When Gonzalo Lira put out his attack onScott Ritter I lost just a little of my respect for him.
If felt just a little like sour grapes at having one’s wishful thinking. I’m not equipped to make judgements about things military.
Scott Ritter talks of the Russians (and no one respects them more than he does) possibly reaching a “pain threshold” where they may have to take things to a new level.
It is at that point that possibly the Russians may resort to much stronger actions – things that are obviously being talked about on Russian television.
Here, for your consideration is Scott Ritter’s point of view.
Here is an article by Mike Whitney that Ritter cites.
The above tweet was written three days before Russia initiated its “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine. The specific targets for this tweet were the multitudes of former “special forces” types (I put that in quotations, because on Twitter, one can take nothing for granted) who were opining about the Russian military, drawing upon their own (alleged/assumed/manufactured/genuine) military service, all of which, if it indeed occurred, was spent chasing goat herders, farmers, and wedding parties around Iraq and Afghanistan.
These so-called “operators,” whose time in service ranged from zero to twenty years, had never trained to fight the Russian threat, knew nothing about large-scale ground combat or maneuver warfare, and had never experienced sustained combat larger than a platoon-sized firefight. For them, fire support came in the form of helicopters, A-10’s and fast-attack aircraft which operated free from worry of any modern integrated air defense system. Artillery or heavy mortar support was delivered, when available, from fixed fire support bases, without fear of any meaningful counterbattery fires.
Their ”war” was fought on their timetable, against a lightly-armed enemy, usually at night, where they US forces enjoyed the advantages of night-vision technology. Intelligence information was derived from a collection plan which made use of the best technology, and communications whose only limitations were derived from the mistakes made by the operators themselves. These elite warriors staged from air-conditioned bases where they had access to hot food, showers and other peace-time amenities, including internet connectivity and video games.
And yet, here they were, providing their two-cents worth of insight on a topic they knew nothing about.
They were specialists in “little arrow war,” small-unit combat fought against an ill-equipped enemy. They possessed all the advantages war could offer—advanced technology, perfect intelligence, seamless communications, uninterrupted supply lines—and yet they still lost—their poor win-loss record played a large part in my dismissal of their so-called expertise.
The looming Russian-Ukrainian conflict was going to be what I called “big arrow war”—the kind of large-scale military operation that hasn’t been seen since Desert Storm in 1991. (Operation Iraqi Freedom, in 2003, doesn’t count due to the fact that the Iraqi military had never recovered from its defeat in Desert Storm, having been denied the opportunity to meaningfully reconstitute their depleted forces due to stringent international sanctions; you don’t get credit for defeating an already defeated enemy.)
My background in maneuver warfare, when combined with what I knew about the Russian way of war, helped me pick a key discriminator to help distinguish the “small arrow” boys from the “big arrow” men—artillery. Not just one or two tubes firing at an enemy free of consequence, but massed fires in support of large-scale maneuver, where an enemy with equal or superior numbers of artillery tubes was trying to kill you the moment you pulled the lanyard. I had spent a considerable amount of time in the fire direction center of a general support artillery battalion, preparing schedules of fire involving three or more battalions in support of a division-sized operation. It was a skill set which encompassed everything that defined “big arrow war,” and which had no transferability to the “small arrow” experiences of the erstwhile Russian experts who dominated the Twittersphere.
I typed up my tweet and hit “send.”
I regretted it almost instantly. Not because I was wrong about the difference between “big arrow” and “small arrow” conflict—I wasn’t. But that wasn’t the point. Twitter, like all social media platforms, works best when one engages in informed debate, discussion and dialogue with people from all walks of life and varying experiences. Plus, as I was soon to find out, “big arrow” arrogance could—and would—come back to bite you where the sun doesn’t shine.
“There’s always a tweet,” the saying goes, and two weeks into Russia’s “Special Military Operation,” reality came home to roost, when one of my growing army of critics pointed out that I was the author of the following words of wisdom:
By the end of the first week of Russia’s “special military operation,” it was clear my overly optimistic opinions regarding the pace of the Russian invasion of Ukraine were destined for the trash bin. It didn’t matter that I had predicated my predictions on Russia coming at Ukraine using the totality of the lethality contained in the forces it had assembled, employed in a manner conforming to established Russian doctrine, only to discover that Russia had undertaken a completely different approach toward the conflict, seeking to minimize casualties among Ukrainian civilians and military alike, as well as avoid unnecessary damage to civilian infrastructure.
