Battleground: Ukraine

A history podcast that explores the narratives, turning points and characters that shape conflicts, encompassing a blend of social and military history. Following on from the series on the Falklands War, best-selling military historians Patrick Bishop, and Saul David turn their attention to the war in Ukraine.

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35. Mark Urban on Airborne Forces, Western Armour, and What Next?

35. Mark Urban on Airborne Forces, Western Armour, and What Next?

Wed, 22 Mar 2023 01:00

Joining Patrick for this week’s interview is Mark Urban, the diplomatic editor for BBC Newsnight, Military Historian, and former Tank Officer. He discusses a range of topics including: the Russian airborne assault on Hostomel airport, why Infantry Fighting Vehicles are significant, and how artillery remains critically important in modern warfare.

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Producer: James Hodgson

Twitter: @PodBattleground

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Hello and welcome to this week's Battleground podcast interview. I guess this week is Mark Urban, who many of you will know as the BBC News Night Diplomatic Editor and one of the most insightful journalists in the business. Much of his career he specialised in defence, he's someone who combines real knowledge of the battlefield from his coverage of numerous wars. I first met Mark back in 1994 during the siege of Sarajevo and alongside that he's got a very sharp analytical ability. He's also been a soldier himself as a young lieutenant in the tank regiment. Yeah and infuriatingly Patrick Mark is also a highly regarded military historian, is then now end to this man's talents. Covering some of the same ground as myself with histories of the rifles in Wellington's wars and most recently a history of the birth and early years of the parachute regiment. He's called Red Devils and it's a cracker, I give it five stars in my review in the telegraph. I started off by asking Mark what led him to the subject. Well thank you very much Patrick and for the kind words about the book. Well I'm going to now attempt to deny in the face of all the evidence in your next few questions that I'm a sort of airborne groupie or that I'm even particularly interested in airborne forces. But undoubtedly they exert a considerable popular fascination and this book Red Devils was an unusual one in the sense that the initiative came from the aerosol museum and penguin books who basically had disjointedly decided I don't know by what method I wasn't part of the project then. They wanted a book but it was about time someone reconsidered the history of the regiment in the second world war and it's founding and in particular kind of how you create I mean Patrick you know as well as anyone from your experiences reporting what a tribal organization the British Army is. And they wanted something that would look at how a new tribe was created in terms of its beliefs and symbols and its charm and whatever you want to call them its thought leaders and all the rest of it and I think that's why they came to me rather than because I have on occasion done embeds with airborne forces including as I think we'll talk about in a bit Soviet army airborne forces in Afghanistan. And I think because I've written some other books about the rifles in the peninsula wars Wellington's rifles the fuseliers in the American war independence the tank guys one particular battalion going through the second world war. I think they thought well this guy does what I call organizational biography I think you could also call the parachute regiment story a kind of military startup in the sense of you know they were formed. And they were formed and lots of other organizations that were formed in the war and tried to sort of themselves a special and some of them I think we would think of a special like the long range desert group didn't survive the war they performed very effectively in wartime but when the time came for peace they were they vanished from the order of battle. So what was it that made the parachute regiment such a successful start up in those terms that grew and grew until in the European theater it had 14 battalions and the two airborne divisions and all this sort of stuff and what made that a success that that was the aim of the book and that's why I think they came to me to do it because I really like as I say the thing about fighting units is as you'll also know Patrick the dividing line between the sort of being mob fleeing by any means they can lay their hands off and a highly effective fighting unit is often not as great as as many people may suppose and those sort of magic questions about leadership and spirit and cohesion among fighting soldiers. Certainly one of the things I think over over the decades I've been writing that I found most interesting you make it sound rather dry mark when actually I've had it full of human interest full of insights into that great question of what makes a soldier a soldier as well as the things you've just mentioned ethos leadership spirit etc and it's all illustrated with some memorable sketches of some fascinating characters. Now the parachute regiment survived the war even if the fashion for actually parachuting into action didn't. And instead they became airborne forces delivered by aircraft of various descriptions and every western army has specialized airborne units including of course the Russians who kicked off Putin so called special military operation with an airborne assault on the key of airport tell us about that what happened there. Yeah