Author : Ankit K

Expert Speak War Fare
Published on Jun 15, 2024

The coupling of conventional and new, high-tech warfighting elements, as witnessed in recent conflicts, highlights the importance of a balanced approach that leverages the strengths of both domains.

Operational and tactical shifts: How modern wars are reshaping the battlefield

Amidst the chaos and unending saga of the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, several shifts in the nature of warfare are unfolding. On one hand, the Ukraine-Russia war brings back the relevance of conventional fighting with the use of artillery and armour, and on the other, the Middle East conflict witnesses the unprecedented use of technology like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and unmanned aerial vehicles for targeted strikes. Trenches and urban warfare have emphasised the importance of boots on ground wherein the numbers still play a critical role. However, technology has introduced asymmetric capabilities to all those who have adopted it well. The use of drones, precision-guided munitions, and advanced surveillance technologies has empowered smaller military forces like Israel and non-state actors like Hamas to punch above their weight class. Hamas in Gaza and Ukraine have demonstrated their ability to leverage technology, offsetting numerical disadvantage against their adversary. Both war zones today are now testing grounds for the new and old operational and tactical plan of action in warfighting and offer a glimpse into the future of war. 

One of the most significant shifts is the battlefield transparency and ubiquity of technology. The proliferation of drones and other technologies is providing forces with an almost transparent view of the entire battlefield in real time and with GPS accuracy. This is invaluable for artillery and air forces to accurately set targets and attack enemy positions. Israel has made significant strides in utilising AI-based algorithmic targeting programmes that have enhanced lethality and accuracy, sparking a debate over the implications of man vs. machine in warfare.

One of the most significant shifts is the battlefield transparency and ubiquity of technology. The proliferation of drones and other technologies is providing forces with an almost transparent view of the entire battlefield in real time and with GPS accuracy.

Ukraine has followed a similar pattern of technology utilisation in its conflict with Russia. For Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, the equation for Ukraine's victory is clear: “The courage of Ukrainians + technology = the key to Ukraine's future victory.” With sensors and scouts distributed across the battlefield, equipped with cameras linked to other units and headquarters using secure apps, battlefield intelligence is instantaneously converted to targets. Drones have played a critical role in Ukraine, providing early warning for incoming missiles, with the Bayraktar TB2 and the Shahed 136 loitering munition (aka
“kamikaze drone”) being particularly effective. At sea, drones have been very effective. In addition, coastal defence missiles to counter Russia's numerically superior naval force, crippling amphibious operations by destroying landing ships, precision strikes sinking the flagship Moskva, diversifying attack vectors highlight the changing nature of naval warfare waking up naval forces like China, NATO, and allied forces. 

The combination of near-perfect intelligence from drones and precision-guided munitions means that “one shot, one kill” is now possible, unlike in the past when thousands of unguided artillery rounds were needed to destroy a target. The United States (US) has approved significant sales of precision-guided munitions to Israel, including Smart, Precise Impact, Cost Effective (Spice) guidance kits, to support its defence against Hamas and target the terrorist group following the October 7 incident. The US has also announced plans to transfer its Army's two Iron Dome batteries to Israel and has provided Tamir interceptors, Small Diameter Bombs, Joint Direct Attack Munitions, and 155mm artillery shells. Similarly, the US is preparing a US$275 million military aid package for Ukraine, which will include 155mm artillery shells, precision aerial munitions, and ground vehicles.

The combination of near-perfect intelligence from drones and precision-guided munitions means that “one shot, one kill” is now possible, unlike in the past when thousands of unguided artillery rounds were needed to destroy a target.

Both conflicts have witnessed the coupling of conventional and unconventional weapons on the battlefield, enabling cheap war. In Ukraine, an elaborate network of sensors feeds targeting data to heavy machine guns for downing Russian combat drones. In the Israel-Palestine conflict, Palestinian groups like Hamas have increasingly used relatively inexpensive commercial drones costing just US$2,000-$3,000, posing an asymmetric threat to Israel's control of Gaza's airspace despite its technological superiority in the drone and aviation industry.

Short-range observation drones and even military-grade drones with precision munitions are relatively inexpensive compared to traditional weapon systems like HIMARS. This enables war on the cheap, as high-tech doesn't always mean high cost. One of the most striking developments in Ukraine has been the ubiquity of drones, with both sides initially favouring larger drones like the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 but eventually shifting towards smaller, harder-to-target, and cheaper Chinese DJI Mavics due to the adaptation of anti-aircraft defences and electronic warfare units.

However, these conflicts have also highlighted the consumptive nature of modern warfare, with no end in sight and the piling costs of war in both cases. Private, mostly civilian, technology companies have played crucial roles in providing systems and services to Ukrainian armed forces, such as internet connectivity (Starlink/SpaceX), cloud computing and cyber (Amazon, Microsoft, Google), drones (DJI), and software to improve legacy systems. In the case of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), the Israeli defence industry has been strongly backed by state and private collaboration and research on defence technologies over the years.

The question of a lean and technologically superior army, as envisioned by countries like China, has been put to the test. Both Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas conflict suggest that quantity and quality of personnel and resources matter. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had to sign a law to boost conscription and replenish depleted forces, while the Russians struggled with their numerical advantage being outmatched by Ukraine's superior technology and support from NATO allies. Superior technology or conscription alone has not been sufficient for either side, underscoring the continued relevance of well-trained and large sophisticated forces in prolonged conflicts.

The question of a lean and technologically superior army, as envisioned by countries like China, has been put to the test. Both Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas conflict suggest that quantity and quality of personnel and resources matter.

While significant, these developments may not yet constitute a full-fledged revolution in military affairs. However, the integration of artificial intelligence could potentially supercharge these battlefield elements.  With the US releasing guidelines in 2023 on the responsible use of AI and autonomy in warfare, Ukraine and Israel are emerging as potential test sites for the AI revolution in the military domain, as Israel has not signed the relevant treaty regulating such technologies.

While the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East showcase several significant shifts in the nature of modern warfare, they also reveal the complex interplay between new technologies and traditional military capabilities. Quantity still has a quality of its own, as evidenced by the need for large, well-trained forces and the continued relevance of conventional artillery and armour. The coupling of old and new warfighting elements highlights the importance of a balanced approach that leverages the strengths of both domains. Moreover, the implications of ceding critical battlefield decisions to AI systems raise profound ethical concerns that must be addressed.


Ankit K is New Delhi-based analyst who specialises in the intersection of Warfare and Strategy. 

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Author

Ankit K

Ankit K

Ankit K is New Delhi-based analyst who specialises in the intersection of Warfare and Strategy. He has formerly worked with a Ministry of Home Affairs ...

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