While the causes for war vary, inevitably a war becomes a testing ground for technology, battlefield tactics and strategy.
The war in Ukraine is no different, in fact, in some ways, it is a poster child for changes in modern warfare. Unfortunately for NATO, it is also a harbinger of bad news.
While it is perfectly true that Ukraine lacked suitable air power and should never have put itself in a position to be attacked by Russia, it did so mostly based on promises from NATO and particularly the United States.
The US and NATO offered massive military aid of US$100 billion and counting, amounting to an astonishing $100 million a day. Despite these huge sums, Ukraine has taken back little of the territory the Russians grabbed and, even more pertinently, has suffered huge manpower and equipment losses.
The above spending does not include decisions to increase defense spending at home. Poland, for example, just decided to buy new Patriot air defense systems at a cost of $15 billion and $12 billion worth of Apache attack helicopters from US defense contractor Boeing.
Germany is buying Israel’s Arrow Air defense system for $3.5 billion. Poland will spend 4% of its GDP on defense, far outpacing the other NATO countries other than the US. In fact, only 8 countries out of 30 meet the 2% GDP NATO spending target.
The one bright spot for NATO has been providing Ukraine with overhead surveillance and targeting information, some of it coming from drones and electronic aircraft operating over the Black Sea in international air space.
Offering this kind of help – thanks to Elon Musk’s Starlink capable of relaying target data, hooked up to commander’s smartphones – greatly improved the effectiveness of smart weapons such as HIMARS. At the same time, overhead surveillance made it possible to track Russian force movements and anticipate hot spots in ways impossible in the past.
Unfortunately, NATO will lose this advantage in a wider war where the Russians, or any other major adversary, will go out and destroy reconnaissance assets, even in international air space.
Despite NATO’s massive involvement in Ukraine, including on-the-ground special forces acting as advisors (as well as alleged mercenaries, many of whom are well-trained NATO soldiers), Russia has exercised considerable restraint against the overhead threat, not wanting to see the war spill over outside of Ukraine’s or Russia’s borders.
This vulnerability even applies to sophisticated satellites that are sitting ducks against Chinese or Russian satellite killers.
Presumably, the US will try and do the same to Russia’s or China’s satellites. But this means that local surveillance and targeting, primarily with drones, will take center stage. Here the Russians have adapted rather well after starting the war with poor drone capabilities.
Russia evolved and networked its Orlan drones, which not only can see targets but can jam them. And Russia has introduced improved jamming capabilities to the battlespace.
While Ukraine also has some decent jamming systems, the Russians appear to be more practiced and proficient in this realm and have some new systems on the battlefield that have been effective.
It would seem the Russians learned a lot from the Nagorno-Karabakh war, where their jammers were overmatched, and have since adapted.
The Russians have learned how to defeat some smart weapons. For example, Russia’s defense ministry consistently reports having knocked out HIMARS missiles and defeated smart weapons and drones, often through jamming.
Today, NATO is poorly equipped to deal with drone swarms or even defend against medium- and long-range missiles. Some of this is due to misdirected spending, in which air defenses have been neglected or focused mainly on strategic nuclear threats.
But even here, air defense coverage in Europe is far from adequate. Moreover, what air defenses there are in NATO are not networked and not optimized to sort out threats and deal with the most lethal.
The US, for one, has very poor air defenses. It is critically deficient not only in coverage against ballistic missile threats but also tactically. The US has repeatedly stationed its troops in harm’s way with obsolete equipment defending against primitive missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the hands of terrorist groups.
A great example is the US Army’s decision to reject an effective air defense system from Israel, the Iron Dome, which it could have deployed in Iraq to protect US bases and installations.
Instead, the US Army wanted to develop its “own” system, so the exposed troops will have to wait. Whether the army system will perform well in combat, once it is operational in a few years, no one knows.
To be sure, it will be vastly more expensive than taking an off-the-shelf system that demonstrably works, which suggests that the Pentagon spendthrifts are not really interested in soldier welfare. (It should also be noted that the US helped pay for Iron Dome’s R&D and much of it is manufactured in the US.)
The US is now getting around to finally addressing the problem of swarming drones, while the Russians in Ukraine are already using swarming attacks that mix drones with cruise missiles and glide bombs, including many decoys, creating a huge problem for ground-based air defenses.
