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It has become popular to attack doctrine and to try and define new concepts. It’s almost as if we want the old ones not to work. In October 2022, and writing for the Wavell Room, Professor Anthony King challenged the Army to consider if manoeuvre was alive. Or, at least, to consider if we needed to think about it differently.
King’s argument is that ‘manoeuvre [is] dead’, a point he reaffirms as being ‘serious’ but later clarifies to confirm that ‘manoeuvre is not completely dead’. He points to urban centres being the defining part of modern warfare; “Once an attacker arrives on an urban objective, which the enemy is determined to hold, the advancing force will be forced to fight a pitched battle for it… siege conditions prevail”.
King is always worth reading and his writing is recommended. His arguments, and those in his work on urban warfare and command, are compelling. But this article is a challenge to his thinking and puts forward the opposite point of view: that the war in Ukraine shows that the manoeuvre and combined arms warfare are alive and very well.
As a one paragraph summary, King has misunderstood manoeuvrist doctrine, how the deep and close battles align, and that fighting for urban centres is a choice for both an attacker and a defender. The Kharkiv counter-offensive is a case study that validates manoeuvre doctrine and challenges his argument that urban defences mean manoeuvre should be reconsidered. On a different day, with a different army, with a different context, Kharkiv may well have become a bloody urban siege. But it didn’t. Manoeuvre is very much alive and kicking and we don’t need to change how we understand it.
From 5 September, the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) launched a counter offensive against Russian Ground Forces (RGF). The counter offensive had an eastern axis centred in Kharkiv province and southern axis in Kherson. On the eastern axis, by 9 September RGF were reported to be abandoning their positions with a general retreat ordered by Moscow. By the 14 September, the AFU had liberated 6,000km2 of terrain, captured two brigades worth of RGF equipment, and seized Izium. The AFU penetrated the Oskil River and liberated the town of Lyman. This meant that Russia could not claim control of the Donbass as they annexed parts of Ukraine. As the counter offensive continued, the AFU establish five bridgeheads on the Oskil River by 15 September, forcing RGF to withdraw from urban defensive positions and to establish a new defensive line centred on the Krasna River by early October.
One of RGF strengths is their ability to move forces long distances. To rebalance to Kherson, units such as the 1st Guards Tank Army were re-deployed. The AFU exploited this decision and played to it with messaging. On 29 August, Ukraine announced their intent to conduct an offensive to liberate Kherson before the planned Russian referendum. This was coupled by wider messaging, including moving AFU forces into likely attack positions, possibly even for a genuine attack before decisions around Kharkiv were made. This left poor quality RGF on the eastern defensive lines, offering the AFU an operational opportunity. Exploiting this weakness, and using interior lines, the AFU were able to re-deploy four manoeuvre brigades to Kharkiv to spearhead the counter offensive. This demonstrates effective C2 and a manoeuvrist mindset to avoid protracted urban fighting in Kherson. AFU deep strikes using HIMARS were seemingly prioritised onto the eastern axis in preparation, striking areas of RGF weakness.
A manoeuvrist approach
Ukraine’s operational objective is to liberate territory. As an operational design, however, the AFU have been focused on degrading RGF morale and dislocating their defensive planning. For the counter offensive, their outline objectives have been road and rail junctions and bridges to enable rapid manoeuvre; a focus on defeating the enemy and not capturing terrain. There is a line of military thinking that suggests urban centres must be captured to protect rear areas and that urban defensive positions will reduce manoeuvre. King suggests that manoeuvre only worked in this example because of the deep battle attrition that RGF had suffered before the advance began. That is, of course, the purpose of the deep battle. The AFU chose to concentrate their advance onto vital ground for the RGF, this exploited the effects of the deep battle with close battle manoeuvre. It surrounded many RGF positions with reports from the counter offensive describing RGF units driving un-tactically with no purpose in total confusion. The AFU showed the tactical confidence to bypass RGF positions, and in particular well defended urban centres, to focus on the operational dislocation of the Russian defensive plan.
The AFU used a mix of military and civilian wheeled vehicles to conduct reconnaissance of RGF positions. However, it is most likely that donated vehicles such as US provided Humvees provided the majority of the military vehicles used. It is also likely that the AFU established and trained new reconnaissance units to conduct this role, resourcing to a far greater extent than their traditional doctrine suggests. There is limited evidence of the depth that AFU reconnaissance managed to infiltrate Russian territory. However, reports of forward reconnaissance units coordinating close support artillery suggest that it was between 20-30km from the forward line of AFU troops. Some social media reports place AFU reconnaissance up to 50km from the forward line. Importantly, AFU reconnaissance was able to seize key road junctions and use artillery to prevent or delay RGF from using them. The reconnaissance forces were also armed with shoulder launched anti-tank weaponry to give them added lethality.
This came at high tactical risk. The distances ahead of the forward line meant that reconnaissance units were dependent on captured logistics with limited medical support. However, the aggressive and well-resourced light reconnaissance force created confusion in the RGF. One analyst noted that “They engaged Russian forces sporadically, wreaking havoc and trying to convince Russian troops that they were attacking from every direction”. There is open-source video of AFU Humvees coming under effective artillery fire and reports of rear area units such as Rosgravriya withdrawing when they encountered AFU light reconnaissance. Light manoeuvre forces achieved a significant impact, planned or not, by exploiting speed..
Tactical manoeuvre: Advance of the 92nd Mechanised Brigade.
