Since 2010 the U.S. Army has been trying to revamp army training, organization and equipment from ten years of actual COIN (Counter-Insurgency) combat to a vague future fighting against near-peer opponents trained and equipped at levels near that of Western militaries. Progress was very slow because there was no actual near-peer combat going on to provide realistic goals. That meant all these reform plans stalled or wandered aimlessly. Then came the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022. Suddenly there was a near-peer conflict to show the way.
The reality check imposed by active, rather than theoretical combat is familiar to those who study military history, a process the U.S. Army formally instituted in the 1970s. That revealed a useful pattern. Every war the U.S. has been part of since, (and before) the American Revolution, involved some common characteristics. First, you went to war with the army you had. That meant you never had a force that was fully prepared for the new war. There were lessons to be learned from instances where pre-war senior leaders made more effective pre-war decisions. One occurred before World War II when the senior American general Marshall realized that many senior army commanders were OK in peacetime but not suited for wartime conditions. This was something the French acted on after World War I began, when dozens of corps and army commanders were retired because they were obviously not up to the task. Russia had a similar situation in both world wars. Some with U.S. forces during the Korean war of the early 1950s and the Vietnam War a decade later. The Americans realized their errors after Vietnam and implemented reforms that made possible the quick victories in the 1990 and 2003 wars against Iraq. The initial stages of the Afghanistan War in 2001, which was a successful combined CIA/Army Special Forces paramilitary operation. Later came a decade of COIN operations, which the army had not anticipated and had to learn by time-consuming trial and error.
After a decade of COIN it was time to return to the army of the 1990s. That should have been easy, but it hasn’t been. The U.S. Army of 1990 and 2003 was composed of well-trained and pragmatic professionals. COIN was a murkier environment that was difficult for a near-peer force to adapt to and even more difficult to switch back from to near-peer opponents. The war in Ukraine dispelled a lot of the murk and revealed that the basics adopted by the pre-COIN American military were still valid. This was more obvious for the troops than it was for officers. For the infantry and their combat support forces, the same basics were still the same. But the further up the command chain you went the more differences there were. For platoon and company officers there were big changes in terms of fire support. Near peer battlefields are more dangerous for helicopter gunships and other close support aircraft. Logistics (getting supplies to the combat units) was also more difficult. Just how much more difficult was unclear until you had a near-peer conflict to learn from.
Ukraine was a needed wake up call for all NATO nations involved in providing supplies and combat support for the Ukrainian troops doing the fighting. This arrangement was imposed by the fact that nuclear-armed Russia did not consider the invasion an invasion but an effort to reunite Ukraine with Russia. If NATO kept its combat troops out of Ukraine, Russia had no justification for going nuclear. This is another aspect of near-peer conflicts since the 1950s. For most officers that was not something they could control, or train for. NATO and the Ukrainians were fighting a non-nuclear near-peer war. Once everyone was clear on the conditions tolerated for of that kind of conflict, American military schools which trained officers at various levels of command could adapt.
The U.S. Army has several schools that train officers to command company, battalion or brigade and larger units on how to operate. The army calls this LSCO (Large-Scale Combat Operations) and is now modifying the curriculum for its officer training schools that cover the details of LSCO.
For the troops themselves, the lessons of Ukraine have less impact on their training. The army did make some changes and this was reflected in the planned release of its new MDO (Multi-Domain Operations) doctrine in June, 2022. MDO is mainly about how to deal with near-peer forces that have troops, training and equipment similar to what the U.S. uses. The main near-peer adversaries were China and Russia and MDO was based on assumptions of how these adversaries would operate and how best to deal with that. Then reality intruded in February when Russia invaded Ukraine, and three months later the Russians continue to perform well-below MDO expectations. The army delayed the release of MDO until later in 2022. The army is also taking another look at comments made by their Ukrainian counterparts before and since the Russian invasion. The Ukrainians rated Russian capabilities more accurately than NATO or Russian experts. Now it is recognized that the Ukrainian ability to read and speak Russian and perceive the conditions in Russia and the Russian military was far more accurate than non-Ukrainians realized. The Ukrainian have been seriously studying this situation since 2014 but were having a hard time convincing most NATO nations. Poland, the Baltic States and other new NATO members agreed with the Ukrainians but were considered alarmist by the Cold War era NATO members. No more, the eastern Europeans now have NATO’s attention.
China is also paying attention and revising its war plans while the Russians are still in shock, even though much of what went wrong made sense based on what Western military historians knew of the post-Soviet Union Russian military.
The Russians' failures in recruiting, training, logistics and wartime production are nothing new. It was very obvious in wars Russia has been in since the 19th century. This was especially true in World War I and II as well as the Cold War. That reality was revealed in Afghanistan during the 1980s. After each of these debacles Russia vowed to change but that never worked. Military historians noted this happening since the 1990s but the official view (of intel agencies and senior military staff) was that the Russians were making real progress. They weren’t. There were some practical reasons for this.
History teaches that it is better to overestimate the enemy than underestimate. There are problems with this because if you go too far in overestimating your foes you come up with a less effective doctrine. There is no easy solution for this because in peacetime, which is most of the time for most militaries, it's easy for reality to be outvoted by political expediency. This problem is only recognized in wartime, something that is relatively rare and the unpleasant details more likely to be forgotten by policy makers. This includes some very practical matters, like railroads and railway equipment capable of moving military units quickly to where the fighting is. The U.S. depends on rail transport to get mechanized forces to ports while many nations need effective rail transport to more troops and supplies directly to the front. The Americans still haven’t fixed this problem and the Ukrainians demonstrated they had adapted better than the Russians.
Then there was the problem of maintaining adequate peacetime stocks of weapons and ammo as well as sustaining adequate levels of production during wartime. All NATO nations were warned of their unresolved problems in this area and now have to deal with it. For Russia it is worse because they underestimated or ignored their dependence on Western suppliers for key components. China was more realistic, and based their war plans on a short war or no war at all. That attitude is not fully appreciated by the West.