Mark T. Kimmitt is a retired U.S. Army brigadier general and has also served as the U.S. assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs.
With each passing day, the battlefield in Ukraine is becoming more and more like the trenches of World War I. Artillery rains on static front lines, troops live in squalid, sodden hovels and the mine-strewn landscape is cratered with shell holes.
Forward progress is measured in meters, and retaken villages become less consequential, quickly forgotten as the days pass.
But while it would be reasonable to see Ukraine as an example of 20th-century industrial-era warfare, there’s a profound shift occurring amid the carnage. In today’s world, the battlefield has become transparent, the warheads much more precise and the weapons very cheap.
This doesn’t have a significant effect along the front lines, mind you — there, it’s mass that still counts. Artillery, rockets and machine guns prevail, as they always have. Killing, wounding or incapacitating soldiers remains the “Butcher’s Bill,” and still nothing surpasses hours of artillery barrages and close combat to undermine the foe’s will to fight. It’s a battlefield that can be seen with one’s own eyes.
Yet, just over the next hill from these front lines lies the critical material needed to support and supply them. It is these — the all-important supply chains and the rear of the battlefield, with its artillery positions, command posts and logistics depots — that have always been hard to find, hard to attack and expensive to destroy — until now.
In previous wars, “seeing over the next hill” was nearly impossible. To find the rear formations with any level of targeting accuracy, one would have to use crude tools like radio location finding or scan hours-old photographs — which could only show small portions of the battlefield, as if looking through a soda straw — and radar intercepts of incoming artillery rounds.
Combined into an “all-source intelligence estimate,” the knowledge and targeting of enemy locations was crude, ephemeral and frequently inaccurate.
Today, however, the proliferation of drones and other battlefield technology is providing commanders with an almost transparent view of the whole battlefield. The information is persistent, comprehensive, in real time and GPS accurate.
This battlefield transparency is invaluable for artillery and air forces to attack targets. Until recently, “imprecision” would have been the kindest way to interpret the often thousands of rounds needed to assure some confidence that a target could be destroyed. And given the vagaries of weather, wind and a host of other factors, even with visual and real-time target tracking and modern computers calculating accurate ballistics, it still often takes hundreds of “dumb” artillery shells lobbed distances of 20 miles to destroy a target. But 21st-century precision munitions solve this problem.
It is this combination of near-perfect information from drones and near-perfect attacks by guided munitions that is new to the battlefield. We no longer need thousands of rounds; today’s maxim is “one shot, one kill.”
Then, there’s the profound change in cost. Short-distance observation drones can now be bought off the shelf, and even military-grade drones with target designating lasers loaded with precision munitions are a fraction of the cost of HIMARs — the iconic weapon of the Ukraine conflict. And though HIMARs are still important, they require dozens of million-dollar launchers, scores of support vehicles and hundreds of troops to fire, fix and resupply them. Guided drones with precision munitions, on the other hand, are war on the cheap.
Of course, for the frontline troops of a Ukrainian brigade or a Russian Spetnaz battalion fighting door-to-door in Bakhmut, these items may have little direct effect, except to reduce supporting fires or delay needed ammunition. On the front lines, soldiers understand the words of historian T.R. Fehrenbach, that “you may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, and wipe it clean of life — but if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman Legions did — by putting your soldiers in the mud.”
But for the battlefield supply chain, this change means everything.
Ukraine is now solving the age-old military quandary of how to find, fix and finish the enemy — and it’s doing so at low financial cost. Today, a military force’s ability of to take advantage of distance and geography to hide its material and forces far from the front lines is nearly nonexistent, and this is something that’s significantly changing the nature of tactical combat.
However, it’s important to remember that these changes don’t solely benefit Ukraine — they also assist Russia. The new technology is easy to obtain and easy to employ for all sides — as are the defenses needed to somewhat mitigate its effects.
If Ukraine can buy drones off the shelf, for example, so can Russia and so can Hamas — and they already have. The videos emerging from Gaza this month seem eerily similar to those from Ukraine in October 2022 — small drones dropping tank-killing submunitions onto Israeli Merkava tanks to deadly effect.
Furthermore, countermeasures to drones are also emerging quickly — whether they be the “balcony shades” the Israel Defense Forces installed on their tanks to prevent explosives from hitting vulnerable hulls, or the Houthis’ new camouflage techniques as the U.S. conducts its multimonth precision bombing campaign.
Yet, for all those who see these developments as a revolution in military affairs, the ease with which all sides have embraced them and developed somewhat effective defenses suggest otherwise. Plus, it’s hard to see drones, precision weapons or mass production having the same effect on warfare as, say, gunpowder, the longbow or wireless radio had.
Nonetheless, precision intelligence, precision munitions and low cost are the most significant military developments emerging from the Russia-Ukraine war. However, a true revolution in military affairs — supercharging these and other battlefield elements with artificial intelligence — may be just around the corner.