A burnt-out car and houses caused by the Russian military attack.

A burnt-out car and houses caused by the Russian military attack. Jan Husar / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

Russia’s Rocket Barrages Reveal Bad Planning, Cruelty—and the Absence of Crucial Skills

“Everybody is surprised by the lack of combined arms capability in the Russian army,” said one general-turned-analyst.

After poor planning and combined-arms ineptitude sank Russia’s plan for quick victory in Ukraine, Moscow shifted to Plan B: bombarding Ukrainian cities.

“I think the Russian army reformed into this thing we call the New Look Army They task-organized themselves into smaller battalion tactical groups and, fundamentally, that that is not a bad construct,” Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, who leads the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. “I think they had a bad plan. And I think their logistics support is not what it needs to be.”

The failure of that plan led the Russians to a new one, said Ben Hodges: “The intentional murder of Ukrainian civilians, designed to create a massive refugee problem and to create pressure on the Ukrainian government, NATO, and the rest of Europe, to do anything to stop the killing.” 

Hodges, who formerly commanded ​​U.S. Army, Europe and is now at the Center for European Policy Analysis, added, “Most of the damage being done is by these long-range fires, rockets, and artillery, not by Russian Air Force aircraft.”

On Tuesday, a senior defense official said the Russians had fired some 670 rockets.

Michael Kofman, who directs Russia studies at CNA, said that the current Russian approach likely reflects an initial assumption that Ukrainians would offer little resistance. 

“In the opening of the war, Russian forces seemed to have restrictive [rules of engagement] and attempted to conduct thunder runs without heavy employment of fires,” Kofman said. “However, as these efforts were quickly frustrated, the Russian military has fallen back on bombardment, especially in urban terrain where their troops are unable to make progress. Inevitably, this has led to growing scenes of destruction in civilian areas, and an increasingly ugly war.”

The ugliness of the war says much about Russia’s current capabilities, or lack thereof. 

The same senior defense official told reporters on Tuesday that the Russians “don't appear to be integrating their combined arms capabilities to the degree that you would think they would do for an operation of this size and scale and complexity.”

“On the face of it, as we watch things unfold, in addition to seeing stiff and determined, courageous resistance by the Ukrainians, in addition to seeing some logistical and sustainment issues, in addition to seeing a little bit of risk-averse behavior” by the Russians, the official said. “We are also seeing that the integration of these elements appears to be lacking.”

John Ferrari, a retired two-star Army general who is a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said, “Everybody is surprised by the lack of combined arms capability in the Russian army…Their lack of ability to even maneuver at the theater level is surprising.”

But Kofman cautioned that Russia’s heavy use of rockets reflects a doctrinal preference, not necessarily an inability to coordinate across air, land and sea.

“Since Russian forces pack most of their enablers and fires in the ground force, they’re a lot more combined-arms than they are joint,” he said. “This clearly was not planned as a combined arms operation, and because of that much of the expected organization and planning didn't go into their campaign. Hence they are now forced to make adjustments.”

Kofman said Russia’s relatively light use of its Air Force may reflect its relatively small stock of air-droppable precision munitions and its reluctance to expose its aircraft to ground fire just to drop unguided bombs.

That big reliance on rockets is also driving up their costs, he said. “In what war have we seen anyone besides us run these kind of numbers? Iskander and Kalibr is not cheap.”

The heaviest toll, however, is clearly being paid by Ukrainian civilians. Multiple reports indicate that Russia is using cluster munitions, which more than 100 nations have foresworn by treaty. Russian rockets have also hit hospitals and schools. The damage has been particularly heavy in the eastern city of Kharkiv.

Berrier said Russia seems unconcerned that firing on civilians might constitute a war crime, though he declined to say definitively whether war crimes had yet occurred. 

“Certainly the bombing of schools and facilities that are not associated with a great Ukrainian military would indicate to me that they are stepping up right to the line, if he hasn't done so already,” he said. 

Hodges said, “The West has to do all it can to mitigate the effects of these weapons as well as enable the Ukrainian armed forces to be able to strike back at them….The challenge is to find a way to neutralize [and] degrade the rocket/missile/artillery capabilities of Russian forces.”

 If Ukrainian special operations can’t destroy Russian rocket launchers, “then the West may need to consider a more direct intervention.”