Few will forget the sight of massed Russian armoured vehicles parked in the open during their aborted advance on Kiev in March, easy prey for Ukrainian tank hunting patrols. It served as an early symbol of the incompetence of the Russian military and the fighting spirit of the Ukrainian defenders. Commentators relished highlighting Russian flaws, gloating in the inadequacies of Putin’s military, and basking in the success of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

What was less evident was any acknowledgment that orchestrating all the tools of war in an attack (Combined Arms Manoeuvre in the military jargon) is exceptionally difficult to do. There is no more complex or challenging endeavour than prosecuting a war; doing it well is incredibly hard.

While there is no doubt that the Russians made a hash of their offensive and have continued to look inept in the ensuing months, commentators would do well to pause to ask what it tells us about our own readiness (and that of our friends and allies) to fight this type of war.

Despite being British, my particular focus in this article is on the Canadian military; however, the themes hold true in the UK, the US, Australia and with all our NATO allies. Complacency and the seeming absence of existential threats has allowed successive governments to under-invest in Defence for decades (despite claims by ministers of real term increases in spending).

Many of the problems are common between our militaries, with false choices presented during Defence reviews and talk between the Services of winners and losers: cutting the Navy to grow the Army, or vice versa, etc. The real loser from these reviews tends to be national security and the winner has been our prospective adversaries.

It is great news that governments appear to be taking Defence more seriously in light of events in Ukraine, with undertakings to increase the percentage of GDP spent on Defence. However, typically spending remains far lower than 30 years ago. Given gloomy economic forecasts, it remains to be seen what these budget undertakings will look like in practice. Too often funding announcements are little more than smoke and mirrors. National security requires better.

The Canadian military, along with her closest allies, has been significantly emasculated over recent decades and very considerable investment is necessary to allow them to re-build and be ready for today’s threats.

A few Canadian Army snippets about why we should ask some searching questions of ourselves when observing the Russian failings.

  • The Canadian Army is just 42,000 strong (regular and reserve). Even these small numbers hide the reality, with combat posts often being discreetly re-invested elsewhere. Aspirations to grow are hampered by an inability to recruit additional personnel. Anyone who says that numbers are not a relevant indicator has clearly never been on a battlefield, size matters.
  • Much of the Canadian Army’s equipment fleet is woefully out of date and has no place on a modern battlefield. Their fleet of Leopard 2 tanks date from the late 70s and there is no plan to replace them; some will argue that the tank is dead, but it has proven a constant on the battlefield for over a century and there is life in them yet. The Light Armoured Vehicles 6.0, the mainstay of the fleet, is relatively new, but is used in a range of roles that it was not designed for. Finally, the Tactical Armoured Patrol Vehicle is used as a reconnaissance vehicle, for which it is not optimised, and it has questionable cross-country ability.
  • This fleet of vehicles is often in a parlous state of repair despite considerable efforts to improve readiness since Afghanistan: the spare parts and funds required to bring them to an acceptable readiness state are simply not there. The Leopard 2s are so old that they are essentially on life support and are held centrally to husband their maintenance.
  • The jury is out about what the Ukraine conflict tells us about the balance of new and old weapons of war. However, there is little doubt that technology is actually making Combined Arms Manoeuvre harder, not easier, with the need to integrate and defend against a host of new technologies, from drones to an array of readily available software applications. Unless we practice and train extensively, we cannot hope to be as good as we could be. As a young officer in Germany in the 1990s, it was common to spend five months a year on exercise or on the ranges; today’s troops can only dream of so much training time.

There is plenty in here to be gloomy about and hard analysis is required about how the Canadian Army and her allies would perform in high intensity warfare, but there are reasons to be optimistic too.

The young men and women joining the military are as good as ever. Innovation projects are underway to give meaning to the aspiration to prepare the Army for the Information Age. Moves are afoot to arm troops with the essential digital skills to allow them to fight with software as effectively as with their rifles.

This can only be done in partnership with industry, and specifically with disruptive tech start-ups who can enable a digital insurgency to fast-track the transformation of the fighting force. Luckily, there is a small group of highly dynamic companies who genuinely care about national security who are committed to helping. Among them is WithYouWithMe, a veteran-founded digital skills company, who are dedicated to helping address the crisis in digital skills in all our countries. They are helping the Canadian, American, Australian, and British militaries to identify their hidden digital talent and to give them the skills they need to excel on today’s battlefield and ensure that they can harness both old and new technology. Aptitude testing everyone as they enter service to identify potential for digital proficiency is vital to ensuring that the military harness the digital potential at their disposal.

The geo-political challenges facing Canada and her friends are significant and we can no longer afford the luxury of under-investing in national security. It would be complacent to conclude that Russia’s incompetence means that we are well-set. Instead, it should act as a wake-up call that we must be honest about our own capability and work together to prepare a digitally capable combat force to work alongside our allies.