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The Ukraine War Is Still Relatively Low-Tech — for Now

If you believe that software is eating the world, the war in Ukraine seems incomprehensibly low-tech. In many areas, it looks barely distinguishable from World War I-style trench warfare, and Ukraine’s repeated requests for more artillery and tanks suggest a reliance on World War II-era warfighting methods. 

Tanks “seem a bit… old school. Seems like lite, mobile, gps/drone/sat targeting items are dominating these days. Am I missing something? Are tanks still superior when backed up, like carriers are backed up in a fleet?” computer game industry pioneer Richard Garriott tweeted recently. Elon Musk, another tech leading light, replied that “tanks are a deathtrap now. With neither side having air superiority, you’re left with infantry & artillery – essentially WW1.”

Neither Garriott nor Musk is a military expert, so there have been plenty of angry rebukes from people who are, as well as some milder and more substantive responses pointing out that modern warfare is all about combined arms, and every kind of equipment has its uses. The techies aren’t entirely naive, though. They — both astronaut Garriott and SpaceX chief executive officer Musk — know that high-tech war is only possible when its many components work in seamless concert. That’s the missing bit in Ukraine. Both Russian and Ukrainian technological capabilities are hastily patched-together quilts that often leave the troops reliant on age-old killing machinery — on the primary, brute force function of a tank, a howitzer, a machine gun. All kinds of 21st-century equipment are being used, but old school meat-grinder fighting is still deciding the direction of the war.

In 2018, Vladimir Putin declared that Russia possessed a “compact, high-tech military.” Almost a year of the Ukraine invasion has shown that this military is not high-tech enough to be as compact as it has become, thanks to the massive downsizing in the 2000s and 2010s that cut the officer cadre from more than 300,000 to 150,000. 

An ideal modern military is a highly connected one. Ground units communicate securely to coordinate their actions and get timely air, artillery and tank support. Satellites and drones help locate enemy troops, headquarters and ammunition depots, targeting missile strikes and artillery fire to cost-effectively inflict maximum damage to the enemy. Electronic warfare messes up enemy communications. On paper, Russia had all these capabilities when it invaded in February 2022.

But Western analysts warned even then that some systems were at best untested. In September 2021, a Chatham House report said that “Russia has successfully integrated unmanned vehicles into its military operations, but it is a long way from incorporating aerial and ground vehicle teaming for more effective battlefield management.” In April of the pre-war year, Brussels-based satellite expert Bart Hendrickx wrote that Liana, the post-Soviet Russian satellite intelligence project, had been plagued with delays and technical problems, and better satellites would only become available in a few years. 

The invasion revealed a much harsher reality for Putin and his generals. Perhaps most importantly, it demonstrated the failure of redesigned Russian communication systems for units on the ground. Military blogger Andrei Morozov, a communications specialist who has fought in Ukraine since 2015, has detailed this fiasco in a long series of blog posts. According to Morozov, modern communications systems, such as the Azart, were in fact developed, but military units only received elements of them, which weren’t particularly useful without the entire system in place. As the war began, they ended up depending on commercially available, cheap Chinese-made radios. Satellite intelligence, too, failed to supply timely data, and Russian troops had to rely on decades-old maps and massive quantities of ammunition in the absence of precise targeting. Small Russian drones that could be used to target fire or extend communications range existed — but too few of them were available to the troops.

Given these issues and Russia’s failure to establish air superiority, perfectly coordinated modern warfare was a non-starter. As Bryan Clark wrote in a July 2022 report for the Washington-based think tank Hudson Institute,

Years of underfunded aviation training and maintenance and the rapid introduction by NATO of Stinger shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles have largely grounded Russian jets and helicopters during the Ukraine invasion. So when Russian troops crossed the border, they faced a situation not unlike the armies of World War I. Without airpower, the Russian assault crawled at the speed of their trucks and tanks. And although they proved effective in the Donbas during the last decade, Russian drones are controlled by line-of-sight radios operating in the Ka- and Ku-bands, which prevented them from straying too far from their operators on the ground. With Russian columns moving along multiple axes into Ukraine and unable to send EW drones well over the horizon, any jamming of Ukrainian forces, some of which were interspersed between Russian formations, would have also taken out Russian radios.

Ukrainians, for their part, quickly got their hands on elements of modern military communications — from US-made SINCGARS radios to satellite intelligence from Western militaries and private companies, which could quickly be passed on to troops on the ground via Musk’s Starlink terminals. Supplies of the heavy weaponry whose deadly work could be coordinated using these systems lagged, however, and Russia used its advantage in brute force to advance in the east during last spring and summer. By then, the Russian military managed to bring to bear some of its more high-tech capabilities, too — for example, using electronic warfare to fight off the threat of the vaunted Turkish-made Bayraktar drones. Ukraine’s victories last fall resulted from the effective use of Western communications technology in tandem with the heavy weapons it did receive from the West, such as the HIMARS multiple rocket systems, and the creative use of small mobile groups, also enabled by superior high-tech intelligence and communications. Ukrainians knew and could target the Russian troops’ weak spots.

To win the war, they now are determined to put together a modern combined-arms machine, thus Ukraine’s insistent requests for more artillery, anti-missile systems and tanks. Russia, for its part, needs to catch up in the high-tech area, a pursuit hindered but not prevented by Western sanctions. It must speed up the production of communications devices and drones as well as beef up its satellite intelligence, obtaining or replacing hundreds of Western components — a process that is inevitably slower than Ukraine’s procurement of Western weaponry.

Meanwhile, as both sides need time to catch up in the respective areas where they now lag, they are sending thousands of soldiers into relatively old-fashioned battle — to storm trenches and ruined buildings relying on little more than speed and luck, to face artillery fire that is, at best, targeted using commercial drones, to face Soviet-era tanks that can still wreak death and destruction despite their death-trap design. The lives of these soldiers are sacrificed so that the belligerents can gradually evolve into 21-century armies from ones built for a previous war. As President Volodymyr Zelenskiy put it in a recent nightly video address, “Thanks to the resilience of our soldiers in Soledar, we have won for Ukraine additional time and additional strength.” With both sides now inured to losses that are incredibly heavy by this century’s standards, today’s bloodbath around Soledar, Bakhmut, Svatovo and Kreminna amounts to little more than biding time in a conflict that continues to destroy both countries — the befuddled invaders and the stubborn defenders alike.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

Thanks for the Tanks, But Send the Abrams and Leopard, Too: Andreas Kluth

Economic Chaos of a Taiwan War Would Go Well Past Semiconductors: Hal Brands

All Is Not Quiet on the Eastern Front: Niall Ferguson

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky, formerly Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation Team. He recently published Russian translations of George Orwell’s “1984” and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.”

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