant damage (or, contingent upon payload, potentially even sink the beast – certainly, necessitate a withdrawal back to port for quite some time).

Now, I am not going to suggest – as some have – that surface combatants are obsolete in modern naval operations. Quite the contrary. I think that there’s definitely still a role for ships that only wind up underwater involuntarily in contemporary fleets – it just comes down rather heavily to what kind of environment they’re operating in, and to what particular purpose they’re being deployed. However that is an entire series of conversations for another time.

What I AM going to state – is that the problem encountered by the Russians with the Moskva is not something that necessarily indicates that Russian military hardware is somehow intrinsically bad. Although at the same time, I do think that a 40 year old cruiser in a modern war is going to encounter difficulties. And that any warship being hit in the magazine is in for a rough time – especially in rough seas amidst a storm.

The perilous situation of warships against guided missiles is not a novel one, either. During the Falklands War, the HMS Sheffield was hit by an Argentine-deployed Exocet missile – and while she did not sink as the immediate result of this impact (which may not have even featured the missile detonating), it did disable her, necessitate a complete crew evacuation, and lead to her having to be towed by another craft. It was this last action that actually coincided with the sinking (although it can be fairly argued that it was somewhat inevitable given the conditions and the rather prominent hole to her side from the missile impact).

This latter detail concords with the situation of the Moskva per Russian reports upon the matter – that it did indeed sink, but while being towed and in heavy seas.

As a point of interest, during the much-discussed ‘Millennium Challenge’ exercise carried out in 2002, which simulated an American invasion of a suspiciously similar to Iraq state, a US carrier battle group – nineteen ships – was virtually annihilated inside a few minutes by a single bombardment (which, to be sure, was comprised of not only missiles – but also an array of other attack-vectors, too).

Now, to be fair and sure – there are a few … ‘issues’ (to put it politely) with the degree of extrapolative value for ‘Millennium Challenge’ to events twenty years later elsewhere on the tides of war. Leaving aside the claims about “cheating” that got made toward the US general who’d been running the not-Iraqi side, or the commentary around ‘design flaws’ in the simulation that made some things more viable than they might otherwise have proven in practice – the fact is that in theory there’s two decades of additional development of naval active protection countermeasures that should make such a scenario less immediately applicable to today or to the American navy.

Of course … how MUCH less applicable is a somewhat open question. And I would suspect rather thoroughly that few are eager to genuinely test it out in practice. Particularly as I also have little doubt that the weaponry and other such measures that would be deployed by the OPFOR in such a scenario would also have undergone some further development over the similar time-period. Something that’s not just a matter for future potentially near-parity conflicts, like the People’s Republic of China – but also a potent consideration as applies, say, the Islamic Republic of Iran today.

The point is – it’s very easy to laugh at the Russians potentially losing a warship and imagine that the Americans (or some other Designated Protagonist faction) would do inestimably better in a similar circumstance. Ignoring that if the Russian hardware in question is ‘inferior’, it may perhaps be because it’s a Soviet-era ship designed and built in the 1970s and ‘modernised’ in an era of severely ‘lean times’ for the Russian military after spending a decade out of commission through the 90s. And ignoring that even the best warships of the largest and most powerful navy of the modern world are similarly vulnerable to similar threats – and themselves quite actively concerned about exactly this prospect.

We could also speculate about the situation observed during Millennium Challenge pertaining to the actual simulated American invasion itself, in relation to the difficulties encountered by the Russians in their own real-life invasion of Ukraine.

I won’t go into the details, but suffice to say that in order to be able to carry out a successful invasion of what was supposed to be a weaker opponent (simulating Iraq, after all) – as the Joint Forces Command report itself observes: “the OPFOR free-play was eventually constrained to the point where the end state was scripted.”

I shall say that again: in order to carry out an invasion that didn’t wind up producing a frankly embarrassing quotient of casualties and frustratingly slow progress, the Americans had to ‘cheat’ wildly and basically guarantee themselves a win. And that’s against a theoretically much weaker (if, it would seem, very well lead) opposition.

Now apply that observation to the Ukrainian invasion, with a functionally close-parity opposition that’s being actively resupplied by NATO. All of a sudden, the Russian performance starts to look, perhaps, a bit less ‘hillaribad’ via comparison to how an American or other NATO force might do in a similar situation.

But let us move back to hardware.

One area where there has been quite a lot of internet guffawing in recent weeks is, perhaps understandably, Russian armour.

The reasons for this are obvious. Social media has been saturated at various points with images of Russian tanks blown up, abandoned, being towed away by tractors, bogged down in mud, and so on and so forth.

We want to believe, in essence, that the only way they work is the same way various of the Germans insistently told us they work some eighty years ago – by swarming low-quality men and low-quality machines until the proverbial pack of hyenas has somehow managed to overwhelm the very few in number lions.

Except that’s not really the case.

The (frequently encountered) German post-WWII historiography was, as others have pointed out, a rather … self-serving situation. Part-explaining away their own shortcomings with an insistent bias (hence why the Soviets are simultaneously both overwhelming and somehow ‘inferior’); part-telling their English-language (and particularly American defence establishment) audiences what they wanted to hear in relation to the then-current Soviet threat. Again, we won’t go into all of that, but suffice to say a more sober analysis tended to show that the Red Army on the offensive wasn’t just doing well because it had an awful lot of men and machines … but also because these were men and machines of a rather better quality than their opponents would easily care to admit. And also capable of engaging in complex efforts of strategy and strategic deception that likewise weren’t commensurate with the stereotypes their opponents insistently affixed to them. But more upon all of this some other time.

