It is now the 40 year anniversary of the Falklands War. I served in this as a career naval officer. This experience has given me insights into what is unfolding in the Ukraine war. In particular, it shows the value of training, as I explain below.
Members of the British Forces volunteer to join on a short term or long career basis. We do not have conscription. There is considerable investment in both skills training and for the specific “tools of the trade” for both operators and maintainers. In peacetime we tend to over-maintain our equipment and practise using it in all conditions. How did this benefit us during a war thousands of miles from home in difficult conditions and having to adapt to new problems?
The first thing you learn is that the men – and the women – are the most important factor. Our Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) – the Sergeants, Chief Petty Officers, Warrant Officers – are a key element of the leadership chain. Their experience can be relied upon to find a practical solution to an unforeseen problem or situation. We had many of those. The long logistic supply lines forced you to preserve your spare assets while operating helicopters continuously from different ships and land bases. The continuous operation produced its own problems as did the low latitude and severe weather we operated in. This meant there was a need to improvise solutions quickly without “official sanction.”
Train to improvise
The result was a series of “local minor modifications.” Let me give you a few examples. The leading edge of helicopter blades erode in bad weather, causing vibration and loss of lift. We had a limited number of spare blades so applied strong strips of sacrificial “Sellotape” that were changed as necessary. The anti-submarine Sea King had no defensive arms. We “acquired” some machine guns and designed an installation kit to fit them in the rear doors. When we reached Ascension Island on the way south the latest version of night vision goggles awaited us. The cockpit lighting was incompatible with them. We found a way to make it so. One modification even included “1 RN Tobacco Tin” in the list of items required.
We also re-wrote our wartime servicing procedures to concentrate on checks of items affecting safety and airworthiness – oil and hydraulic levels, tail rotor control cables etc. This allowed us to “ripple fly” our helicopters. They landed for a rotors running crew change, refuel, re-arm and away for their next sortie. Our flying rates (four times peacetime rates) were achieved because we had well trained, well-motivated maintainers who worked an 84 hour week for three months.
When HMS Coventry was sunk and Atlantic Conveyor was hit in different areas, all nine of my Sea Kings were airborne rescuing survivors.
HMS Hermes is now INS Viraat
After the war, I was part of a small team that gave talks to British industry on how their equipment performed and I accompanied a Westland Helicopters sales team to India to talk to their Ministry of Defence in Delhi and Navy helicopter operators in Cochin about our experience. They bought Sea Kings – and Sea Harriers – and HMS Hermes is now INS Viraat.
Since the Falklands War, UK military equipment has moved on to the next generation. We now have the new 65,000-ton aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, that are a major project management success of British industry; and Merlin helicopters and F35B Lightning fighters. Drone technology is being slowly introduced.
But the very nature of warfare has evolved to encompass five dimensions: Disinformation, Deception, Disruption, Destabilisation and Destruction. Hybrid warfare combines use of the internet and social media to spread fake news, create political division, interfere in elections, support right wing groups, conduct cyber-attacks on “unfriendly” national infrastructure and establish fuel supply dependencies that can be used as a weapon.
Russian advanced military equipment
Since 2010, Russian military equipment has developed to support this change. You have heard recently of Russian hypersonic missiles that can strike “like lightning” anywhere. You may not have heard of the Belgorod, a gigantic submarine that started sea trials last year. It has two roles: the first is a “special mission” role to be a mother ship for deep diving nuclear powered midget submarines and drones that can work on Arctic Sea floor objects, including Western undersea internet cables. The second role is nuclear strike and deterrence using giant underwater drones with a nuclear warhead and almost unlimited range.
Russia has also established a large missile and drone arsenal near their Arctic Murmansk submarine base: a clear strategic objective to project Russian power into the Arctic and Atlantic regions. Imagine HMS Queen Elizabeth being swamped by a swarm attack of drones that incapacitated its defensive and operational systems.
This emerging threat was highlighted in the book I started reviewing in my article “NATO’s Dilemma”.
Ukraine v Russia – Equipment
Despite the modernisation of Russian military equipment described above, the Russian Army still relies on massed heavy artillery and armour. The Russian Air Force lacks sufficient precision guided weapons and does not have the strategic lift capacity to sustain a lengthy operation.
Russia began the invasion with much more equipment than Ukraine. That is why President Zelensky from the beginning has been requesting more arms from Western allies. But Russia appears to have underestimated the strong resistance of the professional Ukrainian military who had received training by western forces since 2014. The mainly conscript Russian soldiers were not prepared for resistance or well trained in maintenance, and they did not know how to adapt to the conditions in the terrain, as we had to do in the Falklands.
Ukraine v Russia – chain of command
The Russian invaders made a number of strategic blunders in the north west of Ukraine. They sent conscript troops in tanks and multiple launch rocket system vehicles down the main roads because they could not advance easily through the snow-covered forests. This left them and their train of supply and fuel vehicles at the rear vulnerable to night-time attacks by Ukrainians from the forest. This suggests a badly planned strategy. So they had to withdraw from the Kyiv region to concentrate on the east. Only now have they put one general in charge of the whole “special military operation” after seven generals have been killed and troops are known to have turned on their officers.
Ukraine v Russia – who is better trained?
Nobody doubts that the Ukrainian military is better motivated than their invaders. The Russian military may have superior equipment but they still rely heavily on conscription despite trying to increase the ratio of professionals to conscripts. They lack a core of NCOs between junior officers and the troops. Their officers do not consider their troops as the single, most important factor. Morale is low. It is also becoming increasingly clear that they are far less well trained. Their pilots and maintainers receive far less training in peace-time with less experience in multi-role missions using targeted weapons. Hence they resort to brute force and deliberate targeting of civilian areas with cluster bombs and artillery shelling that destroy wide areas with no discrimination. Just as they did in Syria.…
The training the Ukrainian military received following the annexation of Crimea, combined with their high motivation, became the winning factor in a war of attrition. Russian strategic aims were frustrated. They are reduced to achieving a limited objective with massive destruction of civilian and industrial infrastructure. Now on the Ukraine side the trained are the trainers for civilians who have taken up arms. Training is a force multiplier. Given the tools that will enable them to deter and outgun massed Russian artillery, it can be the decisive factor in countering Putin’s military ambitions.