Analysis Meatgrinder: Russian Tactics in the Second Year of Its Invasion of Ukraine


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Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds

Executive Summary

THE SCALE OF Russian losses in 2022, combined with the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation confronting NATO systems they had not previously contended with, has caused a significant deviation in Russian operations from the country’s doctrine. This report seeks to outline how Russian forces have adapted their tactics in the Ukrainian conflict and the challenges this has created for the Ukrainian military that must be overcome. The report examines Russian military adaptation by combat function.
Russian infantry tactics have shifted from trying to deploy uniform Battalion Tactical Groups as combined arms units of action to a stratified division by function into line, assault, specialised and disposable troops. These are formed into task-organised groupings. Line infantry are largely used for ground holding and defensive operations. Disposable infantry are used for continuous skirmishing to either identify Ukrainian firing positions, which are then targeted by specialised infantry, or to find weak points in Ukrainian defences to be prioritised for assault. Casualties are very unevenly distributed across these functions. The foremost weakness across Russian infantry units is low morale, which leads to poor unit cohesion and inter-unit cooperation.

Russian engineering has proven to be one of the stronger branches of the Russian military. Russian engineers have been constructing complex obstacles and field fortifications across the front. This includes concrete reinforced trenches and command bunkers, wire-entanglements, hedgehogs, anti-tank ditches, and complex minefields. Russian mine laying is extensive and mixes anti-tank and victim-initiated anti-personnel mines, the latter frequently being laid with multiple initiation mechanisms to complicate breaching. These defences pose a major tactical challenge to Ukrainian offensive operations.
Russian armour is rarely used for attempts at breakthrough. Instead, armour is largely employed in a fire support function to deliver accurate fire against Ukrainian positions. Russia has started to employ thermal camouflage on its vehicles and, using a range of other modifications and tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs), has significantly reduced the detectability of tanks at stand-off ranges. Furthermore, these measures have reduced the probability of kill of a variety of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) at ranges beyond 1,400 m.

Russian artillery has begun to significantly refine the Reconnaissance Strike Complex following the destruction of its ammunition stockpiles and command and control infrastructure by guided multiple launch rocket systems (GMLRS) in July 2022. This has resulted in much closer integration of multiple UAVs directly supporting commanders authorised to apply fires. Russian artillery has also improved its ability to fire from multiple positions and to fire and move, reducing susceptibility to counterbattery fire. The key system enabling this coordination appears to be the Strelets system. There has been a shift in reliance upon 152-mm howitzers to a much greater emphasis on 120-mm mortars in Russian fires; this reflects munitions and barrel availability. Responsive Russian fires represent the greatest challenge to Ukrainian offensive operations. Russian artillery is also increasingly relying on loitering munitions for counterbattery fires.

Russian electronic warfare (EW) remains potent, with an approximate distribution of at least one major system covering each 10 km of front. These systems are heavily weighted towards the defeat of UAVs and tend not to try and deconflict their effects. Ukrainian UAV losses remain at approximately 10,000 per month. Russian EW is also apparently achieving real time interception and decryption of Ukrainian Motorola 256-bit encrypted tactical communications systems, which are widely employed by the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Russian air defences have also seen a significant increase in their effectiveness now that they are set up around known, and fairly static, locations and are properly connected. Although Russia has persistently struggled to respond to emerging threats, over time it has adapted. Russian air defences are now assessed by the Ukrainian military to be intercepting a proportion of GMLRS strikes as Russian point defences are directly connected to superior radar.

Russian aviation remains constrained to delivering stand-off effects, ranging from responsive lofted S-8 salvos against Ukrainian forming-up points, to FAB-500 glide bombs delivered from medium altitude to ranges up to 70 km. The Ukrainian military notes that Russia has a large stockpile of FAB-500s and is systematically upgrading them with glide kits. Although they only have limited accuracy, the size of these munitions poses a serious threat. The Russian Aerospace Forces remain a ‘force in being’ and a major threat to advancing Ukrainian forces, although they currently lack the capabilities to penetrate Ukrainian air defences.

Following the destruction of Russian command and control infrastructure in July 2022, the Russian military withdrew major headquarters out of range of GMLRS and placed them in hardened structures. They also wired them into the Ukrainian civil telecommunications network and used field cables to branch from this to brigade headquarters further forward. Assigned assets tend to connect to these headquarters via microlink, significantly reducing their signature. At the same time, from the battalion down, Russian forces largely rely on unencrypted analogue military radios, reflecting a shortage of trained signallers at the tactical level.

