The invasion of Ukraine has provided new insights on how the modern battlefield can be viewed and understood. Russian use of the hybrid combat concept was evident when its mechanized forces crossed the Ukrainian border on Feb. 24, 2022. This strategy, similar to the blitzkrieg model of the Second World War, involved the use of combined arms tactics and the deployment of hypersonic weapons. However, tenacious resistance from the Armed Forces of Ukraine, enabled by Western military assistance, has managed to thwart the Russian advance. Moreover, Ukraine’s asymmetric fighting strategy is seen in its ability to mobilize its citizens and its use of cost-effective weapons systems. Also, its capacity to generate sympathy worldwide shows that the country has the upper hand in information warfare.
Therefore, I believe that valuable lessons can be derived from this conflict, especially for smaller armies who are confronting bigger adversaries. Often plagued by limited resources and changing political priorities, the Philippines can learn from Ukraine’s playbook and enhance its ability to respond to future conflicts. Here are some of the important lessons:
The importance of alliances and interoperability
Nations with small armies are better off having more friends than enemies. These relationships will be beneficial when its adversaries resort to grey warfare strategies like economic and political intimidation, cyber warfare among others. Furthermore, the conflict underscored the importance of interoperability among allies. For instance, the unsuccessful attempt by the US to transfer Polish Mig-29 jets could have been avoided if Ukraine’s air force was able to operate US made fighters.
For Filipino defense planners, this implies that a more pragmatic approach must be taken. The country’s armed forces modernization program must recognize the importance of systems that can be rapidly integrated with the existing standards of its military partners. Consequently, this implies that interoperability with allies and the ability to sustain these systems are crucial elements in the country’s overall defense posture. For instance, the purported selection by the Philippine government of the Swedish JAS-39 Gripen over the American F-16 Viper for its Multi-Role Fighter Program is widely believed as a sub-optimal choice. The decision, allegedly based on the price, excludes the program from US foreign military assistance. Furthermore, this is a serious oversight because it prevents a treaty ally from conducting hot transfers during times of conflict.
The ability to rapidly expand a country’s armed forces
A nation’s success in war depends on its ability to mobilize its resources. I believe that Ukraine did a remarkable job in mobilizing its citizens. Its ability to integrate its territorial defense and paramilitary units to its armed forces is quite commendable. This strategy, operationalized by a new law, enabled the creation of home defense forces, thus relieving regular units from providing security to its population centers. This law was also instrumental in the rapid expansion of its armed forces prior to the February 2022 invasion. In the Philippines, the topic became a controversial issue when a leading vice-presidential candidate mentioned the need to mandate reservist training for eligible citizens. However, the Ukrainian experience demonstrates the importance of maintaining a national reserve force that can be easily integrated into a country’s regular force. For Filipino policymakers and defense planners, this would probably entail revisions to the current law and doctrines on the mobilization of citizens during times of war. Another concern is the ability of the country to fully equip its citizen army. Without a substantial defense industry, the Philippines will have to resort to importation of small arms and equipment. Given these lessons, defense officials and military planners should take advantage of the Philippine Defense Industry Development Act to build its capabilities.
Winning the Information War
The graphic scenes of destruction in the cities of Kyiv and Kherson as well as the heartbreaking missile attack on a maternity hospital in Mariupol are tragic events. However, these horrific incidents have enabled Ukraine to gain worldwide sympathy and support for its war effort. To date, 28 out of 30 NATO member states are supporting Ukraine. While the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine with 141 nations voting in favor of the declaration.
In addition, the Ukrainian military’s use of captured soldiers for propaganda portrays the Russian military campaign as inept and deceitful. This masterstroke is due to its desire to control the narrative of the war. As a result, unfettered access was given to Western media while the government maximized the use of social media to push its information agenda.
For its part, the Philippines can take a leaf from the Ukrainian playbook. Its leaders should recognize that transparency, openness, and the truth are powerful weapons that can galvanize a society and encourage international support. A defeatist mindset and multiple positions on security matters must be avoided. For instance, frequent pronouncements of Filipino politicians downplaying the Chinese militarism in the West Philippine Sea weaken national resolve, dissuades international assistance, and diminish strategic ambiguity.
Game changing weapons systems
The current Russo-Ukrainian conflict also underscores the importance of “game changing” weapons systems. These are systems that are inexpensive, easy to operate and thus becoming force multipliers that can inflict significant losses to an enemy. Examples of these are the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones and anti-tank missiles like the Javelin and NLAW as well as the Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. These systems proved to be effective in destroying armor and aircraft as well as disrupting supply lines.
As for the Philippines, its initial investments in drone technology are steps in the right direction. However, more must be done to increase its lethality (i.e. drones as weapons delivery platforms) and improve its SIGINT capabilities. Similarly, investments on man portable anti-armor and anti-aircraft must be reexamined given the volatility of the current situation.
[Photo by Forum staff, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Sherwin E. Ona, PhD is an associate professor and chairperson of the department of political science and development studies of De La Salle University, Manila, Philippines. His current engagements are in the areas of human security, cybersecurity, e-governance, and disaster informatics. He is a fellow of the Philippine Public Safety College, Department of the Interior and Local Government, the La Salle Institute of Governance and the Stratbase-Albert Del Rosario Institute. Dr. Ona is an officer of the Philippine Coast Guard Auxiliary with the rank of Commander and has previously served as a reservist officer of the Philippine Air Force.