Are we witnessing a military revolution on Ukraine battlefields?

President Volodymyr Zelensky and his Ukrainian warriors have unleashed a “Red Dawn”-like response against Russian troop advances in nearly every part of the country. Russian tanks — the much-heralded T-72, T-80 and T-90 — are no match for the Javelin, Next-generation Light Anti-tank Weapon (NLAW), Baykar Bayraktar TB2 and Switchblade drones. Their turrets litter the Ukraine landscape. Neither composite armor, explosive reactive armor, nor countermeasure suites have been effective against the modern weapon systems designed to destroy them.

These defensive weapons, supplied by the United States and NATO, are dramatically altering the battlefield and providing a much-needed shot in the arm to a president in Kyiv unwilling to “take a ride.” Ukraine has marginalized the once vaunted Russian War Machine. As the combat continues, the Ukraine Defense Ministry recently reported they have inflicted 34,430 casualties and destroyed 1,504 tanks, 3,632 armored personnel carriers, 756 artillery pieces, 240 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, 216 aircraft and 183 helicopters.

Ukrainian resiliency and Russian ineptness aside, are we witnessing a revolution in military affairs (RMA) moment?

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus introduced us to the reality that “change is the only constant.” That applies to warfare as well, from tactics and strategy to weapons systems and protective equipment. When change fundamentally reshapes how we fight, it is known as an RMA — a hypothesis in military theory about the future of warfare, often connected to technological and organizational recommendations for military reform. 

Broadly stated, RMA claims in certain periods of the history there were new military doctrines, strategies, tactics and technologies that led to irrecoverable changes in the conduct of warfare. Furthermore, those changes compel an accelerated adaptation of novel battlefield doctrines and strategies. Examples include the machine gun from World War I, blitzkrieg from World War II, long-range precision missile fires from Desert Storm, and communications and network-centric warfare.

The war in Ukraine is continually introducing high-tech weapon systems to the battlefield that are fundamentally marginalizing armor — tanks and armored personnel carriers — by utilizing centuries-old tactics that have fundamentally marginalized, while ingeniously also exploiting, the manner in which the Russian military employs them. Russian President Vladimir Putin exposed himself to this possible RMA moment by fighting a war using WWII tactics with modern-day armor; the Ukrainian military is winning by destroying them wholesale with modern weapon systems using infantry tactics as old as the French and Indian War.

In Ukrainian hands, $175,000 Raytheon FGM-148 Javelins and their “fire and forget” technology are acting as long-range snipers, while the $40,000 UK Thales NLAW are serving as close-in brass knuckles. Both have easily destroyed Russian armor, including Russia’s $2.8 million T-72 tanks, by homing in on their manned turrets from the topside — structurally their weakest defensive armor link. Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones, pricier at $5 million each, provide 24-hour air cover and have been highly effective at destroying a variety of Russian armor, command posts, surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries and multiple rocket launchers. Perhaps the most revolutionary are the U.S. AeroVironment Switchblade 300s and 600s. These $6,000 loitering drones, capable of staying airborne for 30 minutes and ranging seven miles, are carried in a backpack and provide infantrymen over-the-horizon intelligence. They also are kinetic and can destroy Russian armor and artillery.

But are we witnessing an RMA? Yes, but it’s a culmination of bad Russian strategy, the Kremlin’s overreliance on antiquated tactics, poor training, abysmal execution and Ukraine’s adaptation to asymmetric armor tactics. Poor operations security contributed as well. The modern-day tank has lost its “fear factor”; its presence makes everything around it vulnerable.

It is certainly akin to long-range precision fires and network-centric warfare. These new weapon systems provide stand-off precision fires on smaller, more lethal platforms and the ability for soldiers on the ground to geo-locate and target enemy forces using social media and cell towers. The infantryman can now deliver accurate, lethal fires, unseen, miles away from the target — a modern-day bogeyman to the Russian soldier. The WWII saying that “loose lips sink ships” is still relevant, but in 2022, social media posts sideline tanks and general officers — bad operations security still has deadly consequences.

The Javelin anti-tank missile and Switchblade drone have exposed weaknesses in armor, and not just Russian tanks and APCs. Air defense security from drone strikes has taken on increased significance, as does enhanced armor protection on the top of tanks and APCs. Armor is vulnerable, and it’s much harder to hide on today’s battlefield. Much as blitzkrieg tactics defeated the Maginot line, the principles of speed and security will be needed to overcome advances in today’s weapons technology.

Asymmetric weapons systems employed during the Ukraine war have diminished the mobility and intimidation factor of the modern-day tank to the status of the post-WWII battleship. RMA has relegated decisive tank battles on the plains of Europe to the past — the same as aircraft carriers in WWII put an end to decisive naval armada battles envisioned by Alfred Thayer Mahan

Now, with the introduction of U.S.-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), RMA may be on the verge of changing how artillery is employed on the battlefield. While counter-battery fires aren’t new, large lethargic artillery formations found at the regiment, division and corps levels, the staple of Russian tactics, present themselves as lucrative targets. Their prolonged exposure on the battlefield ensures their destruction. The mobility, range and accuracy of HIMARS is a game changer, and certainly will alter how Russia fights. 

Revolution comes fast — hopefully, a little too fast for Putin.

Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and the Intelligence and Security Command. He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltics. Follow him on Twitter @JESweet2022.

Mark Toth is a retired economist, historian and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing and global commerce. He is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, and has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world, including London, Tel Aviv, Augsburg and Nagoya. Follow him on Twitter @MCTothSTL.

Tags Military tactics modern warfare Russo-Ukrainian War Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky weapon systems

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