“History books will show,” concludes Adm. Rob Bauer, chief of Norway’s armed forces and chairman of NATO’s military committee, “Ukraine has transformed modern warfare.” To keep Cold War 2.0 from turning into something far worse, the United States and its allies must learn from Ukraine’s clever and creative warriors.
Proving yet again that necessity is the mother of invention, Ukraine has made the most out of a makeshift military to outfight and outsmart what was once a superpower.
Ukraine’s military, industry and populace have reengineered Soviet-designed rockets into high-precision anti-ship missiles (which sank Russia’s Black Sea flagship); reconfigured Western missiles to fire from Soviet-era warplanes; strapped rockets onto speedboats; retrofitted Russian anti-aircraft missiles into ground-attack rockets; and masterfully leveraged digital technologies. Armed with laptops and cellphones, Ukraine’s wireless warriors—some civilian, some uniformed—have hacked into Russian government agencies and television stations, weaponized video of Russian war crimes, shaped how the world views the war, crowdsourced weapons-procurement, and used text-messaging to encourage Russian soldiers to surrender. Ukraine’s tech-savvy troops have even developed a smartphone application that enables soldiers to order an artillery strike like a civilian would order an Uber—cutting the ordnance-on-target time from 30 minutes to less than two. “All you have to do is enter the GPS coordinates of the target. The available [artillery] fire in the vicinity is displayed,” a French military official explains to Le Monde.
With Moscow launching 6,100 missiles and 2,000 kamikaze-drones, Kiev has been forced to improvise a hodgepodge mix of missile defenses. Yet Ukraine’s Soviet-era S-300s, domestically produced electronic-warfare jammers, and Western-supplied Patriot, IRIS-T, NASAMS, Hawk and Stinger systems—the Pentagon cleverly calls Ukraine’s patchwork air defense “FrankenSAM”—have intercepted better than 80 percent of Russia’s inbound missile threats, including Putin’s vaunted hypersonic missiles.
Perhaps most transformative has been Ukraine’s ability to maximize the lethality of all manner of unmanned systems. Ukraine’s war of self-defense illustrates that drones are no longer auxiliary to other weapons systems, no longer exotic luxuries wielded solely by high-tech militaries. What was foreshadowed in the Islamic State’s off-the-shelf drone swarms and Azerbaijan’s deployment of unmanned systems has taken center stage in Ukraine.
Ukraine will produce or procure 200,000 drones in 2023 alone—some as big as planes, some as small as a lunchbox, some made of plastic or cardboard. The Ukrainian military includes units such as the Achilles Company, which deploys kamikaze-drone swarms to overwhelm Russian targets. In addition, there’s Aerorozvidka—a group founded by Ukrainian techies—that builds customized killer drones. Aerorozvidka played a key role stopping the 40-mile-long Russian column on the approaches to Kiev early in the war, and its engineers continue to churn out innovative unmanned and robotic systems for the war effort, including the night-stalking R18. According to Aerorozvidka, every dollar spent on an R18 delivers $670 in Russian losses.
Indeed, by modifying off-the shelf drones—at an estimated total cost of $2,000 per unit—Ukrainian forces have killed thousands of Russian personnel and taken out scores of multi-million-dollar Russian tanks. A new lethal unmanned system recently unleashed on the battlefield is tiny, four-wheeled rover that maneuvers underneath Russian tanks and delivers a 77-pound explosive.
Ukraine’s drone units have utilized 3-D printing to produce bombs light enough to air-drop from consumer-use drones—but lethal enough to cripple tanks. They have turned jet skis into kamikaze-drones. They have used drones in swarming attacks, as loitering airborne artillery, in attacks on Russian infrastructure in occupied Ukraine, in jarring long-range attacks against Moscow and longer-range attacks against Russian targets as far away as Sudan, and in spectacular seaborne operations against Russian warships. With a 600-mile range, Ukraine’s torpedo-like unmanned underwater vehicles bring most of the Black Sea within reach. And at a cost of $250,000, Ukraine’s uncrewed sea vehicles are a tiny fraction of the cost of the massive warships, cargo ships and bridges they have destroyed. More important, these systems have enabled a country that basically has no navy to decimate Russia’s navy—and tether it to port.
As we trudge into the “foothills” of Cold War 2.0, America’s military, government and populace not only must learn from Ukraine’s creativity, but also must summon the stamina of a superpower and the agility of a startup.
Some of us warned long ago that America’s monopoly on unmanned systems—and dominance in unmanned warfare—was time-limited. Americans must recognize that just as these weapons and tactics can be employed against our adversaries, they can—and will—be employed against us. Gen. Christopher Cavoli—double-hatted as commander of U.S. European Command and NATO supreme allied commander—reports that “one-way attack” drones have produced “huge results on the battlefield” for both Ukraine and Russia. Inexpensive and difficult to detect, a small attack drone “gives people a feeling of insecurity on the other side,” Cavoli observes. “It’s not just that you got hit with the drone, it’s that you kind of didn’t hear it coming…it fills you with dread,” leaving behind “a paralytic effect.”
There are signs the U.S. military is making needed adjustments. On the defensive side of the spectrum, the Pentagon has stood up an office devoted to countering uncrewed systems. Pentagon industry partner Raytheon has developed a scalable, mobile, rapidly deployable laser weapons system that “detects, tracks, identifies and defeats swarming, asymmetric threats.” The system can be loaded onto the back of a pickup truck, slung onto attack helicopters, mated to Stryker AFVs or even crammed into special-ops tactical vehicles. Another new Raytheon initiative has yielded a system designed to defeat drone swarms via kinetic weaponry.
