Is NATO learning about its future in Ukraine? If so, it could be a bleak one.
While the causes for war vary, inevitably wars become a testing ground for technology, battlefield tactics, and strategy.
The war in Ukraine is no different, in fact in some ways it is a poster child for changes in modern warfare. Unfortunately, for NATO, it is also a harbinger of bad news.
While it is perfectly true that Ukraine lacked suitable air power and should never have put itself into a position to be attacked by Russia, it did so mostly based on promises from NATO, particularly the United States. The US along with NATO offered massive military aid, $100 billion and counting, spending an astonishing $100 million a day. Despite these huge sums, Ukraine has taken back little of the territory the Russians grabbed and, even more pertinently, has suffered huge manpower and equipment losses.
The above spending does not include decisions to increase defense spending at home. Poland, for example, just decided to buy new Patriot air defense systems at a cost of $15 billion and $12 billion worth of Apache attack helicopters from Boeing. Germany is buying Israel’s Arrow Air defense system for $3.5 billion. Poland will spend 4 percent of its GDP on defense, far outpacing the other NATO countries other than the US. In fact, only 8 countries meet the 2% GDP NATO spending target out of 30.
The one bright spot for NATO has been providing Ukraine with overhead surveillance and targeting information, some of it coming from drones and electronic aircraft operating over the Black Sea in international air space. Offering this kind of help, innovating thanks to Elon Musk’s Starlink capable of relaying target data, hooked up to commander’s smartphones, greatly improved the effectiveness of smart weapons such as HIMARS. At the same time, overhead surveillance made it possible to track Russian force movements and anticipate hot spots in ways impossible in the past.
Unfortunately NATO will lose this advantage in a wider war where the Russians, or any other major adversary, will go out and destroy reconnaissance assets, even in international air space. Despite NATO’s massive involvement in Ukraine, including on the ground special forces acting as advisors, and alleged mercenaries, many of whom are well trained NATO soldiers, Russia has exercised considerable restraint against the overhead threat, not wanting to see the war spillover outside Ukraine’s or Russia’s borders.
This vulnerability even applies to sophisticated satellites which are sitting ducks against Chinese or Russian satellite killers.
Presumably the US will try and do the same to Russia’s or China’s satellites. But this means that local surveillance and targeting, primarily with drones, will take center stage. Here the Russians have adapted rather well, starting the war with poor drone capabilities. But Russia evolved and networked its Orlan drones, which not only can see targets but can jam them. And Russia has introduced improved jamming capabilities to the battlespace. While Ukraine also has some decent jamming systems, the Russians appear to be more practiced and proficient in this realm and have some new systems on the battlefield that have been effective. It would seem the Russian learned a lot from the Nagorno Karabakh war where their jammers were overmatched. They adapted.
The Russians have learned how to defeat some smart weapons. For example, Russia’s defense ministry consistently reports on knocking out HIMARS missiles and defeating smart weapons and drones, often through jamming.
Today NATO is poorly equipped to deal with drone swarms or even defend against medium and long range missiles. Some of this is due to misdirected spending, where air defenses have been neglected or focused mainly on strategic nuclear threats. But even here, air defense coverage in Europe is far from adequate. Worse than that, what air defenses there are in NATO are not networked and not optimized to sort out threats and deal with the most lethal.
The US is a great example of a country with very poor air defenses. It is critically deficient not only in coverage against ballistic missile threats, but also tactically. The US repeatedly has stationed US troops in harm’s way with obsolete equipment defending against primitive missiles and UAVs in the hands of terrorist groups. A great example is the US Army decision to reject an effective air defense system from Israel, Iron Dome, which it could have deployed in Iraq, protecting US bases and installations. Instead the Army wanted to develop its “own” system, so the troops will have to wait. Whether the Army system will perform well in combat, once it is operational in a few years, no one knows. To be sure it will be vastly more expensive than taking an off the shelf system that demonstrably works, which suggests that the Pentagon spendthrifts are not really interested in soldier’s welfare. (It should also be noted that the US helped pay for Iron Dome’s R&D and much of it is manufactured in the United States.)
