Ukraine: A New Way of Warfare or World War I All Over Again?

Ukraine: A New Way of Warfare or World War I All Over Again? - Yogi Berra—my favorite philosopher—once said, "The future ain’t what it used to be." It’s the same with war. Every new conflict brings out scores of military strategists and defense futurists, each arguing that the current “war de jour” is emblematic of a wholly new way of fighting—in other words, a “revolution in military affairs” (RMA).

Ukraine: A New Way of Warfare or World War I All Over Again?

Ukraine: A New Way of Warfare or World War I All Over Again?

Commentary

Yogi Berra—my favorite philosopher—once said, "The future ain’t what it used to be." It’s the same with war. Every new conflict brings out scores of military strategists and defense futurists, each arguing that the current “war de jour” is emblematic of a wholly new way of fighting—in other words, a “revolution in military affairs” (RMA).

It’s entirely understandable: Military analysts, after all, are paid to predict the next war, not parse the last one (not always, anyway). And each new conflict generally brings with it lessons for warfighters, both recommendations and cautions. It behooves us all to learn from past successes, mistakes, and failures.

That said, too many military futurists tend to go too far. They often infer too much from too little data, ignore their biases, and let their arguments carry them away. When it comes to predicting the future of warfare, while skeptics may overly discount new trends or advances, advocates of military innovation too often go overboard and become zealots.

It has happened before and appears to be happening now with the Russo-Ukrainian War.

During the 1990s, for example, the military fashionistas glommed on to the notion of the “information technologies-led RMA.” Within the Beltway and particularly within the Pentagon, there arose a school of thought that argued that dramatic breakthroughs in information technologies (IT) created the potential to revolutionize the “character and conduct of warfighting.” This information revolution made possible significant innovation and improvement in the fields of sensors, seekers, computing and communications, automation, range, and precision.

In particular, the IT-led revolution laid the groundwork for “network-centric warfare” (NCW), resulting in a vastly improved and expanded command, control, communications, computing, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) infrastructure.

High-precision long-range air-based and sea-based weapons destroyed gasoline and diesel fuel storages at the Kremenchuk oil refinery in Ukraine on April 2, 2022. (Russian Defense Ministry via Reuters/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)
High-precision long-range air-based and sea-based weapons destroyed gasoline and diesel fuel storages at the Kremenchuk oil refinery in Ukraine on April 2, 2022. (Russian Defense Ministry via Reuters/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)

At the same time, improvements in microelectronics and targeting promised to greatly expand the range and accuracy of precision-strike weaponry.

Future warfare, therefore, was going to be highly networked, agile, fast-moving, and joint (that is, coordinated warfighting engaging ground, air, and naval forces). It would also be characterized by enhanced battlefield knowledge and situational awareness—reducing or even eliminating the “fog of war”—and ever more accurate standoff engagements.

The problem was it didn’t work out that way. In the first place, few countries could afford the IT-RMA. Acquiring such transformational systems as smart bombs, land-attack missiles, airborne surveillance planes, radars, spy satellites, and reconnaissance drones, along with the incredibly sophisticated (and therefore expensive) hardware and software that went into crafting modern C4ISR network, was beyond the means of most militaries, especially those in the developing world or newly industrialized states. Even today, most non-Western militaries resemble World War II-type armies—heavy on armor and infantry, and maneuvering in two-dimensional, massed operations.

The relatively rich West also found it hard to pull off this RMA, including most West European militaries; they remained light on transformation and put most of their funds into new armor, new fighter jets, and the like, rather than C4ISR, NCW, or long-range precision-strike. Talk about leveraging the IT-RMA remained just that: talk.

Even the United States, with its huge defense budgets, couldn’t fully transform its armed forces. Programs like the Army’s Future Combat System—a $160 billion program to develop a fleet of 18 different versions of a single type of modularized light combat vehicle, both manned and unmanned, linked together by a state-of-the-art communications system—collapsed under its own weight. Other key elements of the U.S. military’s force transformation program, including the Transformational Satellite Communications System (TSAT) and the Global Information Grid, were eventually canceled.

To be fair, the U.S. military got some things right, particularly the embrace of standoff precision-strike weaponry and the widespread use of drones, both reconnaissance and armed. For example, during the 1991 Gulf War, only 9 percent of all air-dropped munitions used by the military were precision-strike weapons. Still, they were responsible for 75 percent of all strategic hits. By the 2003 Iraq War, 80 percent of all airborne strikes were with precision-guided weapons.

The Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone at Gecitkale military airbase near Famagusta in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, on Dec. 16, 2019. (Birol Bebek/AFP via Getty Images)
The Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone at Gecitkale military airbase near Famagusta in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, on Dec. 16, 2019. (Birol Bebek/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s happening all over again with the war in Ukraine. For some, this conflict is the transformational watershed they have sought. According to RAND analyst David Johnson, with the Russo-Ukrainian War, “[what] we are witnessing is a pivotal moment in military history.” T. X. Hamnes, a researcher at the U.S. National Defense University, has argued that this conflict constitutes “a genuine military revolution.”

The drivers? A lethal stew of drones, smart weapons, artificial intelligence, cyberwar, and even hypersonic weapons. Add to this is the rapid adaptation of commercial technologies, such as the internet, civilian communications satellites, and cellular networks, as well as other tricks (such as using smartphones armed with Google Maps to target Russian soldiers).

Again, at the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War, it certainly seemed that a new RMA was taking hold. At first, it appeared to be a tank war, a return to “blitzkrieg” tactics like those originated by Germany at the start of World War II. But then Russian armored columns quickly fell victim to highly decentralized hit-and-run tactics by Ukrainian forces, armed with highly accurate and powerful antitank weapons, such as 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.

But the war has quickly evolved. Drones like the TB2 were neutralized by improved jamming by the Russians. More importantly, the dispersed operations used so successfully by the Ukrainians at the beginning of the war were of little help in the face of the kind of static defensive warfare later employed by the Russians in southeastern Ukraine.

In fact, the conflict now looks more like the kind of trench warfare that dominated World War I. Both sides are dug into deep defensive lines involving minefields, booby traps, antitank ditches, and rows of “dragon's teeth,” spiky pyramids of concrete designed to stop armored vehicles.

At the same time, these World War I defenses are bolstered by some decidedly 21st-century technologies, including drones, electronic sensors, jamming systems, and sophisticated air defenses.

This hybrid of new and old technologies and tactics has drastically changed how this war is fought. In particular, with both sides so heavily dug in and defended, offensive operations have nearly ground to a halt. The Russian offensive failed earlier this year, and now the Ukrainians appear stymied in their counteroffensive. The next wave in the Russo-Ukrainian War may already be turning into a “meatgrinder war,” à la the Battle of the Somme (1916), with high casualties and the mass destruction of property.

How do we get out of this quandary? More precision-strike technology, more drones? Heavy armor or light and lethal special forces? It’s difficult to say, but one thing is certain: If the Russo-Ukrainian War is a harbinger of a new “revolution in military affairs,” it is a grim omen.