A quarter century after the Cold War, the Pentagon is worried about Russia’s military prowess again.
POLITICO has learned that, following the stunning success of Russia’s quasi-secret incursion into Ukraine, McMaster is quietly overseeing a high-level government panel intended to figure out how the Army should adapt to this Russian wake-up call. Partly, it is a tacit admission of failure on the part of the Army — and the U.S. government more broadly.
“It is clear that while our Army was engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, Russia studied U.S. capabilities and vulnerabilities and embarked on an ambitious and largely successful modernization effort,” McMaster told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week. “In Ukraine, for example, the combination of unmanned aerial systems and offensive cyber and advanced electronic warfare capabilities depict a high degree of technological sophistication.”
In Ukraine, a rapidly mobilized Russian-supplied rebel army with surprisingly lethal tanks, artillery and anti-tank weapons has unleashed swarms of unmanned aerial vehicles and cyberattacks that shut down battlefield communications and even GPS.
The discussions of what has been gleaned so far on visits to Ukraine—and from various other studies conducted by experts in and out of government in the U.S. and Europe—have highlighted a series of early takeaways, according to a copy of a briefing that was delivered in recent weeks to the top leadership in the Pentagon and in allied capitals in recent weeks.
U.S. military and intelligence officials worry that Moscow now has the advantage in key areas. Lighter armored vehicles like those the Army relied on heavily in Iraq and Afghanistan are highly vulnerable to its new weapons. And main battle tanks like Russia’s T-90—thought to be an anachronism in recent conflicts—are still decisive.
McMaster added that “Russia possesses a variety of rocket, missile and cannon artillery systems that outrange and are more lethal than U.S. Army artillery systems and munitions.” Its tanks, meanwhile, are so improved that they are “largely invulnerable to anti-tank missiles,” says retired General Wesley Clark, who served as NATO commander from 1997 to 2000 and has been sounding the alarm about what the Ukraine conflict means for the U.S. military.
Also on display in Ukraine to an alarming degree: Moscow’s widespread political subversion of Ukrainian institutions, part of what experts are now calling “hybrid warfare” that combines military power with covert efforts to undermine an enemy government. Russia has since then also intervened with ground forces and airstrikes in Syria—apparently somewhat successfully—and flexed its muscles in other ways. This week, two Russian fighter jets and a military helicopter repeatedly buzzed a U.S. Navy warship in the Baltic Sea, despite radio warnings.
McMaster’s response is the Russia New Generation Warfare Study, whose government participants have already made several unpublicized trips to the front lines in Ukraine. The high-level but low-profile effort is intended to ignite a wholesale rethinking—and possibly even a redesign—of the Army in the event it has to confront the Russians in Eastern Europe.
It is expected to have profound impact on what the U.S. Army will look like in the coming years, the types of equipment it buys and how its units train. Some of the early lessons will be road tested in a major war game planned for June in Poland. Says retired Army Chief of Staff General Gordon Sullivan: “That is all designed to demonstrate that we are in the game.”
Among those who have studied the Russian operation in Ukraine closely is Phillip Karber, President of the Potomac Foundation and former Marine Corps officer who has made 22 trips to Ukraine since 2014. “Few in the West have paid much attention to Russia’s doctrinal pivot to ‘New Generation War’ until its manifestation in Ukraine,” says Karber. Another surprise, he adds, “is the relative lack of Western attention, particularly given the unexpected scale and duration of the conflict, as well as the unanticipated Russian aggressiveness in sponsoring it.
Karber says the lethality of new Russian munitions has been striking, including the use of scatterable mines, which the U.S. States no longer possesses. And he counts at least 14 different types of drones used in the conflict and reports that one Ukrainian unit he was embedded with witnessed up to eight drone flights in a single day. “How do you attack an adversary’s UAV?” asks Clark. “Can we blind, disrupt or shoot down these systems? The U.S. military hasn’t suffered any significant air attacks since 1943.”
The new Army undertaking is headed by Brigadier General Peter L. Jones, commandant of the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. But it is the brainchild of McMaster, who as head of the Army Capabilities Integration Center at Fort Eustis, Virginia, is responsible for figuring out what the Army should look like in 2025 and beyond.
Clark describes McMaster’s effort as the most dramatic rethinking since the collapse of the Soviet Union. “These are the kind of issues the U.S. Army hasn’t worked since the end of the Cold War 25 years ago.”