The attack was spearheaded by the AFU 92nd Mechanised Brigade who captured the towns of Verbivka and Balakyia on 7 September 2022. Operationally, the towns were road and railway junctions important for RGF logistics. The brigade exploited their speed to overwhelm RGF defenders. The main attack was supported by a decoy attack from the South, which sustained moderate loses to RGF resistance. On 6 September they used multiple small roads to advance into the towns from the west; there are some reports that the Brigade was dependent on local guides to move at pace. The mechanised brigade bypassed enemy resistance leaving light forces to destroy or capture remaining RGF positions. The speed of their advance suggests that there was limited coordinated RGF resistance in urban areas and that the bulk of their fighting power was fixed on the deception attack.
There was urban fighting on the night of 6 September. It is likely that AFU success was based on their ability to penetrate into the city and surround RGF defensive positions undermining RGF cohesion. Despite declaring success on the 7 September, pockets of RGF resistance remained in Balakliya as the 92nd Brigade continued their advance. The ability of the AFU to bypass positions and handover to follow on forces was an important factor in gaining and maintaining momentum.
Air and aviation
RGF have strike aviation deployed in the Donbass and were able to launch limited sorties during the AFU counter offensive. RGF use of aviation has declined since May 2022 following the AFU changing their ground-based air defence tactics. However, there was a small increase in the number of RGF sorties over September in response to the AFU counter offensive. This suggests that the AFU were not able to maintain their ground-based air defence network at the same pace as the ground forces, taking risk to gain momentum. There is some evidence of multi-domain integration in aligning air and land forces using anti-radiation HARM missiles aligned with ground manoeuvre. RGF appear to have reduced their use of ground based air defence and electronic warfare equipment to prevent its destruction from precision munitions; ground manoeuvre is supporting these fires. There is open source imagery of destroyed Russian fast attack aircraft in Lyman suggesting that there were attempts to use air to ground fires to degrade advancing AFU. The lack of reporting on air defence, however, suggests that neither air or aviation played a major part in the counter offensive for either the AFU or the RGF.
Seizing crossings on the Oskil River 13 – 25 September 2022
The AFU seized or established five bridgeheads over the Oskil River by 25 September. The crossings included civilian infrastructure but also captured RGF bridging, often damaged, but workable for lighter AFU vehicles. It is likely that the speed of wheeled vehicles was the critical factor determining the speed of the advance and the ability to exploit the tactical opportunity. Abandoning military bridging is indicative of a general collapse of morale in RGF. This made RGF defensive positions on the east bank untenable, forcing a withdrawal. This success was, in part due to an RGF failure to counter offensive when the crossings were vulnerable. The AFU had established gun and rocket batteries in support of the crossings which could range onto the east bank to disrupt any RGF action. Ukrainian partisans were also active in reporting RGF positions and attacking military infrastructure. The seizure of the crossings happened concurrently to isolating urban defensive positions on the west side of the river, showing a manoeuvrist plan and focus on the investment of Lyman. The AFU build-up of forces on the east bank of the river appears to be deliberately planned, with a focus on capturing small towns to create a hasty lodgement before armour was committed. The success of the crossings of the river is also likely due to the encirclement of Lyman to the south which was happening concurrently. This posed a dilemma to RGF commanders to either counter offensive the crossings or reinforce the town. Where RGF forces did attempt to counter offensive, AFU artillery was able to destroy forces as they crossed on pontoon bridging. Ultimately, the AFU managed to concentrate force along a broad front and had overwhelmed the RGF’s ability to respond.
Second Battle of Lyman 10 September – 2 October
The AFU initially encircled the town of Lyman from the south before launching a tactical manoeuvre to the north and completing the isolation of the town on 30 September. RGF had created a ring of urban defensive positions surrounding Lyman which the AFU had to clear to complete the isolation. It is likely that they faced resistance from the 752 Motorised Rifle Regiment and locally conscripted soldiers. Capturing the roads leading to Lyman confused the RGF defenders who were unable to determine the main effort of the AFU advance. Cut off from their ground lines of supply, Russian military bloggers called for immediate reinforcement of the town to prevent the RGF defenders from being overrun. RGF were unable to reinforce Lyman because of a mix of Ukrainian partisan activity on bridges over the Siverski Donets River 15km to the east, the same ground on which social media reports show AFU reconnaissance was also active. Throughout the encirclement, the AFU focus appears to have been the Siverski Donets River and seizing the crossings in the deep, and not the city. AFU assessments on 1 October suggest that the RGF had c.5,000 soldiers in Lyman. King’s theories of urban warfare suggest that Lyman could have turned into a siege and protracted urban conflict. However, the AFU approach mirrors doctrinal ideas of manoeuvre and shattering an opponent’s will to fight. The RGF’s inability to bring their mass firepower advantage against the encircling AFU forces shows the importance of the deep battle in degrading command and control (C2) and logistics. On 1 October, the Russian Defence Minister announced that RGF had withdrawn “due to the risk of being encircled”.
In his assertions, King is neither right nor wrong. On a different battlefield, with a different opponent, on a different day, the Kharkiv counter-offensive may have developed into a prolonged urban fight. But it didn’t. Despite having all the criteria King identifies for becoming an urban slog, the AFU gained and maintained freedom of manoeuvre to strike key locations and dislocate the RGF. They posed multiple dilemmas to the RGF, breaking their command and control. The morale of Russian soldiers soon followed. Does the Army need to consider manoeuvre differently? I’m not convinced. The tenets of AFU success are written into our doctrine already in the form of combined arms manoeuvre. Maybe we should read it more?
Steve Maguire is a British Army Officer serving with The Royal Irish Regiment. He has served at regimental duty, with an armoured infantry brigade, and with the Army Headquarters. He is also the Wavell Room Senior Land Editor.
The views expressed in his writing are his and do not represent the views of the Ministry of Defence.