Lessons from Ukraine: U.S. Army using conflict in Europe to prepare soldiers for the next war
Chief concerns are drones, electronic surveillance, and artificial intelligence.
In the foxholes of World War II, lighting a cigarette at night could mean death by a sniper’s bullet.
In the battlefield of the future, the equivalent may be a soldier's phone connecting to a cell tower.
“The thing we struggle the most with is this business of a transparent battlefield,” said Brig. Gen. Curtis Taylor, head of National Training Center, or NTC, in California. “We've all got to learn how to operate in that context.”
This lesson is among the many the NTC and its counterpart, the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC), are learning from watching Ukraine and fielding their own experiments, the commanders of the two centers said.
One of the top problems is concealment, said Taylor and his counterpart at the JRTC, Brig. Gen. David Gardner. The NTC and JRTC both provide realistic training lasting around a month to troops about to deploy.
Drones, electronic surveillance, and satellites allow adversaries to easily identify U.S. formations, Taylor said—and combining that data with artillery or missiles means the enemy can strike anywhere, anytime.
At JRTC, forces playing the “opposing force,” called OPFOR, have learned to fly drones that use apps to scan for Bluetooth or WiFi signals, Gardner said.
The OPFOR can then order satellite imagery to confirm if the signal comes from a military unit, or even just look at the network name for clues. If a signal is the only one for miles, the OPFOR can quickly deduce it’s the Army unit they’re meant to be targeting.
The NTC has mulled taking it a step further, Taylor said: using commercially available software that uses the apps on a user’s phone to identify their geographical position.
The OPFOR can also use the electromagnetic signature of military communication equipment to identify the Army formation and rain down simulated artillery strikes, Taylor and Gardner said.
Both the NTC and JRTC also make frequent use of commercial satellite photos as well as drones, including the small commercial drones seen throughout Ukraine. Between 30 and 50% of all artillery strikes at NTC are launched and observed via drone, said Taylor.
In turn, Army formations are learning to adjust, including by using their communications equipment as little as possible. “In the past, it was only scouts that would go into radio silence, ” Gardner said. “Now we're seeing that across entire formations.”
Formations are also adapting by changing up their communications—using parabolic antennas to direct radio waves, using fiber-optic cables, and trying to match the pattern of other signals traffic in the area so as to not stand out, Taylor said.
“Transmitting on high power with an antenna that transmits in 350 degrees—that’s equivalent to putting a light bulb on a stand and holding it up in the dark valley,” Taylor said.
Despite the adaptations, Gardner said the training centers need new equipment to keep up.
“Our communications are very specific, they're easily detected and therefore easily targeted. They're very complex to establish, to maintain,” Gardner said. “If you need a person for each of your ten systems, you now need ten people at your command post.”
Units are also learning to hide or run. Taylor encourages soldiers to use buildings to hide themselves from the eyes of drones. Gardner has pushed units to make their command posts as easy to set up and take down as possible.
“We're not going to dictate the size of a command post per se, but we're going to tell them, ‘You can be as big as you want, but you better be out of that area in 30 minutes,’” Gardner said. To be successful, units must cut down their list of tasks and learn to do without some creature comforts, he said.
“If task 27, is ‘set up your coffee pot,’ you might never get to the coffee pot,” thanks to the OPFOR simulated artillery strike, Gardner said.
In the deserts of Fort Irwin, California, where concealment can be hard to find, Taylor said they teach another critical lesson: look unimportant. If the enemy can’t tell if a vehicle is a supply truck or part of the command team, they’re less likely to strike it.
As news from Ukraine comes in, the Army is also stepping up the use of artillery and drones. At Taylor’s NTC, the OPFOR now calls in roughly 100 artillery attacks a day, amounting to simulations of several thousands rounds being fired. The NTC uses computer simulations to model the strikes and their impact.
Both the NTC and JRTC also use commercial drones that operate in swarms. Some can even drop bombs, much like those used on both sides of the Ukraine war. Loitering munitions, or suicide drones that act like cruise missiles, are out of bounds though, Taylor said, because using them would pose a safety risk.
Amid the heavy focus on drones, the centers are even working on new ways the Army might use them. At JRTC, one unit used drones to fake an assault from one direction, before coming from another.
At NTC, Taylor has formed a whole OPFOR drone unit, which operates everything from larger, winged drones, to smaller quadcopters. The unit is unusual. The Army typically spreads out its smaller drones among units, and does not provide as much training to quadcopter operators compared to the training it gives to operators of winged drones.
Taylor said he took the step to bring a greater level of professionalism to the quadcopter operators. Russia and Ukraine similarly operate dedicated drone units.
The increased use of artillery, rockets, and surveillance at the training centers has meant higher simulated casualties, mirroring the losses faced by troops in Ukraine.
For Taylor, that means artillery now accounts for around 40 percent of casualties. Gardner, meanwhile, is looking at how to evacuate soldiers from a battlefield where evacuation routes can be cut off easily, and considering how long a unit can keep fighting after taking casualties.
“Do we really understand how many casualties makes a unit combat ineffective?” said Gardner.
He’s also considering a grim consequence of higher casualties—how to integrate new units that are replacing those decimated in combat. Right now, a platoon that suffers simulated casualties will simply return to their same company. In the future, it may return to a different company, learning how to operate under new commanders just like real replacements would.
The lessons are not only for combat soldiers, Gardner and Taylor said, but also for those who work in public affairs and psychological operations, with one eye on how Russia and Ukraine have advanced their causes through the media.
In one recent exercise, Taylor’s OPFOR troops used AI-language model ChatGPT to create enemy speakers on the artificial social media site the training ground uses. The AI enemy defense minister got into a tweet-war with the Army unit.
Gardner, meanwhile, recounted how his OPFOR unit withdrew from a town, simulated shelling it, and then spread disinformation saying the shelling was done by American troops. The Army unit public affairs officer quickly countered the claim by making public the artillery radar data that showed incoming rounds were not fired from the U.S. side.
But reflecting on the many problems Ukraine’s army has faced in trying to breach Russian defensive lines, both commanders emphasized how much combat still boils down to coordination and training.
“The things that Ukrainians are doing are very, very hard,” Taylor said. “It requires generations of practice. And so, if anything, it reaffirmed our commitment to the combined arms maneuver,” he said, referring to coordinating between different combat branches.