09.02 War Review

Out of the trenches: To avoid losing a war of attrition, Ukraine must transform the conflict into an asymmetric war of tactical and technological innovation

The position war between Russia and Ukraine has reached a stalemate: artillery shortages, a lack of skilled personnel, and failures on the front haunt both sides. In the past year, Russia has to some extent managed to shift its economy towards the military, mobilise the military-industrial complex and build an effective defence system in the occupied territories. Russia has a resource advantage, and Kyiv will not be able to tip the scales in its favour using conventional methods of military confrontation. So far, Russia has been able to impose a 'trench' war of attrition on Ukraine, and to avoid defeat, Kyiv needs to turn it into a war of technological and tactical innovation. Valeriy Zaluzhny, Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, who was sacked by President Vladimir Zelensky, has repeatedly written about this. The key battle in this new war, which is already unfolding, is the drone battle, involving the confrontation of air defence systems and electronic warfare. The war of innovation, with the support of the West, could neutralise Russia's resource advantages and bring victory to Ukraine.

Despite recent setbacks, Ukraine may well be able to win a prolonged confrontation and force Russian troops to withdraw from occupied territories. However, to achieve this, Ukraine needs to win the technological and production race in creating new weapon systems, not just compete with traditional outdated systems such as artillery and tanks, writes former Ukrainian Defence Minister Andriy Zagorodniuk in Foreign Affairs. The capabilities of the Russian military-industrial complex significantly outstrip Ukrainian military-industrial capabilities and Western aid to Ukraine. Moscow is managing to sustain a war of attrition in which its technological shortcomings are compensated for by numerical superiority and a larger arsenal of outdated weapons. However, these advantages can be neutralised by Ukraine through innovations in weaponry and tactics. It is necessary to 'turn the table' by turning the trench warfare imposed on Ukraine into a war of innovation. A similar idea is expressed in a recent column by former Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valery Zaluzhny, who writes about the need for a complete restructuring of combat operations, abandoning 'stereotypical thinking' and creating a new system for rearmament of the army.

Moscow has successfully aligned its economy with military priorities. Ukrainian officials estimate that Russia can currently produce or buy about 100,000 drones per month, while Ukraine is only capable of producing half that number. International sanctions have not halted other types of Russian military production. Russia has doubled the annual production of tanks, from 100 to 200, and the cost of ammunition production in Russia is much lower than in Western countries: for example, a 152-millimetre artillery shell costs $600, while a 155-millimetre shell costs the West ten times as much. 

However, the asymmetric response discussed by Zaluzhny and Zagorodniuk is fully capable of nullifying Russia's resource advantages. Prior to the war, no one would have thought that Kyiv had a chance to confront Moscow at sea, Zagorodnyuk continues. Moscow boasted a significant fleet in the Black Sea, and Ukraine sank its only real warship to prevent it from falling into Russian hands. However, this has not prevented Kyiv from effectively neutralising the Russian fleet with surface drones and missiles provided by the West. In preparation for the invasion, Moscow deployed 11 landing ships in the Black Sea, but ultimately failed to use any of them and has now withdrawn the fleet hundreds of kilometres away. Ukraine's strategy has proved so successful that commercial ships can now dock in Ukraine's most important port without fear of Russian threats.

Both Zaluzhny and Zagorodnyuk argue that, at this stage, the war’s main battle has become the drone battle. The conflict is turning into a technological battle, where drones fight against armoured vehicles, and precision weapons must compete with complex electronic warfare systems, writes Zagorodniuk. Moreover, Russia has also invested significant sums in innovations in these key areas—electronic warfare, air defence, and new drones.

Russian forces have successfully copied many proven Ukrainian tactics, including conducting large, coordinated attacks using multiple types of drones, notes former Google CEO Eric Schmidt in a separate article for Foreign Affairs. Since late 2022, for example, Russia has been using a combination of two domestically produced drones — the Orlan-10 (a reconnaissance drone) and the Lancet (a strike drone) — to eliminate a wide range of targets, from artillery systems to combat aircraft and tanks. Ukraine does not have a similarly effective combination of drones capable of matching this dangerous Russian duo. Furthermore, Russia's superior capabilities in electronic warfare allow it to jam and distort communication between Ukrainian drones and their operators.

If Ukraine wants to neutralise Russian drones, its forces will need the same capabilities. Another technical problem Schmidt highlights is that US weapons can often be interfered with externally by GPS jamming. In particular, it is unclear how, in conditions of active electronic warfare and threats posed by Russian aviation with long-range missiles, the American F-16 fighters, which are expected to be delivered this year, will behave in Ukrainian skies. Technological innovations should be aimed, among other things, at solving these problems. 

However, some experts doubt the ability of the Russian economy and the military-industrial complex to maintain the current volume of military production. The findings of military expert Pavel Luzin cast doubt on some figures in Russian economic statistics and statements from the Russian military leadership. According to Luzin, the figures on the growth of production of 'certain types of products used in the production of armaments and military equipment' in physical terms do not align with the production growth rates of finished equipment. Luzin believes that, most likely, the figures for the growth of finished equipment production reflect the growth in its cost, and the deflator (producer price index) is significantly understated. This seems plausible, as Rosstat uses the general index of producer prices of industrial products, while in the military-industrial complex, which is a priority for the government, it is likely to be much higher. Luzin's assumption that part of the growth is due to the earlier stockpiling of materials and components and the use of mothballed equipment sent to factories for refurbishment or 'cannibalisation' also seems reasonable (Luzin puts '1530 new and upgraded tanks, 2518 BMPs and armoured personnel carriers' in this category).

While the figures for the Russian military-industrial complex in 2023 may be overstated, we should not discount the investments made this year, which will only increase in 2024. Therefore, the idea of an asymmetric response and turning the 'trench' warfare imposed by Russia into a war of tactical and technological innovation remains relevant. With the dismissal of Zaluzhny, President Zelensky has completely replaced the previous leadership of the Ukrainian army, and only time will tell whether the new leadership will be able to handle this task. And, of course, active Western participation in this process will be a necessary condition, especially since the problems and challenges facing the Ukrainian army are equally relevant to NATO European forces, acknowledging the possibility of conventional war with the Russian army and their insufficient readiness for it.