Half a century of IT innovation is now being used for destruction.
>This doesn’t mean that tanks and other armored vehicles are obsolete on the battlefield...
The tank's problem is not anti-tank missiles by themselves. The same missiles would do a number on lighter platforms and infantry. Since armies want to attack and need to mass for it, there's a need for an attack platform. But tanks are highly visible while packing surprisingly little attack power. So the platform needs to evolve for the new needs. WW2 was also a period of rapid evolution, where both sides tried heavier and lighter tanks but in the end settled on 'medium' tanks.
I believe the same evolution would happen here. The medium tank just provides too little for its bulk. The tank will evolve back into two variants:
* A light vehicle, quite likely remotely or AI driven. Essentially a disposable glass cannon + detector. Enemy drones and infantry are welcome to expose their position by destroying these tanks. Or not and get detected anyway.
* A very heavy vehicle, for either specialized tasks (portable radar, combat ambulance, minesweeper etc.) or for tank-like outright breakthrough - which will require all the active defences etc. one can muster.
Very well researched and thorough article Noah. War is definitely getting crazier, last year marked the first time an AI drone likely killed someone without being specifically directed to--scary concept for both morals and our future. I wrote a semi-viral piece on it if you're curious.
Keep up the great work!
Great piece. Additional thought: Western armies must also further develop their ability to fight proxy wars. This means you can't send your own soldiers (nuclear risk with nuke-equipped countries), or just provide intel. You need to send equipment, that your ally can use.
Two aspects to be considered:
1. Be able to send a lot of light, easy-to-use equipment quickly. Javelins, NLAWs, Turkish drones etc are great because they are easy to use. But you need large stocks so you can send them quickly and still retain an ability to defend yourself. That's one reason France is not sending much to UKR (sigh).
2. Develop heavy equipment that can be used by your ally. We have seen with aircraft, or larger AA systems (Patriots etc.) that it's much harder than light equipment. Limited number of Migs or S-300 are available. You can't train foreign armies quickly for new equipment. So we would need to integrate the "easy-to-use" component in the design of this type of equipment.
One issue I can see right now is that we are producing these missles like aircraft, but we need to be able to produce them like cars (or like ammunition, which they are). Maybe a different procrment approach to pay for capacity to get much, much lower unit costs and the ability to ramp up to the order of 1000's of units a day.
Your insights are CONSISTENTLY top-notch. While a bit philosophical, the march of technology has accompanied empowerment and decentralization whether OSINT, Wikipedia, etcetera. I think your thesis "War got Weird" is awesome!
The 09/11 attacks were remarkably low-cost and decentralized. I think the role of the videogame Flight Simulator is a working example. The most recent 75 years and the rise of the transistor has created an asymmetry wherein more and more power to help or harm flows to the individual. The technology is neutral as you state. I think the philosophical consideration is telling however. We are on an onward march to providing unprecedented power eventually to individuals (perhaps already). Capitalism has done this in a remarkably efficient and ruthless way. We rapidly come to a time when we must make wise choices about the human condition. While we are not there yet, the incremental cost of innovation is falling while our capital gains structures are rooted in the inflation of the 1970s. One of my favorite observations is that there COULD be more advancement in the next generation (25 years) than the last 20000 years. Society has to buckle up for that much disruption.
Treating a large subset of society unjustly and flowing the financial benefits of great technology to the few rapidly brings you to a point where the unjustly treated will have unprecedented power to disrupt at little or no cost. Working on the human condition before such a possible layer of unrest presents itself should be a priority for policy makers.
I am an optimist. I also believe that asymmetric power could become one of the largest challenges to a modern society that is PERCEIVED as unjust by even the SMALLEST minority. As innovation costs drive toward zero, you can realize perhaps (1) great CAGR for tech or (2) an age of plenty with the benefits distributed more uniformly. Doing both will require conpromise, insight and reform. The drone is a great example of the challenges both good and bad.
Good article Noah, one minor quibble. The nature of conflict never changes, just it’s character.
Seeing the various OSINT accounts has been interesting. I recommend a podcast called New Models where they interview an anon behind one of the bigger accounts. I find the space fascinating because an amateur can contribute such value.
I appreciate your summary. But it is not a new concept for warfighting.
The concept of network centric warfare has been a stated strategy in DoD starting in 1995. It was also referred to as Systems of Systems. My guess is it goes much further back. But when I worked in Boeing Phantom works in the 90's, we were actively developing new systems based on some of the concepts you outline above.
A simple notable example was JDAM. We added a GPS guidance system to a dumb bomb, and revolutionized war fighting. It took 10 years for the industry to grasp the transformation JDAM offered. Communication integration and digital telemetry transformed the strategy of war fighting. The first Gulf war estimated it would take 1M troops to take Baghdad. The second Gulf war did it with 150k troops. The difference was network centric warfare.