The question is why the U.S. government—and the Army in particular—has once again allowed its attention to be diverted for so long that it has been caught by surprise by a major development like Russia’s enhanced capabilities. While Russian President Vladimir Putin undertook an aggressive military buildup, the U.S. Army actually drew up plans to shrink the active-duty force by some 40,000, from about 490,000 to 450,000 over the next several years. That plan is now in question. A bill recently proposed in the House of Representatives would halt the reduction. And last month, the Alaska delegation successfully got the Pentagon to back down on its plans to deactivate an airborne brigade. One of the justifications that were cited: a newly belligerent Russia.
There is also a question about whether McMaster is the general for the job. For most of his career, McMaster has been a controversial figure. In a book he published earlier in his career, Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam, he attacked the generals of the Vietnam era for not admitting frankly that the war was unwinnable. Yet later, when McMaster pushed for a complex strategy of counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, critics said McMaster and his fellow so-called “COIN-dinistas” misrepresented and oversold their own war-fighting strategy. Counterinsurgency calls not just for fighting insurgents but for a kind of “hearts-and-minds” campaign to win over local populations through reconstruction, policing and economic progress that usually takes at least a decade.
But the U.S. never intended to stay in Afghanistan or Iraq for that long.
Now reality is taking McMaster in precisely the direction that some of his critics said he and the other COIN specialists needed to focus on more in the first place: orienting the Army to what it does best, confronting conventional adversaries. The question is whether the U.S. military is able to adopt a realistic approach to Russian aggression without getting the nation into World War III.
Oddly enough, the model for the new effort is the Army’s detailed study of a war fought 43 years ago, one that most people have forgotten about. As a guide to this new major review, Politico has learned, McMaster is dusting off the Army’s landmark after-action review of the Yom Kippur War between Israel and Moscow’s then-proxies, Egypt and Syria.
In October 1973, as America’s painful odyssey in the jungles of Vietnam was winding down, a war broke out thousands of miles away that would profoundly change the U.S. Army.
Tank losses in the first six days of the Yom Kippur War were greater than the entire U.S. tank inventory stationed in Europe to deter the Soviet Union when Egypt and Syria launched the surprise attack on Israel. In the most recent major armored battles, during World War II three decades earlier, opposing tank armies faced off at an average of 750 yards. In the Yom Kippur War, it was 3,000 yards or more, a far bigger killing field.
In the aftermath, Army Chief of Staff General Creighton Abrams dispatched a pair of generals to walk the battlefields of smoldering armor, obtain damaged Russian equipment and find out what the Army “should learn from that war.”
“The Yom Kippur War had a shock effect on the U.S. Army,” recalls Karber, who participated in what came to be known as the Starry-Baer panel, named for the officers who oversaw it. “It challenged decades of accumulated assumptions.”
What the Army learned from the Yom Kippur War was that “powerful new antitank weapons, swift-moving formations cutting across the battlefield, and interaction between ground formations and the air arm showed how much the world around our Army had changed as we focused on Vietnam,” as one summary of the Starry-Baer report put it. General Donn Starry’s own description of the circumstances four decades ago could easily describe what the Army is confronting today, if the word Vietnam were replaced with Iraq or Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union with Russia.
“Military attention turned back to the nation’s commitment to NATO Europe,” Starry wrote back then. “We discovered the Soviets had been very busy while we were preoccupied with Vietnam. They had revised operational concepts at the tactical and operational levels, increased their fielded force structure and introduced new equipment featuring one or more generations of new technology.”
Fast forward to 2016. After a decade and a half of counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond—longer than even in Vietnam—decades of assumptions about warfare are once again being re-evaluated. McMaster and other top generals have concluded that while the United States was bogged down in the Middle East, Moscow focused its energies on rebuilding its own forces to potentially counter America’s tactics.
The 53-year-old McMaster was one of those who spent the past decade or so re-orienting the Army away from traditional war-fighting. But he is widely considered one of the service’s top strategic thinkers and his supporters insist he is the best person to figure out how to respond. “He learns and he thinks about what could be and what should be,” says Sullivan, the retired Army chief of staff.
