Russia Keeps Hitting the Power Grid. Can Strategic Bombing Affect the War?
Or a waste of useful and scarce guided munitions better used to support the army?
Or a waste of useful and scarce guided munitions better used to support the army?
Russian strikes on Ukrainian electricity infrastructure after the Russian shock defeat in the Izyum-Kupyansk offensive fizzled out after a few days. But the Russian strikes on the power grid in the wake of the Ukrainian attack on the Crimea bridge have persisted.
When the attacks started South Front proclaimed “Russia Starts to Fight for Real”. It has now been four weeks of such attacks. They have led to rolling blackouts that have affected millions, particularly around Kiev.
In light of that, let us try to think about the Russian strategic bombing campaign. Do these sustained strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure mean that Russia is now “fighting for real”? Do they mean that Russia has now reached for a potent, game-changing tool in its arsenal that it hitherto refused to touch? Can a Russian strategic strikes campaign affect the outcome of the war? Can it affect the situation at the front?
Let us consider some factors that may influence the answer. These are:
- Ukraine’s economy is not heavily mobilized for war
- Much of Ukraine’s industrial rear is abroad
- Russia does not possess a machinery of mass conventional destruction
- Nobody really knows how to disable an economy
Ukraine’s Economy Is Not Heavily Mobilized for War
In a state that is on a total war footing like Germany or the Soviet Union in WW2 there are only three areas of production. Sustenance like food and heating. Military production like shells and fortifications. And industrial investment like the expansion of military plants and mines.
There is no production of civilian consumer goods. If there is, it is only for export. To be traded for military goods from abroad. And there is absolutely no importation of civilian goods beyond sustenance.
Ukraine is very far from that. You can waltz into any Ukrainian shopping mall and buy yourself a Korean cellphone or a domestically-produced sofa.
This means that numerous Ukrainian workers, as well as vast quantities of energy and material, remain tied up in the production of goods irrelevant to the war. And in the production of exports to finance the import of consumer goods from abroad.
Against a total-war state, any damage to its production will deal direct damage to its war no matter how belated. Even something as insignificant as burning a wheat field can mean that a couple of slave laborers will starve down the line affecting this project or that, and killing X workers in an urban raid guarantees X workers are taken out of the military-industrial workforce.
By contrast, when you’re shutting down industries of a state like Ukraine that economically remains on a peace footing, you’re naturally by and large shutting down production that had next to no effect on the war to start with.
If a Ukrainian is making a living assembling musical instruments and setting aside his salary to buy a used car in Poland, and the power outages mean he goes a month without work, where is the blow to anything war-related in that?
He had been making only the most indirect and the most partial contribution to the war effort to start with. He pays some taxes, some of which go to pay the military and buy arms. That’s it.
So when Russia plunges a region of Ukraine into darkness this looks impressive on a map but as a matter of practicality, little military production is being shut down in this way because only a small portion of production is war-related to start with.
Intensity of emergency power outages in Ukraine by regions pic.twitter.com/NxjkTDOJxX
— Sprinter Monitor (@SprinterMonitor) November 5, 2022
Another thing to appreciate is that when you’re not mobilized you have a great deal of redundancy.
This is not Russia’s first strategic bombing campaign in Ukraine. You might recall that throughout spring Russia was hitting fuel depots and oil refineries. This led to a visible fuel crunch for the civilian sector exemplified by the kilometers-long lines for gas in many regions of Ukraine.
This fuel campaign has been since all but abandoned. As to the reasons why we can only speculate, but the most likely explanation is that it was deemed ineffective.
The most likely cause of that is redundancy. If Russian strikes cut fuel availability in Ukraine by 30% that spells havoc for some, but the military and military production need not be affected. As long as war needs are prioritized and get their share it matters very little how much is left over for civilian needs, and spending expensive cruise missiles so that a taxi driver or a farmer don’t get fuel doesn’t win wars.
When the power grid is under attack routing electricity in this way to priority consumers is more difficult, which may be the reason Russia has switched from hitting fuel to hitting power, but it can be done to an extent. Kiev going dark gives an appearance of a bombing campaign that is “working” but it could just as easily be a Ukrainian measure to preserve what power is available locally for the priority military industries and the railway.
Ukraine’s lack of industrial mobilization for the war is advantageous for Russia, but it also means that what military production exists is more resilient. Even if Russia can successfully limit inputs such as fuel, power, labor, steel to the industry as a whole as long as Kiev is clever enough to prioritize war-related production this needn’t have any effect on the war fought on the front.
