The nature of war is not changing in Ukraine

During his commencement speech at the US Military Academy at West Point, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley was blunt about the future of warfare. In addition to describing an increasingly unstable world, he reminded the graduating class that “the nature of war is not going to change — it’s immutable.” Since Russia’s February incursion, the world has watched in awe as the Ukrainian Army pushed back its invaders with western-furnished anti-tank missiles, Starlink satellite support and Turkish drones. To some, this remarkable feat suggests that the nature of war is somehow changing, but the opposite is likely true.

In its simplest form, the nature of war involves the use of politically sanctioned violence to generate policy concessions from a human opponent. The means employed to drive these concessions represent the changing character of warfare, but tanks and algorithms do not concede anything, the leaders employing them do. Military thinkers from Thucydides to Carl von Clausewitz have therefore characterized war as a fundamentally human endeavor driven by emotion, necessity and innovation. The world needs to be reminded of this truism occasionally because it is not accepted wisdom, especially in an age when exquisite technologies paint fanciful visions of tomorrow’s battlefields. But the battlefields of today tell a different story.

At a Pentagon press briefing in late May, when asked what type of security assistance had been most effective in Ukraine, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin responded: “Long range missiles, tanks…and some [drones]…the fight is really shaped by artillery in this phase.” His comments echo those of an adviser to Ukraine’s senior defense official Gen. Valery Zaluzhnyi, who explained that drones and Javelin missiles were useful, but it was artillery that broke Russia’s advances.

The Russo-Ukrainian war is not a signpost of military revolution. It is an example of a smaller but capable power benefitting from sound leadership and unprecedented materiel support. The most recent aid package approved by Congress had a price tag of $40 billion — more than a quarter of Ukraine’s GDP before the war began. After Russia’s invasion, the US Army spearheaded a coalition planning cell that combined the efforts of 20 countries in support of Ukraine’s defense. When paired with aid from all supporting nations, including Harpoon anti-ship missiles from Denmark, security assistance to Ukraine could soon equal or exceed its GDP. This aid, however, would be useless if not employed properly.

Ukrainian defenders are applying principles of intelligence and combined arms warfare that have worked for generations while their opponent ignores them. The problem for the Russian army is not that it failed to keep pace with the future, but rather that it lost sight of the past. There is no shortage of innovation on display in the form of loitering munitions and the skillful exploitation of open-source intelligence. But innovation is part of war’s nature. From blown bridges that leave armored vehicles exposed on main roads to small kill teams patrolling the forest, battlefield conditions in Ukraine are remarkably similar to those of the previous century. Take the destruction of an entire Russian battalion at a river crossing in Donbas as an example.

First-hand accounts attributed the early May operation’s success to superior human reconnaissance, predictive intelligence and accurate artillery strikes enabled by rather simple drone feeds. At its core, the artillery technology employed by the Ukrainian army has existed for more than a century — that is, beyond line-of-sight precision indirect fire systems. Only recently did Ukraine receive the more sophisticated American M777 Howitzers and French self-propelled Caesar cannons. Still, none of this is particularly revolutionary.

In 1970, author Alvin Toffler predicted that the 21st century would experience a sort of “future shock” as civilizations were exposed to new technologies too rapidly. Russia’s war on Ukraine has had the opposite effect, resulting in something akin to past shock as the modern European landscape is reacquainted with old horrors. As geopolitical analyst Peter Zeihan stated recently during a presentation at Fort Benning, Georgia, “there’s nothing that says progress is one way.” This distinction between war’s nature and character is an important consideration for policymakers.

Confusing the two can result in flawed assumptions related to deterrence and conflict termination, giving public officials an inflated sense of control over war’s conditions. Despite the incessant coverage of military hardware in Ukraine, nothing has captured the world’s attention like Russia’s atrocities, and for good reason. These potential war crimes unite NATO, but they also generate political pressure on western officials to offer Moscow “off ramps” that might put an end to the suffering.

Henry Kissinger’s suggestion that Ukraine concede land to Russia is one example. Rather than producing favorable outcomes, it is more likely that such painful concessions would only spread the “germs of another war,” as British officer Sir BH Liddell Hart wrote in 1954. Hart referred to this fallacy as mistaking the military aim for the national object — in other words, mistaking war’s character for its nature. The Kremlin has sacrificed too much to be content with a meager detente negotiated in the interest of the very enemy it uses to justify its invasion.

Even with all the modern weapons money can buy, abstract changes to war’s character are not destroying Russian battalions. Properly trained and equipped Ukrainians willing to die defending their country are doing that. This is true in Ukraine now and it will be true for the United States in any potential future war. Congress would do well to keep this in mind as it establishes priorities for the next National Defense Authorization Act amid competing innovation demands and the lowest propensity for military service on record.

The war in Ukraine will have far reaching implications for everything from global energy diversification to supply chain management. But no matter how badly some onlookers want to frame the conflict as a crystal ball into a futuristic battlefield, the mass graves in Bucha and Mariupol pull us back to reality. There may come a time when advanced technologies alter the brutal realities of armed conflict, but that time is not now. War’s terrible nature is not changing in Ukraine — it is being confirmed there.

Capt. Michael P. Ferguson is an officer in the US Army with decades of operational experience throughout Iraq, Afghanistan, Europe and Africa. He is co-author of a forthcoming book on the military legacy of Alexander the Great (Routledge, 2023).

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the policies or positions of the US Army, the US Department of Defense or the US government.

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