For this week, I wanted to expand a bit on a comment I made on Twitter expressing some frustration at the failure of journalists attempting to cover the war in Ukraine (and thus interpret military experts for a lay audience) to master some of the key military terminology being used and to convey its actual meaning to a general audience unfamiliar with them. So I thought I’d provide a primer of some terms I think folks might want to just generally have ‘in their pockets’ in understanding what is being said.
And of course the ‘profession of arms’ has a slew of technical terms. Some of these come from military theory, but also military systems and ideas today tend to get very long descriptive names (Man-Portable Air Defense System) which are then shortened to often unintuitive acronyms (MANPAD). I’m going to focus here, however, on the theory terms – almost any military acronym (COIN, LSCO, ATGM, MANPAD, BTG, BCT, etc. etc.) can be decoded fairly quickly by typing it into google along with the word ‘military.’ But military theory terms often require a bit more explanation and unpacking, so here is a list explaining some of them; it is by no means exhaustive but I hope it is helpful (particularly for journalists who need to be able to explain what is happening to regular folks but may not have a background in military theory or affairs, but also for regular folks consuming news and listening to interviews and trying to make sense of what is going on).
I am not going to mark every Clausewitz reference with (drink!) because there are so many; just be drinking for the whole glossary, more or less. Also, I will note at some points when terms have formal definition of existence in United States military doctrine, in particular because that means both that commentators with experience with the United States military are likely to use those terms but also that those terms may be foreign to Ukrainian or Russian doctrine, so while they may represent how a given expert understands the situation, they may not represent how the belligerents understand that same situation. Also, shout out to Mary Elizabeth Walters over at the Air Command Staff College’s Department of Airpower who helped me brainstorm parts of the list.
Area of Operations (AO), is a geographic command subdivision of an overall conflict or theater; each AO generally has its own subordinate commander, its own supply lines (see Communications, Lines Of), its own forces and its own operational objectives (see Operations, below). Because each AO proceeds independently, it is important, when looking at the overall status of Operations (see below) to review each AO; it is not at all unusual for one AO to be stalled out while others advance. The Russian invasion of Ukraine seems to be divided into four principle AOs: the North Dnieper effort against Kyiv, the North-East AO (fighting around Sumy, Chernihiv, etc.), a Donbas AO which includes efforts against Kharkiv and a Southern AO consisting of pushes out of Crimea both towards Mykolaiv and towards Zaporizhzhia. This is crucial as, at the present moment Russian posture in these different AOs is quite different (defensive around Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson but still pushing forward in the broader Donbas area).
Asymmetric Warfare is a term used to describe warfare between two belligerents with either starkly different amounts of resources or different warfare styles or systems. It is crucial to note this term denotes something about the relationship between two belligerents, not something essential to one of them; an army or a state is not asymmetric except in relations to another (the mistake here is often to set the modern western industrialized form of warfare as the ‘norm’ against which all other forms are somehow asymmetric). While this term has been used to describe the war in Ukraine, it is ill-suited for it: both Ukraine and Russia are attempting to make use of a similar set of equipment (including the use of artillery and airstrikes, see fires) using a uniformed soldiery; they are both, to borrow one of my earlier definitions, attempting to operate within the ‘third system of war.’ Ukrainian efforts to have uniformed soldiers use maneuver and surprise to engage Russian logistics and rear echelon units are not ‘asymmetric,’ but rather a standard part of both Russian and Ukrainian warfighting, albeit one that Ukraine appears more skilled at in the present moment. Likewise, both sides are attempting a parallel ‘political struggle’ of demonstrations and information warfare; Ukrainian success here too does not make their methods asymmetric.
Bombardment, Shelling and Bombing: shelling is the act of attacking a place with artillery (which fire explosive shells), while bombing is the act of attacking a place with bombs, today almost universally delivered via aircraft (so the easy distinction: artillery shells, aircraft bomb). Bombarding is an umbrella term which captures both types of attack, useful for the observer who knows that fires (see below) were directed at a target or the civilian populace of a city (see War Crimes) but doesn’t know what sort of fires were so directed.