Much of Ukraine’s Industrial Rear Is Abroad
Most of new Ukrainian armor and shells are supplied from abroad. Foreign countries even repair damaged and de-activated Ukrainian tanks. Without this foreign support Ukraine might by now have an all-infantry army.
Most of that aid came from pre-existing stocks but they’re also already building weapons specifically for Ukraine (or to rebuild the stocks which is the same thing), and even making some minor investments in expanding production capacity.
Striking a factory in Bulgaria making 152mm shells (which NATO then purchases for Ukraine) would have a greater (temporary) effect on the war than plunging any number of Ukrainian pensioners into darkness. Yet this considerable productive capacity in places like Bulgaria, Poland, Germany, and the US remains out of bounds of Russian strategic bombing.
The situation is somewhat similar to the Korean war. In that conflict, the US leveled every urban and semi-urban settlement in North Korea, yet this had very little effect on the war since by then the industrial rear of the Communist side was in China and the Soviet Union.
Russia Doesn’t Have a Machinery of Mass Conventional Destruction
Some people I’ve talked to have the impression that Russia can dial-in any level of destruction on Ukrainian infrastructure it desires. Supposedly if Russia only didn’t care about collateral damage it could “carpet bomb” Ukraine into oblivion. I wonder where this impression comes from.
Yes, Russia has the capability to rain any amount of destruction if it reaches for atomic weapons. But if those are off the table then its capability for conventional destruction is anything but grand.
The Allied strategic bombing campaign was famously destructive for German cities, but what is less well remembered is the gargantuan human and industrial undertaking this required. At its height, the Allied bomber force in Europe commanded 27,000 aircraft and 1.3 million personnel. Millions more were tied down in industrial processes required to equip them. In the course of the war, it dropped 2.7 million tons of bombs (the equivalent of 10 million standard 250-kg bombs) in 1.5 million bomber sorties escorted by 2.7 million fighter sorties, losing 160,000 airmen and 38,000 aircraft.
The Allied bomber force of WW2 required a gigantic investment of resources which Russia simply never undertook. To the Allies’ 14,000 bomber planes in 1945 Russia can boast 60 Tu-95, 60 Tu-22M and 20 Tu-160 and very little ability to replace them if they are lost. (Only the Tu-160 is in small-scale production.)
It is very rare for Russia to expend more than twenty cruise or ballistic missiles (air, sea, or ground-launched) per night. (Increasingly supplemented by Iranian flying bomblets.) 250 days into the war this then has to be considered the upper limit of sustainable Russian expenditure for the foreseeable future. No matter how accurate, some 10 tons of explosives daily simply isn’t that much and doesn’t come close to Allied strategic firepower of WW2. (2500 tons daily in 1944.)
And yet even this much greater Allied firepower in WW2 coupled with zero qualms about collateral damage is estimated to have suppressed the German armaments output in 1944 by no more than 11% of what it would have been otherwise. (Richard Overy, The Bombing War)
Even much more potent strategic campaigns than that waged by Russia in Ukraine seem to be no war winners. (Yes, the bombing of the 1940s was gravely hampered by abysmal accuracy, but the tonnage more than made up for it compared to Russia today. Especially when you consider that many attacks were incendiary and did not need accuracy.)
Nobody Really Knows How to Disable an Economy
The Anglo-American bomber force spent the entire WW2 constantly shifting its priorities. It was in a constant search of a “bottleneck” target that would leverage the effectiveness of its bombing beyond the immediate damage inflicted. (Ball bearings were famously a particular obsession.)
As a rule, even when it found such targets it hit them too late to matter (after they had stopped being bottlenecks), or didn’t stick with hitting them for long enough to really make a dent.
This reveals another problem. In strategic bombing it is difficult enough to know what to hit, and it is even more difficult to know what effect — if any — is your bombing having.
That there are countless competing targets each with their own advocates is an additional challenge.
Fundamental problems are two. Complexity and dynamism. First of all, industrial processes these days are so complex that nobody knows how anything is made anymore. Everything goes through so many stages, involves so many inputs, and the work of so many people, as well as so much barter, that fully comprehending how a war industry runs is the amount of information that can not fit inside a human brain.
Because nobody can know how it all runs, nobody can possibly know for certain what are the key inputs that removed will best paralyze the entire enterprise.
The second problem is that bombing is acting against a complex system that is continuously reacting and adapting. There is virtually nothing in industry that is done because it is the only way of doing something. Virtually everything is done a particular way because it is marginally more efficient than a variety of other ways that are marginally less profitable but which are also viable.
So in fact there are no silver bullets and any success is temporary. Short of cataclysmic levels of firepower and destruction, bombing is just as likely to cause targeted industries to increasingly bomb-proof their processes (at a hit to efficiency) as it is to gravely hamper them.
