By Invitation | How wars are fought

David Petraeus and Andrew Roberts on Ukraine and the future of warfare

A war between the most advanced armed forces would look very different, say the ex-general and historian

image: Dan Williams

THE WAR IN Ukraine contains many features of past conflicts. To what extent does it also offer clues about the nature of wars to come—particularly what one involving America, NATO and other great powers might look like?

Some aspects of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict seem more reminiscent of the conflicts of the last century than of this one. The Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, features extensive trenches, no-man’s-lands and barbed wire reminiscent of the first world war; minefields reminiscent of the second; and armoured, artillery and rocket systems reminiscent of the cold-war era.

The war does, to be sure, feature much state-of-the-art weaponry, from sophisticated anti-tank and air-defence systems to unmanned air and maritime systems and modern missiles. It is also being fought in the context of unprecedented battlefield transparency, given the availability of commercial satellite imagery, new geolocation capabilities and the ubiquity of smartphones, internet access, social-media sites and data-aggregation services. It does not yet, however, include much in the way of sophisticated long-range unmanned systems, either remotely or algorithmically piloted, of the type that would undoubtedly feature in any future conflict between the great powers.

That Ukraine does not foreshadow the future of warfare is also, in part, because few wars do. The war in Iraq in 2003, for example, was radically different from the Gulf war of 1990-91, despite being fought in the same region little more than a decade later and by many of the same combatants. Similarly, America’s war in Vietnam was dramatically different from the seemingly formative American experience just a few years earlier in Korea—although that did not prevent American advisers from seeking to shape South Vietnam’s forces for a Korea-like conflict rather than for the counterinsurgency campaign that should have been the focus of the effort.

The development of warfare has never been linear. It evolves in fits and starts, driven in part by the enthusiasms (or lack thereof) of generals and political leaders to learn lessons and apply them to the future, and, in part, by the context, capabilities, limitations and other qualities (including the willingness to take casualties) of the combatants. Developing technology has driven the way wars change ever since the invention of gunpowder, notably with the advent of the machine gun in the 19th century, the tank in the first world war and the nuclear bombs which ended the second, profoundly altering the face of battle.

Much of the Pentagon’s thinking about the cold war in the 1970s and 1980s, and later about the Gulf war, was, for example, inspired by deep study of the Yom Kippur war between Israel and Arab states in 1973. On the other hand, the American military’s reaction to its experience in Vietnam was largely to consign irregular warfare to the ash-heap of history—forcing America’s armed forces in the post-9/11 era to heed lessons that should have been learned from what was America’s longest war at that time.

The war in Ukraine has already taught us a lot about legacy weapons and extraordinarily high munition-consumption rates. On a technical level, the conflict has revealed much about what kit works and what doesn’t—but not as much as it might have done, given that the war does not yet feature many of the cutting-edge capabilities possessed by the great powers.

Ukraine is therefore far from a perfect signpost for a more general war between the world’s most advanced armed forces. In fact, America and NATO have still not yet provided Ukraine with the kind of state-of-the-art systems—such as fifth-generation fighters and cutting-edge drones—that their forces would immediately deploy in the event of Russian aggression that triggered the collective self-defence commitment in Article 5 of the NATO treaty.

Any direct NATO-Russia conflict in the Baltic States or in the Suwalki Gap near Kaliningrad would undoubtedly involve far more capable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance kit and systems than has been used in Ukraine (indeed, open-source air tracking shows plenty of those platforms flying along the country’s western border); much longer-range, larger and faster munitions; and much more advanced air, sea, ground, subsea, space and cyberspace weapons systems.

“What can be seen can be hit,” stated a cold-war adage, “and what can be hit can be killed.” This saying was often repeated even though it was never followed, owing to limited ability to see and to strike in depth, especially against moving targets. Given the advances of the past three decades, however—particularly in the sophistication of surveillance systems, connected to weapons systems by robust communications networks—this adage needs to be resurrected and taken seriously.

Today, virtually any significant military platform, from ships and planes to logistical sites and assemblages of troops, can increasingly be seen in any theatre of war (though sub-sea systems are still more difficult to detect). It can thus also be hit, including by sophisticated missiles and swarming munitions that can overwhelm defences and are extraordinarily precise.

Given this new reality, political and military leaders must use cutting-edge technology, including AI and robotics, to transform all aspects of their forces. And, where this fails to deter potential adversaries, weapons systems must be protected from armadas of relatively inexpensive drones, from sensor-guided missiles, and in cyber and outer space.

In warfare, necessity is the mother of invention. But rather than Russia demonstrating the mastery of hybrid warfare that was supposedly championed by its so-called Gerasimov doctrine, it is Ukraine, despite its limited resources, that has most impressively demonstrated mastery of all areas of warfare (though the miles-deep minefields in southern Ukraine are presently holding up its advances there). In particular, Ukraine proved to be much more resilient in cyberspace than was expected, undermining Russia’s reputation as a master of cyber-attack.

Ukraine has been a sobering experience for Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leader. He and his high command can be in no doubt that achieving their aims would be far more difficult in any wider war they provoke against NATO. For all the Ukrainians’ innovation, determination and courage, their struggle does not precisely represent the future of warfare, though it undoubtedly provides lessons from the past and offers hints of what is to come.

General David Petraeus, US Army (Ret.), commanded the surge in Iraq, US Central Command and NATO/US forces in Afghanistan, later serving as director of the CIA. Andrew Roberts is the author of more than 20 books, including “Churchill: Walking with Destiny”, and a member of the House of Lords. Their new book is “Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine”.

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From the October 21st 2023 edition

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