BACK in the days when the British Army practised defending (West) Germany against a Soviet assault, one of the assumptions was that they would do everything to avoid fighting in towns. Instead they would bypass them and push on west as fast as possible, leaving the towns surrounded to be besieged later, once they had got to the Rhine (or beyond).
The reason is simple and has been proven again and again in real wars as well as simulation: in open country it is relatively easy for an attacker to concentrate overwhelming force, achieve a tactical victory and develop that into a strategic win.
In urban fighting that concentration of overwhelming force is nigh on impossible. The attacker advances literally building by building and room by room. The process can sometimes be accelerated by using massive amounts of firepower such as thermobaric weaponry. But that doesn’t always work (for example Caen and Monte Cassino) and it comes with heavy collateral damage and non-combatant casualties.
If Mr Putin’s oft-stated aim of Rus reunification is sincere (it’s about the only motivation that makes sense) he’s been forced to go about it in a way that ensures many fewer Rus people and much less infrastructure. The sooner he can end it the better.
To do that he either must persuade the Ukrainians to surrender or fight them to destruction. Both options are made more likely through fighting harder (i.e. more firepower) and, courtesy of social media and his cyber war people, lowering Ukrainian morale.
Mainstream media has written much (correctly or not) about the targeting of ‘civilian’ buildings. I’m no apologist for the Russian Army, but it’s important to understand that mortar, artillery and rocket fire are inherently inaccurate – they are an area weapon. Not for nothing is the Royal Regiment of Artillery’s motto Ubique sometimes translated as ‘all over the place’. The technical reasons for this include weather (air density and wind), manufacturing variations in the round, propellant, barrel, sighting systems and more.
Well-trained soldiers use observers looking at the target to pass corrections to the gun line (in effect ‘left a bit, up a bit’), often with a single gun firing single rounds until the target is hit; only then does the barrage begin. Ironically, if a single building (even one as large as a hospital) is hit by an isolated indirect fire round or small salvo it is quite possible that it was not the intended target.
Guided ballistic missiles such as the SS-21 Totchka and the SS-26 Iksander (both in use) are more accurate. They deliver warheads of about 500kg and have CEP of 150m and 10m respectively. (The CEP is the radius of the circle round a target within which 50 per cent of the missiles fired will land – the other 50 per cent land further away).
The Russian Air Force does have some precision-guided bombs, but their lasing pods have relatively narrow fields of view. A laser-guided bomb that loses sight of the guidance beam becomes a dumb bomb, inexorably heading for the wrong place. Plus of course there are ample opportunities for malfunction, mis-assembly and pilot error.
There is one other urban warfare option for Vlad: chemical weapons. The attraction is that these kill without destroying infrastructure. The tactical downsides – contamination and the possibility of killing your own troops – can be offset by selecting a suitably non-persistent agent (although this gets harder at lower temperatures) and wearing gas masks until the agent has dispersed (a matter of hours). Nato armies used to spend vast amounts of their time practising fighting under chemical attack.
The strategic downsides to Vlad using chemical weapons are harder to gauge. Would the West launch a retaliatory nuclear strike? No. Would we impose huge sanctions – well, we’ve already done it and their impact is neither immediate nor on the battlefield. Would we join the war and fight alongside Ukraine as well as arming them? Very hard to call, particularly given his nuclear posturing last week. Vlad might reason that in the time it took us to deploy airpower to Ukraine in war winning quantities his (so far) lacklustre army will have completed the conquest. One hopes he gets déjà vu at this point, but that’s scant comfort.
The awful reality, in my opinion, is that we, the west and specifically the UK, have been completely wrong-footed by the restart of the cold war. Unless we can change the tactical dynamics, an awful lot more combatant and non-combatant Ukrainians will die. If we, the UK, don’t like what we’re seeing, we should be asking ourselves what are we prepared to do about it?