By Major General Anatoliy Barhylyevich, Commander of the Territorial Defense
Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces (TDF) are the most vivid confirmation of the importance of the principle of comprehensive resistance to the aggressor, especially in the face of large-scale aggression from a significantly more powerful enemy. Even though at the beginning of a large-scale invasion, the TDF were actually in their initial formation stage, in some places, they were the first to engage in an unequal battle with the aggressor in their territorial defense zone and subsequently assumed responsibilities on the frontline.
The TDF is also a unique example of adaptation to the complex realities of large-scale war and the ability to integrate into the general national defense system. At the same time, it is about a long history of success and several problems – some of which have been addressed while others await immediate and future resolution. The Command of the Territorial Defense Forces has developed a plan for further changes based on the combat experience of the massive technological war of the 21st century, which will increase the capabilities of the TDF.
Twenty months of military experience
After nearly two years of full-scale war, the TDF has established itself as a distinct military branch. This understanding was confirmed by the effective participation of TDF units and subunits in the Ukrainian Defense Forces' key defensive and counter-offensive operations. It must be noted that the TDF is part of the broader concept of "territorial defense," which is an element of the national resistance system in conjunction with the resistance movement and the preparation of citizens for national resistance, following the Law of Ukraine "On the Foundations of National Resistance."
The implementation of the idea of creating the TDF has a long history. The concept of creating a territorial defense force has been discussed for nearly as long as Ukraine has been independent. The first practical steps began only after the terrorist events of 2014. The relevant Law, "On the Foundations of National Resistance," was adopted in July 2021, and the actual structure of the TDF began operating on January 1, 2022 - just a few weeks before Russia's large-scale invasion. The following months became a real test of creating a comprehensive national resistance system and a set of legislative, regulatory, legal, organizational, and resource support measures for its implementation.
The realities of today have necessitated rapid changes both in the letter and in the spirit of the tasks that faced the TDF, especially regarding the direct involvement of TDF brigades and battalions in combat operations. The first aspect did not go as planned, prompting a reevaluation not only of the role and place of the TDF but also of the structure of defense and national security as a whole.
The situation's complexity is aggravated by the fact that operations to introduce specific changes must be carried out "live" - in battalions and brigades actively engaged in combat or preparing for it. In a brutal confrontation with the enemy invaders, units and subunits of the TDF and all the Defense Forces of Ukraine have been forced to transform and modernize their tactical skills, strategies, and command and control systems.
For some time, the TDF experienced difficulties in training fighters due to the lack of their capacity for this task and the reality that the stretched resources of the Ground Forces training centers needed to be increased to meet the exponentially growing demands of the TDF.
Due to this challenge, our own training centers were created, and training units were implemented at regional offices. Currently, the TDF has developed infrastructure for training squad and platoon commanders. In addition, we have a unique "Captain Training" - courses for company commanders and battalion staff officers who, according to modern standards and in comfortable living conditions, master the skills of military leadership and combat planning according to the TLP (Troops Leading Procedure).
In addition, given the current trends in warfare, the Territorial Defense Forces are now actively developing training for specialists in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Soon, a full-fledged training base that can meet the need for relevant specialists from the TDF and other branches and types of forces will be in operation.
These training capacities should be preserved even after the war, as the country will have numerous war-hardened territorial reserves whose skills must be constantly maintained. In addition, such training centers will prepare young recruits from the pool of reservists. However, the mass training of citizens for national resistance remains a challenge.
Overall, the fighters and commanders of the TDF have met the challenges of the previous 20 months of war. However, to win a complete victory while suffering the least amount of losses, we need political will and the initiative of commanders at all levels, motivation for both the personnel and all citizens for a decisive struggle to a victorious end, robust support from the state and society, and timely assistance from our Western partners.
Since February 24, 2022, all components of the Defense Forces of Ukraine, including the TDF, have been operating in the face of force majeure. The experience gained - sometimes bitter but necessary – aids in substantive discussions about further developing the TDF as a full-fledged component of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. During the 20 months of the war, the Territorial Defense Forces faced the following challenges:
Firstly, a significant part of the TDF battalions found themselves in the crucible of a large-scale war, lacking prior practical experience in territorial defense and combat operations on the front line.
Secondly, with the onset of Russian aggression, there was an urgent need to create and deploy new TDF battalions rapidly. The Territorial Defense Forces comprised 25 brigades with about 10 thousand personnel at that time. In a short time, another 100 thousand people volunteered for the territorial defense. Most of them were civilians with no military service or combat experience.
Thirdly, related to the previous was the problem of training a vast number of people in their coordination in the units and formations, often while simultaneously engaged in combat. This created an extreme load on the Armed Forces personnel training system and necessitated a significant revision of its structure, functions, resource provision, and public-private partnership issues in the territorial defense system.
