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Concepts and Doctrine Land Short Read

Fighting power and the war in Ukraine

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

Introduction

Ukraine is winning.  The British Army knows why.  Its doctrine describes, informs and advises on everything from excellent leadership to vehicle reliability.  It deals with the grand and overarching as well as the basic and mundane.  Nestled towards the ‘grand and overarching’ side of this continuum is the model of fighting power.  This tool divides fighting power into three separate components; the physical, the conceptual and the moral.  It details measures for each aspect, ensuring the model is a useable tool, not just a conceptual framework. 

Most usefully, now, it can be applied to the war in Ukraine.  This simple model is a concise instrument to break down, order and understand the tactical strengths and weaknesses of both sides.  In an ongoing situation with incomplete and exaggerated information, it cannot be comprehensive of course.  Even so this model is a useful aid to articulating why Ukraine is winning on the battlefield, and why it is likely to continue to do so.

This article looks at the war in Ukraine through the lens of the model of fighting power.  It describes the model, and outlines the strengths and weaknesses of each side in each aspect.  It proposes a simple way to order and understand how the battle is now and how it may go in the future.

The model of fighting power

The Application of Land Power is the second of six capstone Army Doctrine Publications and prominent amongst a multitude of texts which together make up British Army doctrine.1 It is at the opening of this central publication that the model of fighting power is detailed.  Such prominence is no surprise for a model that is as comprehensive as it is simple. 

Using the metaphor of a human being, fighting power is broken down into its three constituent parts.2 Muscular physical strength must be backed up by the motivation to fight and win, as well as an intelligent brain that can prepare, react and analyse.  These relate to the three aspects of the model of fighting power; the physical component, the moral component, and the conceptual component.  Simplistically, the force that balances these components, maximises their own strengths and exploits an adversary’s weaknesses will win their tactical engagements.

 

Fighting Power
The model of fighting power (Army Doctrine Publication Part 2, page 1-11)

 

‘The physical component concerns the physical means.  It represents the force’s ‘combat power’.3 It is composed of five elements of workforce, equipment, training, sustainment and readiness.  It is also the easiest to understand and simplest to quantify; comparing troop numbers and artillery ranges need not be a difficult task.  Training, sustainment and readiness may also be scrutinised and objective benchmarks set to weigh opposing forces against one another.

‘The conceptual component reflects accumulated knowledge, derived from experience and analysis’ and provides a foundation ‘for learning, optimisation, innovation and adaptation’.4 Doctrine, concepts and adaptation are the three constituent parts.  Whilst doctrine is a handrail for how to fight now, concepts look forward fifteen years to how the force will look and fight differently in the future.  Adaptation is the most immediate and reactive of all.  It is guided by doctrine and constrained by physical factors, but is essential, especially in conflict.

‘The moral component focuses on the force’s morale, leadership, team cohesion and ethical foundation’.5 It is the most mercurial of the three components, hardest to measure and quickest to change.  If Napoleon’s remark that ‘the moral is to the physical as three is to one’ is to be believed, it may well be the most important, too.

The physical component

Ukraine has the physical edge.  This wasn’t the case at the start of the war, where Russian overmatch in numbers of soldiers, equipment and ammunition helped them to make sweeping territorial gains and push to within miles of Kyiv.  Russian forces had been massing on the border for months, honing their training and maximising their readiness to deploy.  When they did, their physical edge was almost overwhelming.

The tables have now turned.  Of the physical component, the war in Ukraine has shown that sustainment is  Russia’s greatest weakness, highlighted most vividly by a 40-mile-long convoy stalled just north of the Ukrainian capital.  Sanctions imposed by the West have taken their toll on the aggressor’s ability to resupply, as component parts become harder or impossible to obtain under trade restrictions.  As the war in Ukraine continues and more equipment is lost and stocks of high-tech ammunition expended, sustainment issues will continue to build.

Ukraine has seen its fortunes reversed.  Governments have pledged over 84 billion euros worth of military and other aid.[noteUkraine Support Tracker, Kiel Institute for the World Economy.[/note] Most prestigiously this includes US HIMARS rocket launchers, but the contributions are varied and enormous; the UK alone has provided 64 artillery guns and 100,000 rounds of ammunition, amongst other equipment, and is providing training for 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers.6 Contrast this to a Russia that cannot resupply, cannot even keep hold of its own equipment (losing as much as two brigades-worth of military equipment) and cannot train (many trainers having been committed to combat, or killed or wounded already) and Ukraine appears to have the physical ascendancy.

Russia’s attempts to redress this physical imbalance show the weakness of its hand.  At almost four-times the size of the regular British Army, 300,000 newly mobilised men is a formidable figure.  Without adequate training or equipment, however, this is little more than a paper tiger, especially when facing a Ukrainian Army  increasingly supplied with long-range weapons.  Russia’s other tactic is to posture increasingly aggressively, threatening larger and more destructive weapons – up to and including its nuclear arsenal – to compensate for its current physical weakness.  This is a potent card to play but reveals how desperate Russia sees its own position; such options were not on the table when they looked to be winning.  Against this two-trick pony, Ukraine will continue to build momentum within the physical component, as long as it is not abandoned by its allies and Russia does not turn to its weapons of last and most desperate resort.

