The Exploitation Phase of Offensives. Why The Ukrainians Get There And The Russians Don’t.
There are many ways to define stages of offensive combat operations. I will present four stages.
- Preparatory Phase: Sometimes called “shaping the battlefield.” It certainly includes degrading enemy capabilities in the intended area of attack. It includes efforts aimed at disrupting in advance the enemy’s ability to respond to your upcoming attack by interrupting their supply, command and control, preempting reinforcement, and degrading artillery capabilities that could disrupt your attack. However, it also includes preparing your own forces for sustained offensive operations. This means building the logistical tail behind those forces to support phase 4.
- Contact Phase: While the defense has the advantage of secured and prepared ground, the offense has the advantage of “initiative.” That means the offense has the advantage of deciding where and when the battle will be fought. If the offense has properly shaped the battlefield (see above) that will be at a time and location favorable to the offense. This phase may include multiple “contacts” aimed at finding the weak point in the enemy lines.
- Attack Phase: Bringing decisive combat power to bear at a point of contact to destroy the enemy in that area and breakthrough enemy lines. This phase is best executed when multiple types of forces bring pressure to bear on the attack point. E.g. armor and infantry strike the enemy front lines while artillery and air power deny the enemy capability to react and reinforce and bring forward reserves that could frustrate this phase. The objective is to break through enemy lines and get you to the most favored phase of offensive operations, below. This phase is often associated with high casualties on both sides.
- Exploitation Phase: Getting to this phase is what all the other phases are all about. In this phase the enemy is in retreat, preferably disorganized retreat. As it turns out, retreating forces do not generally fight well. The defensive ground they prepared has been abandoned, they are on the run, and it’s difficult to shoot with your backs to the enemy. From the offensive players point of view, things get fun. Chase the enemy, and as they run, kill them. Destroy their unit cohesiveness and morale. Let mostly destroyed, demoralized, scattered units run to the rear spreading the terror of what is coming to the soft units behind them. This stage is characterized by lots of enemy killed, lots of POWs, and lots of enemy equipment captured as it is abandoned in the rush to escape. All with little losses to the side on offense. To be sure, this stage involves its own delicate balance. When does one continue the offensive, and risk outrunning your ability to supply it (again see phase 1) vs. pausing and letting a panicked enemy retreat off the hook? But here’s the thing. That’s a better dilemma to have than being the forces in the panicked enemy retreat.
As I stated, the whole point is to get to the exploitation phase, and to exploit the Hell out of it. Now here’s the thing. By my count the Ukrainians against the Russians have achieved this phase at least three times. The Russians have achieved it exactly zero times. That’s a remarkable failure for the Russians, considering (among other substantial paper advantages) a 15:1 advantage in combat aircraft at the start of the war. However the Russians have pulled it off.
The first of these failures may most define why the Russians have failed in general, but I will discuss all three of the Ukrainian successes.
The Battle For Kyiv.
How this turned into a planned Russian stages 1–4 quick kill, to a Ukrainian stages 1–4 counter-kill, will be discussed in treatises on warfare for a long time to come. The Russian plan was bold, there was nothing in it lacking in confidence. The plan was behind the initial Russian claims (now reduced to absurdity) that this was not a war but rather a “special operations” exercise.
The Russians planned to insert elite units (their version of Delta Force) by air assault into an airport just North of the Ukraine Capitol of Kyiv. The initial forces would seize the airport and hold it while even more elite forces landed at the airport to secure it and drive South into Kyiv, seizing the Capital, toppling Zelensky’s government, and bringing a quick end to the conflict. In the meantime, Russian mainstream units would drive on Kyiv from the North supporting the special forces operation.
The initial insertion of Russian elite units to the airport worked, and the airport was taken. So what went wrong?
Remember the preparation phase above as preempting reinforcement? That didn’t happen. Russian airpower could have interdicted Ukraine counterattacks, but didn’t because the Russians just can’t coordinate operations. As a result, heavier Ukrainian forces counterattacked the Russian light, elite forces at the airport and wiped them the Hell out. When additional Russian elite reinforcements arrived on fat, easy to target transport aircraft, the Ukrainians shot them down. By the hundreds, perhaps thousands, elite Russian reinforcements never reached the ground to have a chance to fight.
That left the Russians moving to Plan B. A direct ground assault on Kyiv from mainstream forces. Those forces actually got to the outskirts of Kyiv, and retook that airport, before stalling. They stalled because the Ukrainians retreated in good order. The Russians never got to the exploitation phase. In the outskirts of Kyiv the Russians found themselves against a determined urban enemy armed with American Javelins and other Western supplied weapons that munched their massive armor advantage into dust.