An overview of Russian adaptation reveals a force that is able to improve and evolve its employment of key systems. There is evidence of a centralised process for identifying shortcomings in employment and the development of mitigations. Nevertheless, much of this adaptation is reactive and is aimed at making up for serious deficiencies in Russian units. The result is a structure that becomes better over time at managing the problems it immediately faces, but also one that struggles to anticipate new threats. The conclusion therefore is that the Russian Armed Forces pose a significant challenge for the Ukrainian military on the defence. Nevertheless, if Ukraine can disrupt Russian defences and impose a dynamic situation on them, Russian units are likely to rapidly lose their coordination. Changes in the air combat environment, for example, have led rapidly to incidents of Russian fratricide.

For Ukraine’s international partners, supporting Ukraine in liberating its territories is arguably shifting from an emphasis on key systems, to the need for dedicated training and the assurance that equipment provided to the Ukrainian military can be sustained. Tactics will be critical to the effective disruption of Russian forces and their eventual defeat.

Air Defence

THE PERFORMANCE OF Russian air defence systems has steadily improved. Early setbacks due to poor coordination and planning saw Ukraine successfully strike Russian formations during the initial week of the war.60

The Russians rapidly established a more robust coverage over their tactical formations, which quickly denied airspace to the Ukrainian Air Force. Nevertheless, this was premised on a large number of dispersed air defence systems, and these proved vulnerable to complex attacks involving anti-radiation missiles and EW effects. The Russians also found that dispersed air defence systems were incapable of intercepting a range of threats, including guided multiple launch rocket systems (GMLRS) used to devastate Russian command and control and logistics in July 2022.

Russian air defences have become significantly more robust since the autumn of 2022. Complexes of SA-21 and SA-23 are now stationed around key logistical and C2 hubs. Critically, they appear to have SA-15 and SA-22 connected to their fire control radars, significantly improving the situational awareness and track data quality of these short-range air defence (SHORAD) systems. This has had two principal effects. First, the long-range radar, combined with systems such as the 48Ya6 ‘Podlet-K1’ all-altitude radar, have proven highly effective in denying airspace to Ukrainian aviation.

Second, Russian SHORAD systems have massively improved their point defence efficiency. Along with the successful interception of most high-speed anti-radiation missiles (HARMs) fired by Ukrainian aircraft, the Russian air defence network is now assessed to be achieving a significant number of intercepts against GMLRS munitions.

The exact intercept rate depends on the depth of the target and the number of GMLRS fired, so that a precise proportion of intercepts cannot be meaningfully given. Russian air defences are clearly much more effective in defence when they can be properly connected, than in a dynamic context where they are having to cover advancing forces. This allows Russian crews to achieve optimal efficiency against the current range of threats. It is noteworthy however that Russian crews have always lagged in reacting appropriately to new threats, and struggle to maintain effective blue force tracking, leading to several blue-on-blue engagements.

The efficiency of Russian long-range surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) against the Ukrainian Air Force has also remained significant. The longest-known shoot-down against Ukrainian aircraft was at 150 km when the aircraft was flying lower than 50 feet.62

This appears to have been cued by a 48Ya6 ‘Podlet-K1’ all-altitude radar with the air defence missile achieving a post-apex lock on the target. The strength of the air defence network is bolstered by persistent combat air patrols at medium altitude by Russian Su-35Ss. Using R-37 missiles, these aircraft pose a significant threat at very long range. According to the Ukrainian Air Force, the longest-range recorded kill by a Russian R-37 was at 177 km.63 Although separate from the air defence system, the combination of threat from long-range ground-based anti-air capabilities, medium-altitude look-down radar, long-range air-to-air missiles, and effective point defence systems makes the air combat environment extremely lethal. For this reason, most Ukrainian fast air and attack aviation engagements utilise S-7 rockets, fired in a lofted profile from above Ukrainian positions.

60. Author interview with a Ukrainian air force sector commander (AA), Ukraine, August 2022.
61. Author interview with a Ukrainian official responsible for battle damage assessment (AB); author
interview with B; author interview with O.
62. Author interview with B.

There are other dedicated contents in the original report that includes-

Electronic Warfare

Anybody interested in further reading can find it here.

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