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Tactical Lessons: The Battle at Orikhiv

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Has the Ukrainian counter-offensive started?  We don’t know at the time of writing1.  Contradictory statements are being made.  The Kremlin, keen to point to the success of its defences, claims it has.  Kyiv remains ambiguous.  We know a battle took place south-east of Orikhiv in Zaporizhzhia province over 7-8 June, which resulted in the loss of a Ukrainian armoured infantry company equipped with Western vehicles.  There is sufficient reporting and imagery to compose a version of what happened.  This article examines the battle at Orikhiv and draws tentative tactical lessons.

Why the Orikhiv direction matters

The Ukrainian armed forces refer to fronts as ‘directions’.  In this case, the term is apt.  Ukrainian-held Orikhiv – pre-war – was an unremarkable settlement with around 14,000 inhabitants.  In the 19th century, it was settled by Mennonites and Lutherans, albeit the numbers were small.  During the Civil War, it was at the centre of the area held by the anarchist Nestor Makhno and fought over by the White and Red Russians.  Importantly, it was from Orikhiv the Red Army launched its southern offensive, finally causing the defeat and flight of the White Russians.

In this same direction, the Ukrainian Army now seeks to advance.  Roughly 45 kilometres to the south on the T0408 is Tokmak.  And another 60 kilometres beyond Tokmak on the T0401 is Melitopol.  A successful advance in this direction would threaten to divide Russian-occupied Southern Ukraine and sever the land bridge to Crimea.

The Opposing Sides

Command of the Ukrainian ‘operational-strategic group of forces Tavria’ is currently vested in Brigadier-General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi, who previously commanded forces on the Kherson front.  He has held his current post since the autumn of last year.  A round-faced individual, he speaks in a quiet, deliberate manner but not without the occasional smile.  His immediate opponent is Colonel-General Alexander Romanchuk.  Romanchuk was born in Luhansk and is a former commander of 29th Combined Arms Army (Eastern Military District) and Deputy Commander of the Southern Military District.  In the usual, opaque Russian way, he appears to report to the airborne Colonel-General Mikhail Teplinksy, apparently in overall command of the group of forces ‘Vostok’ (‘South’).

Brigadier-General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi (left) and Colonel-General Alexander Romanchuk (right) Sources: Ukrainian Military Media Centre and Russian MOD

According to Russian sources, Ukrainian forces in the area include elements from 47th Motor Rifle Brigade (47 OMBr), the Lviv 65th Motor Rifle Brigade (65 OMBr) and the Sumy 117 Territorial Battalion (117 BrTRo).  47 OMBr was involved in the action described in this article.  Russian forces are a mixed group.  The first and second echelon defences appear to have been held by elements from 291st and 70th Motor Rifle Regiments (42nd Motorized Rifle Division, 58th Combined Arms Army, Southern Military District) and 22nd and 45th Separate Guards Special Purpose (GRU) Brigades.  58th Combined Arms Army is under the command of Major-General Ivan Popov.  The GRU forces were believed to provide specialist reconnaissance and detection capabilities such as ground radar.

The Ukrainian advance

On 7 June, Russian milbloggers reported that Ukrainian forces attacked along the Mala Tokmachka-Polohy line to break through the Russian defensive line between Robotyne and Verbove (both about 15 kilometres south-east of Orikhiv).  Russian sources acknowledged that Ukrainian forces broke through the first line of defence and assessed the Ukrainian objective was to advance to the line of the N08 Polohy-Voskresenka highway.

On 8 June, at 2 AM, another advance was preceded by preparatory fires.  The Ukrainian Army seeks to exploit its advantage in night vision devices, but by now, Russian defenders were alert to the Ukrainian actions and ready to respond.

Map of the Ukrainian advance

Source: Militaryland.net and Google Maps

It is not clear what happened between dawn and mid-morning.  Imagery shows an armoured infantry company, nose-to-tail in single file, on a muddy track, ‘hand-railing’ a tree line.

The armoured infantry company appeared to comprise 12 Bradley M2s, three Leopard 2A4s and a small number of support vehicles, including a T-55 engineer vehicle with mine plough and roller and an unknown vehicle that deployed a Pearson mine plough.

Chaos in the mine Field

The attempt to plough a safe lane through the Russian minefield failed.  The lead Leopard 2A4 struck a mine and lost a track (this tank was actually recovered; the crew was unharmed).  Confusion then seemed to reign.  Vehicles bunched.  Crews and passengers abandoned vehicles, and the advance was abandoned.

 

Source: Russian MOD

Leopard 2 being recovered

The Leopard 2A4 was recovered.  Behind the stricken vehicles is a ‘collector’s piece’: a turret-less T-55 chassis engineering vehicle with Russian KMT-series mine plough/roller.  Source: Military Review

The Russian repulse

The Russian repulse had several elements, outlined below:

1.  The minefield

Major-General Popov praised the 58 Combined Arms Army units that laid the minefields.  The minefield undeniably checked the Ukrainian advance, also acknowledged by Romanchuk, and the ensuing chaos led to the advance’s collapse.

