The war in Ukraine — Europe’s biggest conflict since 1945 — features a bewildering combination of old and new technologies and tactics. The artillery duels, minefields and trench warfare are straight out of World War I, and yet much of the Ukrainian artillery fire is now being spotted by drones and adjusted on tablet computers linked via satellite to the internet. It sometimes feels like a mash-up of “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Blade Runner”.
Militaries around the world are closely following the fighting to gain insights into 21st-century warfare, knowing that they are watching a trial run of technologies that will become more ubiquitous and important in future conflicts. “We are studying deeply not just Ukraine but also the Indo-Pacific and what’s happening with technology like artificial intelligence and machine learning”, Gen. James E. Rainey, commander of the Army Futures Command, told me. “The key is figuring out what won’t change, what is changing fundamentally and how to apply those insights”.
It’s not easy to draw conclusions while the war is still going on and both sides have an incentive to keep secret basic information about casualties, ammunition expenditures and other vital metrics. This helps explain the wide divergence of opinions among military analysts about the conflict and its lessons.
Stephen Biddle, a professor of international relations at Columbia University, argued recently in Foreign Affairs that the war has been characterized more by tactical continuity than by change. “Although the Ukraine war has seen plenty of new equipment, its use has not yet brought transformational results”, he wrote.
Biddle has a point: The war in Ukraine shows that the age of industrial warfare hasn’t passed. Countries still need lots of artillery, tanks and other old-fashioned weapons. The war has been a wake-up call to Western countries, which have not been producing enough artillery ammunition and other munitions in recent years. The U.S. Army is now ramping up its production of artillery rounds.
But the war has also shown the limitations of sheer mass in warfare: If having lots of troops and tanks were enough to win, the Russians would have taken Kyiv long ago. Ukraine’s success in holding them off, initially employing handheld weapons systems such as Javelin and Stinger missiles, highlights the profound changes underway.
T.X. Hammes, a distinguished research fellow at the National Defense University, argues that, although about 90 percent of the weapons systems being employed by both sides — aircraft, tanks, artillery, armored personnel vehicles and the like — were developed and often produced in the 20th century, the other 10 percent will have a transformational impact.
Analysts who believe that we are seeing revolutionary developments point, first and foremost, to the extensive use of drones in the Ukraine war — far more than in any previous conflict. This has, in fact, turned into the war of the drones. “We may well one day look at the Ukraine war and unmanned systems (‘drones’) in much the same way history looks back at the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s as a historic proving ground for the Blitzkrieg to come”, writes Peter Warren Singer, a senior fellow at the New America think tank.
Most of the drones employed by both sides were built not for conflict but to film weddings and vacations. Produced primarily in China (and readily available to purchase online), these cheap drones can be adapted to conduct surveillance of enemy positions and even fitted with grenades or other crude explosives to drop on enemy soldiers. At a higher level of sophistication, Ukraine has received strike drones from the West — e.g., the Turkish Bayraktar TB2, the U.S. Switchblade 300 and Phoenix Ghost, and Australia’s ultracheap, hard-to-detect Corvo Precision Payload Delivery System made of cardboard. The Russians, for their part, have become reliant on Iranian-made Shahed self-detonating drones and their own Lancet drones and GPS-guided glide bombs.
Because drones fly slowly, produce a lawnmower-like noise and depend on communications links that can be jammed, they are easy to bring down with bullets, missiles or electronic jamming devices. According to the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank, a quadcopter drone lasts an average of only three flights in combat; a fixed-wing drone, six flights. RUSI estimates that Ukraine has been losing 10,000 drones a month. But unmanned systems are so cheap — they generally cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, compared with millions for manned aircraft — that both sides can readily buy or build more of them.
The war is already seeing “drone swarms”, and more are likely in the future, as countries such as China and the United States mass-produce sophisticated autonomous systems. (The Pentagon recently announced the Replicator initiative to buy thousands of drones over the next two years.) Eventually, Hammes told me, the game changer will be AI-enabled drones “hunting autonomously for targets”: “How can you maneuver if the defender can put up 1,000 drones over a brigade frontage?” This technology, which raises difficult ethical issues, is only starting to make an appearance in Ukraine.
Ukraine has produced long-range aerial drones that have been able to reach Moscow and damage military aircraft at a Russian air base near the borders of Estonia and Latvia. Still more revolutionary have been Ukraine’s successful sea-drone attacks: On Oct. 29, 2022, a flotilla of unmanned Ukrainian boats put a Russian frigate out of commission in Sevastopol harbor on the occupied Crimean Peninsula.
Whenever the Ukrainians score an impressive hit, they are quick to publicize the results by releasing videos to win the “battle of the narrative”. They are pioneers in weaponizing social media to boost morale at home and support for the war effort abroad.
