TAMPA, Florida — The century-old concept of moving huge armored convoys along open roads may be too dangerous on today’s high-tech battlefields. Military supply lines are more vulnerable than ever before given the massive leaps in surveillance capabilities and precision weapons.
Perhaps most important are small, cheap armed drones that have radically transformed warfare and turned traditional military thinking on its head. Unmanned aircraft have forced armies around the world to reexamine priorities and invest heavily in technology to protect their suddenly vulnerable troops, vehicles and equipment from drone strikes.
The fighting began just 11 weeks ago, but those are just a few of the lessons strategists and generals have gleaned so far from the Russia-Ukraine war, analysts say.
How war fighters will adapt to the post-Ukraine reality is a key question as Pentagon and other defense industry leaders gather this week for a special operations convention. The high-level conference will bring together the brightest minds in the defense sector along with companies large and small that manufacture cutting-edge military equipment such as next-generation radar and more effective bullets.
Those technologies could help the U.S. and its Western allies avoid a fate similar to the one Russia has met in Ukraine. What was envisioned as a lightning victory has become a bloody slog with minimal gains. Indeed, the Russia-Ukraine war has revealed how drastically the nature of battle has changed over the past decade.
Nowhere is that more evident than the disastrous showing of Russia’s tank corps, which has been decimated by the Ukrainian military’s fleet of relatively cheap Turkish-made drones and its stockpile of U.S.-made Javelin anti-tank missiles. The future of the venerable tank was in doubt before the Ukraine invasion, but Moscow’s inability to protect its armor and counter a new generation of anti-tank capabilities has contributed to its poor performance in Ukraine.
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“I think we are indeed seeing that modern ‘kill chains’ are making these kinds of vehicles and convoys very vulnerable, especially when positions/locations are fixed and/or foreseeable,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.
Mr. O’Hanlon and other scholars are drawing clear lessons from a war in which the once-vaunted Russian military has failed at virtually every one of its objectives so far. Russia’s air force has been unable to take control of Ukrainian skies, its forces were turned back from an assault on Kyiv, and even its widely hyped ground offensive in the eastern Donbas region has not produced real results.
Militaries looking to avoid Russia’s fate on battlefields should adopt a number of new approaches, Mr. O’Hanlon said, including a “greater emphasis on breaking the kill chains of adversaries through attacks on command/control/cyber/etc. … since we are getting to the point with modern weaponry, including drones too, that if we can see it, we can kill it.”
In other words, generals will have to command armies knowing they have few places to hide.
Mr. O’Hanlon said 21st-century militaries should reduce their use of paved roads, “unless they can be protected with dismounted infantry,” and should commit more resources to establishing air dominance early in a conflict to better protect tanks, troops and supply lines.
Logistics — keeping an army fed, armed and in a position to fight — is also getting a hard look based on the Ukrainian experience.
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Supply line vulnerabilities have been among the most significant challenges the Russian military has unexpectedly confronted in Ukraine. In the early days of the war, as Moscow had its sights set on capturing Kyiv, a massive Russian convoy sat idle on highways outside Ukraine’s capital because tanks ran out of fuel. In Kharkiv and other battlegrounds in the east, Ukrainian forces have relentlessly targeted Russian supply chains, depriving troops of gas and food and halting their advance.
The age of drones
For the past decade, war planners have theorized about how the proliferation of drones would change combat operations. The Russia-Ukraine war represents the first major conflict involving a top global power that has been dramatically impacted by unmanned aerial vehicles, which have become increasingly cheap, easy to operate and lethal. In particular, the Ukrainian military has made incredibly effective use of the Bayraktar TB2 drone, which is equipped with laser-guided missiles and can cost as little as $1 million.
Those aircraft have wreaked havoc on Russian tanks. Some outside estimates say Russia has lost well over 300 tanks to drones in Ukraine and hundreds more that have been captured by the enemy. As much as one-fifth of Moscow’s total tank force, the largest in the world, may have been lost, some military estimates say.
Ukrainian drones also have successfully targeted Russian battleships, proving that unmanned aircraft can be equally effective over water as they can over land.
Some of Russia’s vulnerabilities are self-inflicted, analysts say. Russian radar and drone-jamming technology have been ineffective. Russian military leaders also appear to have failed to camouflage their vehicles, making them easy targets, and conscripts have proved far less motivated on the ground than Ukrainian forces defending their homes and families.
Specialists say Western militaries can and must learn from Russia’s failures and put drones — and the ability to counter them — at the center of war planning.
“Even if Russia did a better job of counter-drone operations, there always will be limits. Drone detectors and interceptors have different advantages and disadvantages, and supply will always be limited just the same as any other military capability,” Zachary Kallenborn, a policy fellow at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, wrote in a recent analysis posted on the Modern War Institute at West Point’s website.
“The big, obvious question becomes this: What targets will be more or less vulnerable to drones? Answering that question is difficult. It will require the United States and allied nations to understand adversary doctrines, concepts and technological capabilities around drone employment,” he wrote.
Even the core military concept of air superiority may need to be updated.
“There can be no doubt that Russia has struggled to establish air superiority over Ukraine. But even if Russia were far more successful, drones still complicate the picture. Flying numerous, successful high-altitude air superiority missions does not mean much for low-altitude drone threats,” Mr. Kallenborn said.
The Pentagon has dedicated a massive amount of resources to counter-drone technology. A top-level Defense Department program led by the Army recently demonstrated counter-drone technology at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. Officials said the demonstration showcased a host of emerging technologies, including the use of high-powered microwaves to take out the aircraft.
Officials made clear that a lot of work is ahead.
“This was a learning exercise for us, as it was for those companies,” Michael A. DiGennaro, test team lead at the Army-led joint counter-drone office, told reporters on a conference call last week. “We had architectures out there that had not previously been working together, components, in particular, architectures that were coming out there for the first time.”