Sir Richard Barrons on how the characteristics of war are changing

Sir Richard Barrons on how the characteristics of war are changing

The invasion of Ukraine is a graphic illustration of how the nature of war never changes. It is an aspect of the human condition that is as irrational, brutal, feral, unbounded and disappointing now as it has been since man first took up a stick against his fellow. When people fight knowing that their personal survival—and that of their families, communities and countries—is at stake, there are no unbreakable laws or boundaries that limit what is done to survive and win.

It is equally true that although the nature of war does not change, its characteristics—how it is actually fought—change constantly according to circumstances, technology and thinking. Today that thinking is mostly about how to apply digital technologies created in the civilian sector to create new ways of operating and organising in conflicts. Some aspects of the war in Ukraine feel familiar; others are changing at the speed of innovation under existential pressure.

One constant is that big wars, where the survival of a country and its way of life are at stake, are won by mobilising civil society. Regular armed forces will be in the vanguard and provide the spine of leadership and organisation. But the numbers required to fight on fronts of hundreds of kilometres over many years come only by putting a significant proportion of the civilian population in uniform. This effort is matched by the mobilisation of industry and the wider economy to support the war. Consider that Vladimir Putin has set aside 30% of Russia’s budget this year to pay for defence, security and law enforcement. This 9trn rubles ($143bn) is a huge increase on past years.

Another constant is that battles for territory are still dominated by the artillery that brings death and destruction within ranges of about 30km (19 miles). Artillery is the essential partner to tanks and infantry as they fire and move to seize and hold ground. This is as true now in Ukraine, albeit with better equipment, as it was on D-Day in 1944. Success also hinges on how air power (bombs and rockets delivered by jets and helicopters) can impose sudden and decisive results on the ground, and how air defences can prevent that from happening. This is not something that cyber or precision missiles can do. The idea that cyber would make jets, tanks and guns obsolete was always a fantasy. Countries such as Britain that cut spending on conventional armed forces to pay for cyber programmes now see that the two are needed together.

In Ukraine modern technology has made massive changes to the characteristics of war, however. The use of satellite imagery to see and locate enemy positions from space has made the war in Ukraine in essence transparent. That is thanks to the data provided from both expensive, capable geo-stationary military satellites and cheap, commercial low-Earth-orbit satellites and drones. A combination of space-based capability and pervasive open-source data means it is no longer possible to move many members of an army, navy or air force undetected. The Russian invasion was monitored in minute detail for some months before it started and has been ever since.

Meanwhile access to the internet (as provided by Elon Musk’s Starlink in Ukraine) through multitudinous devices, as well as artificial intelligence and the volume and speed of data enabled by cloud computing are all contributing to the fight and helping determine who gets an edge. Starlink allows every Ukrainian soldier with a ground terminal access to a centrally managed, common picture of the situation on the ground. Most units have at least one terminal. It connects all the available ways of identifying and locating a target–from special forces to drones to mobile-phone photos–to data in the cloud through rapidly developing AI apps that screen and prioritise them. These apps then send the targets to the most appropriate weapon system. The whole apparatus means that targets can be processed ten times faster than ever before. It is also able to identify and locate targets that are deep in Russian-held territory.

Another new characteristic of this war, for all the enduring need for artillery, is the primacy of precision weapons over the major military platforms that have dominated the battlefield for more than 100 years. Ships, tanks, aircraft, large logistic bases, civil infrastructure and headquarters are more vulnerable than ever before. Radar and precision missiles mean the fastest jet or cruise missile can be shot down from several hundred kilometres away. It is possible to hit not just a given building but a given window. This could be used to reduce the harm done to civilians. But there is no doubt that Russia deliberately uses the accuracy of precision missiles to target hospitals and other civil buildings.

Precision technology also means that hitherto dominant equipment, such as tank and artillery units, are far more vulnerable and so are comparatively less effective. The American-provided HIMARS high-precision rockets deplete Russia’s ability to bring forward artillery and ammunition, for example. Tanks can still win victories in close-quarter battles, of course. But precision technology offers the ability to destroy an enemy’s major weapons systems, logistics and reserves before close-quarter battle even starts.

The primacy of precision is such an important new characteristic of war that it may determine the outcome in Ukraine. The victor may be whoever wins the race for cheap, precise technologies. Neither Russia nor Ukraine started with the stockpiles of missiles needed to sustain their initial rate of use for more than a few months. Neither side has the industrial capabilities in place to scale up missile production quickly enough to meet demand. So precision drones are being rolled out instead. The Iranian Shaheed-136 supplied to Russia at $20,000 a shot is far cheaper than the $1m that might be paid for a cruise missile (though Russia is trying to buy missiles, too). Vast quantities of such drones can also be made quickly. Whichever side can ramp up their supplies of expensive missiles while at the same time massing cheap drones will gain an edge. And the world’s armed forces will watch to see what the winning combination turns out to be.

The war in Ukraine is a showcase of how the characteristics of conflict are changing in the 21st century. True, it is not America and China fighting with their superpower strength and technology. Yet in terms of the high stakes and the speed of competitive innovation, it is still breathtaking. And these innovations are part of an evolving orchestra of war involving players and conductors who are learning as they go. What happens in Ukraine will be a benchmark for how countries prepare for and fight the next major conflict.

General Sir Richard Barrons is a British Army officer. He is the co-chairman of Universal Defence and Security Solutions, a global defence consultancy.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on

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Author: Shirley