What happens in Ukraine could shape the way we fight across the world
From the armchairs of western Europe, the war in Ukraine looks remarkably static. Frontlines have barely shifted this summer, despite the Ukrainian counter-offensive.
One might even see the situation as a reversion to the trench warfare of the First World War, however that would be a misleading impression. While the Russians are relying on long defensive lines to cling on to stolen territory, what’s happening on the ground — or, rather, above it — amounts to a reinvention of war.
In an important piece for the Wall Street Journal, Yaroslav Trofimov reports on the impact that drones are having in Ukraine.
A quote from a senior officer in the Ukraine military intelligence service makes the new reality clear: “Today, a column of tanks or a column of advancing troops can be discovered in three to five minutes and hit in another three minutes. The survivability on the move is no more than 10 minutes”.
Another Trofimov interviewee — a retired US army officer now advising the Ukrainians — sums up the consequences: “The days of massed armored assaults, taking many kilometers of ground at a time, like we did in 2003 in Iraq— that stuff is gone…”
Of course, warfare has always been subject to technological developments and counter-developments. They don’t call it the arms race for nothing. But occasionally a new class of weapon is so disruptive that it transforms warfare completely. The most obvious example is the invention of firearms which eventually displaced medieval weaponry.
At the moment, one might assume that drones are just an addition to the theatre of war. Except that’s probably what they thought about firearms in the the 16th century when “pike and shot” formations — composed of pikemen and musketmen — were often deployed. But by the end of the 17th century, all that remained of the older weapons was the blade on a bayonet.
In the case of drones, we should expect a faster transition.
Firstly, they’re relatively simple and therefore cheap. A small drone costs just a few hundred dollars, which is a mere fraction what an artillery shell costs. And yet drones can take out artillery pieces, tanks or even aircraft. The asymmetric economics would suggest that drones are going to win out.
Secondly, the application of artificial intelligence to drones provides the potential for turning a simple weapon into a sophisticated one. It also allows the coordination of drone swarms, turning a small weapon into a big one.
Thirdly, drones — being both cheap and unmanned — are dispensable. As well as being good for kamikaze missions, this means that the generation times for drone models are much shorter than for larger, longer-lived bits of kit, from armoured vehicles to warships. As a result drones can out-evolve them. In Ukraine, we can see the evolution of drone warfare in real time.
Elsewhere in the world one has to ask whether the pace of military change is already influencing geopolitical calculations. For instance, from Beijing’s point of view, Taiwan — with its advanced manufacturing capability — must look like a giant launchpad for millions of drones. Any invasion plans from the mainland may soon be rendered obsolete.
Whether that prompts Xi Jinping to press forward or hold back remains to be seen, but drone technology is rapidly redrawing the line between calculated risk and pointless sacrifice. Indeed, every nation needs to rethink its defence policy, including our own. The next time that British taxpayers are asked to shell out for the latest military hardware we need ask just how long it’s likely to last on a drone-filled battlefield. Furthermore, should the drones be sent in our direction, we need to know what exactly is going stop them.