Ukraine has changed the dynamics of conflict

As the war grinds on, I do not doubt there will be a great deal to learn. However, a shift in dynamics has already emerged at this early stage as on paper Russia should have won and taken Ukraine quickly but that hasn’t happened. I contend that there have been three significant shifts in military dynamics resulting from this war: the increased perception of the value of the individual soldier, the effectiveness of cheap drones and the increasing value of intelligence gathering capabilities over raw numbers.

The increased perception of the value of the individual soldier

Before the war, most assumed that tanks and armoured vehicles would be the deciding factor, with Russia able to overwhelm Ukraine by numbers alone.

That has proven to be false. The reason? Thousands upon thousands of anti-armour weaponry flooding into Ukraine from around the world. The sheer number of these weapon systems has demonstrably changed the war’s course. I cannot overemphasise that the number of cutting-edge anti-tank missiles shipped to Ukraine in recent months is breath-taking. In short, such a vast arsenal of these small, portable weapons may be unprecedented in a modern war.

Britain alone says it has sent around 4,000 anti-tank weapon systems; Germany around 1,000, Norway around 2,000, Sweden around 5,000 and the U.S. an unpublicised but massive number of missile systems. Other nations have also sent weapons.

Anti-tank weapons aren’t new, but their saturation in this conflict is new, and it’s causing a massive shift in thinking, in both defensive and offensive terms.

It is clear the invasion is not going to plan. This is partly due to Ukrainian resistance and Russian errors, but anti-tank weapons pouring into Ukraine in numbers never seen before are a factor. The armies sending these weapons would undoubtedly have had fewer available per soldier than Ukraine now has; this has highlighted how effective individual soldiers truly are when appropriately equipped.

The effectiveness of cheap drones

The conflict between Ukraine and Russia, now becoming a war of attrition, shows that cheap, lower end technology can be used effectively against high-end threats. Despite weeks of bombardment, Ukraine has kept up a fierce defence of its cities. One of the key enablers of this defence are Turkish-made drones. The drones are being used to carry out ‘pop-up’ attacks on Russian forces with lethal effectiveness, surprising many in the west, including me.

The poster child of cheaper but effective combat drones is the Bayraktar TB2 uncrewed aerial vehicle which carries lightweight, laser-guided bombs. The aircraft have previously excelled in low-tech conflicts, and Turkey has sold them to more than a dozen countries, including Azerbaijan, Libya, Morocco and Ethiopia.

Over the relatively high-tech battlefields of Ukraine, however, the drones have carried out repeated but unexpectedly successful attacks. The Turkish drones, quite frankly, shouldn’t be making a meaningful impact because they are medium-altitude, slow-flying aircraft with a large radar cross-section. But they most certainly are making a meaningful difference.

Ukrainian forces have been essentially flying in at a low level and then coming up and raiding with them, striking targets of opportunity. Before this conflict, no one would have seriously expected a low-cost drone to be making such a great difference, but they have proven their worth, and people are taking note of this shift in dynamic.

The increased value of intelligence gathering

The war in Ukraine, in my view, is perhaps the best example of why intelligence gathering capabilities might matter just as much, or more than, raw numbers. As things stand, NATO’s intelligence infrastructure functions well and is adequately supported by a computerised network that is continually improved, especially against cyberattacks. NATO members and, in fact, almost all western military forces regularly hold exercises to improve these skills. Russia does not.

Ukraine is, essentially, borrowing this capability from the western alliance as nations share real time intelligence with the country.

Ukraine is showing that small and agile forces equipped with intelligence are much better than a large force bumbling around. The key to providing support and defeating enemy attacks is effective intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance capabilities. These capabilities allow for attacks against logistics and other enablers, forcing Russian frontline units to be cut off from the fight after their supplies run out.

NATO countries have learned that aircraft capable of detecting and monitoring the locations of enemy forces are more valuable than a large number of battalions operating with less guidance and that end up pumping thousands of rounds into empty fields or forests. Boosting intelligence-gathering capabilities, even at the cost of the reduced size of combat forces, is proving to be of paramount importance in Ukraine, more so than previously thought.

One hundred fully equipped troops moving intelligently on the battlefield are worth more than one thousand with scarce supplies and decent intelligence-gathering capabilities. Numbers do not fight, people do, and people learn how to do it effectively with what they have.

While some of the above may seem obvious, some may be old and forgotten concepts, but I believe that they represent a new strategic environment. The invasion of Ukraine will be discussed at length for years. People will debate over what the biggest shifts in military dynamics to emerge from the conflict are, but I believe the three I have outlined above are the most important.