By Daniel Davis
Listening to television commentary and interviews of retired U.S. generals, one would be forgiven for believing Russia is on the ropes, and Ukraine was winning the war. Looking at on-the-ground battlefield reality in Ukraine, however, it quickly becomes apparent that the generals’ boasts continue a decade-long trend of rosy combat proclamations that all too often turn out to be disastrously wrong. American media, Congress, and the public need to start applying a little more scrutiny to what these officers say.
For example, retired Gen. Ben Hodges said last week that the “Russians are exhausted,” from four months of fighting and that if “the West sticks together through this year, then I think (the war) will be over (early 2023).” Earlier this month, retired Gen. Mark Hertling told a CNN audience that as Ukraine “gets more and more artillery” from the West, Hertling concluded that he believes “you’re going to see a gradual turn in the tide.”
On July 10th, former Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, Gen. Jack Keane – echoing Generals Hodges and Hertling – told Fox News that despite Russia’s progress in the Donbas, the “Ukrainians still have a real opportunity…to take back territory and we should not underestimate them.”
And yet, there is little credible evidence to suggest that any of these claims are accurate.
Russia vs. Ukraine: The State of Play Right Now
The Russians are no doubt bloodied and have suffered significant equipment loss, but there is no evidence on the battlefield that they are anywhere near “exhausted.”
Most of the artillery promised by the West has already been delivered and it has not, to date, resulted in even slowing Russia’s advance through the Donbas, much less stopped it. The HIMARS launchers have enabled Ukraine to strike deep behind Russian lines, and they have caused severe harm in their enemy’s rear areas. Nonetheless, even that has not resulted in any observable reduction in the still-heavy daily barrage of artillery on Ukrainian positions.
Furthermore, nothing has slowed the Ukrainian casualties – reportedly up to 1,000 per day – from Russian artillery, rocket, and tank fire. Nothing has changed the dynamics in the air where Russia dominates the skies to the tune of up to 300 sorties per day to about 20 for Ukraine. And there has been no change to the fact that Ukraine is running critically short of ammunition for its howitzers while Russia can continue to manufacture almost limitless numbers for themselves.
Why Russia – Sadly – Has the Advantage Against Ukraine
The most important fundamentals of war, the basics of combat operations, almost all reside on the Russian side. Since the G7, G20, and NATO Summits, there have been no additional large-scale contributions of modern weaponry promised to Ukraine. The amount of equipment to date has been a couple of hundred artillery tubes, about 250 Soviet-era tanks, and a few hundred Vietnam-era personnel carriers. Cumulatively, all of this gear – including the HIMARS – are not a fraction of the type of kit Ukraine would need to launch a counteroffensive.
The idea, then, that Ukraine could stop Russia’s current offensive and then transition to a counter-offensive to drive Putin’s troops back – as Hodges said he believed would happen before the end of this year – have no valid basis on the ground in Ukraine. But such optimistic, rosy proclamations that are disconnected from battlefield realities are not new for America’s active and retired generals for the past two decades. Take these examples from Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The Generals Keep Missing on The Predictions
In March 2003, the United States invaded the country of Iraq. The initial phase of the war was an unqualified success, as the U.S. deposed the Iraqi army and its leader Saddam Hussein in little more than a month. Things started going south shortly thereafter, as almost immediately upon completion of the conventional phase, American authorities disbanded the surviving elements of the Sunni-dominated Iraqi Army. Within months a Sunni-fueled insurgency was born.
Over the following three years, the insurgency continued to grow, and violence against both Iraqi civilians and U.S. military personnel exploded. In January 2007, President George W. Bush ordered a troop surge to try and quell the violence.
Bush tapped Gen. David Petraeus to lead the surge, and over about 18 months, Petraeus’ new tactics – combined with a brutal crackdown by al-Qaeda in Iraq repression against their Sunni co-religionists – worked to bring down violence in the country. Bush then ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops to be accomplished by December 2011, ordering the U.S. military to train the ISF so they could provide security for their country without U.S. military personnel.
Early in that process, Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, then-commander of 1st Armored Division and Multi-National Division-North, said in February 2008 that “the Iraqi government is beginning to become more capable,” and that it was “a great honor” to work with “the great Iraqi security forces.” By June of that year, Maj. Gen. Hertling said that all “the cities that we have in the northern part of Iraq, I think have been secured.”
Hertling was so confident of success, in fact, that he said his U.S. forces were “literally in the post-Gettysburg phase of this” war, adding that “(w)e have defeated (al Qaeda)” in the cities and were now pursuing them in “small villages and towns.” The fight in Mosul, Hertling specified, was an Iraqi-led operation and that the ISF “are growing in capability, Iraqis are stepping forward.” By 2014, however, “post-Gettysburg” Mosul would become ground-zero for the rise of the Sunni-dominated, anti-government Islamic State.
One year after Gen. Hertling left Iraq, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of all U.S. Forces in Iraq, boasted that the ISF “are in charge everywhere in Iraq.” Odierno specifically credited young Iraqi military leaders “who have adapted over time” and made dramatic improvements. Since 2008 the ISF had “gotten much better”, the general claimed, “and that is what has helped to drive us towards a more stable Iraq.”
About a year later, then-commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin said that as the mission concluded, “the stage has been set for Iraq’s young democracy to emerge as a leader in what has been and what will continue to be a very dynamic region.” But had it?
My Own Experience
I worked with a military training team in part of 2009 providing coaching and mentoring to an Iraqi battalion astride the Iran/Iraq border. What I observed there over a period of months was that the Iraqi troops did not genuinely desire to be trained, put very little effort into it, and showed no appreciable improvement by the time we departed. I later spoke with dozens of other U.S. officers who likewise trained Iraqi battalions during the same timeframe, and not one of them had a different experience than I did.
Less than three years after the last American military troop left Iraq, the world discovered just how incapable the ISF had indeed been when in June 2014, a comparatively small band of Islamic State militants stormed into Mosul and put to flight entire Iraqi army divisions. As a War on the Rocks analysis of the debacle later discovered, the “stunningly weak performances” of the Iraqi army wasn’t due to intense ISIS military pressure, but the ISF “had been failing for over a year before they finally crumbled on June 10.”
During the years that general after general continued to tell the American people that the ISF was improving, was taking the lead, and providing adequate security for their country, the truth was something very different. The first time the ISF came under any internal pressure, they folded like a house of cards. Iraq’s collapse wasn’t the fault of the American troops – responsibility for the failure rests entirely on Iraq’s corrupt leaders – but the U.S. senior leaders gave inaccurate public assessments and led the American people to believe that the ISF was capable when they were not.
That dynamic of unfounded optimistic claims is being repeated in Ukraine. There is no valid basis upon which to claim the Ukrainian army will go on the offensive within months from now and drive Russia out by the end of the year, as Gen. Hodges has claimed.
The danger in these types of statements is that they give false hope to the people of Ukraine, give an inaccurate picture to the American people of what’s possible, and encourages Congress to continue funding a strategy that almost certainly will fail. At the very least, it is time to start viewing routinely optimistic claims by some of our active and retired generals with more skepticism.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis.