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A free piece of advice for Putin

‘War is not just a numbers game anymore. You don’t need big numbers to swarm the opponent with a lot of small smart weapons’

As Vladimir Putin embarks on his plan B — a massive military operation to try to grab at least a small bite of eastern Ukraine to justify his misbegotten war — I thought: Who could give him the best advice right now? I settled on one of America’s premier teachers of grand strategy, John Arquilla, who recently retired as a distinguished professor of defence analysis at the US Naval Postgraduate School. When I called Arquilla and asked him what he’d tell Putin today, he didn’t hesitate: “I would say, ‘Make peace.’”

Arquilla did not pluck his phrasing from thin air. After the D-Day landings on Normandy on June 6, 1944, it became quickly obvious that the Germans could not contain the Allies’ beachhead. So after a German counterattack near Caen failed on July 1, the top German commander on that front, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, phoned Berlin to report the debacle to the army chief of staff, Wilhelm Keitel, who then asked him, “What shall we do?” — to which von Rundstedt famously replied, “Make peace, you fools! What else can you do?”

The next day, von Rundstedt was removed — not unlike what Putin has just done, bringing in a new senior general, one who helped crush the opposition movement with unrestrained brutality — to run phase two of his war. This did not work for the Germans, and without making any predictions, Arquilla explained why he believed that Putin’s army, too, could meet very stiff resistance from the undermanned and underarmed Ukrainians in this new phase.

It starts, he argued, with all that is new in this Ukraine-Russia war: “In many respects, this war is our era’s Spanish Civil War. In that war, many weapons — like Stuka dive bombers and Panzer tanks — were tested out by the Germans, and the allies learned things as well, before World War II. The same is being done in Ukraine when it comes to next-generation warfare.”

Arquilla recently published a book on next-gen warfare, ‘Bitskrieg: The New Challenge of Cyberwarfare.’

“In that book, I outlined the three new rules of war, all of which I am seeing being employed by the Ukrainians,” he explained. “The first is that ‘many and small beats large and heavy.’ The Ukrainians are operating in squad-level units armed with smart weapons, and these are able to disrupt far larger formations and attack slow-moving, loud helicopters and such. So even though they’re outnumbered by the Russians, the Ukrainians have many, many more units of action — usually between eight and 10 soldiers in size.”

Arquilla said that these small Ukrainian units armed with precision-guided smart weapons like killer drones, anti-aircraft weapons and light anti-tank weapons “can take out the Russians’ much larger and more heavily armed tank units.”

The second rule of modern warfare playing out in Ukraine, he said, “is that ‘finding always beats flanking.’ If you can locate the enemy first, you can take him out. And especially if the enemy is made up of a few large units, like a 40-mile-long convoy of tanks and armoured personnel carriers, you’re going to hammer the hell out of them with your small squads, without having to outflank them with an equal-sized force.”

I asked Arquilla why the Ukrainians are so good at finding. “The Ukrainians are making very good use of small drones, particularly those Turkish drones, which are tremendous,” said Arquilla. But it’s their human sensors — the informal Ukrainian observer corps — that are devastating the Russians. Grandmas with iPhones can trump satellites.

“The Ukrainian observer corps is made up of babushkas and kids and anyone else who has got a smartphone,” he said. “And they’ve been calling in the locations of where the Russian units are and where they’re moving. And so the Ukrainian forces have this big edge in finding the Russians in this big country, and that is giving their small units with smart weapons” real-time, actionable intelligence.

The third rule of new-age warfare playing out in Ukraine, said Arquilla, is that ‘swarming always beats surging.” He explained: “War is not just a numbers game anymore. You don’t need big numbers to swarm the opponent with a lot of small smart weapons. I am sure you’ve seen some of the videos of these Russian tanks and columns, where suddenly one tank gets taken out at the front and then another at the rear, so the Russians can’t manoeuvre, and then they just get picked off.”

Since this is the next phase of warfare and the Russians are not stupid, they will surely adjust in phase two, no? - The New York Times

Thomas L Friedman

The writer is an American political commentator and author

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