well let's backtrack one moment and remember that airborne was a kind of house with two chambers in the war there was the parachutists and then when they were glider guys and of course the glider brigades were part of those airborne divisions and my word. I mean in terms of not fancy in a particular way of going to war I think controlled crash in a glider on some objective in Normandy or all the Ryan crossing was among the most terrifying things you can do. Luckily for the people in in the airborne divisions that did that something fundamental changed in the late 1940s and 50s which of course was the widespread adoption of helicopters which made it far easier to drop people in a controlled and pinpoint way still pretty vulnerable mind. And it was a helicopter assault which the Russians chose to use to try and take this key airport northwest of Kiev, a hostile or a hostile if you want the more Russian pronunciation and the importance of this place I mean it was symbolically important because it was a big plant for Antonov aircraft manufacturers but obviously in terms of its tactical and operational importance. To the Russian operation it was at a point far enough from the center of Kiev to be on the sort of outer ring roads as it were and to allow them they thought to accelerate the operation into the Ukrainian capital with a ground column racing up from Belarus as they did so and in a sense that it has strong echoes of some of the second world war operations that you have these so many. So that you have this so called coup d'amare to take this key airfield on the outskirts of Kiev and then the ground column would link up with them and once you had the airport obviously you could fly in supplies and fly out casualties and all the other things you needed to do to support the drive on Kiev. Well they went in there on the first morning of the war I think some of the most dramatic footage we saw from the first few days of the Russian invasion was these images taken by locals near the airport of assault helicopters going in in numbers I mean dozens and columns of black smoke rising from the airfield perimeter and some of the aircraft that were coming in was shot down which also produced pretty you know sure. The you know shocking footage obviously one can imagine that the people inside them the airborne soldiers inside them generally died when when those helicopters were shot down. Basically they got about they got a weak battalion I think onto the airfield that morning about four four hundred four hundred and fifty Russian soldiers and they pretty much immediately were involved in fighting with Ukrainian territorial defense who'd been sent there. They had some inkling that it might be a Russian objective and a battle began over hostile and the outcome was in doubt for a day or two but essentially the Russians did succeed in capturing it and you can argue that it was in casualty terms not excessively costly as an objective when they took it. Over the days that followed it became a sort of rather a bit a bit of a sort of poison possession for them because the Ukrainian artillery all pretty quickly registered on hostile and the troops that were there ended up being pretty heavily pounded and the ground forces although they did they took a bit longer than the Russians thought they were they did get there but then of course the wider attempt to take here failed. And indeed the whole idea that you could go there with twenty thirty thousand troops and surround a city of three or four million with a with an out of perimeter if you're going to surround it of you know. Thirty kilometers or something like that was exposed. As a kind of delusion and and something which if there was any significant level of resistance from the Ukrainians and of course there was would be quite impossible. Since then we've moved forward a year plus to the absolute opposite of a Kudama we're stuck into a long slogging match on the ground semi static attritional warfare I'm talking about both mood of course what do you think is going on there and what do you think the objectives of both sides are. Yeah I mean I think I think that's one of the real eye upness isn't it for you and I having studied conflict in the 20th century we always understood in 20th century wars first or second world war between states that the big killer was artillery I mean you look at some of the campaign histories that were done and you see figures of 80% even of casualties in armies being being caused by artillery. And here we are you know several decades after the end of World War II with another major war in Europe in which that horrible truth seems to have been reaffirmed in the most emphatic way that artillery again is the big killer so much so that we have a kind of World War I star moonscape in parts of eastern Ukraine. Where the pounding by artillery over months and months and months has forced the defending troops on each side into a sort of troglodyte existence in trench lines and deep bunkers and completely pulverized the landscape now coming back to your question about you know what is the point I mean I think in a sense it's easier to divine from the point of view of the Ukrainians in the sense that evidently they're trying not to be a part of the world. And they're trying not to concede another inch of their country and they're trying to defend their country that is the point of standing in buck mood and numerous other places where they have been as it were pinned in recent months. And I think if one wants to be a bit more strategic about it you can say there appears to have been a deliberate strategy to use