Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the bloody fighting that has continued for the past year has not only overturned many of our preconceptions about geopolitics, it’s given a powerful kick to technological innovation in both the military and civilian spheres. New Atlas looks at how the war is set to affect technology for decades to come.
As the invasion of Ukraine goes into its second year, the world has seen the conflict evolve as what many thought likely to be a lightning victory for Russia turned into a brutal war of attrition marked by artillery duels, 200,000 casualties, and the targeting of civilian infrastructure and population centers in Ukraine.
It’s also seen a steady, though reluctant, escalation on the part of NATO and other supporters. At first, this meant giving Ukraine things like shoulder-mounted anti-tank rockets and portable communication systems. This then moved on to light artillery, then mobile rocket launchers. Today, Kyiv is receiving main battle tanks, and there is talk of supplementing them with long-range cruise missiles and fighter planes.
Of course, to this must be added billions of dollars worth of shells, small arms ammunition, rockets, spare parts, and all the other paraphernalia of modern warfare where the soldier is just the tiny, very sharp spear mounted on a very large and long logistical staff.
This has produced a dramatic shift in the state of affairs of the major military powers and the defense industry. These munitions didn’t just appear out of thin air, nor were they all unwanted surplus that will never be missed. Most of them come out of the active and often inadequate military inventories of the nations involved.
While helping Ukraine may be gratifying, such generosity has its costs. At the very least, the depleted weapon stocks need to be refilled, but this comes at a time when the invasion of Ukraine is part of a general breakdown of the consensus that has governed the world since the end of the Cold War and maybe even the one dating from the end of the Second World War.
With Russia waging war, China becoming increasingly aggressive, and the emboldening of North Korea and Iran among a number of other bad actors, the question for today isn’t just how to replace the weapon systems that have been given to Ukraine, but how to set new priorities to address a world that becomes less stable by the day and where the United States and NATO are being drawn ever closer to direct conflict on more than one front.
If that isn’t enough, the NATO powers are waking up from a 30-year vacation from history and it hasn’t made for a very pleasant awakening. After the end of the Cold War in 1992, a comforting idea arose that the world was seeing the end of history. There were no major threats in the foreseeable future that couldn’t be handled with the soft power of economics, diplomacy, and culture, and any conflicts would be low-intensity ones.
As a result, NATO members rapidly disarmed and showed little or no interest in even maintaining munition stockpiles to the point where warships would routinely set to sea unarmed without a single shell or missile aboard. With only a couple of notable exceptions, defense spending plummeted as the “peace dividend” was raided to pay for social programs. To put it bluntly, NATO became a shell of its former self, counting on American, British, and French nuclear weapons as its security umbrella and unable to fight a high-intensity war.
The invasion of Ukraine threw all this into high relief. After sending aid to Kyiv, it was pointed out that the UK and Germany wouldn’t last two days in a high-intensity war and that the US would need over a decade to replenish all the rockets and missiles they’d sent. That was just to get back to the status quo, never mind what would be needed in an increasingly unstable and aggressive world.
The result over the last few months has been a buying spree by NATO and other military powers. Germany and France declared a massive increase in defense spending to 2% of their GDP. Poland put in huge orders for artillery and tanks plus budget increases that could potentially make it the most powerful land force in NATO. Britain also boosted spending. Hungary ordered tanks, armored fighting vehicles, helicopters, and radar systems, Norway awarded contracts worth 2.6 billion kroner (US$263 million) for ammunition, Belgium bought F-35 Lightning II fighters, and even Lithuania wanted 600 rounds of loitering bombs and 18 French self-propelled guns.
This doesn’t even mention boosts in spending by Japan and India or rumors that Australia is fast-tracking its program to acquire nuclear attack submarines. Oddly, the United States hasn’t announced a general defense increase, though it has authorized billions in replenishment orders as well as hundreds of millions to Ukraine.
Remember that all this is happening as the world recovers from a pandemic, dealing with shattered supply chains, the collapse of globalism, and a drop in global GDP of $1 trillion, plus rampant inflation. In such an unstable world, that is going to change a lot of priorities, a lot of lessons are going to be learned, and a lot of research and development is going to shift gears quickly in surprising ways.
One important factor working all of the above is that the invasion of Ukraine has taught a number of surprising lessons that the military powers, defense contractors, and many industries are just starting to digest. Current thinking is shifting by the day and this is altering priorities and causing current technology development programs to rapidly change based on lessons learned in Ukraine.
For example, drones have become something of a game changer in Ukraine. They’ve not only been remarkably useful for reconnaissance, but also for offense by both Ukraine and Russia as more conventional weapons have suffered from dwindling munition stocks or are unable to penetrate defense systems. A particular surprise is that inexpensive hobby drones were easy to use for everything from artillery spotting to delivering grenades to target.
Not only will war planners need to consider how to incorporate increasingly advanced drones into their forces, they will also have to give much more attention to developing and rapidly deploying anti-drone systems that can take out not only individual drones, but whole swarms of them simultaneously by using directed energy weapons like lasers or microwaves.
It isn’t just cutting-edge technology that has come to the forefront in Ukraine, but ones that were quietly regarded as obsolete, including artillery. Before the invasion, the conventional thinking was that a modern peer against near-peer war would be one of maneuverability and speed. Instead, it rapidly devolved into an artillery duel with the two sides slogging away at one another.
