How Technology has Saved Ukraine

Geographers tell us the truth that geography often dominates world affairs.  For more than a century, until the invention of nuclear weapons, America could rely on our oceans and navy to prevent serious invasion from foreign armies.  We could devote ourselves to the benefits of peace.  Conversely, the wide-open steppes of Central Asia provided the gateway to repeated invasions of Eastern Europe, South Asia, and the Middle East.  The peoples of those regions were perpetually insecure and their cultures reflected this insecurity.

Mountains provide barriers.  Rivers, too, are barriers.  Valleys, plains, and passes through the mountains provide roadways that funnel invasion.  Such are the facts that, for millennia, have determined military and political strategy.  In the view of many of today’s analysts, these still are the governing factors.  You hear echoes of this perspective each evening during discussions of the current war in Ukraine and the future for NATO. 

From this conventional analysis, I beg to differ.  While the nature of war hasn’t changed during all of recorded history -- and far beyond, as the Neolithic walls of Jericho and the constructions of Catalhoyuk testify -- technology has.  The technology of war has changed continuously.  And it is the evolution of technology that actually determines what happens not only on the battlefield but also in war and political strategy.  Today, technology is perhaps more important than geography once was in determining national strategy.

I have no experience of the battlefield.  Therefore, I cannot comment, except from a distance, on the true nature, and experience, of war.  But I am a military engineer with a half-century as a professional in the technology of war and its applications.  I know what can, and cannot, happen with the modern instruments of war.  It is from that perspective, rather than from geography that I speculate on what might be in our future.

Putin has been shocked and his behavior shows it.  His vast armies are not doing what was expected.  For a surprisingly long time, Ukrainians have been able to hold their own.  They have currently stalled much of the Russian invasion and even defeated parts of it.  There is good reason for this.  What is going on?

Oddly enough, even though the Russian air force has free access to all of Ukraine’s territory, and has overwhelming superiority in numbers of aircraft, it is the Ukrainians that actually dominate the air.  They dominate, but not in the usual way -- not with fighter planes.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of aircraft is their mobility.  Aircraft can go anywhere, anytime.  Air defenses are designed to constrain and defeat this mobility.  Without this mobility, aircraft cannot deliver their weapons.  And it is the effective delivery of weapons to designated targets that counts.

Conversely, ground forces are greatly restricted in mobility.  Geography is one impediment.  Necessarily slow movement over the ground is even more important.  Ground forces simply can’t zip around the map as aircraft can.  Why then, have the Ukrainians, being almost entirely ground forces, been able to dominate in a way similar to what is possible with air forces?  The answer lies in recent advances in ground-based weapons technology.

The Ukrainians are now showing the Icon of Mary Magdalene cradling a Javelin missile.  St. Magdalene is now St. Javelin.  It is the Javelin, a weapon carried by foot soldiers, that has given the Ukrainians air superiority in ground attacks.  Paired with man-portable Stinger missiles for antiaircraft defense, the foot soldier is at least at parity with most Russian military aviation and may actually be in the ascendant. 

What makes this capability important is the lack of the most modern technology in the Russian air forces.  The evidence is that the Russians simply do not have an air force that is suitably equipped to deliver precision-guided munitions from high altitudes.  This means that in order to be effective in ground attack they have to fly low, slow, and in daylight.  Aircraft in this environment are sitting ducks for Stingers.

In addition, Russian pilots apparently have little training in support of, ground forces so they can easily fall victim to friendly fire.  Pilots are not likely to risk that.  So close air support of ground forces is pretty much off the table.  It is different with the Javelin teams available to the Ukrainians.

Javelins are launched from the ground, and their quite substantial range is restricted to line of sight, but they are, nevertheless, weapons that attack from the air.  They are substitutes for aircraft which carry precision-guided munitions.  It is for this reason that I have said that the Ukrainians dominate in the air.  In effect, the Ukrainian ground troops have their own integrated close air support and are, in this way, superior to Russian forces. 

The European theater armies of the Second World War learned the basics of, and the essential need for, combined arms operation.  Tanks and other armored vehicles are powerful supporters of infantry on the attack and defense, but they are terribly vulnerable to enemy foot soldiers who get too close.  Therefore, tanks need a screen of dismounted infantry to ward off enemy soldiers.  This is combined arms on the small scale.

The advantage Ukrainian soldiers have with the Javelin is that they can attack vehicles from miles away and from hidden sites.  Infantry screening of vehicles is impossible without a nearly infinite number of infantry.

Patton trained his 3rd Army for tank-infantry combined arms, but he also innovated air-ground combined arms.  The 19th Tactical Air Command under Gen. Elwood “Pete” Quesada provided coverage against German attacks on his flanks as he raced across France.  Patton and Quesada thus invented combined arms on the large scale.  Tanks, and other vehicles, were almost completely helpless against attack from the air.  They do better today, but not much better against the latest technology.  The rule is whoever has air dominance, and modern aviation equipment, wins every time -- and quickly -- against conventional armored ground forces.  Saddam learned this bitter lesson during the last 100 hours of the First Gulf War.

Geographically Russia is wide open to attack.  It has been invaded many times from the East by powerful steppe armies.  It has also been invaded from the West by Germans, Swedes, Poles, and French.   Its culture reflects these traumas with instilled genetic paranoia.  We may understand how Russia must feel, but we also must recognize that Russia’s paranoia offers danger to the West.  Thus the need for NATO.

Putin’s decisions are partly based on his love for Russia and his knowledge of its bloodstained past.  But he also is a megalomaniac.  And there is the real danger.  Some analysts speculate that Putin wants Ukraine as much to protect his south as to reunite the area with Mother Russia.  According to this reasoning, Putin is next going to want geographically sensible buffers to the west.  This means absorbing the Baltic States, part of Romania up to the Carpathian Mountains, and eastern Poland to the Vistula River.  While this may make sense from a geographical perspective it also means invasion of NATO territory.  And, at least a conventional Third World War.

Putin is a gambler but does not seem to be a fool.  Knowing what he now knows, he has to recognize that a military campaign against NATO would, within a few days, utterly destroy his invading army and much of it that remains in Russia.  (Remember Saddam.)

It is a matter of technology.  NATO would instantly have air dominance.  This means that NATO would be safe to attack and kill all Russian ground forces and their logistics.  Precision-guided missiles from high-altitude stealthy aircraft make this possible.  The only limiting factor on how long the combat would last depends on the sortie rate of NATO’s air forces.

Would Putin gamble?  Probably not.  He knows that within days the Russian army would disintegrate and he would likely be dead.  Alternatively, a Mad Russian Putin might, like Hitler in his bunker, decide to pull the world down with him.  Then the Deluge!

Image: Max Pixel

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