2023: Year of the Drone or Year of the Tank?

Commentary The Russian invasion of Ukraine has exploded many myths, perhaps none more than the myth that, over the past decade or so, Russia has successfully transformed and modernized its armed force. Just before the war, many Western analysts (who really should’ve known better) were touting the Russian military as a well-equipped conventional force, built around professional personnel and held at a higher readiness than ever before. Russia had “turned the corner” on military modernization and was now capable of providing Moscow “with a credible military tool for pursuing national policy goals.” Instead, Russia failed to meet its initial objective of capturing Kyiv in the first few days of the war and was forced into a mortifying retreat from the northern part of Ukraine. Moscow’s later successes in capturing most of the four oblasts in Ukraine’s south and east—later annexing them in sham referendums—were stymied by a major Ukrainian counteroffensive late last year and a resulting stalemate. What happened? Besides overestimating Russia’s conventional military might, analysts both in Moscow and the West failed to understand how new technologies have fundamentally altered the metrics of military effectiveness on the battlefield. Let’s begin with Russian military tactics, which relied initially on tank-heavy armored assaults—basically, blunt force. The Russian army felt that it could simply bulldoze its way into Kyiv. But this approach quickly fell victim to highly decentralized hit-and-run tactics by Ukrainian forces, armed with highly accurate and powerful antitank weapons, particularly the U.S. Javelin and the Anglo-Swedish NLAW. At the same time, the Ukrainians were able to successfully employ armed drones against Russian forces. One unexpected and surprising source for such drones was Turkey and its Bayraktar TB2. At the beginning of hostilities, the TB2 was particularly effective at launching air-to-ground munitions, destroying Russian armor, multiple rocket launchers, surface-to-air missiles, and even patrol boats. The TB2 was thought to have helped in the sinking of the Russian cruise Moskva. Russia, meanwhile, has been a latecomer to the idea of armed drones, and it was caught unawares by Ukrainian drone operations. In response, Moscow has turned to Iran, buying thousands of drones from Tehran. One of the best-known is the Shahed-136 loitering drone, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that looks suspiciously like the Israeli Harpy. (In fact, Harpy technology could have proliferated to Iran via China, which acquired several hundred Harpy drones during the 1990s, or from South Africa). Russia is now building Iranian drones under license. A Russian drone during a Russian drone strike, which local authorities consider to be Iranian-made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) Shahed-136, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Oct. 17, 2022. (Roman Petushkov/Reuters) The Russo-Ukrainian War has clearly demonstrated the critical centrality of drones on the battlefield, and consequently two major developments are going to impact future wars. The first is the continued proliferation and availability of combat drones for longer-ranged complex operations. The availability and appeal of relatively cheap, armed drones from new suppliers will impact drone acquisition around the world, with nations lining up to acquire UAVs that have been battle-proven in Ukraine.  The Turkish company Baykar, for example, maker of the Bayraktar drone, has sold drones to 27 countries. In 2022, exports made up 98 percent of the company’s earnings. The second development is the use of inexpensive tactical drones for close-support operations In particular, poorer militaries are likely to turn to cheap commercial drones (such as Chinese-made DJIs) for surveillance and reconnaissance, artillery spotting, and other information operations. One should expect to see various UAVs as a constant presence on the modern battlefield, with even smaller units at the platoon and company levels possessing their own capability to conduct reconnaissance and even combat missions. At the same time, the profusion of drones raises the importance of counter-UAV capabilities, at the tactical and operational levels, with systems and technologies that can jam, disable, and ultimately bring down enemy drones. With both Russian and Ukrainian combatants now using hand-held counter-UAV systems, nations interested in acquiring similar technology will see how such systems perform in this war.  A Ukrainian tank moves near the front line in Bakhmut, Donetsk oblast, Ukraine, on Oct. 21, 2022. (Carl Court/Getty Images) So have unmanned systems permanently and irrevocably changed the character and conduct of future war? Is it “all drones, all the time” now? Not necessarily. In fact, we could be on the cusp of a major new development in the Russo-Ukrainian War that could bring back to the fore a quite familiar and formidable weapon system: the main

2023: Year of the Drone or Year of the Tank?

Commentary

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has exploded many myths, perhaps none more than the myth that, over the past decade or so, Russia has successfully transformed and modernized its armed force.

Just before the war, many Western analysts (who really should’ve known better) were touting the Russian military as a well-equipped conventional force, built around professional personnel and held at a higher readiness than ever before. Russia had “turned the corner” on military modernization and was now capable of providing Moscow “with a credible military tool for pursuing national policy goals.”

Instead, Russia failed to meet its initial objective of capturing Kyiv in the first few days of the war and was forced into a mortifying retreat from the northern part of Ukraine. Moscow’s later successes in capturing most of the four oblasts in Ukraine’s south and east—later annexing them in sham referendums—were stymied by a major Ukrainian counteroffensive late last year and a resulting stalemate.