some of the kind of hard luck forces in the Ukrainian order of battle territorial defense brigades these types of unit to do that grim business of holding the line while they prepare other forces to mount some kind of large scale counter attack in the coming weeks. And that might they might do that elsewhere for example to the south in Zapparizia is a is thought of by many people as a favorite axis to push down from there towards the sea of us off. And if you're successful cut the Russian land bridge so called to Crimea and cut the Russian invasion force in two in that sense. I think the Ukrainian objective in this and enduring and suffering these casualties in buck mood is quite understandable in that sense the Russian one I think is harder to understand because by common consent buff mood itself even the surrounding higher ground is not a vitality strategically important place. And therefore to sacrifice huge numbers of casualties in order to try and take it as they have over several months seems like an utterly futile waste of people now as we know they've tried different approaches there and they've tried moving forward with these well or two terms called penal battalions of freed convicts under the Wagner mercenary company. And they've also tried with more conventional units the more normal spearhead type units like naval infantry and air ball and they've not achieved great results with either and they've had big casualties with both types of unit. So I've come to the view that the aim of Russian nutritional warfare is obviously there is a defensive aim in in trying not to concede more of the territory they've occupied. But my sense is that strategically its purpose is to try and wear down the Ukrainians even accepting that they're causing far fewer casualties than the Ukrainians are to them. And to literally trade the bodies of Russians for the shells and missiles that the West has provided in the hope that the Western supplied munitions will run low before Russia runs low on cannon fodder. There is a political danger in all this isn't there Mark I mean we all know that Russia has a history of being profligate with its soldiers lives but there must surely come a point when even the Russians feel the soldiers that is feel that they've had enough. And we're already seeing reports of small scale mutinies around the place are you getting any sort of vibe that a collapse might be on the horizon. Well I think what we've seen on social media channels like telegram is quite a lot of these almost you know you might call them petitions from disgruntled soldiers in video form groups of soldiers standing around often with their faces masked saying you know we've had a terrible time we've been cruelly used. You know we've not been given any ammunition that kind of thing so that that certainly exists in the Russian army in terms of evidence of disquiet and disillusionment with the way the campaign is being raised that said similar videos exist in the Ukrainian army as well and there's an interesting case that's popped up in the last few days of a Ukrainian battalion commander. Who expressed his unhappiness to reporter from the Washington Post about lack of ammunition heavy casualties all things that we understand from those Russian telegram videos are common grievances on the Russian side of the lines but hearing a surprisingly similar set of grievances from this Ukrainian battalion commander who we now understand is facing some disciplinary process for having spoken. To the Washington Post and this has touched off a bit of a debate in Ukraine among army officers about whether descent or views that are not helpful to the high command are being stifled and whether Ukrainian army is responding well enough to internal critiques of how they how they mount their operations so. I think it's fair to say that this attritional period over the winter the last few months has caused much greater casualties on the Russian side but the ones that have been taken by Ukrainian units have touched off quite a bit of soul searching and questioning of whether their strategy is right and whether the units that. Have been committed particularly you know as we're discussing in the area of buff mood have been committed there in a sort of grim sense as placeholders. To soak up punishment and soak up attacks and a trite these Russian storm units like airborne naval infantry and Wagner and grind them down which is clearly as we know I mean one could think back to things like the battles around calm in the in the Normandy break out. In 1944 and which was said by Monti to be you know taking the punishment while the Americans got ready to break out. That you know that is quite understandably a very unpopular position to be in if you're commanding those units and a challenging position to be in. Even if I think it's fair to say there's no chance of the units on the Ukrainian side breaking in that sense although that I'll just caveat that slightly that you can. In commander who gave the interview to the Washington Post did describe a battle several months ago when when his soldiers had broken and run. So I mean who can see those pictures of the moonscapes and the trenches and the modern and the artillery barrage is without feeling utter dread and despair what it must be like to be there I don't think you have to have very developed gifts of empathy to imagine yourself in that situation and realize how dreadful. It must be this of course is all to a purpose that's how it's presented by the Ukrainians IE it's the prelude to account for offensive in the coming weeks or months that will break the deadlock and