Opinions, it is said, are like certain anatomical features of the human body—everyone has one, and most of them stink.
It hit home that if I were going to responsibly engage in the ongoing Twitter debate raging about Russia’s war with Ukraine, I was going to have to limit myself to serving as impartial an analysis of the available fact set as possible.
The upside of this approach is that it fell well within the four corners of my prior professional experience as an intelligence analyst—I specialized in turning fragmentary data into deadly accurate predictions.
The downside was that almost everything I came up with flew in the face of the “facts” being presented to the American audience by a mainstream media which had assumed the role of Ukraine’s unquestioning accomplice when it came to spreading anti-Russian propaganda.
It didn’t help that the US government was in on the act of distorting the truth about the Russian-Ukraine conflict, with the National Security Council bragging about how it declassified intelligence for public release, even if it was known that the intelligence in question was flat-out wrong. The Director of the National Security Agency (NSA), General Nakasone, likewise admitted that he would release intelligence directly to CNN for the purpose of getting it into the public sphere as soon as possible. One can only assume that the NSA “intelligence” fell into the same category as the other so-called “intelligence” released by the US intelligence community—garbage.
The interesting thing about competing with inaccurate information is that, in the long run, an intelligence professional operating with a modicum of integrity and professionalism will win every time. One of the analytical tools I use is what I call “military math”—the basic immutable metrics of warfare which can’t be wished away with rhetoric.
“For those who have portrayed the past six days as a glorious Ukrainian military victory,” I tweeted on March 2, “the numbers don’t lie. Russia says it is killing Ukrainian troops at a ratio of 6 to 1; Russia has announced some 500 deaths. This means Ukraine has lost some 3,000 killed.”
“Normal battlefield victories,” I noted, “are won in the margins; 1.2 to 1 casualty rates, etc. 6 to 1 is a route. And it’s only going to get worse for Ukraine. Expect breakouts, encirclement, and mass surrender. Propaganda moves air; bullets on bodies wins wars. Tragic but true.”
This was basic “military math.” In short, if the trend that had played itself out by the end of week one of the “special military operation” continued (and everything suggested that not only that it would, but that the ratios would only grow larger), Ukraine’s defeat was inevitable. I pointed this out in a tweet on March 6, noting that, “At this stage, any continuation of the Ukraine-Russian conflict will not alter the outcome and will only increase the tragic plight of the Ukrainian people. All those who argue in favor of more weapons and insurgency must admit that they care more about NATO than the Ukrainian people.”
One of the realities that was becoming painfully obvious was that the Ukrainian armed forces were not willing to go “gently into the night,” but instead had opted to “rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” They were putting up a determined and deadly resistance. But military math was not in their favor, something I again underscored in a tweet sent on March 12. “As a former practitioner of maneuver warfare,” I wrote, “I appreciate military skill when I see it. But at the end of the day, firepower + mass wins the day, every day. You can dance around the ring only so much when fighting Mike Tyson. Eventually the pain must be delivered…or received.”
A day later, I added the following observation: “Some harsh realities are about to come home to roost in Ukraine. War is about logistics; you can’t fight if you don’t have food, water, and ammunition. People say Ukraine enjoys the advantage of interior lines of communication. This is true, to a point. Interior lines only help if you have material that can be transported or the means to transport those materials. Russia has destroyed Ukraine’s fuel and ammunition dumps, and their logistic hubs. Russia is destroying Ukrainian supply convoys. Ukraine is running on empty. When was the last time Ukrainian maneuver units resupplied? No fuel means tanks can’t move; tanks can’t move, they die. No ammo means artillery can’t fire. No ammo means Ukrainian artillery can’t shoot. No food and water mean men can’t fight. Logistics wins wars. Ukrainian logistics are no longer functioning.”
This comment was made in the context of concerted Russian air attacks against warehouses, fuel depots, training bases, and ammunition storage facilities across the width and breadth of Ukraine. The Ukrainian government was pleading for additional weapons and equipment, and the US was taking the lead in meeting these needs, with President Biden signing off on some $200 million in military assistance to Ukraine bringing the total U.S. security assistance to Ukraine to more than $1.2 billion since the start of the Russian “special military operation.”