As weapons become more and more autonomous (and therefore un-jammable), the threat of mixed swarming attacks will multiply. In the future this will be a job for artificial intelligence driving air defense systems. We are waiting.
A similar case can be made about tanks. The much-ballyhooed German Leopard tanks have been crushed by the Russians in Ukraine. Why? For starters, the Leopards, despite their modern armor, lack effective defenses.
The Ukrainians, fearing the tanks were vulnerable, started putting captured Russian reactive armor on the Leopards along with steel cages on top to protect against overhead weapons.
If the German tanks were so great, why didn’t they have frontal, side and topside protection? Translation: NATO’s tanks, other than some US Abrams, don’t have protection either. Now Abrams tanks, older models without the most advanced armor, are being handed over to Ukraine. They are unlikely to survive, either.
The US Army knows that part of the answer is to have active defenses on tanks. Active defenses won’t protect against mines or heavy artillery strikes, but they can help against anti-tank weapons, mortars and shells.
The US Army bought exactly 100 copies of Israel’s proven Trophy system then decided to develop its own alternative, wasting more years and leaving US tanks without this extra protection. As Yogi Berra said, deja vu all over again.
For the record, although the Russians claim to have active defense systems, their tanks in Ukraine do not. However, they all have reactive armor, although mostly first or (at best) second-generation versions.
The Russians have a new reactive armor system but it has not shown up on the battlefield. Maybe they are holding it back for a future war.
Part of the US and NATO’s problem is the inbuilt belief that the Russians would not be able to adapt to new forms of warfare. Not only have the Russians adapted but they have introduced new generations of weapons that seem to be effective on the battlefield or against high-value targets.
Examples include air-launched mines, which have made it difficult for Ukraine to clear pathways for its troops, precision glide bombs, and hypersonic missiles, which have targeted military and civilian infrastructure.
Perhaps most significantly, Russia has developed a killer drone called Lancet. This drone can strike and kill moving tanks and armored vehicles and has even taken out a Ukrainian BUK air defense system. So far it appears neither Ukraine nor NATO has an answer to the Lancet, which is continually being improved.
In any war, there will be a huge need for ammunition and for replacement weapons. The Ukraine war has drained NATO arsenals and stockpiles meant for other contingencies.
A year into the Ukraine war, the US and its allies started to give contracts to stodgy defense contractors to make more ammunition and smart weapons. But problems immediately arose.
Many of the production facilities had long since shut down and new ones would have to be created. Supply chains would need to be renewed, but for older weapons, the supply chains might not exist any longer. Finding experienced workers and engineers also became a challenge since there were not so many volunteers for short-term contract jobs.
Finally, many of the parts and materials depend on supplies from China, as Raytheon’s president has made clear. Recently, the Chinese started restricting electronics and other supplies (including rare earths) that had been exported to the US and Europe.
These same problems would confront NATO in a general war, except that a good part of European armaments production might be halted by enemy attacks.
What is obvious is that NATO stockpiles are insufficient for Ukraine and totally inadequate for NATO security, raising the question of why the US and NATO were willing to raid the already paltry stocks for Ukraine, knowing it left NATO naked in Europe and significantly weakened US forward defenses in the Pacific.
No one in government wants to talk about this recklessness, or if they do, they say everything is OK. Nonsense. You can’t burn up $100 billion in weapons and ammunition and have everything be OK.
If the Ukraine war ended tomorrow, would the US and NATO really be willing to continue high levels of defense spending and rebuild stockpiles and modernize weapons? Would the US be ready to change its procurement system, accept foreign weapons where they are readily available and start applying sensible economic measures to its defense purchases?
One of the outcomes of the Ukraine war is proof positive that NATO is not ready even to defend its own territories. Will this lead, inevitably, to a major change in approach in European politics and strategy?
As Ukraine continues to weaken and the adventure in Ukraine ends, attitudes are bound to change. The existing crop of leaders in Europe and the US will go by the wayside. What will come next? The handwriting, it seems, already is on the wall.
Stephen Bryen is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and the Yorktown Institute. This article was originally published on Weapons and Strategy, his Substack. Asia Times is republishing the article with permission.