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OPINION

A battle of wills: Frank Ledwidge on why Ukraine should brace itself for a war of attrition instead of hoping for a “game-changer”

The Ukrainian army is accelerating the counteroffensive, covering another two or three kilometers of ground last week and pushing through the vanguard positions of the Russian defense. Furthermore, the West has yielded to Kyiv's pressure after several months and is finally starting the transfer of F-16 fighters to the Ukrainian Air Force. Coupled with the recent obliteration of the Wagner PMC, these two developments could inspire hope for a quick turning of the tables. However, Frank Ledwidge, former British military intelligence officer and Senior Lecturer in Military Strategy and Law at the University of Portsmouth, is convinced that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is a war of attrition that could take years, and the key to victory doesn’t lie in the provision of specific weapons but in willpower and the readiness to keep fighting.

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I have been very fortunate over the last 18 months in having been invited to give my opinions on military issues by broadcast media – TV and radio. During that time I have been asked one question more often than any other: “Is this a game-changer?” The question has been asked about the following systems (that I can remember): the Javelin and NLAWS anti-tank missiles, the M777 155mm howitzer, the HIMARS long-range missiles system, the gift of a few MiG 29 fighters, the few dozen German Leopard tanks, the 14 British Challenger tanks, 31 US Abrams tanks, a small number of Patriot anti-aircraft missile batteries, the British Stormshadow and the German Taurus cruise missiles… I may have missed some. I suppose the answer to the question “Is this a game-changer?” depends on how one defines ‘game-changer’, but I would suggest a reasonable one might be “a weapon that can change the course or result of a war or conflict”.

The most significant example of a ‘game-changer’ is, of course, the regularly announced and recently re-announced transfer of 40 or so F-16s to the Ukrainian Air Force. As everyone knows, for the last year this has been the primary and overriding military request of the Ukrainian government. More than any other weapon, this has been regarded as the single ‘game-changer’ that will set Ukraine up to achieve its objectives and win the war. In the spring of this year, I was part of a delegation of ‘opinion-formers’ to Kyiv, and the topic of F-16s was brought up. One (female) Ukrainian politician even wore a hoodie to one of our meetings with the amusing caption “Girls don’t want flowers, girls want F-16s”.

The unfortunate truth of course is that like every other piece of equipment or system, the F-16 is not a ‘game-changer’. The best explanation of why this is the case from a leading expert (as opposed to one of the newly appeared ‘military analysts’ like myself) can be found here. The unfortunate fact is that these will not be deployed in any numbers – we’re talking more than 10 – until late next year and late 2025-26 for the new capability to be developed into a formidable force. Even then they may struggle to do more than add some value to the effective integrated air defence system of Ukraine. It is a fair analysis that the real significance of the F-16 is political. The truth, fully realized by Ukraine’s leadership, is that the F-16 locks Europe and the US into a major military commitment for many years to come. That is its key significance. By the way, in tactical terms, by which I mean effectiveness on the battlefield, the Swedish Saab Gripen would be a far better aircraft to acquire, and I think announcements are likely to be made about that quite soon.

The real significance of the F-16 is that it locks Europe and the US into a major military commitment for many years to come

It is worth saying that military history offers few, if any, examples of ‘game-changers’. Some campaigns have been heavily affected by certain weapons systems. As an air power historian, the case of the long-range American P51 Mustang fighter aircraft comes to mind. It had a key role in destroying the German Air Force as a fighting force in 1944. However, in that, as in every other case, the P51 was part of a much larger system of systems. The campaign it fought would have been won anyway since the US possessed several other similar aircraft which would have completed the task. We see the same story time and time again.

The same general principle applies to ‘breakthrough’ as a significant concept. Most recently, we’ve seen this with Ukrainian claims in Zaporizhzhia. Once again, we are constantly seeking some hope by which the conflict could be brought to a quick, successful end. In other words, could be won. Usually, such hopes prove quickly to be deceptive. Let me offer a couple of examples. On 21st March 1918, in the last year of the First World War, the German Army launched an attack on British lines in Northern France. Catching the British by surprise, they broke the British lines and flowed forward, gaining more land in a day than they had in the previous four years. This was Operation Michael. In a similar surprise attack, in May 1940 at Sedan, the French army was defeated by the Germans in the first major battle of the so-called Blitzkrieg, which eventually drove the French and British allies to the sea. Just over a year later, a vastly larger operation – Barbarossa - broke Soviet lines in June 1941. The Germans pushed forward to the gates of Moscow itself. All of these were ‘breakthroughs’. The reader may see a pattern here. None of them – despite much-misplaced confidence at the time – were decisive. None of them won the war. In the first case, Operation Michael, the British commanders gave a famous order, order ‘Backs to the wall’. The army was quickly reorganized and counterattacked. The Germans, who had not planned for such a large advance, outran their supplies. The British, with their French and American allies alongside them, counterattacked and broke the German Army. The war was over by the end of the year. As for Sedan and Barbarossa, we all know what happened; these were temporary victories. There are hundreds of such examples.

Finally, we have the closely related idea of ‘turning points’. The offensives that retook Kharkiv and Kherson were described in those terms, as was the mutiny of the Wagner Group in July of this year. Everyone knows what happened, it was over in a day, and eventually – as many expected – its leader was killed and Wagner seems to be neutered. Counterfactuals are always interesting, but not very helpful. However, had the mutiny in some way succeeded, as all Ukrainians hoped it would, the outcome might have proved fool's gold in the long term. It is highly unlikely, surely, that any new management of Russia – whoever it was - would simply surrender to Ukraine and call the whole thing off. All that said, of course, no such thing happened. We still seek a genuine ‘turning point’. Unfortunately, such moments are usually recognized only many years after they happened.

Had Wagner's mutiny in some way succeeded, the outcome might have proved fool's gold in the long term

The nature of conflict is such that in peer conflicts, like this one, both sides develop and react to technical advantages, or indeed the advances of the other side. The key element in this kind of war, as in every war, is will. The war will be won, lost, or settled on the basis of which side succeeds in depriving the other of the will or means to fight on. Sadly, that implies that the grinding attritional campaign is likely to continue for some time, perhaps years. However long it lasts, do be careful of claims that anything is decisive.

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