Ukrainian soldiers sit atop a tank in Izyum, Kharkiv Region, eastern Ukraine on September 14, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Ukrainian soldiers sit atop a tank in Izyum, Kharkiv Region, eastern Ukraine on September 14, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Photo by Juan BARRETO / AFP) (Photo by JUAN BARRETO/AFP via Getty Images

Ukraine War Offers Clues to Future War, Joint Chiefs Chairman Says

Don’t expect any more tank columns massing on highways like sitting ducks.

TEL AVIV, Israel—The future of warfare will look smaller, faster, more urban, and more precise than many Western military planners are anticipating, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told military officers from more than 22 nations here on Wednesday. 

The notion that wars will increasingly be fought in cities is neither new nor universally accepted, but Milley said the conflict in Ukraine shows urban warfare done both right (Ukraine’s defense of Kyiv) and wrong (Russia’s leveling of Mariupol).The point of urban warfare, Milley said, is to capture key physical infrastructure nodes and population centers. If you destroy the infrastructure and kill or expel the population, then you’ve destroyed the very thing you need to win. 

“If you accept that war is the conduct of politics by violent means in order to impose your political will on your opponent…then it stands to reason that politics is all about people and power and the distribution of goods and services, etc, then it stands to reason that decision in war will occur where people are, where the distribution of goods and services” is, he said That means cities.

Better operations in such environments will make use of the growing precision and range of weapons, coupled with the growing abundance of digitally-sensed information from consumer electronics and other means, he said. Instead of capturing swaths of terrain, militaries will seek to control key infrastructure. 

But he said most militaries have not been “optimized” to fight in cities. “In fact, we've been taught: don't, you know, go into urban areas, because it's highly consuming,” he said. 

The ubiquity of sensed information, often emerging directly from people’s phones onto social media, will also make every target easier to see and hit. In the leadup to Russia’s invasion, Milley said, there were “young people in their 20s, running around with iPhones, [collecting and sharing] videos of Russian forces massing on the Ukrainian border. Those weren't spies—Ukrainian spies, American spies, French or British spies. Those were just citizens out there with cameras taking videos of Russian mechanized vehicles, infantry fighting vehicles and tanks, driving down roads, going to assembly areas, etc.” 

All this information made it easy to deduce Russia's intent, the size of its force, and its possible attack routes.

In a world of ubiquitous sensors, militaries must move away from large, conspicuous force deployments toward smaller units that change location rapidly and don’t attract notice. 

“Your concealment, the size of your force, and the speed at which you move around a battlefield will contribute directly to your survivability on a future battlefield that is highly lethal,” Milley said.

Perhaps the most important lesson to come out of the war for future military planners is that small unit commanders and non-commissioned officers must be empowered by their superiors to make more decisions themselves rather than rely on higher authorities elsewhere. 

“You're seeing a very different type of leadership coming out of the Ukrainian military…at the small-unit level, tactical level, but also at the operational and strategic level,” he said, and it’s a key to Ukrainian success.

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