Combined Arms is the use of different kinds of combat arms in concert; typically this is the combined use of some mix of infantry, artillery, armor (tanks and other armored fighting vehicles or AFVs) and airpower (when analyzing much older armies, we often talk about combined arms as mixing shock infantry, missile infantry and cavalry, so the ‘arms’ being combined vary from era to era). This is important because effective use of these arms in modern warfare requires them to be used together: artillery and aircraft need infantry to help identify targets to strike (since both engage targets they typically cannot observe), while infantry needs them to provide supporting fires (see Fires). AFVs of all kinds (but especially tanks) typically have poor situational awareness (there’s only so much you can see through even a good set of optics while buttoned up in a tank) and at close range are vulnerable to infantry-carried anti-tank weapons and so require infantry to screen them and be their eyes (while the superior firepower of AFVs enhance the infantry). Note that this can mean that good systems (e.g. an effective tank) can still be ineffective if not used appropriately with supporting arms (e.g. screening infantry with supporting fires). In the opening days of the invasion, Russia struggled to use these arms in concert effectively, with the result that the Russian advantage in vehicles and fires, which was considerable, wasn’t realized. That in turn makes it difficult at this point to make clear assessments about the effectiveness of Russian equipment or the overall usefulness of certain kinds of equipment (e.g. tanks) when used properly in a combined arms framework.
Command and Control (C2) is a term from US Army doctrine and one of the “six functions of warfighting.” It is the “exercise of authority and direction over assigned and attached forces.” C2 is necessary in particular because war is by its nature chaotic and complex (see Friction), requiring a lot of direction and control in order to wrangle the chaos into something resembling order so that the mission can be accomplished. In the current context, C2 is most likely to come up when it is disrupted, either by disrupting communications or with the loss or absence of key command personnel. Also note not to confuse C2 (Command and Control), with CIC (Combat Information Center) or CinC (the Commander in Chief) or C&C (the video game Command and Conquer).
Communication, Lines of. This is a case where civilian usage of the word (‘communication’ meaning purely the exchange of information) is confusing because in the military context ‘lines of communication’ are the routes by which not merely information, but supplies and reinforcements move to units actively engaged at the front.
Cohesion (or ‘Unit Cohesion’) in a military context refers to the mental forces that bond a unit together and allow it to continue to function collectively to achieve a mission despite the tremendous stress of combat. Crucially, cohesion exists between soldiers in a unit, not as a relationship of that unit with command; soldiers that hold their superiors in contempt may nonetheless continue to cohere together and as a result remain effective, particularly in defense. The French army mutinies of 1917 provide an example where morale failed but cohesion held, resulting in a force that would defend effectively, but refused to attack. Note that this is a related, but distinct concept from morale (see below).
Culminate. A term from Clausewitz (book 7, chapter 5), an offensive culminates (or reaches its culminating point) when the advantage in strength no longer favors the attacker sufficiently enough to continue pushing forward. Crucially, this does not mean the offensive ends: an attacker may not know their offensive has culminated and may keep ‘pushing’ and achieving nothing for some time. At the same time, the culmination of an offensive operation (see Operations) does not end a war – the attacker may merely rebuild strength (reinforcements, supplies, organization) to push again later, something that is generally termed an ‘operational pause.’
Doctrine. Something I keep promising to write about and then don’t. Doctrine is, “the body of formal knowledge that tells a fighting force how it is expected to fight” (Parshall and Tully, 83). it is not a plan for a specific war, but the general planning framework a military brings to every war; think of it like a very complex list of ‘best practices.’ This is necessary because war is too complex to make this stuff up on the fly. That said, just because a military has a written out doctrine doesn’t mean they can execute on that doctrine; the doctrine may call for things that military (or its political leaders) are simply not capable or willing to do. That said, a military that finds itself operating well outside its own doctrine is likely in trouble. Russian maneuver warfare doctrine generally goes by the moniker Deep Battle or Deep Operations (Глубокая операция) and to say that the Russian Armed Forces have not managed to pull off their doctrine in practice is significant understatement.