The West was focused on the existence of a column of Russian vehicles north of Kiev some 40-kilometers in length, leading many to speculate that this represented Russia’s final, decisive blow against the Ukrainian capitol city. The sudden dispersal of this convoy led many analysts to believe that a Russian attack was imminent. Each day that went by without Russia launching its final offensive led to more speculation and worry.
Of all the US media outlets covering the conflict in Ukraine, CNN stood out as being by far the least objective, doing little more than providing cover for Ukrainian government propaganda and US intelligence misinformation. CNN had assembled a stable of retired US military personnel whose job it was to provide so-called “expert” opinion. None were worth watching, and some were worse than the others. As I made clear in a tweet from March 11, one stood out as egregiously awful. “Retired LTG (Lieutenant General) Hertling’s military analysis on @CNN is the worst I’ve seen anywhere. Pure propagandistic tripe. It’s embarrassing.”
A turning point in CNN’s ridiculous coverage came on March 25, when the Head of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy, gave a briefing in which he announced the end of what he called “Phase One” of Russia’s “special military operation,” the goals of which he described as “causing such damage to military infrastructure, equipment, personnel of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the results of which allow not only to shackle their forces and do not give them the opportunity to strengthen their grouping in the Donbass.”
Rudskoy then announced Russian troops would be withdrawing from the region around Kiev, and regrouping so that they will be able to “concentrate on the main thing—the complete liberation of Donbass.”
To hear Hertling et al at CNN explain Rudskoy’s presentation, one would have thought Napoleon had just ordered the retreat of the French Army from Moscow. As I noted in a tweet sent on March 26, “I’ve never seen such a level of self-delusion as what I’m witnessing on CNN this morning. They think Ukraine is winning the war. How are they going to spin Zelensky’s inevitable surrender, which is going to happen sooner rather than later?”
CNN and Hertling were the gift that kept on giving, prompting me to tweet the following on March 27: “And then there’s the retired Generals. Hertling comes to mind. First it was ‘Russia doesn’t have enough troops to take Kiev.’ Then it was ‘Russia has failed because it didn’t take Kiev.’ Never ‘Russia conducted a successful strategic fixing operation around Kiev.’ Three stars…”
By March 29, I was becoming fed up with the level of ignorance being bandied about the Twittersphere regarding Ukraine. On the spur of the moment, I sat down and typed out a 16-tweet dissertation on my take regarding Russia’s Phase One operations:
The thread went viral, and soon was being discussed in forums around the world. I was invited on a succession of podcasts and radio interviews, where I explained my analysis in great detail.
There was, however, one bright light of hope that the message about Russia’s victory was getting through. As I noted in a tweet later on March 29, “LTG Hertling on CNN, answering Wolf Blitzer’s question about what the Ukrainians need to fight Russia: ‘Tanks, armored fighting vehicles, artillery, airplanes…’In short, an Army to replace the one Russia just destroyed. Hertling’s finally getting it…”
So, too, was the United States, NATO and the European Union. While Russia transitioned into Phase Two of its “special military operation,” Ukraine’s allies did some transitioning of their own, increasing by an order of magnitude the scope and quality of the military assistance being provided to the Ukrainian armed forces. While the Russian army surrounded and pounded into submission the last desperate, fanatical defenders of Mariupol, Ukraine began to dispatch hundreds of its troops to military bases in Poland, Germany, France, and elsewhere, where they were trained on the operations and maintenance of new types of military equipment, including modern long-range howitzers, such as the American-made M777A2 and the French self-propelled “Ceasar,” both 155mm systems capable of delivery ordnance with extreme accuracy up to distances of 40 kilometers.
At first, I wasn’t too concerned about this influx of new equipment, categorizing it as “too little, too late” when it came to altering the situation on the ground in Ukraine. Then two things changed that caused me to alter my assessment.