McMaster’s pioneering tactics in confronting the Iraq insurgency after the 2003 invasion were rewarded with a key role under General David Petraeus in rewriting the Army’s field manual on counterinsurgency operations. It was not an easy undertaking. The U.S. military had not focused on counterinsurgency operations in the decades since the war in Vietnam. As a colonel and brigade commander in 2005 in Iraq’s western Al Anbar province, McMaster helped pioneer a strategy that came to be known as “clear, hold, build”—in which swarms of U.S. forces backed by airstrikes secured a city or town and built up the local security forces until they were deemed ready to maintain security while local government institutions could mature.
But getting the Army as an institution to focus on training and buying the necessary equipment to fight bands of terrorists and guerrillas hidden in population centers—instead of big tank formations like the Iraqi Republican Guard it clobbered in the 1991 Persian Gulf War—proved extremely challenging.
The steady erosion of public support for the conflict—and growing angst in Congress about the seeming lack of an end game—didn’t help.
What is taking place in Ukraine, however, is seen as a game-changer. McMaster and the study team he has put together believe their work could have huge impact on what the Army buys, how it trains and how its units are structured for years to come—maybe even as much as the Yom Kippur War did.
The Army has a long history of trying to learn from wars it didn’t fight—and fold the battlefield lessons into its own arsenal.
A decade before the carnage of the American Civil War, George McClellan, who later became the commander of the Union Army, was an official observer of the European armies engaged in the Crimean War, which Russia lost to an alliance of France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia. That conflict is widely considered the first modern war, in which mass-produced rifles, explosive shells, mines and armored landing craft were first used. John Pershing, who commanded allied forces in World War I had also previously observed the Russo-Japanese War.
But the current thinking of McMaster and his top aides on what the Ukraine war might mean for the U.S. is eerily parallel to the experience of the early 1970s. That is when the U.S. military had been distracted by another guerrilla war, in Vietnam, while Russia’s military grew bolder and more sophisticated, posing a new threat to NATO, the Western military alliance.
It’s not the actual 1973 war that the Army believes parallels the modern-day conflict in Ukraine but rather the Army’s approach afterward in digesting its lessons—and folding them into its own war plans. The study of that earlier war “serves as a useful model for analyzing the conflict in Ukraine,” says Colonel Kelly Ivanoff, a field artillery officer and top aide to McMaster, who adds that the detailed undertaking to study the 1973 war was to “profoundly influence the development of the U.S. Army for the next 15 years.”
The Russia New Generation Warfare study will “examine the Ukraine theater for implications to Army future force development, with emphasis on how Russian forces and their proxies employed disruptive technologies,” he added.
The effort, which is just getting underway, is focused on 20 separate “warfighting challenges”—including maintaining communications in the face of cyberattacks; developing a greater degree of battlefield intelligence; redesigning Army combat formations and tactics; and identifying new air defenses, weapons and ways to employ helicopters.
Indeed, where the Yom Kippur War analogy reaches its limits, say close observers, is the way in which Russia has also employed other, nonmilitary power—first during the Russian military annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014 and then in its ongoing proxy war in eastern Ukraine.
“They looked at what we were doing in the early ’90s and some of what we were saying we wanted to do and went one better,” said Sullivan, who served as Army chief of staff from 1991 to 1995 and now runs the Association of the U.S. Army, an advocacy group. “They started adding the special operating forces, which included diplomats, people who were subverting [the Ukrainian government] from the inside. It’s a hybrid.”
Now, he said, the Army is trying to apply “what we learned about the way they are using their little green men—people who are subverting the governments.”
That is not to say that the Russian Army and its proxies are 10 feet tall. The Ukrainian Army is credited with deterring an all-out Russian invasion. And the briefing that has been shared at the highest levels of the Army and with a number of foreign allies points out that the Russian military shrank dramatically in size between 1985 and 2015. And its biggest weakness is widely considered its conscript army, which has limited training and suffers from poor morale.
General Starry, who led the Yom Kippur War after-action review, concluded that the quality of the soldiers ultimately can carry the day—not numbers. “It is strikingly evident,” he wrote later, “that battles are yet won by the courage of Soldiers, the character of leaders, and the combat experience of well-trained units.”
But combined with Moscow’s efforts to upgrade its nuclear forces, what has been on display in eastern Ukraine and more recently in its military foray into Syria is expected, at least by the generals, to change the U.S. Army for a long time to come.