What happened?

Besides overestimating Russia’s conventional military might, analysts both in Moscow and the West failed to understand how new technologies have fundamentally altered the metrics of military effectiveness on the battlefield.

Let’s begin with Russian military tactics, which relied initially on tank-heavy armored assaults—basically, blunt force. The Russian army felt that it could simply bulldoze its way into Kyiv. But this approach quickly fell victim to highly decentralized hit-and-run tactics by Ukrainian forces, armed with highly accurate and powerful antitank weapons, particularly the U.S. Javelin and the Anglo-Swedish NLAW.

At the same time, the Ukrainians were able to successfully employ armed drones against Russian forces. One unexpected and surprising source for such drones was Turkey and its Bayraktar TB2. At the beginning of hostilities, the TB2 was particularly effective at launching air-to-ground munitions, destroying Russian armor, multiple rocket launchers, surface-to-air missiles, and even patrol boats. The TB2 was thought to have helped in the sinking of the Russian cruise Moskva.

Russia, meanwhile, has been a latecomer to the idea of armed drones, and it was caught unawares by Ukrainian drone operations. In response, Moscow has turned to Iran, buying thousands of drones from Tehran. One of the best-known is the Shahed-136 loitering drone, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that looks suspiciously like the Israeli Harpy. (In fact, Harpy technology could have proliferated to Iran via China, which acquired several hundred Harpy drones during the 1990s, or from South Africa). Russia is now building Iranian drones under license.

Russian drone
A Russian drone during a Russian drone strike, which local authorities consider to be Iranian-made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) Shahed-136, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Oct. 17, 2022. (Roman Petushkov/Reuters)

The Russo-Ukrainian War has clearly demonstrated the critical centrality of drones on the battlefield, and consequently two major developments are going to impact future wars.

The first is the continued proliferation and availability of combat drones for longer-ranged complex operations. The availability and appeal of relatively cheap, armed drones from new suppliers will impact drone acquisition around the world, with nations lining up to acquire UAVs that have been battle-proven in Ukraine. 

The Turkish company Baykar, for example, maker of the Bayraktar drone, has sold drones to 27 countries. In 2022, exports made up 98 percent of the company’s earnings.

The second development is the use of inexpensive tactical drones for close-support operations In particular, poorer militaries are likely to turn to cheap commercial drones (such as Chinese-made DJIs) for surveillance and reconnaissance, artillery spotting, and other information operations. One should expect to see various UAVs as a constant presence on the modern battlefield, with even smaller units at the platoon and company levels possessing their own capability to conduct reconnaissance and even combat missions. At the same time, the profusion of drones raises the importance of counter-UAV capabilities, at the tactical and operational levels, with systems and technologies that can jam, disable, and ultimately bring down enemy drones. With both Russian and Ukrainian combatants now using hand-held counter-UAV systems, nations interested in acquiring similar technology will see how such systems perform in this war. 

Epoch Times Photo
A Ukrainian tank moves near the front line in Bakhmut, Donetsk oblast, Ukraine, on Oct. 21, 2022. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

So have unmanned systems permanently and irrevocably changed the character and conduct of future war? Is it “all drones, all the time” now?

Not necessarily. In fact, we could be on the cusp of a major new development in the Russo-Ukrainian War that could bring back to the fore a quite familiar and formidable weapon system: the main battle tank.

The death of the tank has been predicted before. During the 1990s and the height of the so-called information technologies-led “revolution in military affairs” (Info-RMA), advocates poured scorn on the main battle tank. The future of warfare was centered around light, highly mobile, and “intelligentized” forces. As such, the tank was too slow, and too vulnerable. The Info-RMA was all about substituting speed for mass and trading information for armor.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq soon put lie to such an argument. In uncertain environments, wrapping oneself in layers of heavy armor was the smart way to go. Countries that had planned to scrap or reduce their tank forces soon found themselves buying more. Today, in fact, we seem to be in the midst of a “tank renaissance,” with exports of U.S. M1s, German Leopard 2, and South Korean K2 going through the roof.

Much of this is driven by expectations of a major spring offensive in the south and eastern Ukraine. The Russians are likely to revert to a classic military operation: major artillery barrages, backed up by large tank assaults. As a result, Kyiv has been begging the West for modern tanks. After a certain degree of foot-dragging (especially by Germany), NATO will soon be sending thousands of M1s, Leopard 2s, and British Challenger tanks to Ukraine.

The next wave in the Russo-Ukrainian War is likely to be a return to the “meatgrinder war,” with high casualties and the mass destruction of property. Drones and the Info-RMA promised highly focused, “pin-point” warfare. Sadly, it all comes back to total war—2023 promises to be both the year of the drone and the year of the tank.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.