The notion of time—i.e., the “too late” part of my analytical starting point—was changing. I believed that Phase Two would unroll more quickly than it ended up. I based my assessment on my understanding of Russian military doctrine and assumed that Russia would use its overwhelming firepower to blast holes in the Ukrainian defenses which would then be exploited by a mass of armor. Indeed, two of the military formations that had been redeployed from the vicinity of Kiev to the Izium front (i.e., northern Donbas) were the 1st Guards tank Army and the 20th Combined Arms Army, both Cold War-era organizations that had been disbanded after the collapse of the Soviet Union, only to be resurrected in 2016 when Russia realized it needed units capable of waging large-scale ground combat operations to stand up to NATO’s incessant eastward march. These units were task-organized to conduct the kind of deep penetrating attacks on an enemy position, and I fully anticipated that they would do so now.
I was wrong.
First, I was late to the game in recognizing just how significant the Ukrainian defensive positions in eastern Ukraine were. The Ukrainian military had eight years to dig themselves in along the Donbas front line, and they took full advantage of that time to construct hardened defensive belts in significant depth. Second, Russia wasn’t in the business of sacrificing men and material needlessly. There was, from the perspective of the Russian high command, no reason to artificially impose time-based objectives. Instead, the Russians got down to the dirty business of destroying Ukrainian defensive positions piecemeal, using massed artillery fires which were followed up by close-in assault using tank-supported infantry backed by close air support. The Russian goal was to maximize the Ukrainian casualty rate while keeping Russian losses to a minimum.
While the Russians were able to maintain a slow, steady, rate of advance all along the Donbas front, inflicting significant losses on the Ukrainian military, the slow pace served to buy time for the Ukrainian military to absorb the new military aid being provided by the US and its NATO and European allies. When it became clear that not only were Ukrainian forces being trained for periods lasting several weeks on advanced artillery systems, but that these systems were making it to the frontline in eastern Ukraine, where their fires were resulting in the death of Russian soldiers and destruction of Russian equipment, alarms started sounding in my head. I gave voice to these concerns on May 14, during a conversation with former CIA analysts Ray McGovern and Talk Show host Garland Nixon.
“I had been operating on the assumption,” I said, “that Russia would be able to interdict the vast majority of this equipment, but Russia has shown itself unable or unwilling to do this and—as a result—the Ukrainians are having meaningful impact on the battlefield.”
I continued: This is a transformative moment in the war because what it means is that demilitarization is not taking place. For all the forces Russia is destroying in the east, Ukraine is rebuilding significant capability (in the west).
“I believe Russia is going to win in the east, they are grinding them down as we speak, they are slaughtering them; the amount of death and destruction that is being dealt to the Ukrainians is unimaginable, but I believe the Ukrainians are willing to take these losses in order to buy time to reconstitute a military that will challenge Russia.
“The military aid the west is providing to Ukraine is changing the dynamic and if Russia doesn’t find a way to address this meaningfully…the conflict will never end.”
I followed up the discussion with Mssrs. McGovern and Nixon with a written interview I gave to Sputnik, a Russian online journal. “On 21 May,” Sputnik asked, “Biden signed a $40 billion military aid package to Ukraine. Could the provision of new weapons become a game-changer for Kiev?”
“It’s not could,” I responded, “it is a game changer. That doesn’t mean that Ukraine wins the game. But Russia started the special military operation with a limited number of troops and with clearly stated objectives that were designed to be achieved with this limited number of troops.
“Today, Russia still has the same number of troops and the same objectives. But instead of going up against the Ukrainian military as it existed at the start of the conflict, it’s now going up against a Ukrainian military that is supported by a weapons package that by itself nearly matches the defense budget for Russia in all of one year.”
I went on to state that “The United States and NATO are also providing real time intelligence support to the Ukrainians. That’s a game changer. And NATO’s countries have now provided Ukraine with strategic depth going back through Poland and Germany, where bases are being used to train Ukrainian forces on the new weapons that are being provided.”
Left unsaid was my distinct opinion that this strategic depth was also a “game changer.”
There were those who took umbrage at my new assessment, claiming that it represented a dramatic departure from where I stood at the time of Russia’s transition from Phase One to Phase Two of its “special military operation.”
Mike Whitney, the journalist, was one.
Larry Johnson, a former State Department counterterrorism analyst and CIA officer, was another.
“I really am shocked that Scott got this so wrong,” Larry writes, before heading into his analysis of artillery. “First,” Larry states, “the US and NATO are not sending the most advanced, most sophisticated equipment to Ukraine.”
