After months of fighting, the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut looks like hell. Images from the past week show an apocalyptic landscape of torn up earth, ruined trees and soldiers standing in pools of water in muddy trenches. The sights have been compared to some of the worst parts of trench warfare from the First World War. Bakhmut lies along the front lines southeast of where Ukraine successfully recaptured swathes of territory in September. The majority of the town’s 70,000 person population has fled and soldiers from both sides have dug in for a war of attrition.
Of course, it’s 2022, not 1918, and trench warfare has evolved. Both sides have access to advanced technologies — such as “loitering munitions” like Switchblade drones that can serve as both reconnaissance systems and lethal tools — that give them a wider picture and greater striking ability than conflicts in the past. But like the rest of the war in Ukraine, it’s less a modern war but a mishmash of traditional large-scale combat, high-tech targeting and limited capabilities.
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Trenches in the Donbas aren’t new. Since fighting between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists started in 2014, both sides dug in along dozens of miles of the front line. That fighting never stopped, but since the full war broke out between the two nations, it escalated as both countries poured more fighters and weapons into the conflict. Now the wider war has reached those lines. Worse, winter is coming. There’s already snow starting to pile up next to knee-high pools of ice-cold water.
The war has seen a wild mix of military technology and tactics. The trenches in the Donbas are in the same war as anti-radar munitions, widespread use of commercial and military drones, Cold War-era tanks and high-tech sensors, plus makeshift cavalry. Artillery barrages are constant and intense. The presence of modern equipment makes it easier for both sides to target their enemy, which can be a problem for troops located in miles of static trenches that might be close to each other.
Why trench warfare is still in use in 2022
Another reason for the prevalence of trench warfare is that It’s easier to dig in than to attack, said Matthew Cancian, a MIT PhD researching military operations and a Marine veteran. Soldiers instinctively dig in, and by the time Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, Ukrainian soldiers had years of experience in that tactic. The question, Cancian said, is whether trench warfare is still viable in the age of precision strikes and the proliferation of drones?
“In World War I, the trenches existed for four years. Both sides tried to break through the trenchline and get back to maneuver warfare,” retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, former Commanding General of United States Army Europe, told Task & Purpose. In that case, Hertling said, soldiers were going up against machine guns, artillery, mustard gas, and dug-in positions. The issue is, Hertling said, if you can’t get around or over a trenchline, you can’t defeat it. That’s true even in Ukraine.
The last major large-scale conflict to devolve into trench stalemates was the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. Both sides found themselves dug in for years, with major offensives failing to break through and gain ground. The Nagorno-Karabakh war of 2020-2021 saw similar uses of drones, targeted strikes and trenches, Cancian said. In that case, modern technology was able to reduce the impact of entrenchment, but it would be a mistake to say it negated it fully, he added. Although the war in Ukraine is not the same circumstance, it’s the first time those dynamics and tools are being scaled to a larger conflict.
Why trenches negate most technological advancements
Even with advances in technology, breaking through a fortified position remains a challenge, and requires a combined arms operation, Hertling said. That means armored components, air attacks, artillery to suppress a counterattack and strong electronic warfare and jamming to negate drones. Right now Russia has the military capability to pull that off, but it hasn’t utilized it, Hertling said. Ukraine doesn’t, mainly due to its reduced air force strength.
One thing that hasn’t really changed with trench warfare is the issue of logistics. Troops still need to be resupplied, and given both the damaged terrain and risk of targeted strikes on any vehicle, trucks can’t simply pull up and drop off food, ammunition or clothes. Those supplies have to be carried, Hertling said. It’s a technologically advanced war, but so much of the fighting, especially in the Donbas, requires analog operations.
The artillery war has been a major part of the fighting near and away from the trenches, with strikes leveling cities. The more decisive modern tool has been drones, Cancian said, which can provide intelligence and directly deliver munitions. In a battle of attrition such as trench warfare, drones can fly over and bomb small dug outs, forcing either side to dig in deeper. But if trench warfare escalates, Cancian said, the counter move will be for both sides to bring more drone jammers to the front. The farther out drones fly, and the closer to enemy lines, the higher the risk is that they’ll be disabled.
The slide toward expanded trench warfare in the Donbas also gives Russian troops the chance to further fortify their positions. If Ukraine can’t break through the trench lines, Cancian said, it could give Moscow more time to deploy the 300,000 soldiers activated in its messy “partial mobilization.” As he noted, it’s easier to defend a trench line than to attack, and these new recruits have more value now as defensive forces.
Winter is coming
The looming issue for both sides is something out of their control: mother Nature. Temperatures are already dropping ahead of winter. Soldiers in the Donbas trenches the past few years have weathered the cold, but the larger scale there, plus the energy crisis in Europe stemming from the war, may make the coming winter a particular challenge.
There are also serious physical and psychological issues that come from the conditions inherent in trench warfare, Hertling said. There are diseases, and even with cold-weather gear — and makeshift saunas — the trenches are still cold, and dealing with that causes other problems. Thanks to advancements in thermal imaging, attempts at heating food, or keeping billeting warm at night, can put troops at risk. Medical workers are treating trench foot and frostbite. On top of that, soldiers in the trenches are under constant shelling while sleeping in mud and poor conditions, which can wear on them. The psychological factors are beyond imagination, Hertling said.
“I’m a soldier and I can’t understand how people can live in a trench or an underground shelter for more than a week,” he said.
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