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British soldiers need to prepare for a new type of war

Soldier 'Alex' from the UK who served in Afghanistan arrives at the Polish-Ukrainian border. Credit: Getty

March 14, 2022 - 7:00am

A cruel but underreported reality of the Ukrainian war has been the unpreparedness of the Western veterans and serving soldiers fighting in Ukraine. Taken aback by the cruel and uncompromising might of conventional warfare, there are reports that some of the Western volunteers in Zelensky’s international brigades have already returned home.

One Mercian Regiment veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, dubbed a “British Lion” by one tabloid, travelled to Ukraine to fight the Russian military, but is now back in Kidderminster after narrowly surviving one battle with Putin’s forces. He explained:

Iraq and Afghanistan was totally different. The Russians are a conventional modern army
I’ve never experienced firepower like that, I don’t think anyone of this generation ever has.
- Jason Haigh

ISAF troops’ experience of heavy explosives in Afghanistan was mostly confined to taking a fatal step on a booby-trap or when friendly forces in the air miscalculated their strafing runs. 

This experience has left Britons and other Western veterans of the recent failed Middle Eastern campaigns ill-equipped for war in Ukraine. Nothing in the Middle East campaigns compares to the overwhelming might of a conventional army replete with missiles, jets and a wanton disregard for civilian casualties; only the sacrificial zeal of the Islamists was significantly stronger than those fighting for a European land that is not their own. 

But more worryingly for the governments that are trying to prevent these have-a-go heroes from leaving for Kiev is that the unpreparedness of the unfit, sporadic groups of wannabes is not far-off the organised militaries that might be required to defend us.

In ‘The Junior Officers’ Reading Club,’ one of the standout books from the Iraq/Afghanistan generation of soldier writers, author Patrick Hennessy lamented how his 2004 Sandhurst experience focussed on the capabilities of the Russian military and Cold War tactics for European battlegrounds before he was sent to fight in the desert against guerilla extremist groups. 

In other words, nothing could truly prepare soldiers for the tasks they were being sent to achieve across the Middle East and North Africa. No amount of key leader engagement training nor doctrinal adjustment would see NATO-flagged soldiers nudging tribal societies split into Western-adjacent democracies. But governments had to try to equip their troops to do the best they possibly could, and so the training rightly shifted from a focus on open plains and heavy armour to mock-up urban spaces in sandy environments. 

There is once again a renewed need for the West’s military academies to radically prepare for the conflicts of the future. Indecipherable quotes from senior officers about “fighting cutting-edge information conflicts in the hybrid grey zone with multi-domain tactical theatre-entry formations” will need to be quashed in favour of more reliable messaging, planning and investment in armour, drones, guns and manpower.

The current British deployments in the Baltic states and Poland are by no means the envy of those in uniform — no medals, no fighting, blank rounds and the ceaseless assault of ice and snow — but they are by far the MoD’s most important job. They are an active deterrent training in the style of combat that we are seeing unfolding on the frontlines of Eastern Europe.

Allied militaries must urgently prepare for more of this warfare should Putin’s ambitions expand beyond Ukraine. If they fail to heed the warnings issued by the Kremlin’s tanks and missiles, another batch of warriors from Kidderminster might again find themselves woefully unprepared for the fight.

Charlie Peters is a writer and broadcaster from London. He has written for The Daily Telegraph and the National Review and others on a variety of topics including politics, culture and security.

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nigel roberts
nigel roberts
2 years ago

The author fails to factor in MATO’s unmatched air power and experience in combined arms deployment. That 40 mile column of tanks and trucks would have been taken out on day 1 with close to 100% casualties on the Russian side and in the space of a morning.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago

So, whats new? The Army has always trained to fight ” the last war”, and adapted to the one that they actually do fight, throughout history.

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
2 years ago

“Quelle surprise”, or in Anglo Saxon, “ No *hit”.

The one standout of this battle, for me, is the power of the individual soldier, with anti-tank and anti-air launchers, to ‘blunt’ if not halt, point attack by enemy armoured or air assets. It suggests warfare, of this type, will revert to something akin to WW1. Find the enemy and then pulverise them with artillery before occupying the wasteland.

The only thing that will be effective against that stand off Artillery, or missile threat, is having sufficient ability ‘power’ to prevent, dissuade, or neutralise that threat. You might call it ‘offence-defence’, but it is far preferable, particularly for the defence, to just sitting there.

Last edited 2 years ago by Tom Lewis
D Glover
D Glover
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

The logical conclusion from what you’ve said is to use a small ‘tactical’ nuke to neutralise an entire artillery battery.
Who’d be first to throw that card on the table?
If it were Putin who did, what then?

Last edited 2 years ago by D Glover
Simon Diggins
Simon Diggins
2 years ago

I’m not sure a ‘soldier from Kidderminster’ is an altogether reliable guide.

I served for over 35 years and we trained, and occasionally fought, in a variety of contexts: from Internal Security in NI, to armoured warfare in Gulf War 1, through varieties of C Insurgency, in Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan. None were General War but those who served before 1989, were all trained, pretty thoroughly, in that.

I do not doubt the shock of mass Russian artillery and other indirect fires but we can, and must adapt and will. It may mean that we hear a little less from the ‘light and lethal’ gang – and their baleful influence on the last review of the Army needs squashing – but I’m confident that the British Army will adapt.