After nearly fifteen years of counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, American advocates of heavy armored forces interpreted Ukrainian forces’ defeat at the battle of Debaltseve as an indication that “tanks still matter.” But the key lesson of the Debaltseve fight is a broader one: Combat vehicles of whatever kind must provide the mobility, protection, and lethality that commanders require in order to best integrate armor, infantry, and artillery in a combined arms fight.
On February 18, 2015, after several weeks of heavy fighting in and around Debaltseve, pro-Russian forces surrounded the city. Cut off from friendly forces, government troops withdrew from the city in a manner which the Guardian called “anything but orderly.” In the aftermath of the battle, many reports highlighted one particular aspect of the fighting: The separatists’ use of Russian-supplied armored vehicles to drive home their attack.
In a sense, the separatists’ use of armor to achieve battlefield success could be interpreted as a vindication of the continued need for “heavy” forces in contemporary warfare. Several accounts reported the presence of T-72s and T-80s in eastern Ukraine. In late January, pro-Russian armored columns fought entrenched Ukrainian forces outside Debaltseve. Although the Ukrainians reportedly achieved some successes, separatist forces used their tanks’ mobility and firepower to break the Ukrainian defenses and force government troops to withdraw. But focusing on the use of tanks misses the greater significance of the fighting.
Although armored vehicles played an important role in the fighting, the separatists’ success actually was achieved through the effective use of combined arms operations — that is, the coordinated employment of tanks, infantry, artillery, and other battlefield assets to achieve military objectives. Rebel artillery disrupted Ukrainian vehicle columns withdrawing from the city, forcing many soldiers to leave their vehicles behind and evacuate on foot. The Guardian quoted one Ukrainian soldier: “Guys are running out on foot through the fields because [rebels] are shelling vehicles.” The ability to exercise effective command and control by communicating orders and coordinating actions — an essential element in combined arms operations — also proved vital to the separatists’ success. The separatists coordinated their actions better than Ukrainian forces. As Ukrainian commander Semyon Semyonchenko said: “What hindered us in Debaltseve? We had enough men and material… the problem was with the leadership and coordination of actions.” According to Semyonchenko, the Ukrainian defeat was “the result of incompetent management of our troops.”
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