Warfare Today at the Mercy of Intelligence Capabilities

A year has passed since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. The Ukrainians have put up stronger-than-expected resistance, thanks mainly to intelligence support from the United States. This article will examine the significance of intelligence in present-day warfare.

On Feb. 24, 2022, Russian forces invaded Ukraine from three sides — across the Belarusian border in the north, the Russian border in the east, and the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula in the south.

The United States obtained an outline of this invasion plan in late October 2021. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff — the highest-ranking U.S. military officer — reportedly briefed U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House on Oct. 27 on Russia’s intention to simultaneously attack Ukraine from multiple directions.

Milley reportedly informed the president that Russia would aim to seize Ukraine’s capital Kyiv in three to four days and install a Kremlin-friendly puppet regime, removing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy from power. The U.S. Army general said that the Russian military would then push westward to occupy most of Ukraine.

As a result, Ukraine and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization beginning with the United States started preparing for a full-scale Russian invasion four months before Russian troops launched their incursion into Ukraine.

In early November 2021, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns spoke on the telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but this was only the final confirmation of intelligence information that Washington already had. When Burns visited Kyiv in January 2022 to meet Zelenskyy, he is believed to have informed the Ukrainian leader in detail of the planned Russian operation and pledged intelligence support.

On March 3, shortly after the Russian invasion, then White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at a press briefing: “[W]e’ve continued and consistently shared a significant amount of detailed, timely intelligence on Russia’s plans and activities with the Ukrainian government to help Ukrainians defend themselves. We’ve been doing that for months. This includes information that should help them inform and develop their military response to Russia’s invasion.”

Despite having less troop strength and firepower than the Russian armed forces, the Ukrainian military has been able to withstand Russian offensives because of intelligence support from the United States.

Present-day wars are less likely to be waged between regular armed forces of similar combat capabilities. Countries like Ukraine, which have insufficient troop strength and firepower, cannot prevail if they use the same tactics as their superior adversaries. To counter their enemies, they must employ alternative warfare solutions that are difficult for the enemy to predict and deal with. This is referred to as asymmetric warfare.

The difference in military strength in terms of personnel and munitions does not always determine the winner and loser of an asymmetric war. Intelligence plays a decisive role in influencing a war’s outcome. As the ancient Chinese sage Lao-tzu said, “Softness overcomes hardness.” The fact that U.S. intelligence support for Ukraine thwarted Putin’s ambitions illustrates this clearly.

U.S. outmaneuvers Russia

Let’s examine how the Ukrainian armed forces have effectively used intelligence provided by the United States in their counterattacks against the Russian military.

In and around mid-January 2022, Russian hackers conducted “damaging cyber-attacks” on Ukrainian government institutions. However, the damage was kept to a minimum. In late 2021, a frontline unit of the U.S. Cyber Command and other Western cyber rapid-response specialists were deployed to Ukraine to identify and remove malware in infrastructure networks. Microsoft Corp. of the United States and other private-sector companies also provided network defense for Ukraine. Thorough preparedness due to close public-private collaboration can also be said to have successfully minimized damage to Ukraine from Russia’s major cyber operation.

The Russian military assaulted Antonov Airport, an international cargo airfield, on the outskirts of Kyiv, at the outset of its invasion but could not quickly and easily capture the facility. Russia’s airborne troops and helicopters sustained heavy damage during their attack on the airport, as they were intercepted by Ukrainian defenders who took advantage of the intelligence provided by the United States.

Many Russian armored fighting and logistic transport vehicles fell prey to U.S.-made portable Javelin anti-tank missiles fired by Ukrainian troops. High-ranking Ukrainian government officials said the Ukrainian armed forces compiled citizens’ smartphone images and geolocation data for use in military operations. This more critical use of mobile applications in Ukraine was possible thanks to U.S. financial assistance and massive technological support from U.S. tech companies.

In April 2022, the Moskva flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet sank after a Ukrainian attack using Ukrainian-made Neptune anti-ship missiles. It is probably reasonable to think that the Ukrainian forces relied on U.S. intelligence support for this attack.

Up to 12 Russian generals were reportedly killed in Ukraine in May 2022. Some of them are believed to have used unsecured commercial communications services to command and control troops, allowing them to be geolocated by the Ukrainian side. The Russian military initially used outdoor combat radio sets based on the frequency hopping spread spectrum (FHSS), a valuable transmission technology for countering eavesdropping. But Ukraine’s jamming operations were so aggressive that the Russian system became unusable.

The Ukrainian military then demolished one Russian ammunition depot after another behind the front lines. They also liberated Kherson, southern Ukraine, by destroying bridges vital for Russia’s military logistic supplies. In 2022 alone, Ukraine was supplied with 20 U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS). Precision strikes require data input concerning not only the target’s latitude and longitude but also its altitude and accurate three-dimensional digital information such as thrust vector input. If such information is not available, these weapons will not be effective.

In addition to reinforcing Ukraine’s intelligence-gathering capabilities, the United States allowed the Ukrainians to blind Russian intelligence and reconnaissance assets. Specifically, the U.S. Defense Department in August revealed the delivery to Kyiv of anti-radar HARM missiles capable of hitting Russian radar systems. U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan said on a TV program in September that the United States would “redouble” its efforts to provide the Ukrainians with the necessary equipment and munitions.

Lessons for Japan

Now let’s apply the lessons learned from the war in Ukraine to Japan.

China has adopted the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy. In the case of a contingency in Taiwan or the South China Sea, China will deploy its armed forces to thwart U.S. military operations in the second island chain, which encloses the West Pacific, including Guam. Beijing would aim to keep U.S. forces from penetrating the first island chain closer to China’s mainland. One of the critical purposes of the A2/AD strategy is to ensure China’s air supremacy by launching aerial attacks using ballistic missiles and aircraft to incapacitate enemy air force assets and air defenses and then to crush enemy bases and the like with a high concentration of military personnel, weapons, and ammunition.

In a hostile environment stemming from a contingency, it would be a matter of life and death to enhance survivability by adequately dispersing and relocating defense resources, including personnel, weapons systems, ammunition, fuel, and command posts, before being attacked. It is most urgent for Japan to establish a plan in advance for facilitating the agile dispersion and relocation of air defenses and aircraft based on accurate intelligence.

Shigeru Kitamura

Kitamura joined the National Police Agency in 1980 after graduating from the University of Tokyo. He became director of Cabinet Intelligence in 2011 and served as secretary general of the National Security Secretariat from September 2019 to July 2021.

The original article in Japanese appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of The Yomiuri Shimbun.