Special Operations: The 2014 Revolution


July 26, 2023: After Russia unexpectedly attacked the Ukrainian province of Crimea and portions of two other provinces in eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainians began mobilizing for another Russian attack. The attack finally came in 2022 and the Ukrainian were prepared, to the exceedingly unpleasant surprise of the invading Russian troops. The Russians failed to note the extent and impact of Ukrainian military reforms since 2014. The Russians found that they were no longer fighting the same kind of Ukrainian military they had defeated in 2014. The Russians had ignored or misinterpreted those reforms and were still unable or unwilling to accept the effectiveness of the Ukrainian reforms. One reason for that is the Ukrainian reforms succeeded in converting the Ukrainian military's 2014 recycled Soviet model to one based on the more effective Western model. This transition happened gradually as the NATO military aid Ukraine requested after 2014 included trainers for existing Ukrainian units as well as new Ukrainian officers. The NATO trainers trained new Ukrainian combat battalions as well as newly recruited Ukraine officers. What the Russians didn’t appreciate until the 2022 war started was that NATO training produced very different results than the training Ukrainian forces were used to getting.

In 2014 the Ukrainian army was similar in skills and training methods Russia used. This was the old Soviet style of strict adherence to battle plans and discouragement of initiative among combat commanders. Western militaries approached these matters differently. Battle plans were created as estimates, not strict rules. Western commanders were trained to be flexible and adaptive in combat. As the NATO trainers did their work, the Ukrainian military was gradually reformed. Senior Ukrainian officers, all veterans of the old Soviet style of organization, command and training, tolerated this new approach not because they understood it, but because Ukraine needed all the military aid it could get and the Western combat unit and officer training seemed to work. When the Russians invaded they and senior Ukrainian commanders were surprised at how effective NATO’s retraining of the Ukrainian armed forces worked. The Russians were dismayed and somewhat mystified at the poor performance of their troops. The Ukrainians were told the post-2014 Ukrainian troops and officers would be more effective because that had been the experience in similar situations since the 1990s.

Another aspect of Western training and combat doctrine is that you rapidly modify your tactics and training as a result of recent, or ongoing combat experiences. NATO nations supplying Ukraine with vast quantities of weapons and equipment noted how the Ukrainians performed. For example, peacetime training standards called for months of training before troops were ready to effectively use Patriot Air Defense systems. The Ukrainians did it in weeks. The Ukrainians not only learned how to operate Patriot systems but also developed new uses. This surprised, and pleased the Americans providing the equipment because the Ukrainians were making Patriot useful for all users. The Americans took notes and modified the performance specs and training methods.

The Ukrainian experience was somewhat unique because the Ukrainians had decades of experience with tweaking and upgrading existing systems. When Ukraine became independent in 1991 they inherited large quantities of Russian Cold War era weapons and equipment. Ukraine had been arguably the center of weapons development, production and upgrades while part of the Soviet Union. After 1991 they merged those skills with newly acquired Western marketing savvy. The Ukrainians modified and upgraded their Soviet era weapons to be more attractive to potential buyers. By 2014 Ukrainian had made all this into a sizable portion of their economy. The Ukrainian skills and speed with learning and modifying new Western weapons was, in hindsight, obvious.

The Russians did not pay attention. The poor performance of the Russian military in Ukraine during its 2022 invasion was not a surprise to everyone. Journalists, politicians in general and the Russians were taken by surprise but military historians, the U.S. Army and the Ukrainian military were not. That’s because the American army finally realized, in the 1980s, that a fundamental problem in warfare was not paying attention to what had worked in the past and why. Those who possess this predictive capability also know that it’s best to keep quiet about what they know because the enemy will adapt once the shooting starts and some foes do that rather quickly. Most do not because admitting you were wrong is something most senior military commander’s resist.

A fundamental element in improving ground operations is analyzing past battles for what went right and what went wrong. The U.S. Army Center for Lessons Learned has been around since the 1980s, and U.S. commanders use it to determine what works in combat and what doesn't. This is more important than ever in the 21st century, where urban combat and counter-insurgency conflicts dominate. In urban warfare and counter-insurgency, the potential for mistakes to be made is exponentially larger than in conventional, large-scale warfare.

Instead of hogging their experts, the US Army takes the data collected and analyzed at the CALL (Center for Army Lessons Learned) and supplies it to allied armies in the hope these allies will use this information. This sharing is more than just a gesture of goodwill. This does not always work, especially in countries where corruption and reluctance to change makes it difficult to make changes that will improve combat effectiveness. This cultural resistance was encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan but not in Ukraine, where the Ukrainians adapted while their enemy did not.

