The Ukraine war has taught us this: A combined-arms team is essential
“Jumping to conclusions seldom leads to happy landings,” author and professor emeritus Steve Siporin is known to have remarked. Pundits, eager to identify ironclad lessons from Russia’s war in Ukraine, made declarative judgments within days of the start of the conflict — among them, that the tank is obsolete (man-portable Javelin missiles and other anti-armor systems render them so); drones will rule the skies and can punish ground forces with near impunity; aviation cannot operate effectively against a modern air defense system; and HIMARS rockets systems render cannon artillery obsolete.
Time and new observations now temper these assessments. Close, or even not-so-close, study of military history suggests caution on drawing quick conclusions, but some assessments may be in order.
Start with the narrative suggesting that tanks, being vulnerable to portable weapons systems, are obsolete. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Egyptians stunned the duly vaunted Israeli armor formations with a Soviet-supplied anti-armor missile. Then the Israelis relearned the lessons of the German Blitzkrieg of 1940 — it is the synchronized employment of all arms of a force (aviation, artillery, tanks, infantry, engineers and logistics) that creates the combat power that each alone could not hope to achieve. Currently, after the punishment inflicted on the Russian armor formations in the first weeks of the war, adjustments by both sides in applying combined arms now preserve some of the advantages of armor in mobility and exploiting success. Tanks aren’t obsolete; they just need to be employed according to lessons we already knew.
The early days of the Ukraine war also witnessed hyperbole regarding drones. Unmanned air vehicles have been in use since the 1980s, but only since 2002 have they provided an enormous capability to weigh the offensive and defensive ability of an army. Drones are a significant factor in this conflict, but new information from the front lines reveals that counters are depleting their numbers and lessening their effects. The chess game continues. More effective counters are in advanced testing and will change the equation even further. Drones, and especially loitering munitions, will continue to play an integral role, but their employment must be seamlessly blended with techniques that moderate their vulnerability while retaining their key advantages. Again, it’s how the multiple capabilities are integrated — combined arms, combined effects.
The prospects for aviation in future conflicts is also the subject of early judgments. The Russians clearly expected to achieve air superiority over Ukraine within days of the start of the invasion. Just as clearly, they failed against a spirited but undermanned and equipped foe. Hubris was partly to blame, to be sure, but also either ignorance or failure to fully appreciate something long known: Without fully coordinating with ground forces in a way that augments their plans — usually through suppression, obscuration, deception and electronic applications — aviation campaigns operate with increased vulnerability. Properly combined with these supporting systems, aviation remains a crucial element of successful combat operations. Going it alone, you pay a steep price. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “No member of a crew is praised for the rugged individuality of his rowing.”
But surely the judgments about the overwhelming advantage of rocket systems are not overblown. It is unquestionable that the HIMARS rocket systems have produced dramatic and positive results in the Ukraine fight, and their robust inclusion in the U.S. military arsenal is long overdue. But if you listen to the Ukraine military, it is the punishing and nearly ceaseless use of cannon artillery (by both sides) that has produced the greater results. Of note, when the two combatant forces are in close contact, the rocket systems cannot be employed as effectively as cannon artillery. As with the previous examples, it’s not one or the other that rules the battlefield, but the savvy use of each in combination that produces optimal results. Rocket systems are of enormous value in the future, but not alone.
An existing model: The Marine Corps has long appreciated that full integration of every combat capability is essential, especially when that service has fewer assets available. Without the advantages of numbers or mass, the Corps had taken the combined-arms approach to its highest form. As just a few examples of how inculcated the team mentality is fostered, Marine aviators begin their initial training on ground combat skills alongside their earthbound peers from infantry, cyber and information warfare specialists, armor, engineering and logistics — and continue to do this at every education level. Different primary skills, but common understanding.
Yet it’s more than understanding; it is knowledge applied in every plan. Ground officers of every stripe are assigned to aviation units, as aviators are assigned to ground units. In this combined-arms approach’s highest application, a Marine Expeditionary Unit blends its aviation, ground combat, logistics and information warfare units for six months into a single entity before they can be certified to deploy, and then they operate as a cohesive unit for an additional six months in operations. They eat, sleep, play and train as one. These longstanding policies (and others) produce the culture and military DNA that can operate, by nature, as a combined-arms organization. It is a team that doesn’t make the mistakes that have produced the Russian failures in Ukraine.
A canary in the mine: If the lesson from the Russian-Ukraine fight is the obvious one — that combined-arms integration is essential — then steering away from it should raise eyebrows (at least). The Marine Corps has shown commendable initiative in trying to adapt to the recognition that China is a dangerous peer competitor, but has shifted its primary focus away from its heritage as a ready global response force to a missile-capable force in the western Pacific. The wisdom of doing this in a Pacific conflict can be debated, but in doing so it is also shedding some of the combined-arms capabilities that enable successful maneuvers around the globe.
Sometimes a force in combat fires so that it can maneuver, and other times it may maneuver so that fires can better punish an enemy forced to shift against it. But without the required inventory of artillery, armor, engineers or aviation that previously existed (even then in sparse numbers), the Corps can take less advantage of the emerging technologies that hold such promise — if employed as an element of a combined-arms team. When the Marine Corps traditionally provides 25 percent of the ground combat power of the nation, decreasing nearly a third of that service’s combat arms power suggests potential consequences that are worthy of review.
“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others,” goes the epigram often attributed to Otto von Bismarck. The foibles of the Russians against Ukraine are producing lessons better learned vicariously. Preeminent among them is, in fact, a lesson relearned: When you don’t possess and operate a fully combined-arms force, you gamble at war. Not smart.
Retired Lt. Gen. Barry Knutson served as a Marine aviator and commanded at every operational level including as CG, I Marine Expeditionary Force. He retired after serving as Commanding General, Marine Corps Combat Development Command.
Retired Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold served as a Marine infantry officer and commanded units from platoon through the 1st Marine Division. He retired after serving as Director of Operations (J-3) of the Joint Staff.