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Army leaders look to Ukraine conflict to gain battlefield advantage over Russia

August 29, 2018

Army leaders are homing in on the simmering conflict between Russia and Ukraine, focusing particularly on Moscow’s electronic warfare and drone capabilities in an attempt to gain battlefield advantage over their former Cold War adversary.

Service officials headed to the front lines in eastern Ukraine to observe the combat tactics being used by Russian-backed separatists forces, and their military advisers from Moscow, against Ukrainian troops fighting to drive them out of the country, Army Secretary Mark Esper told reporters Wednesday.

“We sent people to study in the Ukraine, and probably one of the most remarkable lessons [we learned] is the Russian’s use of drones to find enemy forces, and then use them to direct, indirect fires onto Ukrainian formations,” Mr. Esper said during a breakfast roundtable with reporters in Washington.

“We also learned about Russian use of electronic warfare,” he said, adding Army observers “take those lessons and we think about it from how do we adapt our [combat] doctrine to deal with those types of capabilities.” Russian forces have begun using combat zones in Ukraine, Syria and other locations where Moscow’s forces are deployed as a pseudo testing ground for next-generation weapons technologies particularly in the field of electronic warfare.

Russian forces were able to successfully clog U.S. electronic communications channels, navigation systems, blue-force trackers the system used by U.S. units to identify friendly personnel from enemy fighters in Syria.

“All of a sudden, your communications won’t work, or you can’t call for fire, or you can’t warn of incoming fire because your radars have been jammed and they can’t detect anything,” Laurie Moe Buckhout, a retired Army colonel who specializes in electronic warfare, told Foreign Policy in July.

Army leaders are now attempting to get ahead of that learning curve, by leveraging what they have learned from Russian tactics in Ukraine.

“I think [electronic warfare] is outlined as a capability we need and I think we learned from the conflicts in Ukraine and others around the world that [electronic warfare] is something that we need to rebuild,” Mr. Esper said.

“It will be with us in future conflicts against near-peer adversaries,” the Army secretary said, noting “the Russians clearly have a capability and we need to be prepared for that. We are experimenting with technologies now to do that.”

Mr. Esper said the Army’s new Futures Command would take on a leading role in developing those kinds of technologies, which he said had severely atrophied in the counterinsurgency wars that that dominated the post 9/11 era.

“In the late 1980s and 1990s, we had electronic robust electronic warfare capabilities, and I think those are capabilities that we shed during the days of Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said. “As we pivot back [to] an era of great power competition, clearly [electronic warfare] that is one capability of many that we need to either build or rebuild.”

The Pentagon has authorized a total of $1 billion in American weapons and equipment sent to support Kiev’s fight against Russian-backed separatists in the country. In July, the Defense Department approved a $200 million military aid package including new “capabilities to enhance Ukraine’s command and control, situational awareness systems, secure communications, military mobility, night vision and military medical treatment,” according to a Pentagon statement.

In May, Washington quietly completed the transfer of lethal new anti-tank missile systems to Ukraine, infuriating the Kremlin and signaling a possible escalation in the Ukrainian conflict.

Initial deliveries of the FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile, the shoulder-fired weapon equipped with a so-called “fire and forget” guided missile system designed for U.S. Army infantry units, were delivered to Ukrainian units that month, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko confirmed at the time.

The move falls in line with the Trump administration’s ongoing effort increase foreign sales of American military hardware to allies across the globe.

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