Many lessons are emerging from Russia’s war on Ukraine, some of which are of much interest to Israel.
One key lesson Israel can learn at this stage is that its decision to install various defenses on armored vehicles is critical and will likely enable the success of future Israeli ground maneuvers—unlike those of Russia and Ukraine.
Before continuing, it is important to issue a disclaimer: The attempt to apply lessons from the war in Ukraine to the Middle East is by nature complex. Among other things, the two regions do not share the same geography, climate, population or adversarial forces.
At the same time, as the war in Ukraine goes on, strategists worldwide are busy taking notes and looking for tactical and strategic insights that can be applied elsewhere—and the same is true in Israel.
So, what can we learn?
During the initial stage of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the war was marked by the failure of the Russian armored ground offensive, which invaded from the north towards Kyiv.
With time, we gradually learned that the offensive failed mainly due to logistical issues: Fuel and ammunition ran out and hundreds of tanks, APCs and trucks were abandoned or destroyed. Only some of these vehicles were hit and destroyed by anti-tank weapons, mainly Javelin missiles, which are devastatingly effective. It seems that armored maneuvers on long roads in dense anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) environments became too costly.
Israel, in contrast, has equipped a significant part of its armored brigades with active protection systems. This means Israeli maneuverability is relatively protected.
At the same time, using man-portable air defense systems (MANPADs), the Ukrainian military brought down about 200 Russian attack helicopters and close air-support craft.
Israeli close air support relies on stand-off precision strike munitions that eliminate the need to fly low and close.
In the first three weeks of the war, Ukraine used its Turkish armed UAVs—TB-2 Bayraktars. Their effectiveness was marginal and Russian air defenses downed the entire Ukrainian fleet fairly quickly. Is this scenario currently applicable to Middle Eastern arenas? For now, the likely answer is not yet.
With Russia failing to destroy all of Ukraine’s air defenses, it resorted to using huge numbers of cruise missiles—over 5,000—and hundreds of ballistic missiles to attack deep in Ukraine. This was before Iranian-made UAVs joined in the Russian attacks.
At first, Ukraine’s air defense systems struggled to intercept the cruise missiles, giving the Russians deep-strike precision stand-off capabilities for a while. But gradually, starting at the end of 2022, Western air defenses replaced the older Ukrainian Soviet-made systems, and Kyiv could shoot cruise missiles out of the sky alongside ballistic missiles and Iranian Shahed 131/136 UAVs. The U.S.-made Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC) 3 shot down a few of Russia’s hypersonic Kinzhal missiles.
The arrival of the Shahed Iranian-made suicide drones, first used in Sept. 2019 against Saudi Aramco facilities, gave Russia a cheap, low-flying, precise firepower capability, which, together with the cruise missiles, are emptying out expensive Ukrainian air defense ammunition.
The warning here for Israel is clear. On the bright side, however, Israel’s Iron Dome interceptors are relatively cheap—up to 50 can be purchased for the cost of a single PAC 3 interceptor.
The bigger question for Israel stemming from the Russia-Ukraine war is whether Israel is correctly balancing its spending on armaments per million dollars as opposed to platforms. For example, should Israel purchase another squadron of F-35 fighter jets or spend the money on many more joint direct ammunition (JDAM) surface-to-air bombs, Iron Dome interceptors and 155-millimeter shells?
Meanwhile, Russia has fielded its own loitering munitions. One system, the Zala KYB, proved to be not very effective. The second, the Kalashnikov Lancet 3, has met with more success against Ukrainian targets such as radar installations, tanks, APCs and various air defense assets.
Ultimately, Russia’s long-range firepower threat remains substantial and Ukraine is using up ammunition in its air defenses at an alarming rate.
Ukraine, for its part, is missing key components in its arsenal that the United States has so far failed to deliver, such as heavy ground combat main battle tanks—the first Abrams tanks are not scheduled to arrive until the end of 2023)—aerial transport planes and long-range missiles.
However, Ukraine has made good use of anti-radiation missiles, such as high-speed radiation missiles (HARMs) that target enemy air defense radars and artillery-directing radars.
Ukraine is also heavily reliant on two types of U.S.-provided surface-to-surface guided multiple-launch rocket systems (GMLRS). There are two types: The M-142 launcher—a high mobility artillery rocket system (HIMAR)—and the M-270 guided rocket launcher.
Both of those systems provide Ukraine with a high and effective strike rate. The Russians are unable to intercept these weapons, forcing them to move their positions back from the front. This includes the relocation of key military headquarters and arms storage centers.
Ukraine has also received the Storm Shadow cruise missile from Britain, with a 250-kilometer range. The effectiveness of this weapon shows how important long-range, precision stand-off munitions are in modern warfare.
The West generally lacks precise surface-to-surface armaments that can reach targets 400 kilometers away. The U.S.’s own systems reach only around 300 kilometers, and they have yet to be delivered to Ukraine.
Israel, in contrast, has a range of high-precision long-range rockets in its inventory.
While the American weapons industry is supplying Ukraine with huge amounts of equipment and the White House keeps pumping cash into the Ukrainian war effort, it must be clear to Israel that no such precedent would be followed in its case. Israel will have to stand on its own two feet in the event of a major war.
Ukraine has 45 million people, not counting the five million refugees who have left the country. Russia’s population is some 150 million. This means that both countries can put large numbers of soldiers on the ground. They have both sustained huge losses, but Ukraine has proven its long-standing fighting power, unity and national resilience.
These factors are not relevant to Israel, which can neither sustain such losses nor absorb warfare for that long without a rapid endgame due to its small geographical size and population. In Israel’s case, a ground maneuver will be essential as soon as the war begins.
The international community may condemn or even try to intervene in response to significant civilian casualties in a future Middle East war. Therefore, careful Israeli planning and strategic decision-making are crucial to executing a successful offensive while minimizing collateral damage.