Fires is a term from US Army doctrine, one of the ‘Six Warfighting Functions.’ While technically ‘fires’ ought to include ‘direct fire’ (e.g. firing a rifle at an enemy) and ‘indirect fire’ (like artillery), its place in doctrine as one of the six functions means that ‘fires’ really mean ‘indirect fires’ while direct fire is a component of ‘maneuver’ (another of the six functions). So ‘fires’ means indirect fire, which is essentially ‘the things that artillery does, even when it isn’t traditional artillery that is doing them.’ In modern warfare, most casualties are a result of fires (rather than direct engagement), but battles are won, in the end, by maneuver, not by fires (so fires ought to enable maneuver). Fires include both those directed against ground targets and those against air targets (so anti-air batteries shooting missiles at aircraft are also doing ‘fires’).
Friction is a key concept from Clausewitz, a term encompassing the unpredictability of war which is one component of his ‘trinity.’ In essence, ‘friction’ stands in for the fact that war is unpredictable and things have a tendency to not go ‘to plan.’ Friction tends to build over the course of a given effort or operation as surprises stack up on each other, causing greater and greater deviations from the plan. Note that surprises here can mean combat losses (since the soldiers or equipment lost was intended, in the plan, to be doing things), but can also mean disorganization, confusion and delays which also sap the effort of its strength. This is part of why attackers tend to lose strength faster than defenders, leading to offensives culminating – friction eventually overwhelms the attacker’s initial advantage in strength. Friction plays on all sides in a war.
Humanitarian Corridors are agreements between combatants to create temporarily demilitarized zones in order to either allow for the movement of humanitarian aid into a region or of refugees out of it. The concept is a new one restricted to the post-Cold War era; humanitarian corridors are not a long-established feature of warfare. In practice these agreements are fragile, frequently violated or used by one side or the other for temporary advantage (sometimes quite literally to lure civilians into areas where they can be attacked, see War Crimes). Part of the issue is that for a besieger not overly bothered by the morality of civilian casualties, having civilians in a besieged urban area is beneficial, as those civilians eat down food supplies and effectively serve as hostages who can be threatened with bombardment; attackers historically have often used brutality against the civilians trapped in one besieged city as a tool to try to degrade the will (see below) of other enemy population centers. Note also that for any outside part to attempt to enforce a humanitarian corridor would mean attempting to demilitarize part of at least one side of the siege, which is to say that attempting to create a humanitarian corridor would effectively mean joining the war.
Information War or Information Warfare (IW) is a broad term encompassing the use of modern information technologies (read: the internet and mass media) to influence a conflict, typically in the form of propaganda or disinformation. In concept this is a fairly straight-forward extrapolation of traditional wartime propaganda and disinformation, but in practice modern information technology, social media and the much greater information flow impose new challenges and constraints on information operations. it is important to distinguish information warfare, which aims to pass information (accurate or otherwise) through media and information systems in the intended way from cyberwarfare, which is the effort to actually attack the computer systems of an enemy state (for instance, by hacking them). It is important for journalists to recognize that regardless of their affiliation, they are key targets in the information war and that both sides of the conflict have objectives they are aiming to achieve in the information space.