The moral component

If Russia was on the back foot physically, it is all but overthrown in the moral domain.  Since the very start of the invasion reports abounded that Russia had neglected this element.  Soldiers, it appeared, had not known that they were taking part in an invasion, or had been specifically conditioned to believe they were liberators and would be warmly welcomed.  This clearly was not the case.  Soldiers, shocked at facing fierce resistance, would have faced an ethical dilemma as the situation became clearer.  Morale had been low before the invasion.  Most men are expected to serve at least one year as a poorly-paid conscript, subjected to hazing rituals known as dedovshchina and largely ignored by uncaring officers.  Such environments erode team cohesion and trust in officers to the extent that some have been deliberately targeted by their own soldiers.  Whilst Russia had initially tried to avoid using conscripts – relying instead on volunteers to fight in Ukraine – they are increasingly being utilised.  Reverses on the battlefield, losses of equipment and harrowing casualty figures will continue to degrade morale.

Ukrainian morale will be rising.  They are experiencing more victories than defeats and are retaking ground.  This will build faith in the ability of their commanders and inspire confidence that they can genuinely win the war.  Their ethical foundation and belief in their cause will have been intense.  Fighting an unambiguous war of defence – often for their own towns, homes and families – will have created a profound sense of purpose.  Units, especially early on, were made of local volunteers who likely knew each other well, creating from the start a shared bond invaluable in conflict. 

Training and equipment provided by allies will continue to build on this morale, as their confidence in prolonged international support endures.  It is not all rosy, of course.  Ukrainian forces have suffered many casualties, and there will be tiredness and exhaustion amongst units that are constantly battling.  But unlike the Russians, they will believe in the necessity of such privation and sacrifice, and that they can be successful.

This imbalance in the moral dimension looks set to mount.  Ukraine is continuing to receive equipment, weapons and training from allied forces, increasing their capacity to protect themselves and defeat Russia at range where they are less exposed to casualties.  Both sides will continue to suffer injuries and deaths, but Russia – shorter on equipment and ammunition than their enemy – can expect to come off worse.  The announcement of a mobilisation of 300,000 soldiers may result in a temporary boost in morale.  If such men are unwilling to fight and are poorly trained and equipped, they are likely to have a negative impact on Russia’s fighting capacity, more likely to run or die, and create division if placed alongside veteran units that know they cannot trust them.  The threat of deploying WMD may be the last card in the physical domain, but such a direction may be untenable morally, undermining completely any illusion of ethical foundation and further pushing Russia away from international supporters who will fear as much as anyone a nuclear war.

The conceptual component

Here, this aspect is of lesser importance than the others.  Russia likely has the more advanced doctrine and concepts, having been involved in numerous recent conflicts.  Russia’s experiences in Georgia, Syria and especially Crimea will have directed how they armed and prepared for this war.  Geo-strategically they have proven difficult to counter, using a variety of so-called ‘sub-threshold’ actions such as assassinations and cyber attacks to test the reactions and resolve of their adversaries.  This advantage seems largely relegated in importance now, as the Russian focus falls firmly on their ‘special military operation.’ There will be long-term implications for both sides and their allies’ doctrine and concepts, as armies seek to learn the lessons of this war and prepare for a future one, analysing the strengths and weaknesses of those involved.

russian tanks war in ukraine

Improvised ‘Cope Cages’ fitted to Russian armour (social media)

Most important in the tactical sense is adaptation.  Much has been said of off-the-shelf drones, weaponised by Ukrainians and used to attack anything from individuals to main battle tanks.  Russians were scorned for improvising vehicle armour – including some designs utilising tree-trunks – but such changes are in the same vein and reflect a force exploiting what it can to react to the specifics of the combat it faces.  Neither side will have a monopoly on adaptation.  Perhaps Russia – increasingly low on materials and with a command structure deemed by some to be overly formal and constrained – will see sensible, bottom-up suggestions stifled.  If the war becomes a stalemate, dragging on for years, factors of doctrine and concepts will grow in importance.  Now, tactically, this is not the case; doctrine is important, but adaptation, morale and material are more so.

Conclusion

The model of fighting power is a key component of the overarching aspects of British Army doctrine.  It takes three core factors of physical, moral and conceptual and recognises that these encapsulate the crucial factors that determine the outcome of war.  This article has applied them to the tactical situation in Ukraine.  It has argued that Russia is comprehensively and increasingly outmatched in the physical and moral domain, and that it has no clear advantage in the conceptual one.  It recognises that Russia is not a defeated force, and has powerful tools left at its disposal, but that even with these Ukraine remains in the ascendancy.  The war is far from over, but the writing may just be starting to go onto the wall.

C. Patrick Welsh

C. Patrick Welsh is an officer in the Royal Artillery.  He has experience working in UK and multi-national headquarters at all levels up to division.  He holds a degree in War Studies & History from Kings College, London

Footnotes

  1. Army Doctrine Publication, Land Operations Part 2: The Application of Land Power, 2022
  2. Ibid, Part 2, 1-1.
  3. Ibid Part 2, 1-5.
  4. ADP Part 2, 1-2.
  5. ADP Part 2, 1-4.
  6. UK Minister for the Armed Forces, Commons speech 21 September 2022.

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