The point is – we have ‘inherited’ this kind of pop-pseudo-militaria analysis and run with it. And the idea is that because something is ‘Russian’ (or ex-Soviet), it therefore axiomatically HAS to be of inferior quality and a laughingstock.

In some cases, there may be some level of truth to this – but not in the manner one might initially think.

Soviet armour was designed in a very different way to various of its Western counterparts. The operational doctrine it was built to adhere to had different requirements. It really is one of those ‘apples and oranges’ situations to a certain extent.

However, it’s also the case that when people start insistently comparing Russian armour losses in Ukraine to modern American military hardware to try and make out the former to be intrinsically terrible … they’re similarly being rather wildly unfair.


Because this often means discussing a tank built in the 1980s and with questionable modernization efforts in the intervening decades since – as compared to the latest, top-of-the-line ultra-modern hardware from, again, the most powerful nation upon this earth.

Of course the American vehicle is going to come out on top.

Except here’s the thing.

What’s destroying Russian vehicles in Ukraine? Man-portable anti-tank weapons. Modern, NATO-produced ATGMs.

Why does this matter? Because the truth is, once again, not that the experience in Ukraine around these demonstrates a ‘Russian’ problem – but rather, that it points toward a general problem

One that also afflicts other nations, and which cannot be easily handwaved away by declaring “oh, those are Russian tanks so they’re inferior – it won’t happen to us” (whomever the ‘us’ or ‘US’ / US-client in question might so happen to be).

I shall quote something brief I’d written about exactly this a few days ago:

“One significant issue is that the ‘balance’ between armour/maneuver (offence) and ranged-killing power (defence) has been severely disrupted. In a way, it’s kinda reminiscent – to use a *very* loose example – of World War One. [and yes, i am deliberately massively oversimplifying with the labelling i’m deploying earlier in this paragraph]

Doctrine and hardware hasn’t adapted to this change on one side, I mean.

So, what you’re seeing is 3rd generation MBTs that were already rather outmoded in various ways – like, in service from the 1980s with various modernization efforts since … being destroyed in significant numbers by ATGMs that are … well, some are contemporary with their targets, others are much *much* more recent.

Now, the reason that this is worth noting is quite simple.

Turkey, as I have pointed out a few times elsewhere, managed to lose modern(ish) tanks in Syria. There’s some controversy as to the purport of this, as the Turks were operating Leopard II A4s – and it hasn’t been settled how much better more modern refits of the vehicle might have proven in the situations in question.

What did they lose them to? Many of the same threats that the Russians are losing hardware to in Ukraine. Indeed, not even ‘the same threats’ so much as older Russian / Soviet versions of such. It’s not a good endorsement.

A similar situation is occurring in Yemen – wherein the Saudis are fielding (and losing) notable numbers of M1A2S American-made tanks. There’s, again, something of an open question as to just how qualitatively different the M1A2S is from the M1A2 SEP when it comes to armour etc. … but the point remains the same: it’s relatively modern armour, being lost to potent anti-tank weaponry. Which is a helluvalot more concealable.

Now, none of this is presented as evidence of axiomatically ‘bad’ or ‘weak’ or ‘stupid’ American or German military or military design institutions. Partially because it doesn’t suit a narrative to do so. And partially, to be sure, because it appears in the Saudi case in particular that poor doctrine and tactical employment – in ways that leave Western observers “wtf”ing – is responsible for placing armour in such situations in the first place.

But all up – it’s long been apparent that in order to actually have armour assets playing a role on a battlefield where there’s .. a profusion of these kinds of threats, it’s simply not enough to have ERA bricks or even relatively advanced plating. Pending some truly revolutionary advances in the latter sphere, we’re currently at a place wherein it’s not easily possible for an armour platform to carry enough weight of armour on itself across enough of its body to protect against ATGM (or even, in various cases, RPG) threats.

What does this mean? Until there’s broader uptake of active-protection measures – against reasonably well-equipped infantry, armour assets are ‘out of balance’ quite significantly.

Now, to be fair and sure – the Israelis *have* been very pointed in their exploring and deployment of exactly these kinds of countermeasures; and the Americans have been following suit. It is an interesting question whether they’d be in a similar position to the Russians currently were they faced with a similar ‘hedgehog’.

While there’s some debate as to how effective ‘kamikaze drones’ might be at getting through active protection efforts, I think it’s a start.”

In short – it’s easy and evidently emotively satisfying to ascribe various occurrences to ‘uniquely’ terrible Russian hardware.

I do not dispute that equipment designed and built and haphazardly modernized over a course of several decades prior to the conflict it’s being employed in is often going to encounter difficulties.

But the key thing is that many of the problems that have eventuated are decidedly not ‘uniquely’ Russian problems.

We are simply observing them as such because:

i) they’re the ones currently putting forces into the field in an attempted invasion (and so they are occurring to them);

ii) the Ukrainian informational warfare effort has been a resounding success, and highlighted as much as possible both these difficulties and that it is Russians experiencing them.

Of course, it is certainly possible to argue that how the hardware in question has been employed has significantly contributed to these various losses. In many instances, I would not seek to disagree.

But that is quite a different argument from saying something is intrinsically shoddy simply because it is Russian.

And it also doesn’t quite account for the fact that for various of these elements – even employing them at all has become significantly more hazardous than it was only a few years afore.

All things considered, whenever I see some of the more outlandish guffawing from social media (and even regular media) commentators of the sort outlined above and proffering American or NATO hardware as seemingly impervious to similar challenges … my thoughts go to the following line – I forget where it is from, but the latin verse it is rendering is from Horace:

“The poet has Tantalus, unable to satisfy his hunger or his thirst, turning on the spectator and demanding, Quid rides? Mutato nomine, de te fabula narratur: why do you laugh? Change the names and the story is about you.”

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