bring an end to the war. Your former tank officer Mark can you tell us what you think the Western main battle tanks are the coming the Ukrainians way will do to improve their chances of success. Well i think you know we've seen in Ukraine as we've seen in a couple of other recent conflicts like the one in the caravac in the caucuses a lot of early prediction. That you know it is a sort of death now for the tank and now we see tanks being painted as the great hope for for these counteroffensive as you say by the Ukrainians and the supply of such vehicles and the other forms of heavy armoured vehicles so infantry carrying vehicles like the Bradley in the martyr which are also being supplied right now we know that Ukrainian battalions. Training on these American Bradley's presumably to be the spearhead of this counteroffensive these have suddenly become a hope well in them rest the hopes as it did in 1917 when the tanks were first introduced on a large scale on the western front battlefield that these might break the deadlock. I think it's quite possible and some people have said well you know it may not be the lepers as such or the challenges it it may be more these infantry fighting vehicles that have been supplied in larger numbers and you know will allow you to take Ukrainian infantry forward with a large degree of protection from from all the artillery we've been talking about all those shells splinters the fragments the shrapnel that comes when artillery shells explode nearby. Very unlikely to harm soldiers who were being transported in those vehicles of course an anti tank missile will do it but not artillery which as we've been discussing is is of supreme importance in this conflict so can they do it with these heavy armoured forces I think they can certainly make some gains and they're clearly pinning enormous hopes on that. I think we will see we will see leopard to's and and Bradley's being knocked out by Russian anti tank missiles I mean quite a few a couple of dozen of the modern 155 millimeter how it says for example that was supplied last summer by the Americans and others to the Ukrainians we now know have been destroyed by Russian counter battery fire so these armoured vehicles will be knocked out the question is what will they gain. Before the number of vehicles that have either broken down or been knocked out becomes really significant and the units that have them become ineffective personally I think what they're likely to gain will be of tactical significance so you know to move forward 10 kilometers here maybe similar to the to the. Advanced is quite impressive advances we saw in the late summer by the Ukrainians around his home where they did precipitate a kind of local collapse by the Russian forces. But will it be enough to get them down to the sea of us off in a to strike southwards and cut the Russians in to if indeed that is their strategic objective I don't know. To broaden out the picture a bit mark how do you think this conflict has changed the nature of modern warfare not long ago a conflict of this sort was not at all what the experts were predicting was it we were supposed to be in the era of asymmetrical warfare. But here we are in a situation that would in many ways be familiar to a veteran of World War 2 of course technology has had its effect but what do you think Ukraine tells us about the direction of warfare is going in. I mean it's not a bad idea for us to sort of segue from this thought about armoured vehicles and you know for example our tanks now redundant. And I think that even being an extank guy I don't think one should underestimate the scale of the challenge now to trying to use armoured forces to achieve great results as we've just been discussing to achieve breakthroughs it is going to be very very challenging. And I think even more than that in terms of Western arm forces and their structure I think people are underestimating the degree to which man combat aircraft have been really shown up by this conflict we know that since a few weeks into the war when the Russians lost quite a few of them they've really not flown far beyond their front line that in other words they're flying manned fighter missions to try and support their ground troops when they're under pressure or whether they're in the war. And they're under pressure or whether when they're attacking the things that hit the power stations in Kyrgyzstan, or Deneepro wherever are of course missiles are various kinds and that seems to have been the Russian decision to use cruise missiles and drones to attack those in depth targets not to risk manned aircraft. And we can see from what's happened that helicopters and manned jet aircraft have become extremely vulnerable in places where there are significant amounts of air defense that tends to be missiles but it can be guns as well on the ground able to shoot them down. I think that is one of the really big takeaways for Western arm forces trying to work out how they should structure themselves where they should invest their money the so called sunrise capabilities rather than the sunset ones. And those questions I think are linked the future of the tank the future of the manned or crew I suppose I should say combat aircraft. And the question of this great power we've seen of artillery is linked now what what do I mean by that in what sense are they linked. I think that the growing availability of sensors drones electronic sensors that pick up you know radio communications or even people cell phones. The full gamut of it is creating what some call the transparent battlefield. The UK having invested three and a half