On the offensive side of the spectrum, the Pentagon is developing warplane-borne microdrones that can attack independent targets, swarm targets or even lie in wait for targets. The Pentagon’s newly-minted Replicator initiative aims to field “attritable autonomous systems at scale of multiple thousands,” the Pentagon recently revealed. Air Force units and Navy–Marine aviation units are testing AI-enabled combat drones that will be integrated into manned-unmanned strike packages. Plus, Task Force 59 is demonstrating the effectiveness of unmanned maritime systems in the Persian Gulf, where unmanned surface vessels are tracking and deterring Iranian mischief. And American unmanned ships are now on duty in the Indo-Pacific.
Finally, if the metastasizing missile and killer-drone arsenals of Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, China and North Korea haven’t gotten the attention of U.S. policymakers, hopefully Russia’s missile and kamikaze-drone onslaught has. Russia’s missile barrages emphatically illustrate that missile defense must become an integral part of America’s security. And Ukraine’s layered missile defenses illustrate that region-wide missile defense is feasible. It is simply a matter of will.
America’s military has shown glimpses of the sort of creativity that’s needed to deter the axis of autocracy: Army artillery and Marine rockets affixed to Navy ships, F-35Bs crammed onto amphibs, U.S. fighter-jets flying off allied carriers, hot-pit bomber stops in India and Finland, not-so-secret troop deployments, landings and dockings in Taiwan. America’s military will need to be even more creative, more agile, more improvisational to keep freedom’s foes at bay in the years to come: manned-unmanned teaming in the skies and on the seas, cargo planes refashioned into airborne arsenal-ships, left-of-launch cyberstrikes to preempt missile attacks, lily-pad bases in the frigid Arctic and steamy South China Sea, Marines and commandos deployed on commercial vessels, nimble collaborations with industry to reshape the battlespace, U.S. and allied territories bristling with anti-ship and anti-air systems to remind Beijing and Moscow that two can play the A2/AD game.
More broadly, as my Sagamore colleague Capt. Jerry Hendrix argues, Washington must “recognize that its predictability has turned into a weapon that is being used against it.” So, “Instead of climbing one rung up the escalation ladder during strategic standoffs, climb two every now and then. Make the enemy guess.”
Yet the adjustments needed to deter the axis of autocracy and weather Cold War 2.0 must extend beyond tactics and strategy, beyond the Pentagon and Oval Office, beyond weapons systems.
Russia has targeted Ukraine’s government, population centers, farms and food supply, transportation system, energy sector, cyber systems and communications links. China has cut supply chains that feed Japan’s industry and severed undersea cables that connect Taiwan with the world. Thanks to foreign assistance and a national ethos of resiliency, Ukraine has withstood Russia’s onslaught. Likewise, resiliency and allied support have helped Israel weather and respond to the Hamas onslaught, Japan prepare for North Korean attacks, and Tawain work around China’s provocations.
During the Cold War, America grafted resiliency into national-security strategy: The highway system would serve a dual purpose in a time of war. Civil-defense programs were in place at the state and local level. Continuity-of-government protocols were rehearsed. Mountain hideaways, ships and planes were on call to serve as backup command-and-control nodes. Signaling to Moscow that America was prepared to soldier on—even through a nuclear attack—reinforced America’s deterrent strategy. Yet 21st-century equivalents to that sort of resiliency—mechanical and analog backups for digital systems, critical infrastructure hardened against EMP attack, vaccines and therapeutics prepositioned for emergency distribution, updated continuity-of-government procedures, systems to identify and counter deepfakes, backup power generation and water purification—are lacking.
One step in the right direction is Victus Nox, a Space Force initiative that allows the Pentagon to rapidly reconstitute and deliver satellites into orbit in the event of enemy attack. Another is the Pentagon’s emerging constellation of regional microchip-manufacturing hubs. Yet another is the National Reconnaissance Office’s plan to rapidly quadruple its satellite fleet. Other government agencies—along with industry—should follow these examples, devote resources to resiliency and develop whole-of-society initiatives to prepare for worst-case scenarios.
Creativity and adaptivity are part of what America is. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the 1830s, “Americans always display a clear, free, original and inventive power of the mind.”
That was evident during the War for Independence, when Americans employed asymmetric tactics on land and at sea to outlast a tyrant superpower; during the Civil War, when Americans innovated rapid-fire guns, submarines and armor-plated ships; during World War II, which saw Americans at the outset use Navy aircraft carriers to launch Army bombers into the skies over Tokyo, and at the end fuse their military-industrial-intellectual-scientific-technological capabilities to split the atom; and during the Korean War, when Americans swung around and behind North Korea’s massive invasion force, landed 70,000 troops at Inchon, and rescued South Korea from the prison yard of communism. Yet America’s special brand of creativity doesn’t always manifest itself with bullets and bombs. When Stalin tried to squeeze the allies out of Berlin, Americans blended the principles of strategic bombing with the efficiency and ingenuity of a Detroit assembly line to sustain West Berlin and win the first battle of the Cold War.
Ukraine is waging and winning the first battle of Cold War 2.0. Winning the next—and keeping Cold War 2.0 from boiling over—will demand more resiliency and creativity from the American people.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose. A shorter version of this essay appeared in Real Clear Defense.