Through the 90s we ran a range of war games to rethink battle. We evaluated how cheaper technologies and better data integration would increase non-state actor threats. And how it would improve US capabilities. These efforts modified doctrine and force structure.
The GWOT accelerated the innovation. But the doctrine and strategy was in work years before the technology entered operation. We anticipated OSINT. We anticipated that WWIII would not be nuclear. It would be network centric. Kinetic, cyber and economic. In 1998 we were thinking of how to create a non-fiat currency that would invalidate ability to sanction (A doctrine concept before the technology of bitcoin). Stuxnet was operational in 2006.
I have been less involved in the industry over the last 10 years. My guess is the US military is well ahead of what you outline. They learned in the first Gulf war how to use OSINT, in the form of CNN, to judge the battle field. In general what we see in the public domain was developed over a 20-25 year period that involved a lot of war games, opps analysis modeling and evolution of doctrine.
Based on what I worked on in the 90s and 00s there is nothing shocking me about Ukraine's success. It is the difference between conventional and network centric warfare. Its proliferation will hopefully create a form of MAD as more army's access the technology.
I don't think tanks are going away because, while they're killable with the right tools, they still require the enemy to bring those tools with them, which imposes a cost. If you never play scissors, your enemy knows they never have to play rock. And infantry and drones are fragile, which makes them vulnerable to weapons that a tank can just ignore (shrapnel and small arms).
I suspect the answer is going to be not to remove the tank, but to push its defenses farther and farther out. Currently a tank is supported by having infantry sweep the area around it for antitank ambushes, but it might be that the tanks will need drone support as well to find ambushes from even farther away, or integrated radar to catch incoming drones. Once it knows it's not walking into instant death from ATGMs, the tank can push forwards and use its armor and firepower to deal with fortifications that the infantry can't handle.
I noted somewhere else in a Twitter thread that war on land will likely follow the evolution that war at sea made: For centuries, capital ships would try to find each other by sight and then slug it out like teams of heavyweight boxers trying to pummel the other side in to sunken wreckage (maneuvering for advantage, etc.)
When aircraft carriers and submarines came in to major usage, ships became mostly platforms for launching long-range strikes and a collection of anti-air/anti-sub defenses.
Land warfare will be similar with infantry (needed to clean up and occupy territory as well as suppressing guerillas) protected by anti-drone/anti-air/anti-missile defenses as well as armor) going against long-strike weapons while their side launches long-strike weapons on the enemy.
I’m not convinced by the argument that spending more is necessary. Arguing against it is obviously a poor political move right now, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the right move for the country. The failures of Russia’s military against Ukraine, albeit with the US helping Ukraine, suggest that the US is probably over-prepared. China’s military is definitely stronger than Russia’s, but it still suggests that we can decrease our military spending. I really don’t understand why people see Russia being weak and say “oh no, we need to spend more on our military.”
As you mentioned, a lot of current technology like tanks is likely now obsolete. So if we need to prepare for new technologies, we can do so by cutting spending in the obsolete technologies.
Very interesting analysis. I would say however that when it comes down to it, war is fundamentally a battle of wills. The side with the greater will to win is likely to win. We are kind of seeing this now with Russia and Ukraine. Although there are technological considerations to take into account there is also the fact that in this fight the Ukrainians appear to be far more determined to win than the Russians. For them it is an existential war, whereas for Russia it is a war of accumulation or conquest and hence harder to have the same motivation.
Your point about diversification is good one, and terrifying here in Australia where we are signed up to buy 100 JSF F-35s, and our plan is to have no other fighter jets.
A lot clearly right here, I would just caveat with one or two things: one, we don’t actually know how the Ukrainians have been fighting. We know what gets posted to social media, which is a selective view with both intentional and unintentional biases. For instance, I’ve seen almost no close combat footage and yet that’s how you take territory in the end. We also haven’t seen Ukrainian forces having to take on dug-in Russian troops, but they’ve been unable to dislodge forces in the east since 2014. Trench warfare is the same as it ever was: infantry stand little chance approaching dug-in, concealed positions that have machineguns, prepared artillery, razor wire, and minefields. You can have all the rockets and drones you want but you can’t walk through machinegun fire. So we don’t know the whole story. But yeah, there’s a lot new here.
Would tech also tend to evolve in directions that would make it difficult or impossible to defend national command structures against comparatively low-cost decapitation strikes? If there is, or historically has been, some kind of informal agreement to not target national leadership, how long will that last in an environment in which it may increasingly be possible to start, and simultaneously end, a war by taking out the other side’s chief executive?
We haven’t seen it in this war but I suspect the crewed fighter plane will eventually go the same way as the tank has this time around - highly vulnerable to sophisticated missiles fired from far cheaper platforms that can be fielded in much larger quantities.