The Future of War Seen on the Battlefields of Ukraine
An extended version of Eric Schmidt's July 7 Wall Street Journal Opinion
Hello, I’m Ylli Bajraktari, CEO of the Special Competitive Studies Project. In this edition of 2-2-2, SCSP Chair Dr. Eric Schmidt offers our readers the extended version of his recent Opinion in Wall Street Journal.
The Future of War Seen on the Battlefields of Ukraine
A humanitarian disaster is playing out along a 1000 kilometers long battlefield. Across that embattled front line stretches extensive Russian defenses, including a heavily mined zone 5 km wide, with Russian and Iranian drones in the skies overhead, followed by rows of concrete anti-tank obstacles called Dragon’s teeth, and artillery pieces widely dispersed in nearby forests. Behind lies another defense line, this one even deeper and more heavily defended. It's a military maxim that attacking forces require at least a 3:1 force advantage to defeat a resolute and dug-in defender. But the Russians have amassed so many artillery pieces and so much ammunition supporting the defensive line that in recent days they have fired 50,000 rounds a day, whereas the Ukrainians are one order of magnitude smaller. To defend against drones, the Russians excel in radio frequency jamming, rendering most drones useless -- a recent report said the Ukrainians were losing an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 drones a month. The front line for Russians is really two lines, a true defense in depth: the initial line meant to act as a breaker against the attacking wave and a second, more heavily defended line, upon which they intend the offensive to flounder.
These thickly laid defenses are supported by thousands of Russian troops so that even if the attackers get through the minefield, through the anti-tank obstacles, and into the first line of enemy trenches, the Russian drones would converge overhead knowing exactly where their own trench is. And then the Russian artillery will begin again.
Courageous Ukrainians are constantly probing along the Russian defensive line, seeking out gaps in the line to exploit and allow a drive directly to the Sea of Azov to break the land bridge so important to Russia that connects the occupied Donbas with Crimea. The conflict involves perhaps 1 million Ukrainian soldiers and 600,000 Russians making the second biggest country in all of Europe the most dangerous place in the world today. To win, Ukrainian tactics need to use every piece of new technology they can muster. With deaths totaling around 400 a day, this war is far larger, significantly harder, and far bloodier than we have seen in a very, very long time in the European continent. The western democracies have only the manufacturing capacity to to produce just half of the 155 mm artillery shells the Ukrainians need to keep up with the unremitting shelling that goes on day and night. This is an industrial age artillery war that is evolving into a new kind of land war: the drone war.
Army of Drones
Drones control the battlefield. Kamikaze drones, often deployed in considerable volume, are cheaper than a mortar round, and more accurate than artillery fire. Ukrainian reconnaissance drones keep their soldiers safe, constantly monitoring friendly positions, spotting Russian troops attempting to infiltrate the lines, and providing battlefield feedback to correct artillery targeting. They also fly over enemy lines (typically in the day) to identify targets for Ukrainian bomber drones to return (typically at night) to drop munitions on unsuspecting targets. To win this war, Ukraine needs to rethink hundreds of years of traditional military thinking about how to employ mortars, artillery, and tanks with thousands of drones that are much more accurate, much less expensive, and that can clear a path for the infantry through Russian defenses. Drones can go where the infantry can’t.
Ukraine needs 100,000 drones, to start with, as cheap and reliable as possible, and which can function in a highly communications-denied environment. They need reconnaissance drones of all sizes and ranges, and attack drones that operate with precision to cross the line and reduce the extremely high cost to their infantry. Today the Russians operate more reconnaissance drones and kamikaze drones than the Ukrainians. One Ukrainian commander showed me 15 Russian drones in his small coverage area, flying around.
Since the war started, Ukraine has been strengthening its drone arsenal. The latest drones work well with jammed communication, no GPS guidance, and can carry guided bombs able to chase a fleeing target down a road – a new chapter in guided munitions. Ukrainian Command centers use personal computers and open source software to merge imagery from various sources to, classify targets, and execute operations securely and remotely.
Based on the US drone experience, I always assumed that other countries would use exquisite drones for both surveillance and precision strikes, and later I thought Ukraine would use simple surveillance drones and bomber drones to drop charges on military targets. I was completely wrong: the drone of choice is a kamikaze drone, based on what is called FPV (first person view) derived from a drone racing sport of the same name. These drones, in the hands of a skilled operator with specialized training, are highly maneuverable and lightning fast -- so fast they’re nearly impossible to shoot down or to stop them. They are inexpensive, costing around $400, and are controlled by an operator with goggles on. They carry up to 1.5 kilograms of explosive, and can destroy most targets up to armored tanks. Of the hundreds of thousands of drones used in Ukraine, these are both the cheapest and the most useful. They are and will change land warfare forever. Eventually these simple drones will be swarmable, and will be able to follow terrain and multiple targets. They will be impossible to stop, except with electronic jamming. Modern SDR (software defined radio) allows rapid frequency hopping, and so far these drones have largely proven unjammable by previously very effective Russian GPS jamming. This new class of drones can defeat that jamming.