billion in each of its new aircraft carriers must be asking itself the question well if the Russian cruiser Moscow was as easy to find and sink as it was and indeed some of the commercially available satellite imagery you will see the Queen Elizabeth at sea. On that commercially available imagery let alone the staff the military have. All of this is creating is making it much harder to hide anything so that phenomenon we were talking about the power of artillery in creating the stalemate in the Donbass is completely and inextricably linked to the inability to gain surprise so so you know they'll see you coming as it were even if you're on the reverse slope of a great long ridge. Somewhere near Kramatorsk or somewhere like that the other side will see you coming and they will see you concentrating your forces there in order to make a breakthrough and the most responsive way to deal with that is with artillery of course because your vehicles might trundle long at 20 miles per hour. But the shell fire that can be drawn from batteries that might be across a 50 kilometer arc of your front line can be concentrated in seconds that's the biggest single thing I think it's the degree to which the techniques we saw in the so called war on terror you know that the special operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to fuse together the different information sources literally from human spies to the cell phones in people's pocket. To the feeds from drones showing people gathering to carry out an attack all of those sensor feeds and types of intelligence can be fused with increasing speed and fidelity and that's created as I said the so called transparent battlefield question and I think it makes it extremely hard to bring together any kind of critical mass in order to achieve results. I mean I saw some fascinating material late last summer when the Ukrainians were making gains around her son where I don't know if you saw it Patrick where they tried to use what they called light brigades now these were equipped with humvees they were light infantry equipped with humvees and one or two other types of vehicle and even just pick up that had been bought for the Ukrainian army. And essentially their tactic was a cavalry charge they were trying to cover the ground between the Ukrainian lines and the Russian ones in order to overwhelm the Russian defenses and concentrate quickly enough to avoid being hammered by Russian artillery by just driving very very far. Now whether that provides a model that can be applied more generally on battlefields I'm not sure but I think in one or two places that tactical model certainly serve the Ukrainians well it's the case though that you know it for example in this mud you cannot drive those vehicles quickly through muddy fields they will get stuck or at least drive very very slowly in order to avoid getting stuck. So those are the challenges I think you know the so called kill chain of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns of gathering the intelligence actioning the forces to go and do something about it and then harvesting the intelligence you got when you stormed and I'll guide a stronghold or a bomb factory or something like that applying that on the kind of industrial peer to peer warfare level. Has been the thing that has really well it's resulted in these enormous casualties enormous damage to the fabric of Ukraine you know that we've all seen the shell cities and the destroyed neighborhoods and it's a level of destruction and violence which I think a lot of people in in western armed forces in NATO had just assumed would not be there if they had to go to war again that things would be more. Contained that it wouldn't be such a level of violence and that sustaining that level of violence in terms of people ammunition vehicles wouldn't become such a challenge as it clearly has to to Ukraine you know sucking sucking the kind of supplies out of you know a large alliance like NATO in order to keep its war going. Mark that was brilliant a real eye open for us and our listeners thank you so much for coming on the podcast it's a pleasure thank you very much for having a country. What a brilliant interview Patrick really one of the best we've had so many interesting points Mark makes because he's got this kind of you know as we explained at the beginning this is such a broad sort of remit war reporter soldier himself but also someone who looks at history and I think the fact that we can look back at the current war with a historian's lens really does give us insight and Mark proves that I love this point about hostile male you know the the attempt to air assault in with helicopters 450 guys on the ground and the fact that they did actually capture it which you know we didn't make clear when we first spoke about this right in episode one but the issue you've got when you capture something is you need to be able to hold it for long enough for the ground forces to get there. This was the big problem of course with operation market garden and yet by the end of the second world war to marks points British power troopers and airborne I've got my own airborne book coming out next year sky warriors had realized you need the distance between the rescuing force and the and the coup d'amount force that's the airborne force not to be too great so they can get there in time you know in other words reduce the distance they need to go and that's exactly what they do with operation vast the jumping in the air. The jumping over the Ryan it does reinforce the point that the basics of modern warfare modern land warfare conventional warfare do