The war in Ukraine has been going on since February. A tragedy for everyone involved. And yet ex-Australian general and military expert Mick Ryan tweeted five lessons we can learn from this war. He is convinced that war is also an opportunity to learn – for military institutions around the world.
It’s not easy to get something positive out of a war. And yet, with his Twitter post, Ryan undertakes a pragmatic examination of how national leaders and today’s military and national security institutions can learn from this.
In the past two months there has been a plethora of articles drawing lessons from the Russo-Ukrainian War. Some of them – by experts on war, military, strategy and national security issues – were good, some bad. The bad ones offered nothing more than a guide on how not to think, Ryan said.
“Learning from war is a serious matter that can have profound consequences for military organizations in future conflicts,” the expert emphasized on Twitter. The lives of our future soldiers depend largely on how well we learn and adapt from our observations of current wars. Therefore, when examining how to learn from the Russo-Ukrainian War, there are few guidelines useful for a professional, strategic approach to military learning and adaptation.
“Why should one learn lessons from wars in general and from this one in particular?” is one of Ryan’s first thoughts. He then provides the answer himself: “The world is constantly changing. Instead of making mistakes of its own in adapting to change, a smart institution learns from the mistakes of others. This assumes that a military institution has a ‘learning culture’.” As Ryan has pointed out in his previous contributions, the Ukrainians have demonstrated a superior learning culture in this war and before. They have learned from 2014, adapted and improved.
In Ryan’s view, however, the Russians were learning the wrong lessons from Syria and seemed to assume that they would be fighting the same Ukrainian army that existed in 2014. “The learning culture of the Russian army before the war was deficient. The learning process in this war was slow”. As Barno and Bensahel argue, this is easier to say in principle than to achieve in practice. According to the expert in his thread, bureaucratic resistance, friction on the battlefield and the opponent’s adjustments make implementation difficult. But it is possible to learn and change, as previous successful military forces show.
The second consideration in learning, according to Ryan, is to distinguish between lessons that are “specific to this particular war and those that are more general in nature.” This is difficult because such an assessment is usually only possible after the fact . To the expert at this point, almost all observations appear to have broader – or general – utility. These included leadership, combined arms, air-land integration, information warfare, and logistics.
As a third aspect, the expert mentions the level of the lessons to be observed. In this regard, Ryan refers to a 1988 study on “Learning and Military Effectiveness” in which Murray and Millet propose a four-tiered approach: political, strategic, operational, and tactical.
Ryan believes that if we want to seize the opportunity to learn from the Russo-Ukrainian war, we need to invest in each of these four levels to get a comprehensive picture of the war and to understand how each level is related to activities on the ground other levels interacted and changed them.
Ryan sees the fourth consideration in learning from war as being an opportunity to identify both solutions (from both sides) and future challenges for which there are currently no solutions.
“A strategic learning process that emerges from this war must not just be limited to copying what the eventual victor did.” Instead, we should look deeper for other challenges that are not obvious or for which neither side has one found a solid solution, describes Ryan further on Twitter.
The fifth and final point, according to Ryan, is understanding the difference between ‘lessons’ and ‘lessons learned’. It’s one thing to make observations. It is quite another matter to effect change in a military (or other government) institution based on these teachings. The US Army has good definitions for both. A lesson is “knowledge or understanding gained through experience.” Successes and failures are both seen as sources of lessons. A lesson learned, then, is “when you can measure behavior change”.
According to Ryan, to learn from this war, Western military organizations must invest in intelligence gathering, analysis, dissemination, and adaptation — and apply it. As Don Starry described in To Change an Army, this requires, above all, leadership from the top.