Insurgency is a catch-all term for wars waged by a populace (or a group within the populace) against their state or an occupying force, typically without a conventional military arm; this is a technical term in US Army doctrine, defined as “an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict” (FM3-24 Counterinsurgency, 1.2), though the definition can be extended to an ‘occupying power or other political authority.’ The term has a range of meanings (FM 3-24 identifies six different ‘approaches’ which range from small conspiracies attempting coups to protracted people’s war involving large popular insurgencies); the broadness makes it difficult to use this term effectively, especially since the public perception of the idea is rooted in (mis)perceptions about American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For what it is worth, while popular resistance behind the current front lines but within Ukraine may fit the broadest FM 3-24 definition of insurgency, I find that the protracted war typology, which would classify those actions as ‘mobile warfare’ (when done by regular elements of Ukraine’s army or its Territorial Defense Forces; not that mobile warfare is not the same as maneuver warfare) or as guerrilla actions (when done by civilians, including non-violent political activity) is more useful as a framework for understanding and explaining the situation.
Mission Command or Auftragstaktik (also ‘mission-type tactics’) is a style of command and control (see above) which stresses flexible decision-making by smaller units pursuing an objective (the ‘mission’ of mission tactics) rather than imposing a single rigid top-down plan on the entire force. Under this framework, upper-level commanders assign objectives to their subordinates, who can then use their better local knowledge and quicker reaction times (being closer to the front) to craft a flexible plan to achieve those objectives; this process is then repeated down the command structure. Originally a German concept, US doctrine embraces mission command as its ideal style of command. Russian doctrine, by contrast, has generally been substantially more top-down in nature (with implications for force structure as well); this has proven a liability in Ukraine as the top-down plan did not go to plan and lower-level Russian commanders and NCOs are not generally trained to deviate from the plan ‘on the fly.’
Morale is the collective belief in and enthusiasm for the mission of an armed force, held by its members. Soldiers with high morale generally both believe in the mission they have been assigned by their leaders and their ability to accomplish that mission. It is thus related to, but distinct from cohesion, as soldiers may be devoted to one another (high cohesion) while not devoted to the mission (low morale); traditionally this is a very dangerous condition for commanders and political leaders. At the same time, strong norms of service have meant that often units have persevered in missions with low morale for a very long time, especially if cohesion is high: soldiers stay in the fight for each other and because the collective is ordered forward by their leaders, even if they dislike the leaders or the mission, they move forward out of that cohesion. It is also important to distinguish low morale from the more typical ‘soldier’s grumbles’ that are a constant in both high and low morale armies. That said, there is significant evidence that Russian forces are currently struggling with low morale, while morale among Ukrainian forces appears high.
Operations (see also Tactics, Strategy) is the middle layer of military analysis, below strategy and above tactics. Operations concerns the movement of forces (often over multiple lines of advance to fully utilize the transportation network available) and their logistical support (see Sustainment, Lines of Communication). Fundamentally, operations are about getting forces to the objectives specified in your strategy with sufficient supply to sustain themselves, so that once there they can employ your tactics to achieve victory. The specific task of crafting operations which will achieve a set of strategic objectives is called ‘operational art’ in US doctrine. Operational failures typically manifest as logistics and maneuver failures – particularly operational plans with unreasonable timetables – both of which have been particularly in evidence in the initial Russian invasion.
Political Object is a key concept from Clausewitz, a term reflecting the state’s actual interest in a conflict which is one component of his ‘trinity’ and indeed, the foremost of the three. The political object is what a state (or the leader or leaders of a state) want to get out of a war. This can, of course, change as the conflict continues. As Clausewitz notes (drink!) the role of political leadership in war is to tailor the methods and means employed to obtaining the political object they have set (see Strategy). Clausewitz supposes the political object to be rightly ruled by reason and calculation, rather than emotion or instinct. One way to compel an enemy to cease hostilities is by so altering the political calculus that the enemy leadership concludes that continuing the conflict is no longer in their interest.
Protract (also ‘Stalemate‘); to protract a war is to prolong it, typically in the hopes that a victory can be achieved in a ‘slow’ war that could not be achieved in a long one (see ‘Theory of Victory’). Protracting a war generally involves a period of apparent ‘stalemate’ where neither side appears to be achieving its goals. This, unfortunately, does not mean the violence stops (it may actually intensify).
