20.02.23 War Review

Big War Returns: what lessons have been learnt a year into the first major conventional military campaign of the 21st century?

The war between Russia and Ukraine, which was expected by many to last just a few weeks, is now approaching its first anniversary. This is the first full-scale military clash between two relatively developed countries in decades. Only a year ago, humanity had very little idea of what truly modern conventional warfare would look like, given the technological innovations which have taken place since previous major wars. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has taught us many unexpected lessons. There is nowhere to hide on the battlefield in this new war, and as such it has required tremendous amounts of equipment and armaments, which constantly need to be replenished. No country in the world today has sufficient defence capabilities to do this. To compensate for the lack of armaments and manpower, personnel at all levels need to be competent and professional. High-precision weapons are also important, but they are also expensive, so more conventional weapons have proved to be just as crucial. Drones are the main innovation of this new war; they are essential for many tasks, but they are not a panacea. And, the importance of military aircraft has been overestimated: they are too vulnerable and come at a very high cost.

On the anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, analysts from RUSI (the Joint Royal Institute for Security and Defence Studies) and IISS (the International Institute for Strategic Studies), as well as aviation industry experts, have all released reports on the 'military' lessons that have been learnt this past year from the world's first major conventional war of the twenty-first century.

Perhaps the most important conclusion drawn by these analysts is that the competence of military personnel is the most important military capability. While it may be true that the number of troops and weapons does still matter, this is rendered ineffective if there is rampant nepotism and corruption, which serve to degrade the army as an institution. This, combined with low levels of training and preparedness, has resulted in the Russian army being very limited when it comes to its main resource — human capital. This is measured not by the number of soldiers on the battlefield, but by the amount of knowledge and skills they possess. IISS military analysts acknowledge that the initial emphasis on the material support for military forces was misguided; as a result, both Russian and foreign experts made erroneous assumptions that the Russian army would secure a rapid victory, based on estimates of the number of troops and the quality of weapons.

In terms of weaponry, the current conflict has served as a testing ground for several weapons that had never previously been used in large-scale battles. Drones have proven to be the most significant discovery of the new style of warfare, as these had never been used on such a large scale before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Investment in drone technology has skyrocketed: UAV manufacturer Bayraktar has admitted that it is having difficulty keeping up with the demand for its drones. According to some analysts, military procurement will soon become the primary driver of the commercial drone market. 

However, the current war has taught us that drones must only be deployed at the right time and in the right place. They are most effective at the beginning of a conflict, when the enemy's ground air defence systems are not yet fully deployed. However, once air defences are in place, the lifespan of a typical drone is drastically reduced, and the risk of its destruction increases to almost 90%.

The current war is the first large-scale military engagement in which camouflaging is virtually impossible. A much more efficient tactic is the dispersal of formations over a large area, as the destruction of even a small group of military personnel is very expensive given the costs of weapons. In these circumstances, troops should concentrate in mass only if it facilitates mutual tactical support, mobility should always take precedence. 

Russia’s war in Ukraine has demonstrated that any military capability based solely on high-precision weapons is inefficient. It is likely to be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to replenish. According to RUSI analysts, Russia's stockpile of land-based cruise missiles had been depleted by the beginning of 2023, and Ukraine has, on several occasions, stated several times that it is running low on its supply of Javelin and NLAW anti-tank missiles. Once a precision-guided missile is launched, the expensive electronics that these weapons are packed with are irrevocably destroyed. Tanks are also an expensive weapon, but their ammunition is much simpler and less expensive than anti-tank missiles, meaning that high-precision missiles must be supplemented by the cheaper and simpler projectiles fired from tanks.

Some weapons have proved to be less useful than they had previously seemed. For example, aviation, which NATO bet heavily on even before the Cold War, has been shown to be ineffectual in Ukraine. From the start of the war the Russian army has relied heavily on artillery, expending massive amounts of shells. According to military experts, Ukraine has been faced with little choice but to respond with massive, albeit more accurate, artillery strikes. Large-scale air raids, such as those carried out by the United States during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, never occurred. Air power has ceased to provide a critical advantage on the battlefield. Today, military analysts are instead urging NATO to revive its investment in artillery.

Moreover, cyber weapons have supplemented traditional types of weaponry: Russia has always combined conventional military offensives with attempts to de-energise its enemy's information systems. According to IISS experts, Moscow has had little success in implementing this strategy in Ukraine because the United States was able to quickly build up the defensive capabilities of Ukraine's digital infrastructure. Russia's failures may also indicate that the disruption of military command-and-control networks may be more difficult than was previously anticipated as a result of high-quality cyber defences.