There’s a moment in an episode of Ken Burns’ documentary on the American Civil War that focuses on the epic battle between the first ironclad ships. The small but extremely innovative USS Monitor has been slowly towed toward Hampton Roads, and nearly lost in a storm along the way. The larger, but much less nimble CSS Virginia (nee Merrimack) is there to meet it. The battle extends into part of the next two days.
That fight, which is generally said to have ended in a stalemate but had devastating consequences for Confederate hopes of breaking the Union blockade, has been romanticized far too often. I’m not going to indulge in either praising the genius of Theodore Timby’s revolving turret or detailing the “Mission: Impossible”-level plot behind salvaging the sunken Merrimack in an effort to create an unstoppable weapon.
Instead, I want to consider just one line from Burns’ documentary: the line that says, “From the moment the two ships opened fire that Sunday morning, every other navy in the world was obsolete.” Because what’s happening in Ukraine may not be happening in a single instant, but it is redefining warfare—on both land and sea—just as profoundly as the events that took place where the Nansemond River meets the James.
The two armies now facing each other across the defenses of the so-called Surovikin line bear only a passing resemblance to the armies that Ukraine and Russia held when dictator Vladimir Putin ordered his forces across the border on Feb. 24, 2022.
That Russian army consisted of massive numbers of tanks, transports, and other vehicles put into place over a period of months. That lengthy build-up largely offset the deficits of Russia’s miserable logistics, though it couldn’t hide the issues with the poor maintenance and corruption that rendered a significant fraction of Russia’s military force semi-disabled before the first shot was fired. Still, Russia came into Ukraine from multiple directions, including the famous “40-mile convoy” driving down from Belarus, with thousands of tanks, many thousands more artillery guns, and dress uniforms so its victorious troops could go straight to that victory march through Kyiv.
Those resources are expended, and those vehicles largely gone.
The Ukrainian army that met them was much smaller, equipped mostly with aging Soviet systems, and unable to halt the Russian advance short of major population centers. Though Ukraine was able to drastically alter the course of the war with heroic individual action and anti-tank weapons along the highway (and an incredible series of events at Hostomel Airport), the truth is, it was a close thing. A few more tanks successfully making their way along the P02 highway, or some of the nearly two dozen Il-76 strategic airlifters on their way to Kyiv making it successfully to the runway at Hostomel, and Putin might well have made his victory lap around Freedom Square.
Without underplaying Ukraine’s genuinely resourceful and tough defense, Russia’s inability to sustain an army in the field away from transportation hubs played a large role in its withdrawal from the area around Kyiv.
Both armies have since received big infusions of new troops, with training levels varying widely. Ukraine has also received a plethora of Western equipment, but far from all of it is new. Russia has been forced to scrounge more and more diligently through scrap yards and warehouses, bringing in gear that is decades older than the tanks and vehicles that made up that ill-fated convoy.
The difference in troop training, quality of equipment, competence of leadership, availability of intelligence, and sheer morale has made a difference. It has now been over a year since Russia was able to sustain anything like a substantive advance. Yes, they took Bakhmut in May, but that was only through the concentration of a huge amount of its force, and the willingness of the now dead Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group mercenaries to send “zerg waves” of prisoner-troops out to die by the tens of thousands.
The days when Russia could advance into a new area under a screen of artillery, as they did at Severodonetsk during the first summer of the war, are over. Ukraine is the one advancing now, because Ukraine has the advantage.
Over the past several months, Russia tried to make advances at Svatove, quickly capturing a series of villages. That attack fizzled within days, and a week later Ukraine recaptured all the territory it had lost. Something similar happened at Kupyansk, where Russia was reportedly massing over 100,000 troops to drive Ukraine back across the Oskil River. Ukraine is still on the east side of the Oskil, and still in Kupyansk. And Russia’s efforts in the area failed after a very small advance. Last week there were reports that Russia was about to mount another massive attack in the north. It didn’t happen. Now Russia has reportedly slowed its operations in the area.
Russia has tried to advance north of Bakhmut. That failed. According to the Ukrainian General Staff, Russia tried again to retake areas around recently liberated Klishchiivka and Andriivka on Thursday—and failed.
