Two unexpected wars
On Tuesday, the International Institute for Strategic Studies hosted a talk entitled Two Unforeseen Wars: A Military Analysis of the Conflict in Ukraine and the Campaign against ISIS with Brigadier Ben Barry, the Senior Fellow for Land Warfare at the IISS.
Barry discussed the conflicts separately but drew some parallels between them on the level of military strategy.
Both the conflict in Ukraine and the war against ISIS came as a shock to the US. The conflict in Ukraine began with a Russian campaign in Crimea led by elite units and complemented by propaganda. The Russians made good use of special forces, electronic warfare and deniability. In Crimea, both sides sought not to use lethal force. The ability of the Russian military to restrain its use of lethal force shows that it is better trained than when it fought in Afghanistan or Chechnya. The Russian military has a cadre of strategic planners and an aptitude for deception.
According to Barry, the insurgency of pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine has exploited grievances against the Ukrainian government. The Ukrainian military is suffering from a lack of investment in recent years. They have made little effort to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign against the separatists. Last summer, they had some success in pushing the separatists back, but were stopped by Russian intervention, including professionally applied indirect fire. Both the separatists’ own artillery, as well as the Russian artillery that intervened, are skilled. The Ukrainian Air Force has been stymied by the separatists’ air defenses. The separatists have also made effective use of SIGINT and drone intelligence to call in strikes. Russia has improved its military readiness, as the conflict in Ukraine attests.
With regard to the fight against ISIS, according to Barry, Maliki’s 2010 election victory was followed by his attempt to consolidate power by marginalizing Sunni and Kurdish politicians. Meanwhile, the remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq fought Assad in Syria and renamed themselves ISIS. They rebuilt their networks in Iraq among discontented Sunni tribes and used sophisticated propaganda to gain volunteers and donations. They then launched their assault on Fallujah, followed by their capture of Mosul. In Mosul, the majority of 3 or 4 Iraqi divisions disintegrated in the face of ISIS’s onslaught. The Iraqi army had suffered from Maliki’s attempt to assert direct control over it and replace capable commanders with politically loyal ones.
ISIS has used both insurgency tactics and conventional forces. The high water mark of ISIS offensives in Iraq came in the fall of 2014. After this point, ISIS still counterattacked at vulnerable spots and conducted offensives in Syria simultaneously. ISIS is now on the strategic defensive in Iraq, but this has been an active defense. To take Ramadi, ISIS used diversionary attacks to distract the Iraqi forces. They may have also conducted the attack under the cover of a sandstorm to stymie coalition airstrikes.
Barry described the sequence of an ISIS attack:
1. Indirect fire.
2. En masse suicide bombings.
3. Captured armored bulldozers are used to breach Iraqi army berms.
4. Close assault including cameramen to document the carnage and subsequent executions.
The fall of Ramadi played into ISIS’s narrative of defending the borders of the Caliphate and mounting counterattacks. These facts on the ground inspire recruits and cause other groups to declare allegiance to ISIS.
According to Barry, ISIS has two main vulnerabilities:
1. In a successful, sustained offensive against it, ISIS would have to move a large numbers of fighters, unmasking them and rendering them vulnerable to attack.
ISIS could, however, move large numbers of civilians at the same time to complicate an attack.
2. If the Sunni tribes in Iraq turn on ISIS, this would be a significant blow.
At first glance, these two conflicts have little in common but Barry drew a few parallels between them:
1. Both conflicts show the importance today of winning the information war. Military operations will increasingly be used for their propaganda effects.
2. The Russian separatists and ISIS leverage superior military leadership against the Ukrainian government and the Iraqi military, respectively.
3. Without airpower, the anti-ISIS coalition would be far worse-off than it is. In Ukraine, we can see how the Ukrainian military is suffering from a lack of airpower.
4. Artillery is key in both conflicts. Indirect fire is normally the cause of the majority of casualties in war, and this is likely true in both Iraq and Ukraine. Western militaries have reduced their use of indirect fire, but Russia and China still have extensive indirect fire capabilities.
5. Both conflicts demonstrate the need for the US and NATO to assess which of their allies are vulnerable to hybrid warfare.