ONE of the recurring features of all armies (and indeed most government departments) is their ability to learn the wrong lessons from history.
It’s not a mistake confined to soldiers, as Armed Forces Minister James Heappey, writing in the Times, demonstrated yesterday.
He seems to think that the Russians’ failure to defeat the Ukrainians (yet) means that the British Army can be cut to nothing and that light infantry (he was one) can trump tanks. He is wrong.
For a start, last time I checked, the Russian Army is still in Ukraine. Moreover, where they have been fighting hardest – Mariupol – Putin’s troops are still advancing and the city is devastated. That might look like success to a Conservative politician; it’s unlikely to be the view of a Ukrainian or resident.
Heappey writes that the defending forces were more agile and more lethal; he presumably believes that a man on his feet, moving at three miles per hour and vulnerable to every weapon on the battlefield, carrying one anti-armour round, is somehow more lethal than a tank, moving ten times as fast, carrying 40 times as much firepower, immune to anything other than some anti-tank weapons. That simply does not make any sense.
Moreover, as Mr Heappey, languishing in the comfort of the Westminster Bubble, decides that the solution is more cyber and space, Ukraine’s President Zelensky, somewhat closer to the action, wants 500 more tanks. Whose opinion is more valid?
The myth of the superiority of light infantry appears as indestructible as the real infantrymen were destructible on the Somme. Soldiers on their feet are vulnerable. Covering them in body armour (as was done in Afghanistan) reduces that a little, but renders them less mobile than their already pedestrian pace.
Putting them in an armoured vehicle, such as a Boxer or Warrior, protects them from some bullets, but makes them vulnerable to the same weaponry that destroys tanks. Follow the logic through (space precludes) and you end up needing a tank.
Heappey correctly states that evading enemy air power is crucial – ‘hide to survive.’ Unfortunately, hiding is very hard in the world of modern sensors. Moreover, soldiers that are hiding aren’t, by definition, engaging the enemy. That’s called surrender, or losing. The British Army’s been doing too much of that recently, largely due to its unfortunate addiction to light infantry.
My analysis of the preliminary actions in Ukraine is a little different. The Russian assault was predicated upon two false assumptions, of which the first was that helicopter-borne light infantry would be able to capture Kiev’s airport. Instead, they got a demonstration of the reality – killing infantrymen is easy.
The failure to capture the airport with light forces, and thus force a rapid change of government and Ukrainian capitulation, led to the second intelligence flaw becoming apparent – the Ukrainians fought, and fought hard – as they continue to do.
Despite the Russians’ folly in believing over-optimistic intelligence and attacking at the beginning of the thaw (thereby denying their armour movement) the Russians have made substantial advances and are holding most of what they have captured, despite having to fight on Ukrainian terms.
When the ground hardens in a few weeks, I suspect they will return to the fight on their terms – massive firepower and rapid movement to encircle Ukrainian forces.
President Zelensky and his generals fear this. They know that the only viable counter in a war of movement is mobile firepower. That’s called a tank and that’s why they want 500 more. (They would also be useful in evicting the Russians from Ukraine should Putin decline to abandon this folly).
The war in Ukraine is far from over and yes, it has exposed many problems in the Russian Army’s training, tactics, logistics, leadership and motivation.
It has not demonstrated that the answer to an armoured attack is a light infantryman and an anti-tank missile (any more than the Egyptians did in Sinai during the Yom Kippur war in 1973 – as Mr Heappey should have learned at Sandhurst).
Mr Heappey’s view is not supported by facts – and any substantial analysis of the Ukraine war, just one month old, is premature. As he is a minister, his article will have been checked by his civil servants in the MoD.
That such arrant nonsense can be promulgated by someone so senior in the political part of the defence world is alarming. It also explains much about the lamentable condition of the current British Army.