Every time there is a war, commentators and pundits love to tell us that this war is different to all other wars. This conflict, they tell us, heralds a shift in warfare, and it will never be the same again. You might expect this from the punditry, who often know little about fighting. But a surprising number of generals and politicians also make this mistake as they seek to explain the battles that they are involved in, or instigated.
Ukraine – the war that we are in now – follows this pattern. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – drones – have made the tank obsolete, we are told. We are on the brink of nuclear weapons being used in Europe. And information and cyber warfare have fundamentally changed the nature of conflict. All of these assertions have elements of truth in them, which is why they get repeated.
But they are far from the whole story.
Take drones, for instance. The availability of cheap commercial drones that you can buy on Amazon, not to mention the Turkish attractively priced Bayraktar TB2 drone ($1m, if you’re interested), has, without doubt, made the job of a tank commander more difficult.
Tanks are certainly more vulnerable now there are so many missile-firing UAVs in the sky, and Russia has unquestionably suffered heavy losses in this department. But that can partly be explained by employment mistakes, insufficient infantry support and other errors by Russia.
In truth, though its defences need upgrading, the tank still has a crucial role to play in modern warfare.
Then there is the near-hysteria around whether Putin will use a so-called tactical nuclear weapon. Putin’s back is against the wall, the argument goes; he’ll get desperate when his position is challenged; Russia’s military doctrine – like that of the Soviet Union – is based on an “escalate to de-escalate” concept where nuclear weapons are used to make the point that Russians should not be pushed too far.
The reality, of course, is that ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons do not exist - they are all strategic weapons - and, as such, come under the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction which ably governed the nuclear relationship between the superpowers during the Cold War. Putin won’t use a nuclear weapon, because he can’t be sure that it won’t mean the end of him, and possibly of Moscow.
Finally, we come to information and cyber warfare. Many warned that Ukraine’s critical infrastructure could be destroyed by Russian cyber attacks in the first weeks of the war. But, in fact, we have seen that moderate cyber defences, as enacted by the Ukrainians, are sufficient to protect critical systems.
And as for the importance of information—or propaganda as it used to be called: is President Zelensky any different to a Churchill or De Gaulle in the way he uses technology to rally his country and generate support around the world?
The reality is that all of these things – and more – are changes of degree. They are changes of mode in the manner of prosecution of war. But they are not changes to the substance of warfare. The nature of war has not changed since man fought as bands of hunter-gatherers on the African savannah. It is still – primarily and fundamentally – a deeply psychological phenomenon. It is still a contest between evolved human brains.
The same dynamics of advance, retreat, feint, ruse, confidence and fear decide the outcomes of battles, and of wars. The physicality of war - the bombs, bullets and bayonets - are merely there to affect your enemy's state of mind, as was illustrated so clearly two weeks ago when Ukraine’s recapture of Russian-occupied territory prompted many frightened Russian soldiers to surrender or flee their positions.
This fundamental psychological truth about warfare tells us some other things as well. It tells us that strategy – how you change your enemy’s psychology and make them do what you want – is supreme. It also tells us that logistics – your resources or tools for the job – are of crucial importance. And it tells us that morale – that ancient intangible of camaraderie and esprit de corps – is a battle winner.
The side that has these three things right – strategy, logistics and morale – will win the war. And this was as true in the Neolithic Period as it is in the new millennium. And this is exactly what we see in the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
On the Russian side, the strategy was poor and based on a flawed understanding of what Ukraine was, and is. Putin imagined that the population would rise up and welcome Russian soldiers as liberators, helping them to overthrow the elected government of Ukraine. Putin also imagined that the West would dilly and dally, much as it had done before.
But he did not take into account that Ukraine was and is a real country that wanted to be free, and the Europeans and Americans would see his invasion as a direct threat.
Logistically, and perhaps because of the aforementioned strategic misjudgments, Russia invaded with a quarter of the troops that it should have done. And once in Ukraine, their logistics have been poor, with troops running out of vital supplies.
As for morale, it is hard to motivate poorly trained conscripts to invade another country that they see as a brother nation. On the other side of the fence, meanwhile, the Ukrainians have had a crystal-clear strategy: evict Russian armed forces from the sovereign territory of Ukraine. They are well supplied logistically through Nato countries, and have sky-high morale as they are defending their homeland, and liberating their kith and kin.
It is because of these three factors – strategy, logistics and morale – that Russia will lose the war. Not because Ukraine had some drones that it bought from Amazon, and not because Putin has rashly called up some reservists to the front line. Unfortunately for them, without, you guessed it, strategy, logistics or morale, they will go the way of those who have gone before them: into the Ukrainian meat grinder.
There is a deeper question about why we constantly seek to reimagine war – to say that it has changed, or that it is something that it is not. It is a very difficult question to answer, but as humans we like to imagine that new technology will help us win wars, or will help us avoid wars. Perhaps we want to avoid the brutally chaotic nature of war, or ignore the reality that it is a fight to the death. Perhaps it is something particular to democracies, whose populations like to imagine that technology can help us fight wars at arm’s length, so that they will not touch our lives.
Paradoxically, this thinking makes us more likely to fight wars, rather than less. And it is a trap that we have fallen into in the UK. In 2021, the British Government released its Integrated Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy Review. Broadly speaking, it argued for a pivot away from the Nato and Euro-Atlantic area, towards the Far East and China. And it argued for a rebalancing of defence spending towards cyber, artificial intelligence and automated weapons systems, and away from tanks, artillery and infantry.
In fact, the infantry – that backbone of military force – was to be cut, and the number of tanks reduced by one-third. In November 2021, Boris Johnson, the then-Prime Minister, even went so far as to mock the chair of the Defence Select Committee, Tobias Elwood, saying: “We have to recognise that the old concepts of fighting big tank battles on European land mass are over”. Three months later Russia invaded Ukraine with, er, lots of tanks.
The truth is, the UK has badly misread the strategic environment. We have misjudged. It is not just a question of having the right capabilities focussed on the right area of the globe – it is also a question of sending signals to all your potential adversaries about what capabilities you have, and which area of the globe they are focussed on.
Prime Minister Truss has pledged to increase spending on defence to three per cent of GDP by 2030. Good. But what this money is spent on, and where we focus as a nation is equally as critical as the cash. We need an understanding of the UK’s strategic position – and our defence – that is rooted in the reality of how the world is, rather than how we would wish it to be. As one surveys the geo-strategic landscape, the big threats to the UK come from the European periphery: instability caused by the collapse of Russia; tensions in the Middle East over Iran; and climate-change-induced conflicts and migration from the Sahel region, to name but three.
All of these threats require a mixture of traditional – hard – military power, as well as some new technologies. All of them require us to be able to deploy well-resourced contingents of highly-trained troops, set within the right strategic posture.
It is as it ever was: the fundamentals of war have not changed, and we should base our defence on this fact.
Dr Mike Martin is an author and speaker on conflict at King’s College London.