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The future of war: first lessons learned from Ukraine

Updated: Oct 26

The war between Ukraine and Russia is the first large-scale conventional war of the 21st century. It will shape the way major powers prepare for the wars of the future.

What lessons can we learn so far from the war in Ukraine?

Each major war of modern times gave the belligerents an opportunity to test and use new weapons. The First World War was the first one to happen in the air, with aircraft fighters and to use armored vehicles, at the very end of the conflict. The Second World War made intensive use of armored vehicles and the first - and fortunately last so far - to use a nuclear bomb, as the ultimate weapon to stop the war. The Cold War saw an intensive use of dissuasion based on the non-use of nuclear power, and a decisive development of military satellites to collect intelligence.

What new weapons are emerging from this war in Ukraine? Definitely an intensive use of drones, a new digital front, involving internet access, cyberattacks and a communication war on digital networks, the irruption of AI on the battlefield, and the potential use of hypersonic missiles.

The economic weapon has also been used heavily during this war, especially energy shortages and economic sanctions (a new form of blockade) but this is not something new. What's new is not to weaponize the economy but the nature of some of the critical resources at stake in this war: this is the first war where chips are becoming a key supply, and their scarcity is a challenge for the Russians, deprived of Western supply.

The first full-scale drone war

Drones had been used in previous conflicts, such as in Afghanistan or Iraq to eliminate key targets in the hierarchy of the Islamist guerilla movements opposed to the US Army. However, these drones were high-tech drones, extremely pricey - such as the Reaper, which cost $32 million a piece. In the current war with Ukraine, we see the rise of a new generation of drones, which differ from the previous generation by their cost, diversity, number, usage, and origin.

Ukrainian UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) losses remain at approximately 10,000 per month according to the Royal United Service Institute, which shows us how massive the use of drones is in that conflict, something that was never seen before at that scale.

There is a large variety of drones used in the Ukrainian theater, from very small to very large - (ranging from 15 centimeters to 15 meters wingspan), from single-use kamikaze to multiple usages, from commercial to military design, operating singly or in swarms. There is now a large variety of suppliers, including emerging tech military powers, China, Turkey, and Iran.

The first usage of drones remains reconnaissance and surveillance of the battlefield. Drones are also used in the propaganda war to document the damages and crimes perpetrated by the opposite party, this was the case to document the destruction of cities by Russian forces or the floodings following the Kakhovka dam breach. Drones were also used to direct and conduct strikes, as well as to perpetrate some strikes, including by kamikaze drones diving into their targets and exploding, such as the ones recently used in attacks against Moscow.

Cheap civilian drones have been used massively in the conflict, such as the ones from Chinese manufacturer DJI. Their lifetime is very limited in a conflict zone but they are so cheap and easy to manoeuver that there is a business case for the use of civilian drones in armed conflicts.

This conflict also shows the necessity to deploy anti-drone systems, which can be kinetic (hitting the drones with bullets, rockets, or other drones) or electronic (jamming or hacking the drones).

Looking at this conflict, all armies in the world clearly see that they need to have a full portfolio of drones, from low-cost to high-tech UAV,s and a flexible and versatile doctrine of usage. But maybe even more important is to reinforce the counter-drone component to face these multiple threats. It's almost a new branch of the army in itself!

The second front is a "multi-channel" digital front

The Ukrainian war is probably the first large-scale conventional war of the digital age. As a result, both armies have to fight on a digital front as well as on a physical front. This digital front is a combination of various digital components: we could almost describe it as a "multi-channel" digital front, to take an analogy with the corporate world.

The first dimension is obviously cybersecurity. This is a cyber war, even more so with the development of the IoT (Internet of Things). The multiplication of connected objects makes modern armies more efficient but also much more vulnerable to hacking and cyber-attacks. This is the theme of "Ghost Fleet", which shows a fictional attack on Hawaï by the Chinese, starting with a massive cyberattack and the destruction of the US satellite intelligence capacities. Ukraine is no fiction and both countries, Russia and Ukraine, are known for the quality of their IT personnel. They have performed massive cyber attacks on their opponents, including on connected objects that were not targeted before, such as electric car charging stations in cities to create chaos with civilian populations.

The second dimension is basically the quality of communications and of the internet coverage. At the beginning of the war, we saw Russian troops lacking proper communication channels, using their private phones, and being spotted and destroyed by Ukrainian forces. More recently, there was a huge debate about the fact that Elon Musk should or should not provide access to the Starlink network to attack Crimea, given that he initially gave access to Starlink to help Ukraine on their soil.

The third digital front is the propaganda front, mostly linked to social media. Ukraine has been very efficient in putting together videos to rally support from the West, with targeted messages to every country supporting them. Social media are the new stage for a broad fight between the two sides where new technologies, such as deep-fake videos, were for the first time used in war propaganda. Social media are also systematically and automatically screened to detect the enemy weaknesses, such as these Russian soldiers talking too much on social media, enough to be spotted, shelled, and killed by the Ukrainian artillery. Using drones, documenting the crimes or so-called crimes of the opponent has also become a major aspect of the communication war. In this Ukraine war, information warfare has reached new levels to weaponize social media, raise funds and support, and possibly change the course of a conventional war.

The fourth aspect is the collaboration and involvement of the civilian population. The Ukrainians have updated a civilian collaborative platform, Diia, previously used to pay taxes and do administrative tasks, to become a platform to collect intelligence from citizens. Diia is installed on 70% of smartphones in Ukraine, allowing citizens to report enemy movements and provide real-time intelligence.

The fifth aspect of the digital front is the increasing use of AI. An example is the use of swarm drones and autonomous drones. Another major use of AI is image recognition applied to target recognition and acquisition from satellite images. In line with the previous point about social media, AI has been used to geolocate and analyze social media content to identify soldiers, weapons, units, and troop movements. The Ukrainians have also used face recognition to identify Russian soldiers. This conflict is a laboratory, a first step towards a more advanced use of AI in warfare. However, we are not yet at a stage where the war would be a "hyperwar", a form of AI-controlled warfare or "Algorithmic warfare" in which autonomous weapons independently start deciding their course of action based on the situation in which they find themselves. This is not a "software-defined warfare" yet. However, it might be where it's been tested best yet.

Just like the Second World War improved the emerging technologies of the First World War (armored vehicles/tanks), just like the Ukraine war brought to full scale the use of drones, which had been used less intensively in previous conflicts, no doubt that the next conflicts will take to the next level the AI applications that are being experimented in Ukraine, with serious AI-related ethical questions ahead.

(Source: Harvard University / Belfer Center)

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