10.07.23 War Review

500 Days of the New Old War: The protracted military conflict in Ukraine has upended notions of modern warfare, but has not changed its essence

The ongoing war in Ukraine, which has now lasted over 500 days, has disproved the prevailing belief among politicians and experts that large-scale, protracted conventional armed conflicts in Europe are impossible and that there is no need to prepare for them. The intensity of the fighting in Ukraine rivals that of the battles of the First World War. However, unlikeWorld War I, the current conflict is not only being fought with conventional weapons but also with entirely new armaments and technologies that have the potential to fundamentally change the situation on the battlefield. In a series of publications titled 'Battlefield Lessons' The Economist, analysed the peculiarities of this 'new type' of war, which must now be taken into account in order to understand the new realities and challenges of military development. The result, however, remains the same: war takes a heavy toll in human lives.

One of the defining characteristics of this 'new type' of war, as The Economist describes, is the use of drones for precision strikes. Ukraine has essentially become a testing ground for the technology of 'networked warfare,' where numerous sensors enable strike forces to deliver devastating blows from a safe distance. The Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) use a program called 'Kropyva,' developed by a Ukrainian company, which is capable of transmitting information about a target’s location to all artillery batteries on the front line, significantly reducing the time required to launch an attack. However, drones are characterised by their low survivability rates. Fixed-wing UAVs average only about six flights, while typical quadcopters manage only three. According to research, Ukraine is losing 10,000 drones per month. Further, although UAVs collect a vast amount of video data (up to several petabytes per hour), limited channel bandwidth restricts their ability to transmit more than a few kilobytes of data, such as the type of target and coordinates.

The availability of information, provided by Starlink satellites, has had a significant impact on events on the Ukrainian battlefield. The data they provide is integrated into the Delta situational awareness system developed by Ukrainian volunteers, which is connected to satellite data from the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Tools like 'Kropyva' and Delta allow the AFU to conduct military operations at a speed and accuracy that is currently unattainable even for NATO, resulting in a 15-30% saving in ammunition. However, despite these advancements, an attacking force still needs to concentrate its forces in order to break through a weakened section of the front line detected by electronic means, which can be detected and targeted by the enemy. Given this threat, it is crucial to consider how the Russian armed forces are adapting to the conditions of this new war (a matter we have previously discussed).

Since March 2023, the effectiveness of AFU strikes with precision missiles and bombs has diminished as Russian troops have actively employed electronic warfare (EW) systems to disrupt GPS sensors. The Pentagon has a more reliable technology called M-Code, which is more reliable than GPS signals. However, M-Code receivers are subject to export controls and are costly. Moreover, electronic countermeasures add weight to projectiles and drones. Nevertheless, effective EW remains a challenge for the Russian side. The number of necessary systems is limited, and they emit a powerful signal themselves, making them not only visible targets but also disrupting communication between Russian units.

Another lesson from this new war is the immense importance of a well-organised logistics system. Within the first five months of the war, Russia managed to transport a total of 700,000 tonnes of ammunition and missiles to the front line. However, this reliance on rail hubs and large warehouses had its drawbacks. These shortcomings became evident when Ukraine acquired HIMARS missile systems, which enabled them to strike Russian fuel and ammunition depots far beyond the front line. Ukraine's supply lines proved to be more flexible and resilient as they are fighting on their own soil.

The active use of technology is forcing units on the battlefield to disperse as much as possible, seek cover, constantly remain in motion, and minimise the use of mobile phones to avoid leaving an electronic trail. The Delta situational awareness systems and Starlink terminals enable the targeting of a larger number of units, but at the same time, they complicate logistics chains, by requiring the delivery of supplies, ammunition, and medical assistance to a significantly larger number of front line locations.

Collaboration with Poland plays an important role in equipping the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) with supplies, as Poland receives about 30 flights of military aid for Ukraine every day. Document processing at the border takes only a few minutes, a speed which is not available even for the cross-border movement of weapons between NATO countries. However, the most significant challenge for the AFU is keeping the supplied weapons in working condition. According to unofficial data, the operational readiness of the weapons supplied to Ukraine is only around 50%. The war in Ukraine highlights the need for Washington to realise the paramount importance of logistics and abandon the practice of waging wars thousands of miles away, the author of the review stresses.

The widespread use of the Internet has blurred the distinction between military and civilian personnel in Ukraine. The civilian population is actively assisting the AFU to obtain information about the enemy's whereabouts. Shortly after the war began, the 'Army of Ukraine' was formed, comprising almost 200,000 volunteer hackers who target Russian government institutions, firms, and banks. However, this situation has legal implications: civilians assisting the warring army may lose the protection of the Geneva Convention and become targets for enemy forces.

The war in Ukraine has significantly changed perceptions of maritime confrontation. The use of unmanned naval vessels by the AFU has pushed the Russian fleet back 100-150 nautical miles from the Ukrainian coastline. The explosion of the Nord Stream gas pipelines exposed the vulnerability of underwater infrastructure (as Re:Russia has previously reported). In response, Norway, in collaboration with the United Kingdom, Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, used 600 drones to scan an area of 9,000 square kilometres of underwater gas infrastructure. NATO has also established a coordination group for critical underwater infrastructure. However, the development of maritime drone technologies in the West has lagged behind, as many similar research projects were prohibited during peacetime.

Thanks to the use of sensors, precision ammunition, and artificial intelligence, the modern battlefield may not be as terrifying of a place for soldiers as it once was. However, Western armies are currently not adapted to harnessing these technologies, and the US military procurement system lags behind the pace of technological progress. Nevertheless, both sides are able to take advantage of technological advancements, leading to a constant race for technological improvement and know-how, as well as significant depletion of military resources. Thus, despite the importance of digital technologies and tactical knowledge, armies need to have sufficient personnel numbers and reserves for replenishment, bringing the situation back to square one.