Much was touted at the time of a Russian column of armor and trucks 40 kilometers long. The Ukrainians made it a target of drone attacks and as it turned out, the Russians were not able logistically support it. It had no gas to move, no ammo to fight, and the troops supporting it had no food to eat. When the Ukrainians counterattacked, properly using the four phases above, they routed the Russian forces. Achieving the exploitation phase they killed many Russians, captured many Russians, captured much Russian equipment and drove the Russians forces far back from Kyiv.
The Battle For Kharkiv.
Having been soundly defeated, and their entire war plan frustrated, at Kyiv, the focus moved East to another major Ukrainian city, Kharkiv near the Russian border. Again the Russians came tantalizingly close to victory, moving into the outskirts of the city before stalling. The first evidence of Russian failure was a Ukrainian counterattack that pushed the Russians out of the immediate urban area of Kharkiv and pretty much back to the Russian border.
For a time, a stalemate seemed to appear, with the Russians shelling Kharkiv, and Ukrainian efforts to push them back to the Russian border faltering. In reality, the Ukrainians were subtly engaged in Phase 1.
The Ukrainians built forces far to the South and touted a looming offensive, in Kherson. The Russians strategically panicked at an offensive in that area. They moved forces from the North, around Kharkiv, to the Southern front, weakening their lines. They left up North, their most ill prepared, ill equipped, ill trained troops to hold that line.
The Ukrainians moved to contact, found weak spots, and quickly shifted to the attack, breaking through weak Russian lines. The exploitation phase was happily on and the Ukrainians (doing something the Russians never did) were actually prepared to exploit it. They broke through, as the Russians in panic retreated, killing many Russians and capturing massive amounts of equipment.
Having retaken thousands of square miles in just a week the Ukrainians did have to finally pause to consolidate their gains. Like I said, a good problem to have.
The Battle For Lyman.
As the consolidation from the massive gains above completed, the focus shifted to Lyman, a key logistical and rail hub at the South of those gains. The Russians reinforced Lyman intending to make it a hard nut to crack by direct assault.
The Ukrainians responded by again, prepping the offensive and shaping the battlefield to their advantage. Rather than directly assaulting Lyman the Ukraine Army focused on surrounding it and cutting it off. Realizing their forces in Lyman were about to be completely cutoff the Russians attempted a desperate breakout. It was a breakout executed at great cost as Ukraine artillery blasted the evacuation routes, and commando units harassed it as well, killing so many Russians they reportedly ran out of ammunition.
Ukraine forces pursued the Russians as they fled towards Kreminna and are now reported to be fighting these disorganized forces there. In any event, the exploitation phase has already moved well East of Lyman and there is no telling where it goes from here. A whole lot of Russian controlled territory is threatened, and the Russians know it.
The Southern Front Where Are We Now?
With the Russians on the run in the Northeast, what about that Southern front around Kherson? What is happening there?
Put simply, the Ukrainians are still in phase 1, the preparatory phase of staging the battlefield. They are using long range artillery and HIMARS rockets to isolate the Russians in Kherson, prevent reinforcement, and so forth. How long each stage lasts depends on the specifics of the tactical situation, but even in the South it is clear the Ukrainians have the initiative, the ability to choose the time and location of eventual offensive operations. The Russians are on their heals, even down there.
So Why Have The Russians Failed?
Why have the Russians so miserably failed. Why have the Ukrainians with a smaller Army, equipped with largely older versions of the same Russian stuff, succeeded?
Let’s talk prepping the battlefield. In American doctrine, particularly where one has a 15:1 advantage in combat aircraft, that would mean establishing complete air superiority before beginning ground operations. A sustained air campaign would predate ground operations. The air campaign would be aimed at destroying enemy air capabilities, and degrading their ground based air defenses to establish uncontested air superiority. The Russians didn’t do that, contributing to the initial disaster at Kyiv where many of their most elite forces were shot down in the air before even touching the ground. To this day the Russians still don’t have uncontested air superiority.
But most of all the Russians failed at Phase 3 (the attack phase) above. They simply could not combine and coordinate their forces to bring decisive combat power to bear at a point of contact to destroy the enemy in that area and breakthrough enemy lines. On the few occasions that they did they lacked the logistics and leadership initiative to sustain exploitation of such breakthroughs through Stage 4 (the exploitation phase).
Why Have The Ukrainians Succeeded?
As suggested the Ukrainians have obviously out thought the Russians, tactically and logistically. I don’t wish to distract from the Ukrainian success, because on the battlefield that is 100% them, but part of it is because our generals have been advising their generals. With intelligence resources beyond Ukraine’s we have advised on where to strike, when and how. We have provided them weapons tailored systems to do so, and they have. We know what we are doing, and we are helping.
But beyond that the Ukraine Army has itself innovated, improvised and simply fought with a courage and tenacity to defend their homeland that should inspire any American. These are a people who love their nation and are sacrificing much to save it. The demoralization of their enemy has served to (deservedly) boost their own morale.
They are the underdog defeating the heavy favorite, and they deserve to relish each successive victory that their own ingenuity to this conflict has brought.