Fourthly, the high dynamics of the war, rapid changes in tactics by both sides, the high saturation of the battlefield with the latest technological means, and the practical absence of areas in Ukraine protected from aerial attacks necessitate the constant adaptation of all TDF components. These challenges require the TDF to refine their structure, staff of brigades and battalions, develop their personnel training capabilities, logistical support, and widespread introduction of technical and technological innovations in the military.
Need for immediate changes.
There is an unwritten rule during the war: don’t tamper with what works effectively; improve what works insufficiently; discard what doesn't work.
Currently, by their defined function, the Territorial Defense Forces conform to the classic definition of "light infantry." However, in the context of the current war with Russia, the available capabilities of the TDF need to be improved for the effective execution of their combat tasks.
The legislation provides for the maximum number of Territorial Defense Forces at 10 thousand people. Structurally, they consisted of four regional departments, 25 brigades created in each region, and one brigade per city with a population of more than 900 thousand. The intention was to operate separate territorial defense battalions in each district and regional center of the country. However, it is evident today these norms are no longer relevant.
So, what are the actual changes, and in what areas is it planned to implement them, both now and conditionally, by the end of the war? There is an urgent need to determine directions for further work to improve the TDF system and its components.
The first direction is to align the tasks of territorial defense with the realities of war. Time has shown that the functions specified in the Law of Ukraine "On the Foundations of National Resistance" do not fully meet the requirements that have been developed today.
The second direction is the improvement of the structure of the territorial defense system. It is necessary to revise the functionality of both the Command and regional departments; they should be made more relevant to training both TDF units and the population within the framework of national resistance and to defining its capabilities. It is also advisable to review the functioning, structure, and subordination of zones' and regions' headquarters, their composition, and the need for state authorities to function in the territorial defense system. With this, it is necessary to adjust the role and place of commanders and brigade staff of the Territorial Defense Forces.
The third direction is the introduction of the necessary changes in the organizational structure of military units and subunits. It is essential to create a modular structure of military units and subunits (first of all - fire support and support forces), allowing them to effectively participate in combat, protect critical infrastructure and communications, and provide logistic support to the modules.
The fourth direction is automation and digitalization of decision-making processes, communication, management of forces and means, and logistics support of the TDF. This will allow them to transition to network-centric warfare, significantly improving the effectiveness of combat use of forces and means and resource utilization.
The fifth direction is the introduction of effective management practices with the necessary degree of decentralization, which will allow commanders to make informed decisions independently according to the situation and senior commanders to ensure the execution of required tasks. After completing each assignment, a detailed debriefing and analysis must be conducted with proposals made considering the directly gained combat experience.
The sixth direction is to increase the effectiveness of training the TDF personnel. TDF service members have gained extraordinary experience in modern warfare, so accumulating this experience and ensuring its transfer are among the highest priorities. First, it is about expanding the system of training centers and increasing the capabilities of existing TDF training centers, creating units for research, and introducing innovative samples of modern technology for TDF needs. Ideally, the TDF should have training systems tailored to the needs of this type of force.
The seventh direction is strengthening the capabilities of the population’s training for national resistance. There is a need to increase the number of training centers and increase their capacity and quality. Possible solutions to this problem include broad involvement of regional state authorities, civil society capabilities, and professional assistance with instructors, methodologies, and equipment. This would significantly relieve the specialized centers and enhance community protection and resilience.
The eighth direction is the development and widespread introduction of electronic warfare/reconnaissance systems and UAVs. Modern warfare's realities demonstrate these areas' enormous importance, a factor that cannot be underestimated. While we already have some automated systems developed and implemented in the TDF today, the role of electronic devices is increasing daily, and we need to pay maximum attention to these spheres because the aggressor also makes significant efforts in this field. The same applies to aerial surveillance and strike UAVs - we must always be ahead of the enemy.
The ninth direction is the development of further interaction between the military and civilian components of territorial defense, as well as maintaining cooperation with volunteer organizations and other civil society institutions. Practice proves that the real constructive interaction between TDF, relevant government bodies, and civil society can solve many typical problems affecting TDF support. In addition, their participation in popularizing national resistance and performing their other tasks following the Law gives the territorial defense an integrated character. It ensures proper interaction of civil and military components of national resistance.
It is historically proven that the struggle begins with the will to fight. No weapon will be helpful in battle if the key element is missing, which is the willingness of the people to confront any enemy. This principle is the foundation of national resistance. This factor became clear on February 24, 2022, when Ukrainians’ ability and desire to resist became the building block in the ongoing struggle to repel the enemy.
The ongoing challenges require careful consideration and immediate resolution as the TDF continues participating in combat operations and implements reforms "on the march." The complexity of such an unprecedented task is unparalleled in world military history. We cannot postpone reforms to "after Victory" since overcoming the adversity seen in modern warfare is critical to success.
Accumulating the experience gained, intelligently distributing efforts and resources, and preserving the main achievement of this war - the unity of the Ukrainian people in the face of the enemy - are our main priorities. And it is the territorial defense that represents that crucial line of direct connection between citizens, society, and the Armed Forces of Ukraine.