All wars accelerate technological change. The old and the new ways of fighting are playing out in Ukraine, which has just passed its first anniversary of the Russian invasion on February 24.
Over the centuries, Russia – in its variety of political forms – has relied on its overwhelming population to act like a steam roller, rolling across the countries to its west. It has had a callous disregard for its own population, let alone those against whom it was fighting.
Citizens were encouraged to believe that they were dying for Mother Russia "Rodina". Prisoners are now being recruited to help swell the ranks (many eligible Russian males have already fled the country to avoid conscription).
Commentators like myself a year ago thought that Russia would roll across Ukraine. We foreshadowed a war in two stages: Russian invasion and then Ukrainian resistance. We assumed an eventual Ukrainian victory against an exhausted Russia.
But the war did not go as expected. Russia has failed to occupy less than 20 per cent of Ukraine (including Crimea, which it occupied in 2014). It is even having difficulty holding onto that percentage because of the Ukrainian resistance.
Russia's old style of fighting has been countered by Ukraine's modern style of fighting. The new style emphasizes innovation, modern technology, and flexibility.
An example of this new style came to light last week with media reports of cheap Australian drones made of cardboard and rubber bands (which help secure the wings). The drones allow Ukrainian forces to drop bombs, deliver supplies, and undertake reconnaissance missions.
The drones are made by Melbourne-based company Sypaq. The drones cost somewhere between $1,000-$5,000 each. They require the Russians to expend expensive hardware to try to destroy them. Australia is spending $33 million on buying them for Ukraine.
Three features stand out in this new era. First, this is now the era of the "electronic battlefield". The phrase was popularized by American writer Paul Dickson, via a 1977 book of that title.
General William Westmoreland (1914-2005), commanded US troops in Vietnam in the 1960s. His strategy was one of "attrition", that is, wearing down the forces of the other side (much like the Russians currently in Ukraine). This was expensive both in human life and military expenditure. It was a failure.
Was there another way to fight? Information technology was getting underway and so perhaps computers offered a way forward, such as having ground sensors to monitor movements by the enemy, which could then trigger automatic artillery attacks on that location. American failures in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq showed that the "electronic battlefield" was a still long way off.
But particularly since the days of President Obama the US has been silently killing enemies via drone attacks, with the "pilots" sitting a long way from the front, such as Creech air force base in Nevada.
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