In the south, they’ve been trying to retake Robotyne. And failing. Yesterday, they attempted to retake an area east of Urozhaine. Another failure.
At the moment, Ukraine appears capable of successfully capturing areas it targets and holding them against multiple Russian assaults. However, Ukraine isn’t racing forward because its military, like Russia’s military, is obsolete.
But then, so is China’s. And every military in Europe. And the U.S. military.
That’s not to say that any of these militaries are useless. Obviously, they are not. But what’s happening in Ukraine right now is a kind of “punctuated equilibrium” in the evolution of military operations. In Ukraine, drones—both aerial and aquatic—have reached such numbers and demonstrated such widespread capabilities, that many traditional weapons systems have become limited in their roles.
Here are a pair of tanks east of Klishchiivka being taken out this week with FPV drones.
And here’s where those losses happened on the map.
That’s between 6 kilometers and 8 kilometers east of the current front line. Only … is it? Right now we generally regard the front line as the area where infantry is engaged. But if soldiers in VR headsets can project force sufficient to stop a tank 7 km away, then pick up another $1,000 drone and do it again minutes later, where is the real front line?
Sure, this could have been done with precision weapons like HIMARS at even greater range. But that requires much more expense, more setup, and much greater levels of support. We’ve written many times about the vast logistical train that extends back from a weapon like a HIMARS launcher on a M1 Abrams tank. Everything it takes to support a DJI quadcopter is sitting on my desk. And there is still plenty of room for my keyboard.
Is it having your infantry in the trenches that represents control? Or your tanks in the fields? Or do you control the area you can patrol with drones?
It’s always been fuzzy. Now it’s just fuzzier.
Early in the war, drones took over many of the roles that were played by traditional aircraft and missiles. Now they’re also performing the roles of artillery, mortars, and MLRS. They are precision systems with a level of precision that no shell can match. And they deliver that value at not just a lower price, but with lower burdens of transport, maintenance, training—you name it.
Here’s the latest in Andrew Perpetua’s list of losses and causes. Most Russian losses were due to drones. Every Ukrainian loss was drone-related.
Drones haven’t yet replaced every piece of equipment on the field, because that equipment still has some edge in range or destructive power. But the cost-benefit ratio of drones is incredibly high and the possibility they will push some of the traditional kit completely off the field is extremely high.
Right now, Ukraine has a likely advantage in drones. That’s not just because of greater access to more kinds of off-the-shelf systems and military kamikaze drones from other countries, but because they’ve been exceptionally clever about adapting and designing their own. They’ve also brought in large numbers of troops that have been able to leverage hobby drone experience.
But Russia has not been a slouch. They’ve gone from dependency on imports that supplemented their own clumsy surveillance drones to using FPV drones and quadcopters extremely effectively. In fact, Russia has a lot to gain from drones. Because drones largely bypass the two things that Russia does badly: logistics and training.
You don’t need to get a million shells to the front if you can get a thousand drones—and better than half of them hit their target. It’s a huge mistake to think that drone warfare inherently favors Ukraine.
On the other hand, Ukraine’s mishmash of Soviet and Western systems, which has represented both a logistical and a tactical challenge, gives them flexibility in determining the best way to meet the challenge of drone warfare. Which is the magic everyone is looking for right now. What it will take to put this genie even partway back in the bottle is not clear—but there are a lot of traditional arms manufacturers with many billions of dollars worth of incentives to find some solution.
Here’s one prediction: If the answer to drones comes in the form of electronic warfare that blocks control signals, the result will be an increasing reliance on drones that don’t need that signal—drones that operate partially, or completely, based on AI. There are already weapons out there, like the Switchblade drones, that can evaluate targets, lock on, and limit human involvement to either a go-ahead or a wave-off. Enough pressure from electronic warfare is likely to sever that last link to human control.
Right now, drones are like the ironclads on that Sunday at Hampton Roads. Shots have been fired, yet the battle remains a standoff and no one is quite sure how to move forward.
But things are definitely not going back.
None of this is to say that other systems aren’t extremely useful.
Hard to know how anyone can find this tank under that sophisticated camo, which makes it completely drone-proof.
Lots of teeth. No dragon.