How rapid innovation in modern warfare has shaped one year of war

As the war in Ukraine nears its one-year anniversary with little signs of abating, military analysts are drawing up the balance on how one year of large-scale conventional fighting in Europe has impacted thinking on modern warfare, hoping to draw lessons from the biggest land war in Europe since World War II. Though reports on the death of the tank have been greatly exaggerated, the war has highlighted the vulnerability of more than one weapons system as a multitude of new technologies and armament have made their combat debut.

The war in Ukraine has experienced several major phases: from the initial Russian advances in early 2022, to Ukrainian counter offensives with the aim of taking back lost territory in the summer of 2022, and then to an artillery duel spread across a largely static front since late 2022. During each of these stages, the ability to target enemy troop concentrations, ammunition depots and other high value targets far behind enemy lines has become crucial in gaining the upper hand. 

Artillery and multiple rocket launchers have played a prominent role in Ukraine ever since the outbreak of the War in Donbas in 2014. Especially the latter systems have proven capable of destroying enemy fortifications and breaking up enemy advances using only a few volleys of rockets. Yet precisely this capability is conspicuously lacking, or at least deficient, in the inventories of most NATO member states. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many European countries have over the past year sought to (re)introduce these types of weapons systems into the inventories of their militaries.

It was Russia that entered the war with a significant advantage in artillery firepower. Initially outgunned and outranged along most of the frontline, this situation began to change with the delivery of some 300 Western-made towed howitzers and self-propelled guns and some 40 HIMARS and MLRS rocket systems. These gradually allowed Ukraine to gain a decisive upper hand to the extent that it can be argued that Russian forces have not been able to close the gap since. This disparity has not merely been achieved through the delivery of the gun systems alone, as these systems came alongside an extensive arsenal of precision-guided munitions, scatterable mines and weapons-locating radars. Even if the first are generally considered too expensive for widespread deployment, they have allowed Ukraine to accurately engage high value targets that arguably justify their high production costs. The deployment of artillery-fired mines has seen Russian offensives being stopped dead in their tracks as newly laid minefields form an impassable hindrance in fields that had been cleared just a day ago. Weapons-locating radars for their part have allowed Ukrainian forces to engage in increasingly effective counter-battery fire, in which a radar detects incoming artillery shells and immediately calculates their point of origin. The artillery guns firing these shells can then be targeted and destroyed before they are able to relocate.

The War in Ukraine has also highlighted the need for far larger stockpiles of ammunition than had previously been anticipated for a land war of this intensity. Furthermore an extensive logistics and repair network is required that is capable of repairing sophisticated weaponry that can be prone to frequent breakdowns under the stress of intensive use. 

As in every conflict, it is only a matter of time before your opponent starts implementing solutions to deal with a certain threat. The large-scale use of loitering munitions, which are essentially unmanned drones packed with an explosive warhead that fly themselves into an enemy target, was especially looked at with much anticipation. However, the deployment of U.S.-made Switchblade loitering munitions on the side of Ukraine left much to be desired, and it would ultimately be Russia that first managed to effectively introduce this new mode of warfighting to the battlefield. Video footage of combat operations so far confirms it has used its Lancet loitering munitions to strike close to a hundred Ukrainian targets, amongst which dozens of Western-delivered artillery systems. Ukraine has attempted to mitigate their threat by installing mesh wiring above the location of howitzers, which are especially vulnerable to enemy drones for their inability to quickly redeploy after having fired. Evidently, the seemingly endless cycle of lethal innovation is playing out in real time on Ukraine’s bomb-scarred East.

Attracting more notice than the loitering munitions has been Ukraine’s (and to a more limited degree Russia’s) fleet of small drones used for target acquisition and, increasingly, bombing enemy tanks and positions. Small, agile and extremely difficult to spot, these small contraptions have in many ways exceeded the performance expected of larger drones, albeit operating at far shorter ranges. Especially in this phase, marked by mostly stationary frontlines, the constant harassment by these small systems can make life in trenches at the front a living hell. A myriad of different types are now deployed with integrated armament, ranging from heavy octocopters carrying multiple mortars to tiny models with a single anti-tank weapon, operated from first-person view using special goggles. And their popularity is justified: attrition amongst (particularly Russian) personnel and fighting vehicles from these new tools of war has been anything but insignificant.

Despite appearing stagnant, the conflict is in fact evolving faster than Western militaries are capable of tracking and analysing, let alone incorporating the lessons from. Although legacy armament can and will have a significant impact on the course of the conflict, truly effective tools that match all this war’s needs and particulars will only emerge as it plays out. Or as the legendary Will Rogers observed all the way back in 1929:

“You can’t say that civilization don’t advance, for in every war they kill you a new way.”