Space operations are also making a significant contribution to the war. Both sides rely on imagery from satellites, as well as drones, to surveil the battlefield; satellites are able to provide a broader picture and peer far behind enemy lines, while drones offer a more granular view that addresses the specific needs of front-line units. The Ukrainians don’t have their own satellites, but they do have access to U.S. intelligence imagery as well as commercial satellite imagery. All this technology — whether in low-flying drones or satellites in space — makes it harder than ever for either side to achieve the crucial element of surprise in battle.
“The battlefield is much more transparent”, said Lawrence Freedman, an emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College in London. “You can’t gather vast numbers of tanks to press ahead because everyone knows where they are and what they’re doing”. For now, at least, that is reinforcing the advantage of whichever side is on the defensive — as the Russians learned during their initial invasion and the Ukrainians are now discovering during their counteroffensive.
The largest and most important satellite service is Starlink, owned by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which provides internet access all over the world, including in Ukraine. As of July, SpaceX had some 4,500 satellites in orbit, with plans to eventually expand to as many as 42,000 satellites.
Of course, the importance of Starlink puts a vast amount of power into the hands of its owner. Musk reportedly refused to turn on Starlink service around Crimea to stymie a Ukrainian sea drone attack in September 2022. Such capricious disruptions are less likely in the future because the Pentagon has begun contracting with Starlink to offer its service to the Ukrainian military.
While drones and Starlink garner most of the public attention, another transformational aspect of the war has been taken almost for granted: the success of Ukrainian air defenses. I happened to be in Kyiv in May during what was then the biggest air attack on the city to date: The Russians reportedly fired six hypersonic Kinzhal missiles, nine Kalibr cruise missiles, three Iskander ballistic missiles and numerous Shahed attack drones. Yet, miraculously, there were no casualties. The Russian attack was stopped by Ukraine’s mishmash of old Soviet air defenses and sophisticated new Western air defenses, including the American Patriot, the American-Norwegian NASAMS and the German IRIS-T and Gepard Flakpanzer, each optimized for different kinds of air and missile threats.
Russian missiles are still able to get through, particularly when fired at areas that lack the density of air defenses deployed around Kyiv. On Sept. 6, for example, a horrific Russian missile strike on a crowded market in Kostiantynivka, in the eastern Donetsk region, killed at least 17 people and injured 32 more. But Ukraine’s Air Force claims that, in recent months, it has been able to intercept about 90 percent of Russian cruise missiles and drones and 80 percent of air- and ground-launched ballistic missiles.
“It’s been the most successful battlefield use of missile defense to date”, Tom Karako, a missile defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me. From Karako’s perspective, the Ukraine experience shows that “a little air defense goes a long way” and that “you don’t have to be perfect to have a strategic effect”. Case in point: Last winter, the Russians failed to render Ukrainian cities uninhabitable by targeting their heating and electrical systems, even though they did manage to temporarily disable some utilities. The Russians might try again this winter, and the key to stopping them will be to keep Ukraine supplied with ammunition for its air-defense systems.
It’s important not to exaggerate the impact of advanced technology. Much of the war in Ukraine remains low-tech and old-fashioned. Many higher-end technologies such as artificial intelligence, hypersonics and cyberwarfare have barely made an impact, and manned aircraft have not played much of a role — in part because of the strength of air defenses on both sides. The war would look very different if it were being fought by the United States rather than Ukraine: U.S. aircraft would first try to “suppress” Russian air defenses and then, assuming they were successful, pummel Russian troops from the air, as they did with Iraqi forces in 1991 and 2003. Ukraine lacks the modern aircraft to do that. It is scheduled to receive F-16s soon, but stealthy, next-generation F-35s, which would be needed to take down the most Russian advanced air defenses, remain off the table. That is why Ukraine has to rely on drones.
No matter how widespread drones have become, the human element will remain of central importance in warfare. Both sides in Ukraine have drones; the question is which side can use them more effectively. Technology alone seldom confers a long-lasting advantage. What counts is how successfully militaries create strategies, training and bureaucratic structures to harness cutting-edge weapons systems — whether it’s rifles and railroads in the 19th century, tanks and aircraft in the 1930s, or drones and precision-guided missiles today.
Despite some problems with their own lumbering Soviet-style bureaucracy, the Ukrainians have shown themselves to be highly adaptive — it is, in fact, their ability to innovate from the bottom up that has enabled them to stymie the Russian onslaught. Can the U.S. military be as nimble facing threats from China, Iran, North Korea, Russia and other adversaries? There is much that the Ukrainians can teach Western armed forces — which is why Western analysts will continue to closely study this laboratory of warfare.
Max Boot is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam”.