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Opinion Russia learns the perils of aggression in an age of defensive dominance

A member of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces holds an antitank weapon in the outskirts of Kyiv on March 9. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)
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Most analysts have been shocked by the setbacks the Russian military has suffered in Ukraine. They might have been less surprised if they had read an article published Oct. 14 by T.X. Hammes, a retired Marine colonel and iconoclastic military strategist, in an obscure publication called Joint Force Quarterly. In light of how the Ukraine war has unfolded, the article’s title — “The Tactical Defense Becomes Dominant Again” — now looks prescient.

Hammes began by pointing out that shifts in military technology have sometimes led to defensive dominance on the battlefield, sometimes to offensive dominance. Defenders had the upper hand between the American Civil War and World War I, which is why attacks along the Western Front were so bloody and futile. The dominance of the offensive was restored by the introduction of armor and aviation, leading to the German blitzkrieg in 1939-1941. But, Hammes argued, the application of information technology now means that the defender again has the edge.

Defenders benefit from sensors that allow them to detect attacking forces and to hit them with precision-guided munitions without revealing their own positions. These changes, Hammes wrote, are “creating a battlespace in which movement becomes extremely dangerous. If a unit moves, it will create a signal and can be attacked at much greater ranges than in the past.”

That is precisely what Russian forces experienced when so many of their tanks, armored vehicles and aircraft were taken out by Ukrainian troops armed with portable missiles such as Stingers and Javelins, and drones such as the Turkish Bayraktar TB2. The Oryx open-source intelligence site reports that more than 1,800 Russian vehicles and 96 Russian aircraft have been destroyed so far.

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Not even naval ships, bristling with armaments, are safe. “Today,” Hammes wrote, “land-based antiship systems are dominating the surface of the sea out to ever increasing ranges.” Sure enough, Ukraine employed Neptune antiship missiles to sink the cruiser Moskva, flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, after reportedly distracting the crew with a TB2 drone. On Monday, Ukraine reported sinking two Russian patrol boats with TB2s.

Hammes argued that even online defenders have the edge, making it more difficult to stage a “cyber Pearl Harbor” than widely feared. “The Internet,” he wrote, “is a complex adaptive system and thus will show remarkable resilience when under attack.” The Russians tried, and largely failed, to wage cyberwar against the Ukrainians. Ukraine remains connected to the Internet thanks to Starlink satellite terminals supplied by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and paid for by the U.S. government.

When I contacted Hammes to ask for his take on the war in Ukraine, he acknowledged that “proponents of continued offense dominance will point to the incredible Russian ineptitude.” But he nevertheless argued that the war “shows the potential of cheap, massed precision to create dominance by the defense,” even though the Ukrainians did not have many “loitering munitions” (a.k.a. “kamikaze drones”) to begin the conflict. They are now getting a lot more in the form of U.S. Switchblade and Phoenix Ghost drones.

This doesn’t mean that tanks, manned aircraft or surface ships are necessarily obsolete. Kyiv’s desperate desire for more tanks shows that, if properly supported by infantry, air, and artillery, they are still an invaluable instrument of attack. But it does mean that, at least for the time being, it will be increasingly difficult and expensive to protect major weapons systems from low-cost, highly precise drones and missiles linked to pervasive networks of sensors.

Hammes’s argument, if valid, is good news for the United States. “In the two current Great Power competitions, the United States is essentially on the tactical defensive,” he points out. “To achieve regional hegemony, both China and Russia will have to cross borders and seize territory; the United States and its allies only have to defend.”

If Russia fails in Ukraine, it will send a welcome message about the perils of mounting wars of aggression in an age of defensive dominance that should resonate all the way to Beijing. Given how hard Russia is finding it to invade a neighboring state, imagine how much more difficult it will be for China to mount an amphibious assault across the Taiwan Strait.

Hammes notes that “China has worked hard to develop anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities” — meaning missiles, submarines, cyberweapons and other means of ending U.S. naval dominance in the Western Pacific. But he points out: “A2/AD works both ways.” The United States and its allies can deploy “cruise missiles, drones, and smart sea mines” to make it hard for Chinese ships to operate.

That’s precisely what the Marine Corps is trying to do with its controversial decision to ditch all of its tanks and much of its artillery to put its focus on light expeditionary forces armed with missiles and drones. Gen. David H. Berger, the Marine commandant, has come under fire from retired Marine generals for his innovations, but Hammes thinks “Ukraine vindicates the commandant.”

The Marine transformation is merely one example of the kind of adaptations that all militaries will need to make if Hammes’s analysis continues to be borne out by events.