As of this writing, Ukraine has been provided, or is in the process of being provided, more than 300 state-of-the-art artillery pieces—most of which are self-propelled—from the US and NATO nations.
That’s 20 battalions worth of artillery.
There are 11 artillery battalions in the entire US Marine Corps.
With all due respect to Larry, that’s the literal definition of “game changer.”
Larry goes on to quibble about one of these artillery systems, the M777 towed 155mm howitzer. “The M-777 howitzer,” Larry writes, “is a good piece of towed artillery (it came into service in 2005). There is the problem–it requires a vehicle to tow it into position. When it is fired it must be towed to a new location to minimize the risk of counter battery fire. America and NATO have more advanced howitzers that are self-propelled. They are not sending those to Ukraine.”
A couple things. The M777 takes three minutes to emplace, and 2-3 minutes to displace. It can fire a four-round fire mission in a minute. As such, assuming that the M777 was able to deploy without being detected, from the first round out of the barrel until the displacement of the howitzer from its firing position, the total time involved is 3-4 minutes.
Now, if the Ukrainian troops had been given rudimentary training on the use of the M777, I might question their ability to operate the M777 to such standards. But they were provided with 40 days of training conducted by US Army instructors at the Grafenwoehr training facility, in Germany.
I believe a lot can be accomplished in 40 days, especially the notion of displacing a towed howitzer as if your life depended on it. Because, for Ukraine, it literally does.
The M109A6 Paladin system is the US Army’s mainstay for self-propelled artillery; it entered service in 1991—14 years prior to the M777. Some—but not all—of the M109A6 guns have been outfitted with modification kits that allow them to employ the GPS-guided M982 “Excalibur” round. Most of the M777 howitzers provided by the US to Ukraine are the A2 variant, which can fire the “Excalibur” round.
In short, the M777A2 is the most modern artillery system in the US Army inventory, is capable of rapid emplacement and displacement in combat, and can fire the “Excalibur” precision-guided artillery round.
Simply put, it is the most lethal artillery system in the US arsenal.
The US has provided Ukraine with over 100 of them, along with 40 days’ worth of live-fire training at the US Army’s most advanced artillery range in Europe—not the “one- or two-day seminar” Larry asserted.
My issue with the M777 is that it is prone to breaking down when subjected to sustained firing in combat conditions and as such, because Ukraine lacks the ability to repair these guns (i.e., access to spare parts and personnel qualified to conduct depot-level maintenance), their operational utility comes with a shortened shelf life.
But while it is functioning, and employed by a well-trained crew, the M777/”Excalibur” pairing is one of the most lethal weapons in the Ukrainian arsenal. The M777 has been in operation throughout the Donbas zone of conflict, a clear indication that Russia was not able to interdict the system while in transit.
While there is evidence that some of the M777 howitzers have been destroyed in combat, there is equal evidence that others have been employed to great effect. When combined with drone surveillance and counterbattery radars, both of which the Ukrainians appear to be employing with skill, the M777/”Excalibur” system has struck Russian command posts, artillery positions and troop concentrations with deadly effect. Hundreds of Russian soldiers have been killed and wounded, and scores of Russian vehicles and weapons systems have been destroyed, by the M777/”Excalibur” system.
It has been—literally—a “game changer.”
“Scott Ritter,” Larry writes, “sees the training of Ukrainian troops in Poland and Germany as a critical variable that could really hurt the Russians. Training reinforcements on new technology might be a potential game changer if the situation on the ground in Ukraine was static. It is not. Russia is grinding down the entrenched Ukrainian forces in the Donbass.”
Here, Larry misses the forest for the trees. Yes, the Russian military is grinding down their Ukrainian enemy in a series of relentless battles all along the Donbas defensive belt. But there is no dramatic alteration in the day-to-day alignment of forces—the Russians advance a few kilometers here, and few kilometers there, but for the most part the rest of the battlefield remains static.
This is especially true when it comes to the artillery duels being waged in the Donbas. There is no question that the Russians are destroying Ukrainian artillery on a daily basis. There is likewise no question that the Ukrainians are landing more than a few lethal blows themselves—the Ukrainian artillery battalion equipped with 12 Caesar French-made self-propelled guns claims to have destroyed 40 Russian artillery systems since arriving at the front, with no losses on their part. While all sides are prone to exaggeration, and there is no way to confirm the Ukrainian claims, the fact is the influx of highly capable NATO-provided artillery systems, manned by crews that have been provided weeks of hands-on training at military bases outside the conflict zone, fits precisely the criterion set by Larry himself when defining a “game changing” condition.
