Why modern wars cannot escape the trenches
As Ukraine heads into a long, cold winter, images from the front near Bakhmut are hauntingly reminiscent of European battlegrounds a century ago — more like Verdun than any vision of futuristic warfare. Such photos reveal an inconvenient truth that western nations have labored to escape for generations: War is still a hellish and mostly human endeavor. Nuclear weapons and information-age machines have done little to change that, but not for lack of trying.
Since the 1970s, defense policies that relied on technology to offset force imbalances between the United States and Soviet Union induced visions of a largely robotic future battlefield. “War Without Men,” published in 1988, and “Waging War Without Warriors?” published in 2002, examined the possibility of automated conflicts merely administered by distant human beings. Others have gone so far as to argue that the latest war in Iraq was a “war of robots.” My experience there compels me to disagree.
Still, narratives declaring an imminent mechanization of the battlefield remain popular. Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov proclaimed as much in 2013, but nearly a decade later we see the fruits of such thinking. Russia can barely field a tank on improved roads 100 miles from its border, much less a sophisticated robot army half a world away in adverse terrain. Granted, the automation of warfare has indeed increased since the turn of the century, but nature remains one of the most restrictive forces on mechanical devices.
Putting the ethics debate aside, intricate machines cannot man muddy trenches in deep snow or driving rain for long periods without human support. And all but the most sophisticated (and expensive) unmanned aerial systems are severely limited by inclement weather. A recent study compiled by British think tank RUSI based on data from the Ukrainian General Staff found that 90 percent of the drones employed in Ukraine this year were lost, which means expendable platforms are the most useful.
Someone must bring these smaller drones within range of enemy positions and hope for favorable conditions once there. Maintenance of advanced land and air systems is complex as well, often requiring non-combatant engineers to fix them in a rear area and someone else to transport them to and from the front where they are employed.
All this movement on the battlefield exposes forces to enemy targeting, thus amplifying the importance of the principle of dispersion that analysts are rediscovering in Ukraine. Above-ground command posts concentrate forces in a single area, making them easy targets, while trenches and subsurface routes allow formations to disperse with some degree of protection. These concepts are not new.
Theories of dispersion and concentration have been hallmarks of military thought since at least the Napoleonic Wars (1796-1815). A century later, British soldiers tunneled their way under the kill zones of World War I to reach enemy positions. At Messines in 1917, after a year of digging, 455 tons of explosive charges detonated underground, killing about 10,000 Germans.
The history of warfare is not linear, and introducing new capabilities to the battlefield can elicit the return of old ones. One of the greatest military historians to ever live, Sir Michael Howard, explained how lessons from the last war can mislead as much as they inform. Yet the human fascination with novelty often compels us to draw broad inferences about the future from those lessons.
Russia’s war on Ukraine has evolved into a sort of Protean tarot card that observers can use to support conclusions in line with their interests. One such theory outlines an emerging political doctrine involving aggressive, sustained military aid that the United States could replicate elsewhere. This is yet another form of offset, but rather than using machines, advocates claim the United States could rely entirely on another nation’s military to achieve U.S. policy objectives. This works, of course, until it does not.
Western arms packages are only as effective as the arms into which they fall, and luckily those are now Ukrainian. But that will not always be the case. Without a trained, disciplined and numerically significant army ready to die wielding them, no number of modern weapons can be decisive. Reports of Russian soldiers failing to employ high-tech artillery systems because they were untrained in their use are a testament to that truth. The success of U.S. policy in Ukraine, it seems, is as much a reflection of Ukraine’s uncommon martial aptitude as the policy itself.
Shortly after the 2020 collapse of Kabul, historian Andrew Bacevich wrote that relying on foreign armies to defend American interests is always a gamble. Turning such gambles into policy could cause future wars to descend into anachronistic grudge matches over which U.S. arms deliveries have little control. In such instances, when American defense is in for a penny, it is typically in for a pound.
As the United States continues to invest in exquisite technologies and foreign military aid, the challenge put to Washington is one of balancing the urgent demand for battlefield mechanization with the enduring yet inconvenient realities of ground warfare. A thought-provoking study on military innovation from Kendrick Kuo at the U.S. Naval War College found that “what is lost in an innovation process may be as important as what is created.” If those creations do not perform as expected in war, the loss of both old and new places the U.S. military at a capability deficit. At that point, assuming past is prologue, the grunt bears the burden of such miscalculation in the trenches.
The war in Ukraine may offer valuable lessons upon its conclusion, especially those pertaining to the importance of reducing digital signatures to confound enemy targeting methods in modern warfare. But the lesson most overlooked in Ukraine is a bitter truth that military historians such as T. R. Fehrenbach already knew: If you want to keep for civilization that portion of land called home, you still need to be willing to put your sons and daughters in the mud to defend it. This winter, it is there that many Ukrainians will sleep.
Capt. Michael P. Ferguson is an officer in the U.S. Army with two decades of combat, staff and security cooperation experience on four continents. He has authored dozens of articles and is coauthor of a forthcoming military history of Alexander the Great.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the policies or positions of the U.S. Army, U.S. Department of Defense, or U.S. government.