Previous posts in this discussion:
PostContrasts between Ukraine and First Gulf War; on Ukrainian Morale (Cameron Sawyer, USA, 06/21/23 3:51 am)
John E asked on June 19th: "Cameron, didn't the Iraqis construct something like ‘Defense in Depth' in the First Gulf War? The ease with which the Coalition plowed through (or was it around?) Saddam's trenches and ‘killing zones' has probably influenced military doctrine since. Did air superiority make all the difference?"
Yes, air superiority, or rather massive air supremacy on the US side, made all the difference in the Gulf War, that and overwhelming armored force on the ground, and massive overmatch in artillery, all combined in a well-coordinated combined arms operation. Basically, it was overwhelming force in all respects. Remember the Gulf War started with 42 days and nights of continuous cruise missile and air attacks, one of the most intensive and destructive air campaigns ever conducted. Iraq's weak and obsolete air defense assets were overcome almost immediately so the coalition forces had air supremacy almost from the first day. By the end of the first week, what was left of the Iraqi Air Force had left the battle and fled to Iran. The scale of the air attack is hard to grasp--over 2,500 fixed-wing aircraft were involved (not counting helicopters!), of which most were attack aircraft. Iraqi military infrastructure was systematically destroyed, then civilian infrastructure including the power grid, every single dam in the country was destroyed or damaged, sewage treatment plants, most water supply infrastructure, telecommunications facilities, ports, railroads, bridges, oil refineries--remember "bombing them into the Stone Age"? That's what we did.
Thousands of civilians were killed and wounded in these attacks. Then, we attacked the Iraqi ground forces from the air. A-10 Warthogs chewed up Iraqi tanks with depleted uranium shells fired from their chain guns; Apache helicopters systematically destroyed Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles using Hellfire missiles, the same way the Russians are using Vikhr missiles fired from Ka-52 Alligators today. The A-10s alone destroyed 900 tanks, 2,000 other armored vehicles, and 1,500 artillery pieces. Command & control centers were destroyed; Iraqi Army logistics were completely disrupted. Iraqi Army positions were attacked with napalm, rockets and cluster bombs, and were strafed with depleted uranium shells.
That's what you get when you have 2,500 military aircraft plus cruise missiles to attack an enemy without effective air defense. By the time the coalition forces started the ground attack, there wasn't much left of the Iraqi forces. The coalition's massive advantage in artillery was used at the beginning of the ground campaign to basically eliminate Iraqi artillery. By this time, there was nothing left of Iraqi prepared defenses, and there was hardly any organized resistance. The war was over just four days later. Obviously a far cry from what is happening today in Ukraine. The Ukrainians heavily overmatched the Russians in personnel throughout 2022, and overmatched the Russians in military leadership. The Russian mobilization eliminated the first advantage, and as to the second advantage--Zaluzhny, the best military leader of the war on either side--is gone now. The Russians have large overmatch in artillery and air assets, and are no longer outnumbered in personnel. Attacking such an enemy, to boot one dug in with elaborately prepared defenses, is a really tough task.
JE further wrote: "And now in Ukraine we return to an earlier time. It's mind-boggling and terrifying to think of what is going on at present. How are Ukraine's military leaders able to convince their forces to attack these lethal defenses? And for how much longer?"
The Ukrainians, now obviously fighting against all odds, are amazingly courageous and determined.* The Russians are constantly amazed by this and have huge respect for the Ukrainian soldiers (very often Russian soldiers comment on how horrible it is that "such worthy Slavic brothers" have to "die for NATO"). It must be said however, that the Ukrainian forces have not yet even started attacking "these lethal defenses." They haven't even reached the first line of fortifications. They are still in the crumple zone, where the Russians don't have to defend anything and can move around at will.
Note that the Germans did much better than this at Kursk. They broke through the first Soviet line and reached the second defensive line on the very first day. Hitler was actually not wrong about the superiority of the Tiger tanks--the early model T-34 could not penetrate the armor of the Tiger with its smaller gun at all, and the early tank battles at Kursk had lopsided results like 10 or more T-34s knocked out for every Tiger. But by that time, Defense in Depth had worked as intended--after fighting their way through the "crumple zone," even though it only took a day, the Germans were deprived of any element of surprise, and were weakened, and the Soviets met them with their fresh mobile reserves and were able to counterattack. It would be an exaggeration to say that "and after that, the Soviet Army chased the Germans all the way back to Berlin," but not a huge exaggeration. Despite the absolutely brilliant German comeback victory at the Third Battle of Kharkov (conducted not far from where the current war is raging), the Germans had dashed enough of their men and equipment against the steel walls of the Soviet defenses at Kursk that they were never again to regain the strategic initiative, which is why some historians consider Kursk to have been the turning point of the war.
Note that all of the best commanders on both sides were involved in the epic Battle of Kursk--Rokossovsky, the best Soviet commander, also Zhukov and Konev, and von Manstein and Guderian, the best German ones (I would say von Manstein was the best commander of the entire war), together with Model and Hoth.
Back to Ukraine--during the last few days, the frontal assaults have continued, using bigger and bigger forces of infantry, but without the higher value armored vehicles. The Ukrainians are saving their Leopards now, but not their men. There are no reliable casualty figures, but it must be a horror. How long can the Ukrainians keep it up? If Zaluzhny were around, I believe he would break off this offensive and save his forces to regroup for another go in a different axis.
On the other hand, there may not be another axis available, or time for any regrouping. Tokmak and Melitopol are the keys to the land bridge; there are only so many ways to get there. The Ukrainians do fear that without demonstrable victories achieved before the NATO summit coming up, they will be cut off (see the quotes I posted earlier) by their sponsors. They also fear that the only leverage which will give them anything in peace negotiations is threatening Crimea (and I agree with them), which can only be done by cutting the land bridge. So they may be simply betting everything on this one number because they don't have any choice.
We shall see.
*That being said, as in all armies in all wars, there are moments of low morale, and units who lose their cohesion and fighting ability because of low morale, in the Ukrainian Army. Yesterday there were reports that the Leopard tanks were no longer being sent into battle, not because the command decided to husband them (as I speculated), but because the crews were refusing to take them into battle--sabotaging them by pouring sand in the engines, and so forth. Because the Russians are paying their troops bounties for destroyed Western equipment, and so the Leopards draw a lot of fire when they appear, and seem to be more vulnerable to top attack than Soviet tanks. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this report, but it would not be unprecedented and is not implausible.
JE comments: Cameron, what are the latest reports you're hearing about Zaluzhny? Is there now a consensus that he was gravely wounded and may never be able to resume command?