Instead of a murmuration of starlings, I imagine one of drones, an altogether more terrifying proposition. Imagine an AI based swarm of kamikaze drones, whose cameras track their targets, even mobile targets, and algorithmically collaborate to defeat the enemy's electronic countermeasures and guarantee a successful strike. This may be the most important unintended effect of the war. The Russians first attacked using World War 2 style tank and artillery offensives, the Ukrainian response, led by thousands of drones, forced them to embrace World War I techniques of going underground. To win, the Ukrainians are inventing a new way of war, bringing new concepts to the battlefield, changing the traditional doctrine of invasion and defense in our modern world. We may see 100-year-old artillery and mortars replaced with more accurate, unstoppable, field weapons that ruthlessly chase down the enemy, and are built from the start to die on their first mission.
Naval drones are next. Think of small torpedoes, a swarm converging at the waterline of a target ship. Land-based drones are also making an appearance, as vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices at first, with more applications sure to come. They will be used to clear mines and other obstacles, and eventually as remote machine guns and other lethal remote land based weapons. Combat aircraft, which we have relied on for so long, have proven exceedingly vulnerable to surface to air missiles. These costly platforms should be replaced in most uses by much much cheaper, autonomous, land, sea and air based drones.
In meeting after meeting, the senior leadership of Ukraine emphasized they need more artillery, drones, and aircraft. The matchup between Russia and Ukraine is more finely balanced than I expected: The Russians have 5-10 times more artillery and have enough cruise missiles and ballistic missiles to wreak havoc on the front and on the cities of Ukraine. The cities of Kyiv, Lviv, and Dnipro are well protected from Russian missiles but the other cities are not. The Patriot missiles work well, thank goodness. The Ukrainians are finally getting high end tanks and fighter jets, and have the advantage of fighting in their own country for their own country.
Elon Musk is a true hero in Ukraine, and everywhere I went Starlink satellites were in use. In the cities, on the trains, and in the field Starlink is the first and best solution. Even on the front, where Starlink typically does not work, a Starlink ground terminal receives the command which is then radioed on a military network to the drone in the war zone.
The Ukrainians improvised early in the war, and now have an unusual structure: more than a million strong military force of active duty and reservists organized with great independence. They decided that the established generals would not move fast enough with drones, so they took their Digital Ministry and put them in charge of drone planning and procurement. The ministry sets standards, and purchases drones of all kinds, and the Brigades choose and operate them. One Brigade I visited built its own battle management system for real time control, merged the relevant information into the national system (called Delta), and now uses it for precise planning in their part of the battlefield. This tool, a multilayered visual planning system, is really all they needed to coordinate the activities of an entire Brigade. Ten programmers have huge leverage and impact over a 7,000 person command brigade. This would be impossible in most militaries. To move fast, you have to decentralize decision making, and accept the consequences.
Landscape of the Apocalypse
In the 16 months since the start of the war, Ukraine has changed and adapted to their new reality. Air raid sirens were common, and I saw no one heed them at all. The cities are open, restaurants and traffic jams everywhere. Only when you get within 20 miles of the front do you notice anything amiss in what looks like a modern European country. Ukraine reminds me of the fields and farms of northern Europe, with beautiful vistas, abundant nature, and quaint small villages. As you proceed closer to the front, you begin to see dead towns, abandoned for now, and then you see the awful destruction from Russian artillery. Constant distant thunder of attack and counter-attack. Bakhmut is now completely destroyed, and the airborne images are very tough to see. Get close enough, dead Russian soldiers are on the side of the road. It is literally the landscape of the Apocalypse.
To get to Ukraine, you land in Poland and get on trains at border stations. The track gauge is wider than the west (thanks to Stalin) and the trains take you right to the front. Kyiv and Dnipro now appear as normal European cities but with curfews, lively with outdoor activities, traffic jams and horns, air raid sirens and everything open and alive, followed by a deep stillness at night. Complete quiet. My friends said the bombing is usually in the early morning, and they just sleep through it. The food is fresh and plentiful and my train ride along the Dnipro showed modern cultivation with tractors and machinery, all close to the terrifying front line. Fields of nutrition and happiness, literally next to the killing fields. Fields of stunning cinnabar colored flowers covered the gentle rolling landscape, a reminder that humans can recover from almost anything. In the 1930s, Stalin ordered the Holodomor, one of the great tragedies of our last century as up to 5 million Ukrainians died of hunger as they grew food for others. Holodomor literally means, killed by starvation. The fields reminded me of what is possible, bad and also good.
I saw a Ukrainian hospital ICU train filled with seriously injured soldiers being taken back to the capital. Their suffering is inexcusable. The destruction of cities, and the obvious suffering of the inhabitants of those areas, contrast with the incredible confidence of the Ukraine people I spoke with, all of whom believe they will win. They say that for hundreds of years they have either been under Russian control, or have fought the Russians. For our current generation of Ukrainians, peace and democracy are truly everything.