This not only shows that there’s a need for more guns and ones with greater range and power, but also highlights the importance of building up munition stores as both sides are currently scrambling to find shells to feed their Soviet-era pieces. In addition, new, more sophisticated guns are likely to show up on the drawing boards.
Back to tanks
A similar lesson was delivered about Main Battle Tanks (MBTs). Before the war, these heavy, frontline tanks were looked on as Cold War relics that would soon be replaced by lighter, faster armored vehicles. Ukraine has turned this around as order books for MBTs begin to bulge and there is now talk of building new, more advanced tanks rather than upgrading existing stock.
Orbital satellites have proven to be valuable assets and commercial imaging satellites have reduced the fog of war to a remarkable degree, making them not only a reconnaissance resource, but also a propaganda one by bringing the battlefield to people’s smartphones. In addition, commercial constellations like Starlink are much less vulnerable to enemy action than single satellites and have made it possible to quickly reestablish data and communication networks.
However, these same communication systems with their small portable ground stations have blurred the line between combatant and non-combatant as SpaceX demanded that its Starlink technology not be used in weapon systems by Ukraine.
Cyberwarfare and data systems
Cyberwarfare turned out to be much less effective than was thought at the beginning of the invasion, but also revealed a potentiality that could revolutionize future conflicts. In the early days of the invasion, both Russia and Ukraine launched aggressive cyber campaigns against one another, but these were quickly countered and turned out to be mainly nuisances compared to the destruction wrought by conventional weapons.
However, these irritating pranks could, one day, cause major disruptions if defenses aren’t developed. AI is already being used to improve supply chains, provide facial recognition to identify enemy soldiers, and to produce deep fake videos for propaganda purposes. At the other end of the spectrum, ordinary smartphones are being used by civilians for locating targets, recording strikes, and capturing evidence of potential war crimes – actions that are a double-edged sword because they can dangerously blur the line between combatants and non-combatants. In addition, mobile phones are constantly sending out data when turned on, making them dangerous by their very presence, with many strikes on Russian targets being attributed to Ukrainian forces zeroing in on phones carried by Russian soldiers.
Aside from these and other individual lessons learned, the effect of Ukraine and the arms boom will be a series of trade offs by both the military and civilian spheres. Some of these will be very hard and they will affect innovation both positively and negatively.
One obvious trade off is that many development programs that in the past would’ve been funded will be abandoned or underfunded if they don’t have the potential for immediate, practical strategic benefits. On the other hand, some old programs that were once thought to be obsolete may be revived.
Another trade off is that the West must deal with an arms sector that has been neglected for over 30 years and no longer has the ability to respond quickly to the demands of a rearming world.
It’s analogous to what happened in the US in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. Between the disease, civil unrest, and a general air of uncertainty, ammunition sales went through the roof and shelves that were once well-stocked were empty except for a few boxes of turkey shot – even pawn shops in small mountain towns where demand is low but steady were stripped.
Faced with this situation, the ammunition makers were unable to meet demand. They couldn’t get the raw materials and it would require time and enormous outlays of capital to build the extra production lines and train the technicians to run them. As a result, the shortages continue to this day and are projected to continue for another two years.
Now, imagine a similar situation for the entire defense industry. In the 1980s, the United States had 70 primary defense contractors as opposed to only five today. In Europe, it’s even worse, with those remaining mixed up in complex partnerships. This has not only drastically reduced production capacity, but innovation as well due to a lack of competition.
It’s especially bad in the United States because there is usually only one customer for defense goods and companies sometimes find themselves running at a loss because they’re in a very poor bargaining position. Add to this politicians who prefer to award contracts for flashy new toys over mundane munitions and spare parts, and there’s very little incentive to keep stocks up.
The same bottlenecks apply on the human side. One can’t just whistle up trained technicians and soldiers. They can require many years of expensive training, so there will be much more pressure for automation, robots in both the factory and on the battlefield, AI systems, and 3D printing to simplify logistics.
The civilian sector will also have its trade offs if the world reverts to something more like the Cold War. Just-in-time manufacturing may have to give way to new methods that are more flexible and less vulnerable to disruption of the supply chain. This may mean smarter systems, with AI helping to plan logistics and identifying bottlenecks in the supply chain.
Globalization with manufacturing spread around the world and energy supplies relying on imports from hostile regions will need to be rethought. There may be more emphasis on domestic production or only relying on friendly nations. Green energy policies may need to be reconsidered in favor of strategic considerations and tightened budgets affecting subsidies. This may mean less work on wind and solar technologies that rely on Chinese imports and more on modular nuclear reactors and biofuels. Less on electric vehicles and more on fuel cell systems that don’t rely on batteries containing rare earth metals.
Even everyday things like social media apps, the internet, and smartphones will be affected as cybersecurity becomes more imperative. It may be that much more work will be done on vetting software before it’s released and on how to block seemingly innocent apps that could pose major security risks.
Exactly what changes will come as a result of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine are difficult to predict. It’s an extremely complex topic with many factors all pulling in different directions. Change the emphasis on one technology, and it will affect a dozen others. It’s also all taking place in a world of deteriorating order, rising political tensions, and economic turmoil – a turmoil that will only get worse as the great economies shift to possible war footings with higher taxes, more government spending, cuts in social spending, and inflation.
We can only touch on the very surface of this topic, but one thing is certain, history has started up again with a vengeance and it will be a very different world.
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