What solutions precisely they will implement I can not tell you, because nobody can. Nobody can know this in advance any more than anybody can know how it all runs right now. But create some hole anywhere in a complex system like this and numerous actors downstream from the problem with intimate know-how of their particular process get an incentive to mitigate and work around it, which eventually has to result in at least a partial solution. Usually one that had not been previously foreseen.
In light of that, the Russian focus on energy — first fuel, now power — rather than going after some specific component or even directly for military production is almost Solomonic. Everything needs energy and you can’t go wrong by hitting energy. (But of course, there are ways to mitigate even this.)
However, as discussed above, this comes with a great deal of collateral damage. The very first to feel the energy crunch will be the civilians and then the civilian industries. Military industries and the military will be the last.
In fact, we can not say for certain that the current electricity crunch is affecting the military, military transport, or military production at all.
And the abortive nature of the strikes, the abandonment of the campaign against fuel, and the first series of strikes against the power grid, probably testify to the fact that Russians themselves have doubts as to them being a sensible use of a resource as scarce and as useful as a precision-guided missile.
If this text reads like that of someone who harbors a bias against strategic bombing that is so. But I was not born with such a bias. If I hold it in low regard it is because I read about wars and I didn’t learn of a single example where it actually made sense.
The results of 20th-century strategic bombing campaigns seem to range from counter-productive, to ineffectual, to superfluous, to campaigns that were effectual but that consumed resources that would have been far better used elsewhere. (If the Russian strikes in Ukraine turn out to be different I will adjust accordingly but so far there is no sign albeit admittedly four weeks is also too early for one.)
The bombing of Japan probably comes the closest to a campaign that produced results, but even in this case, the industries that were burned at the tail-end of the war were already suffering from shortages of inputs caused by the US submarine blockade conducted at a lower cost that also immobilized the Japanese Navy (no oil could get out of SE Asia) and hampered the communication with its armies in China.
The US effort against Japan — even the strategic effort — would have been better served with an earlier and more aggressive submarine campaign which accomplished grand things on a shoestring (just 1400 patrols by 260 ships at 4000 dead), but the submariners had nowhere the political clout of the Bomber Mafia.
Similarly Russia is facing an opponent that suffers from a critical geographical weakness of being bisected by a mega river, but insists on lobbing scarce and valuable cruise missiles against electric installations in strikes that may or may not pay off and then only in some roundabout indeterminate way in some distant future.
Use the same missile against a railway running over a Dnieper bridge and the payoff is immediate, direct and assured.
The supply of the enemy military at the front will be interrupted for a few days — no ifs and buts. As the rail gets repaired strike it again and eventually the bridge itself will crumble. Then the opponent is reduced to having to supply its force with barges and pontoons, which as the Russians have discovered in Kherson isn’t easy.
Every conceivable problem the Russians have, from Bulgarian 152mm to American HIMARS to Polish T-72s to Ukraine’s own production is mitigated if the Ukrainians don’t have an efficient way of getting this stuff across the Dnieper.
Of course, for full effect an effort against the bridges has to be combined with a serious offensive on the left bank that first stresses Ukrainian supply capabilities to breaking point and then takes advantage of these not being able to keep up. But if the Ukrainians are on the contrary left unpressured for six months, then of course they will eventually build up vast supplies on the left bank even if they have to carry them across on their backs as they swim. (In that case taking out the bridges becomes largely irrelevant since the supply dumps across the river now cushion against it.)
To be perfectly frank, it is impossible to know if the Russian campaign against the power grid actually has a strategic rationale. Is the purpose really to test if Ukrainian production and transport can be hampered in a way that ultimately makes it easier for the Russian military on the front?
Or is it perhaps a “coercive” campaign to show off what Russia can do to the Ukrainian economy and quality of life, and what Ukraine can be spared if it enters talks or a truce, or if it restricts its conduct of war in some way?
Can we be sure there is a grand rationale at all? We don’t even know if the Russian army, air force and navy aren’t all lobbing these missiles independently of one another. And if a unified cruise missile command body has been established it naturally has its own institutional incentives that are only tangentially related to those of “Russia” in the abstract.
Historically whenever such institutions are founded they immediately want to run their own wars, rather than having to support someone else’s. Even when the latter would be advantageous for the collective. Nobody wants the job of making someone else look good. Bombardiers hate interdiction that unquestionably makes the life of the ground army easier and love convoluted strategies whereby they can win wars by themselves via some roundabout foggy plan. Risking failure is better than risking success that will have your institutional competition as the primary beneficiary.