Rules of Engagement (ROE) are the rules given to a country’s military forces defining under what conditions they can use force. Crucially, these are internal rules – that is, different countries may have different ROEs; in many cases ROE differs by location and conflict even for a single country. ROEs are highly contingent on the internal laws of a given country and its political climate (and in many cases the stated ROE on paper bears little resemblance to the actual practice of military justice). ROE is in this importance sense distinct from the concept of war crimes: the latter are at least notionally in force again all countries, but not all ROE violations are war crimes and vice versa. ROE are also often set for political reasons, such as rules against engaging targets over the border in a third country when there are concerns about escalation or other diplomatic issues. One of the issues with the suggestion of creating a ‘no fly zone’ over Ukraine was the almost impossible nature of the ROE framework for enforcing it (e.g. could NATO pilots engage ground targets in Russia which were attacking NATO aircraft enforcing the no fly zone), in part because of course Russian and Ukrainian forces have no obligation to follow or facilitate NATO rules of engagement (and indeed both might have strong incentives not to).
Strategy (see also Operations, Tactics) is the upper layer of military analysis. Fundamentally strategy concerns the identification of final objectives (see War Termination, Political Object), the way those objectives can be achieved (see Theory of Victory) and the resources to be used to achieve those objectives; these three components of strategy in US doctrine are termed “Ends, Ways and Means” respectively. Strategy is thus the ‘big picture’ thinking behind an action, including the decisions to both commence hostilities and end them.
Sustainment is a term from US Army doctrine, one of the ‘Six Warfighting Functions.’ It concerns all of the activities that keep a force functioning and able to do the other functions (especially fires and maneuver). This includes managing supplies, particularly the food, fuel and munitions that a fighting force needs to function, as well as the maintenance of equipment which is also a heavy demand in combat conditions. Large formations (like US Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs)) typically have significant sustainment capacity that is ‘organic’ to the unit, though in any operation longer than a few days this would have to be supplemented (see Lines of Communication).
Tactics (see also Operations, Strategy) are the lowest layer of military analysis. Tactics concern the methods to be used to win battles. Things like flanking, suppressive fire, ambushes, etc. are tactics. A military’s tactical system is often spelled out in doctrine. In theory, operations is designed to deliver forces to battles in such a way (positioning, comparative force, etc.) that their tactics can win those battles, while strategy should aim to ensure that winning those particular battles will achieve the desired political end (whatever concessions are desired). It is important to distinguish actions which are strategy (designed to directly produce a desired end to the conflict) from those which are merely tactical (designed to achieve a local success or advantage in a given engagement). It is important when assessing failures in war to distinguish between strategic failures (typically a failure to come up with realistic goals and the means to reach them), operational failures (e.g. logistics failures or unreasonable maneuver timetables) and tactical failures (e.g. failure to use combined arms effectively).
Theory of Victory is a key part of strategy, the glue that holds the three levels of analysis (strategy, operations and tactics) together. It is, in essence, a prediction that if a series of conditions are set (held territory, won battles, public opinion shifts, etc), then it will be possible to achieve desired outcomes (see Political Object). Well-led armies do not lash out randomly, but pursue a coherent theory of victory. Note (see War Termination), ‘victory’ here is subjective; different states may define victory differently. Also, it may become clear that it is either impossible to set the planned conditions (e.g. it is not possible to capture Kyiv) or that those conditions will not produce desired outcomes (e.g. Ukraine will not surrender even if Kyiv is captured), which then requires a force to alter its theory of victory (and possibly change its desired outcomes). The initial Russian Theory of Victory seems to have involved the capture of key cities and the removal of the Ukrainian government to achieve desired ends; it is clear that Russian forces are shifting their theory of victory now as those conditions proved to be impossible to set.