The US is now getting around to finally addressing the problem of swarming drones, while the Russians in Ukraine are already using swarming attacks that mix drones with cruise missiles and glide bombs, including many decoys, creating a huge problem for ground based air defenses. As weapons become more and more autonomous (and therefore un-jammable), the threat of mixed swarming attacks will multiply.
In the future this is a job for artificial intelligence driving air defense systems. We are waiting.
A similar case can be made about tanks. The much ballyhooed German Leopard tanks have been crushed in Ukraine by the Russians. How come? To begin with, the Leopard’s, despite their modern armor, lacked effective defenses. The Ukrainians, fearing the tanks were vulnerable, started putting captured Russian reactive armor on the Leopards along with steel cages on top to protect against overhead weapons. If the German tanks were so great, why didn’t they have frontal, side and topside protection? Translation: NATO’s tanks, other than some US Abrams, don’t have protection either. Now Abrams tanks, older models without the most advanced armor, are being handed over to Ukraine. They are unlikely to survive.
The US Army knows that part of the answer is to have active defenses on tanks. Active defenses won’t protect against mines or against heavy artillery strikes, but it can help against anti tank weapons, mortars and shells. The Army bought exactly 100 copies of Israel’s proven Trophy system, then decided to develop its own alternative, wasting more years and leaving our tanks without this extra protection. As Yogi Berra said, Deja vu all over again.
For the record, although the Russians claim to have active defense systems, their tanks in Ukraine do not have them. However, they all have reactive armor, although mostly first or (at best) second generation versions. The Russians have a new reactive armor system but it has not shown up on the battlefield. Maybe they are holding it back for a future war.
Part of the US and NATO problem is the inbuilt belief that the Russians would not be able to adapt to new forms of warfare. Not only have the Russians adapted, but they have introduced new generations of weapons that seem to be effective on the battlefield or against high value targets. Examples include air launched mines which have made it difficult for Ukraine to clear pathways for its troops, precision glide bombs, and hypersonic missiles which have targeted military and civilian infrastructure.
Perhaps most significantly, Russia has developed a killer drone, called Lancet. This drone is able to strike and kill moving tanks and armored vehicles and has even taken out a Ukrainian BUK air defense system. So far it does not appear either Ukraine or NATO have an answer to the Lancet, which is continually being improved.
In any war there will be a huge need for ammunition and for replacement weapons. The Ukraine war has drained NATO arsenals and stockpiles meant for other contingencies. A year into the Ukraine war the US and its allies started to give contracts to stodgy defense contractors to make more ammunition and smart weapons. But problems immediately arose. Many of the production facilities had long since shut down and new ones would have to be created. Supply chains would need to be renewed, but for older weapons the supply chains might not exist any longer. Finding experienced workers and engineers also became a challenge, since there were not so many volunteers for short term contract jobs. Finally, many of the parts and materials depend on supplies from China, as Raytheon’s President made clear. Recently the Chinese started restricting electronics and other supplies (including rare earth) supplies to the United States and Europe. These same problems would confront NATO in a general war, except that a good part of European armaments production might be halted by enemy attacks.
What is obvious is that NATO stockpiles are insufficient for Ukraine and totally inadequate for NATO security, raising the question of why the US and NATO were willing to raid its already paltry stocks for Ukraine, knowing it left NATO naked in Europe and significantly weakened US forward defenses in the Pacific.
No one in government wants to talk about this recklessness, or if they do they say everything is OK. Nonsense. You can’t burn up $100 billion in weapons and ammunition and have everything OK.
If the Ukraine war ended tomorrow, would the US and NATO really be willing to continue high levels of defense spending and rebuild stockpiles and modernize weapons? Would the US be ready to change its procurement system, accept foreign weapons where they are readily available and better, and start applying sensible economic measures to its defense purchases?
One of the outcomes of the Ukraine war is proof positive NATO is not ready even to defend its own territories. Will this lead, inevitably, to a major change in approach in European politics and strategy? As Ukraine continues to weaken and the adventure in Ukraine ends, attitudes are bound to change. The existing crop of leaders in Europe and the US will go by the wayside. What will come next?
The handwriting, it seems, already is on the wall.