CALL is divided into several major sections. The first collects data from previous engagements, by interviewing and visiting with units in the field. This section is tasked with discovering issues and areas of needed improvement in doctrine, training and readiness. The Analysis Section deals with evaluating the data collected and assessing the methods needed to improve effectiveness and combat efficiency. Finally, the Information Integration Section is responsible for processing and distributing the suggestions and findings from the previous two departments.

The CALL is sometimes seen by other branches of the Army as a group of desk-bound analysts, but their suggestions and changes implemented in counter-insurgency and urban warfare tactics played a major role in maximizing the effectiveness of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Persuading the local military to change was often less successful.

Without something like CALL, doctrine and tactics rarely change. On-site CALL troops visited nearly every single major combat zone in Iraq and Afghanistan. CALL soldiers also spent significant time with Iraqi Special Forces and were an integral part of the development process for the country's military and police. Call analysts also report on who is accepting and acting on their advice and who isn’t. The resistance to change was and remains a major problem in Iraq, Afghanistan and, we now know, in Russia.

Because of CALL and similar efforts by the U.S. Army Special Forces, American military advisors headed overseas are given a briefing on the culture they will be dealing with and how to deal with various types of obstacles. The army maintains a database of lessons learned that can be searched by region as well as situation. A major contributor to this database is army Special Forces troops, whose training concentrates on local customs and traditions and how to work within that. That’s why the Special Forces are organized around regional specialization. Special Forces operators learn the languages and customs of one region and usually spend their entire career working in that region. This Special Forces technique was learned from World War II experience where many of the founding members of Special Forces (in the early 1950s) had worked for OSS (Office of Special Operations), an organization created to deal with contacting, communicating with and supporting local resistance groups in German or Japanese controlled territory. The success of the OSS led to the creation of the CIA and Special Forces to deal with the Cold War. This conflict, which did not end until 1991, had begun in the late 1940s when it became obvious that Soviet Russia was going to continue taking control of other nations any way it could.

It took decades before the American military and foreign service learned how to use these new intelligence and operational capabilities. Tradition again but by the 1980s the military services cooperated in creating SOCOM (Special Operations Command) so that they all could benefit from what the OSS and Special Forces have developed. It took decades for most American military commanders to accept the findings and suggestions from CALL and SOCOM. Initially many senior American officers saw Special Forces and CALL operatives as a bunch of oddballs spouting nonsense.

Another factor in the development of more effective tactics was the realization, during World War II, that when the enemy developed a new weapon or tactic, the speed with which you could analyze it and come up with an effective countermeasure was a matter of life or death as well as victory or defeat. The speed of analysis and quickness of response was expressed more vividly in the 1960s by John Boyd, a U.S. Air Force officer. Boyd demonstrated how the speed of assessing a combat situation, developing a plan and executing it was decisive in all forms of combat. Boyd came up with the OODA (observe, orient, decide, and act) loop, which could be applied to air, naval and ground combat. This made sense to World War II veterans who had witnessed the OODA loop in action. It resonated with the Russians as well because superior speed with OODA was a German specialty which the Russians never mastered as well as the Germans did during World War II. But by the 1980s some Russian theorists saw computers as a possible solution. Again, the West had a technological edge and from the end of the Cold War and into the 21st Century it was Westerners who made all this work in combat. Russia never caught up, or caught on to how vulnerable to opponents who worked the OODA cycle faster than they did. This was demonstrated in Ukraine and Russian military and political leaders are still having a hard time accepting this OODA reality.

This became a problem for American military advisors working overseas, who frequently had solutions for problems encountered by foreign commanders they were supporting, but the real problem was local culture and resistance to change, especially the American emphasis on high-speed warfare and the need to quickly adopt new tactics to prevail.

Meanwhile Islamic terrorists were on the receiving end of many of these innovations and the survivors learned to adapt. The impact of high-speed warfare was demonstrated after September 11, 2001, when American forces used computerized data mining and analysis to speed up their OODA loops during counter-terrorism operations in Iraq and elsewhere. Sunni terrorists quickly learned that if an American raid was accompanied by intelligence specialists carrying biometric tools and communication links (to huge databases of information on known terrorists and their organizations), there would quickly be additional raids. A few new names found on one raid would spawn additional raids and within 24 hours large terrorist operations could be rolled up. Microsoft contributed by developing a thumb drive that could quickly extract useful data from a laptop while rough (but effective) machine translation of many Arabic documents could quickly provide more leads, locations and who or what to look for.