Larry concludes his critique of my position by noting that “[e]ven if those new trainees graduate and are deployed to the eastern maelstrom, their ability to function as a competent combat unit is limited by Ukraine’s existing and growing deficiencies.”
Tell that to the mothers, wives, and sisters of the Russian soldiers killed by these newly provided artillery systems. It seems quite clear that Ukraine has been able to reconstitute combat-capable units and deploy them into combat with little or no issue.
Larry also takes umbrage at my assertion that, as he describes it, “intelligence sharing gives the Ukrainians an edge.” According to Larry, “When you provide intelligence on Russian troop movements, locations or plans, there is an assumption that the recipients of that intelligence will be able to do something to hurt the Russians. How did that work out in Mariupol? How about fending off the Russian missile attack in Desna. In my view, sharing intelligence with Ukraine is an effort in futility. An empty gesture that will not change anything on the ground.”
Again, tell that to the crew of the Moskva, sunk by Ukrainian missiles using intelligence provided by the US. Tell that to the battalion command staffs wiped out by precision-guided “Excalibur” shells, the coordinates of the command post having been provided to the Ukrainians by the US in near-real time. Plenty has changed on the ground because of the intelligence provided by the US and NATO to Ukraine.
Larry is joined in criticizing my assertion that the provision of real-time intelligence by the US and NATO to Ukraine is a “game changer” by Andrei Martyanov, a well-regarded military analyst whose military experience was in the Coast Guard of the Soviet Union. Andrei is apparently deeply impressed with Russian intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. So am I. I am also impressed with similar US capabilities, Andrei apparently less so.
Here are some statements of fact:
These, and other, battlefield realities make a mockery of Andrei’s contention that “Russia has in many respects a real time situational awareness of not only of the whole battlefield but the whole theater.”
Andrei goes out of his way to educate me on what he terms “a simple operational truism since 1980s: if I see you (target), I will destroy you.”
Thanks, Andrei. It’s not like I was intimately involved in one of the most intelligence-intensive targeting efforts in modern history, namely Operation Desert Storm.
The simple fact is anyone with real-world experience in combat-related intelligence-driven target acquisition knows that there is no such thing as “seamless ISR.”
No commander has ever had perfect “real time situational awareness” of “the whole battlefield,” let alone “the whole theater.”
To suggest otherwise is to expose to the world a level of hubris and ignorance found only in those who have not experienced first-hand that which they speak of.
Russia deserves great credit for its many impressive battlefield accomplishments. There is no doubt that Russia is winning the fight and will prevail in the accomplishment of its Phase Two objective of liberating the Donbas.
There is likewise no doubt that Ukraine is, and will continue to be, suffering significant battlefield losses which, if not replaced, will prove untenable.
Here’s the rub—thanks to the support provided by the US and NATO, Ukraine is, as of this moment, successfully reconstituting many of the losses it is suffering on the frontlines. Its not just the 20 battalions—20 battalions!—worth of artillery that NATO has trained and equipped, but also several brigade’s worth of armor and mechanized infantry. This means that when Russia is finished with liberating the Donbas, there will still be plenty of fighting left to do—fighting that would not have been necessitated except for the US-NATO provision of equipment and training to the Ukrainian military.
This is the literal definition of “game changer.” It doesn’t mean Russia will lose its fight against Ukraine—far from it. It does mean that the nature of the military operation has become far more complex than when the “special military operation” began back on February 24.
I’m all for a healthy debate on issues as complex as the one that exists in Ukraine today. People should listen to as many different perspectives as possible. I encourage everyone to read the writings and analysis provided by Larry Johnson and Andrei Martyanov. But I would likewise point out that, when discussing matters that pertain to artillery and combat intelligence, you might also want to pay heed to an old artilleryman with real-world experience in building intelligence collection plans designed to acquire hostile targets for destruction during wartime and respect the fact that when I conclude that something is more than likely a “game changer,” it probably is.