Recently, Russian troops approached what they assumed to be a bunker with a Ukrainian machine guy crew. They thought this because they took machine gun fire from the location. They responded with mortars and drones, but when they approached again, they came under heavy machine gun fire. The Russians then struck the spot with thermobaric munitions, but the Ukrainian machine guy kept firing. Eventually, they were able to outflank the sight and destroy it.
What they found upon closer inspection was not a heavily armored machine gun nest full of dead Ukrainians, but instead it was a robotic machine gun. The gun itself was in a concrete bunker, but it was operated by computer. It is unclear if it was operated remotely or if the accompanying laptop was autonomous. There are two versions of the story on Russian channels. Regardless, this autonomous machine gun nest is the latest example of how cheap electronics are revolutionizing the battlefield.
The Russians think that this autonomous machine gun was a prototype created by a NATO country and provided to the Ukrainians for testing. That is possible as the war in Ukraine has become a giant military testing center. NATO contractors are using the conflict as an opportunity to evaluate new and old technology. The Russians, of course, have also been experimenting with new ideas. This war will be viewed in time as the first war of the autonomous munitions era.
One reason for the revolution on the battlefield is the proliferation of cheap electronics that can solve battlefield problems. A five-hundred-dollar quadcopter can be rigged up to drop grenades on enemy trenches. The user can be a girl or even a wounded soldier who operates it from the rear. It also allows for a better understanding of the enemy’s defensive positions and their troop strength. Instead of artillery barrages, men in trenches now attack one another with cheap drones.
There is another innovation that has turned up in Ukraine. Both sides have now started to deploy small ground-based drones. They look like the RC cars you would give to a child, except these are packed with explosives. The Ukrainians have been driving these into Russian trenches and then driving them near troops and supplies. The Russians, on the other hand, are programming their ground drones to operate without an operator and simply search out targets on their own.
This is the big leap forward that has occurred recently. The Russians have taken the next step in remote weapons. They now have drones that operate on their own, programmed to find a target and then attack it. More important, they are now equipping these drones with night vision cameras. These drones are flying around and crawling around the battlespace at night hunting for Ukrainian equipment. Now, there is no hiding from the robot warriors in the sky and on the ground.
What the Ukraine war has ushered in is not so much the rise of the robot warrior but the rise of the cheap robot warrior. The point of these innovations is to change the math of the battlefield by weaponizing cheap electronics. If a two-thousand-dollar drone can take out multimillion dollar armor and artillery, the material advantage of the side with the armor and artillery flips on its head. All of a sudden one side sees its cost spiraling upward in the face of cheap counter measures.
This is another revolution on the Ukraine battlefield. The Russians have always been the best at electronic warfare. Their defensive strategy has always assumed they would be attacked by high-tech NATO warplanes and missiles. In Ukraine, they have had to quickly adapt these concepts to the very real threat of NATO cruise missiles, ATACM missiles and guided artillery. The last two years the Russians have had to race to figure out how to defeat these advanced weapons systems.
The result is the Russians have slowly revolutionized electronic warfare. The vaunted Storm Shadow missile from Britain had some initial success, penetrating Russian air defenses and hitting targets in the rear. At some point, the Russians solved this puzzle like they solved the HIMARS problems, and these missiles now fly into the ground soon after they are launched. The Russians are doing this with relatively cheap, ground-based mobile electronic warfare systems.
Notice a word that keeps turning up. The word “cheap.” This has been the main driver of innovation on the Ukraine battlefield. NATO has outspent the Russians close to ten-to-one in terms of weapons and technology. The United States has given to Ukraine in two years about ten times what Russia spends annually. In addition, the West has provided mountains of technical and intelligence support. There is simply no way Russia could match NATO dollar for dollar.
In fairness, the Ukrainians have faced a similar problem. Much of what has been supplied to them has not been suited for the task. America war planners have always assumed they would be facing an under-armed opponent trying to defend perfectly flat ground on a clear sunny day. That is not Ukraine. As a result, the Ukrainians have had to do like the Russians and improvise on the cheap. The Ukrainians are probably the second best in the world using cheap drones.
Probably the most terrifying development to date is the one just unleashed. The Russians have reengineered the Iranian drones they have been using so they are stealthy, autonomous, and work together. They recently unleashed a swarm of these drones that could avoid Ukrainian radar, seek out targets on their own and coordinate with the rest of the drone swarm. These drones cost maybe twenty thousand a piece and can take out expensive things like Patriot missile systems.
The West will no doubt learn and adapt to what is happening in Ukraine and begin to create autonomous robot weapons. Artificial intelligence is mostly hype at the moment, but automated decision making within the narrow parameters of the battlefield is now a reality, so the day of the killer robot is upon us. It is not going to take long before weapons production moves from multimillion dollar tanks that are no match for a flying killer robot to building better killer robots.
As was the case in the Great War when military technology lapped the thinking of the men tasked with using the technology, the result in Ukraine has been a weird form of trench warfare. The Ukrainians built massive, fortified locations to use as strong points along the line of contact. The Russians built complex defensive structures designed to minimize their losses while attacking Ukrainian positions. The result has been a slow grinding war of attrition now fought with robots.
That brings up another change brought about by technology. The NATO form of war with big arrow offenses and combined arms warfare is now obsolete. That was made clear in the Ukrainian offensive last summer. A NATO trained and equipped army was sent into to bash through the Russian lines using NATO tactics and it was instead blown to pieces in cheap, high-tech minefields. Remotely placed and activated mines are now a dominant feature of the modern battlefield.
What is coming out of the Ukraine war are big questions. If big expensive items like tanks and fighting vehicles are being turned to death traps by cheap robots, then what is the point of building them? Similarly, if manned aircraft are made obsolete by air defense systems and drones, what is the point of building them? What is the point of having an aircraft carrier if aircraft are no longer viable? Trillions of weapons systems are now becoming white elephants thanks to cheap robots.
It is always assumed that the desire to kill our fellow man will lead us to overcome these technological cul-de-sacs. The shield blocked the spear, but waves of cheap arrows defeated the shield wall. The machine gun forced men into trenches, but the tank forced the men back out of the trenches. It is assumed that the robots will force some new counter so that rich men and can get richer by sending poor men to their deaths, but there has to be some end point to this process.
More important, every weapons systems has behind it an army of men who believe in fighting war a certain way. The NATO trained Ukraine army, that was obliterated by the Russians this summer, was the result of old men determined to stick with the old ways of fighting a war, despite battlefield reality. On the other hand, the defeat of weapons systems leads to the defeat of the ideas behind them. Right now, the American military’s notions of war are dying on the Ukrainian steppe.
It is hard to say if we have reached the end point, but the end of manned war seems to be coming into focus. Robots will only get cheaper and smarter. Soon, sending men to clear a building will seem as antiquated as the cavalry charge. The skies will be full of robotic killing machines and the ground crawling with their brothers, hooked together by electronic communications and artificial intelligence. The automation revolution will mean the end of war, at least for the human participants.
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