The Ukrainian military did not accept much change after Ukraine became independent of the Soviet Union, and Russia, in 1991. The Ukrainians had to accept the fact that they could not afford to maintain a large peacetime military. Russia’s seizure of Crimea and Donbas in 2014 was a wakeup call. The Russians had used KGB tactics, developed during the decades of communist rule that often used subversion and surprise to overthrow vulnerable governments. This included most East European countries who spent four decades under communist rule and Russian influence because of these tactics. The Russians tried to use these methods in Ukraine after 2000 and ran into resistance from many Ukrainians. After 2014 more Ukrainians were willing to accept advice from the Americans, who sent special forces and military advisors versed in CALL knowledge and willing to share with Ukrainians who were prepared to adapt. Initially it was Ukrainian military leaders and eventually political leaders, like current Ukrainian president Zelensky, who was elected in 2019 to make needed changes. That included lots of reforms to the Ukrainian military.

What happened in 2014 scared Ukrainians because they had agreements with Russia that were supposed to keep Ukraine intact. The Russians violated their written promises and the Ukrainians realized they had to prepare for the worst, which the Russians were openly discussing. The worst came in February 2022 when Russia invaded. The Ukrainians had changed and adapted while the Russians had not. The result was a striking Russian defeat which many Russian leaders still don’t understand. The most important lesson was that you don’t invade a neighboring country expecting your attack if they are better prepared to deal with it. The Ukrainians had developed new tactics and used new weapons to defeat the invasion. Most Russian troops were not told they were conducting an invasion because their officers were assured that there would not be any effective resistance. There was effective resistance and many Russian troops abandoned their armored vehicles and fled once they realized what they were up against. That resulted in about half the Russian tanks and other armored vehicles lost being abandoned intact by their crews in the first 60-90 days of the war.

The Ukrainians quickly developed procedures to adapt their vehicles to their own use with new insignia and some new communications equipment. The Ukrainians also used their newly acquired tanks more effectively than their former owners. Ukrainians, like the Russians, still used the same Cold War era tanks as the Russians, but were more aware of the vulnerabilities of these Russian designed tanks. For example, even the Russians didn’t realize how vulnerable their tanks were to turret penetration by anti-tank weapons. Russia had made some changes to defeat the Western Cold War development of top attack anti-tank weapons. These weapons were not used against Russian attacks often enough, until 2022, to demonstrate that Russian tanks were extremely vulnerable because Russian tanks had been using an auto-loader since the late 1960s. This replaced the human loader but put a dozen or more tank gun rounds in the turret at all times. If one of those rounds was detonated by an anti-tank weapon penetrating the turret, all those “ready rounds” exploded, destroying the turret and the tank as well as killing the entire crew. As soon as Russian tank crews understood this, they were quick to abandon their tanks as soon as enemy fire began blowing tanks up. Western tank designers were aware of this problem and never adopted the autoloader because of it. There was never more than one shell exposed in the turret at a time. The other shells were kept in a separate armored container with blow out panels. If those protected shells exploded the armored container quickly blew apart from the inside, leaving the crew unharmed and the tank reparable.

The Russians officially called their invasion a special operation meant to liberate the Ukrainians from neo-Nazi and NATO influence. Most Russian troops soon realized that the Ukrainians were more enthusiastic and determined to defend their country from foreign invaders and wanted to join NATO to discourage Russian attacks. Government corruption and inept military leadership meant the Russian troops were poorly supplied with food, medical care and ammunition. New recruits were not trained or paid the cash bonuses promised. Troop morale plummeted because of this and soon Russia found it could not obtain enough troops to keep the special operation going. The Ukrainians went on the offensive in late August and rapidly drove the Russians out of much of the Ukrainian territory they had conquered in 2014 and early 2022. The Russian government did not want to admit they were losing but were unable to convince enough Russian soldiers to resist or Russians and Ukrainian collaborators living in the occupied territories to stay. The civilians fled and Russian troop numbers dwindled All this had nothing to do with foreign observers asserting that tanks were obsolete and warfare had changed dramatically. Neither was true but the reality was less newsworthy so the situation was not reported accurately. The Ukrainians kept attacking Russian logistics (supplies for the troops) while improving their own. This was the key to victory but made for dull headlines.


Article Archive

Special Operations: Current 2023 2022 2021 2020 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004



Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close