2.  Artillery fire support

The Russians were aware a Ukrainian advance was underway.  It was possible to cue artillery fire effectively.  In Romanchuk’s account: ‘artillery units intended for counter-battery combat suppressed enemy artillery in firing positions.  And then they continued to hit the forces and means of the first echelon units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.’

Artillery fire starts landing on the Ukrainian armoured infantry company.  The video shows that one unidentified vehicle detonated.  Another two started smoking.  Source: Russian MOD

3.  ATGMs

Once the armoured infantry company stalled, ‘the crews of anti-tank missile systems of special forces units, and combined arms units at the forefront, joined in the fire engagement of the enemy.  The enemy was forced to stop and, having suffered losses, could not overcome minefields.’

4.  Attack helicopters

At least one and probably more attack helicopter (Ka-52) sorties were cued.  Each sortie comprised two aircraft.  The aircraft launched Vikhr-guided missiles and reportedly enjoyed some success.  The lack of air defence cover meant the attack helicopter crews could pick targets with impunity.

Attack Helicopter (likely KA-52) footage

Combat camera footage from a Ka-52   Source: Izvestia

5.  Close air support

According to Romanchuk, ‘He [the Ukrainian armoured infantry company] was hit by bomber aircraft, attack aircraft, in the initial areas for the offensive, as well as in the course of advancing to the line of transition to the attack.’ If this is the case, there is no evidence the air raids were successful, and no imagery has been made available.  Russian Su-25SMs launch unguided rockets and drop ‘dumb bombs’.  Accuracy is poor.

6.  Electronic Warfare (EW)

Russian milbloggers reported superior Russian EW capabilities disrupted the Ukrainian attack, suppressing communications and GPS.  Ukrainian attempts to use EW against the Russian reconnaissance and control capabilities were reportedly less successful.

7.  Lancet kamikaze drones

Later in the day, it appears Lancet kamikaze drones were used to destroy soft-skin vehicles that had taken cover in a tree line.   The attacks were successful.

Lancet Drone StillSource: Izvestia

The battle was a setback for Ukrainian forces.  According to Russian sources: ‘In the direction of Orikhiv-Tokmak, the Armed Forces of Ukraine managed to cling to several positions of the Russian army by morning.’ However, they could not achieve the main objective – to breach the defence lines and reach the N08 Polohy-Voskresenka highway – and equipment losses were steep.  The US has supplied just over 100 Bradley AFVs to the Ukrainian Army.  Ten per cent appear to have been lost in one action.  As important is the question of morale.  Soldiers need success to believe they can prevail and win.

Tentative Tactical Lessons

Tactical Lesson 1. The breach of prepared defensive positions is a significant combat engineering operation.  It requires meticulous planning, resourcing, and rehearsals.  The successful breach of minefields involves a combination of explosive hoses, rollers, flails and ploughs.  Both sides have now attempted minefield breaches just using ploughs (in the Russian case, the hapless 155th Marine Brigade at Vuhledar).  Both have failed.  The sappers need protection: the cover of night, smoke, air defence cover, and tanks in Overwatch.  A breach is not a breach until the length of the safe lane is proven.  Only then does the exploitation force enter the breach.  Advancing behind mine ploughs in the hope that all mines have been cleared is risky.

an abandoned Mine Plow

The abandoned Pearson mine plough; attempting a minefield breach just by ploughing was over-optimistic   Source: Military Review

 

 

Other tactical lessons are old but seemingly unlearned.  Fire without manoeuvre is wasted fire.

Tactical Lesson 2. A chief lesson of both World Wars is that you must ‘lean into the barrage’.  There is little value in ‘preparatory fires’.  The Ukrainian barrage was a waste of precious shells.  According to Romanchuk, Ukrainian forces telegraphed the ground attack with extensive artillery preparation of the battlefield.

Tactical Lesson 3. Dismounted Troops’ vulnerability in the open, exacerbated today by the ubiquity of surveillance capabilities such as mini-drones.  Once the Ukrainian armoured infantry company became strung out, in single file, in an open field, it was inviting trouble.

On the Russian side, the tactical lessons are also old.

Tactical Lesson 4. An obstacle belt must be covered by fire, in this case, artillery and ATGMs.  On-call attack helicopters (Ka-52s) and close support aircraft (Su-25SMs) can inflict significant damage to stranded vehicles.

A new feature is kamikaze drones.  The writing was on the wall in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War (27 September – 10 November 2020).  It is not clear Western armies have fully appreciated how vulnerable a military force can be to this novel and relatively cheap battlefield innovation.  What are the countermeasures?

 

Sergio Miller

Sergio Miller is a retired British Army Intelligence Corps officer.  He was a regular contributor and book reviewer for British Army Review.  He is the author of a two-part history of the Vietnam War (Osprey/Bloomsbury) and is currently drafting a history of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Footnotes

  1. .  This article was drafted on 10 June

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