remain remarked we are unchanged the point he makes about artillery in this war is still the big killer just as it was in the first world war and has forced the troops into what he memorably describes as a troglodyte existence and the film we've seen coming out of the back of the front really does bring this home very forcibly people scurrying down trenches and cool indeed needy in mud and and then ducking into a dugout you know made as comfortable as it can be in the circles as it's all terribly reminiscent of the western front. Yeah you know the question about back move was really interesting we've been speculating about this Patrick for the last few weeks and I think Mark adds a really interesting insight into this so on the Ukrainian side he you know he puts for the possibility which was reinforced I think by the interview of the battalion commander last week which you also mentioned. That actually the Ukrainians have been using their so called hard luck forces their territories you know not their best troops while they prepare those troops for the for the counter offensive he said interesting things about that too the Russians on the other hands have accepted or are accepting heavier casualties because they're fighting a traditional warfare literally trading the bodies of Russians for West munitions I mean what a wonderful metaphor but also what a grim metaphor that is. Yeah of course that analysis Russian analysis will be helped by the noises coming out of the republican candidates in America the two in a dawn and a run are both kind of singing from the same him sheet on this trump and dissent is trying to outdo each other in isolationism really going back to the old American view that American interest come first it would seem that for both of them that doesn't include supporting. Freedom and democracy overseas that is a worrying. Development just on that thing you mentioned about the battalion commanders interview so I think we're going to see more this don't you know more kind of sounds of dissonance coming out of the Ukrainian. Ranks I think this is a kind of normal and healthy thing ever it's it's not a sign of weakness in in a way it's a sign of strength if you look back at the British newspapers in the second world war they were full of criticisms and debates about whether. You know the strategy was correct even the performance of commanders so they kept a little bit thus far but I'm not sure how much longer that's going to go on for no exactly right and you know first of all war very much as much as they could keep quiet they did they kept a very tight grip on the press as you know Patrick probably similar sort of thing in the fault and sexually but of course a debate is important and people do need to let off steam and they also need to know they're being listened to no one wants to be considered even on the Ukrainian side as cannon fodder and that's what mark suggesting there are some inevitably it may be for a good reason and it's all going to depend going back to your point about the Republicans now it's a race against time it's all going to be a lot of things. It's a race against time it's all going to depend to a certain extent on the success of the coming counter offensive so marks point about that's really interesting which is it may not be tanks main battle tanks that are going to play the biggest role it may be arm and fighting vehicles like the Bradley's and the Marders because as he points out they can allow you to come forward even with a lot of artillery far because they'll protect you from that artillery far anti tank missiles different kettle of fish but of course the main threat when you're moving over distance is artillery far because it can come from such a long distance away so will that be a success well he doesn't know and of course he'd be a fool to make a really firm prediction he does think the Ukrainians are going to make some gains but but they'll be more tactical and strategic. Yes very interesting observation about the transparent battlefield and the way that you know both sides can see pretty much when he other is forming up you know all the indicators of a forthcoming big push and then you know interesting even mention these these light brigade units that he witnessed earlier on in the war I think of the summer and this may be the way things are going to move having you know fast moving forces that can zip around and actually strike very much like how the blitzkrieg I suppose I'm trying to overcome this problem that you know soon as you you actually get spotted your in danger of this triangulation of incoming artillery and its various forms which could sort of actually nip the thing in the way you've even started so you know that that could be something to look out for in the future my one point of contention I have to say Patrick with Mark's assessment is that he makes it seem like the transparent battlefield is going to be equal on both sides I don't believe it is I mean I take his point we're heading in that direction but I think that the Ukrainians have a much better ability because of the support from Western intelligence western satellites and Western AI that they really can see what's going on on the plane and you suspect the Russians don't have anything like the same view over the other side of the hill as Wellington would have put it as the Ukrainian so we will see in the coming months whether this is going to make a big difference or not absolutely well that's enough from us do join us on Friday when we'll be digging into all the latest news analyzing it and answering listeners questions thanks a lot and goodbye