‘Tooth’ and ‘Tail’ are terms which divide a fighting force into two parts: the ‘tooth’ which does the actual direct fighting and the ‘tail’ which supports that effort. In modern militaries, the ‘tail’ often composes more than half of all personnel as the demands of sustainment and communication are so heavy (often expressed as the ‘tooth to tail ratio’). In a conflict, heavy damage to either the tooth or the tail can disable a fighting force. In the case of the Russian Army, their ‘tooth,’ composed of Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) is relatively fragile as the front line forces of BTGs are fairly few (more emphasis on fires) with only around 200 infantrymen per BTG. Thus when assessing combat losses, it is important to distinguish between losses sustained in the ‘teeth’ versus the ‘tails’ of a force.
War Crimes are acts which violate the laws of war, typically as codified in the Geneva Conventions and the earlier Hague Conventions. It is important to recognize that the Geneva Conventions (which are more important for the present issue) were ratified only in 1949; the protections they (in theory) offer, particularly the almost total protections of civilians, are quite new and reflect an effort – of decidedly mixed success – to change the norms of war that had prevailed previously. Prior to 1949, the civilians of belligerent nations were not thought to enjoy such a degree of protection; in some sense we are seeing an effort to impose a new norm of conflict fail because one of the Great Powers refuses to observe it (and has for some time). While ‘collateral damage’ is not a war crime under the Laws of Armed Conflict, the intentional targeting of civilians or civilian property is, as is the intentional deportation of civilians by an occupying power (e.g. forced removal of Ukrainians into Russia). Compelling prisoners of war to render service to a hostile power (e.g. make your propaganda videos) is also a violation. Both Russia and Ukraine are parties to the Geneva Conventions and thus notionally bound by its precepts. The great weakness of international law here, however, matters: in practice international law is a thing enforced upon weaker powers by the Great Powers and often not even then; there is no ‘war crime police.’ A state with a functioning military is unlikely to submit its leaders for the judgement of a tribunal. Note also that while there have been efforts to ban cluster munitions, neither Russia nor Ukraine is a signatory to those efforts (neither is the United States), so the use of cluster munitions in this conflict is not a war crime (though the intentional use of cluster munitions against civilians is). In practice the lack of enforcement mechanisms means that accusations of war crimes, regardless of their accuracy, mostly serve as propaganda tools (see information war).
War Termination is an intentionally broad military term meant to encompass the variety of ways a war – formal fighting between states – can end, only some of which might be termed ‘peace.’ Not every war ends with a peace treaty (for instance the Korean War has technically only been ‘on pause’ with a ceasefire for the last 69 years). For instance a war between states might end with a negotiated ceasefire that one or both sides encourage local proxies to break when it is to their advantage. War termination is thus about the end of formal hostilities and admits the possibility that conditions ending formal hostilities might not create a real lasting peace (though war terminations that result in decreased hostilities might still be desirable). Because the goal of war is peace and the achievement of specific political objectives (see Political Object above), all parties in a given conflict should be thinking about potential war termination scenarios and their acceptability throughout the conflict (see also Theory of Victory). When commentators suggest the necessity of providing someone with an ‘off ramp’ what they are in effect suggesting is attempting to open an acceptable war termination scenario for that party.
Will is a key concept from Clausewitz, reflecting the importance in war of a people’s willingness to sustain hardship in order to continue a conflict and part of Clausewitz’ ‘trinity.’ Will, in this sense, is often a target in war, with operations, either directly military or propagandistic in nature, designed to either fortify friendly will (see Morale, Cohesion) or degrade enemy will. Clausewitz recognizes that it will be difficult for any state to maintain a large military effort without at least some public will. Consequently, degrading enemy will can be part of a Theory of Victory (see above) as a way to force an enemy to make peace (see War Termination above). Strategies that focus on Will rather than on politics as the ‘target’ (the Clausewitzian ‘center of gravity’) tend to take longer to accomplish (see Protract above).
Next week we’re going to shift to a bit of a lighter topic and look at some history in video games.