One Year In: What Are the Lessons from Ukraine for the Future of War?
Ukrainian Air Force (@KpsZSU) on Twitter
Feb. 22, 2023
Wars are not just contests of weapons and will; they are also laboratories of a sort. Their battles provide lessons that will shape not just what happens next in that particular conflict, but also in all other conflicts to follow.
The most momentous of these insights can create inflection points in history. They become turning points in the story of war, influencing how, when, and even where to fight from that time forward.
Like so many other major wars, the last year of fighting in Ukraine has shown this effect. Every other military in the world is studying it to inform their own approach to future conflicts. Thus, we’ve seen signs of not just what will happen next in battles there, but also in future wars elsewhere.
Opening the Pages of History
The most obvious type of inflection point in the story of war is when a new weapon is introduced that fundamentally changes or even ends the fighting, such as the atomic bomb’s debut in World War II. Yet, more common are when a new technology is introduced that points the way to the future of war, but with an initial impact that is not all that powerful in the present. This is usually because new technology is at the nascent stage of its own development, needing more time and experience both to make it more capable and learn how to use it. But once it has been introduced into war, there is no going back: Future wars will surely see more and more of that technology in more and more powerful ways.
A classic example is the first use of an airplane in war, less than a decade after its invention. On October 23, 1911, during a war between the Kingdom of Italy and the Ottoman Empire, an Italian pilot took to the air in a canvas-winged monoplane. He flew at what was considered then an incredibly fast speed of 45 miles per hour, circling over Tripoli, in modern day Libya. With this new ability to look down upon the Earth, he was able to carry back to his commanders news of where enemy positions were located. But the effect of this new technology was not just better reconnaissance.
A week later, the same pilot decided to bring up into the air with him four hand grenades, which he dropped over the side of his plane upon the Ottomans below. This first ad-hoc bombing certainly didn’t affect the outcome of the war, but the era of air warfare had begun and there was no turning back.
So too in Ukraine, we have seen similar examples of new technology in use—not drastically shaping the fighting, but providing signs of what’s to come.
One area is the utilization of artificial intelligence (AI). The conflict in Ukraine has seen various forms of AI deployed in an ever growing variety of ways—from using face recognition software to identify enemy soldiers to deploying machine learning to make military and aid supply chains more efficient. AI has even been harnessed to advance propaganda and information warfare: Russia’s invasion in Ukraine is the first war to see the use of “deep fake” videos, which morph the line between the real and machine generated.
The use of machine intelligence in all its forms in war is only going to grow as AI both advances in its own capability and takes on more roles and importance in our world beyond the realm of war. No other area of technology is presently being as funded as deeply and involves as diverse an array of actors as this space. It involves not just all the world’s governments and thus their armed forces, but also the leading civilian corporations. Indeed, Wired magazine summed it up well: “In fact, the business plans of the next 10,000 startups are easy to forecast: Take X and add AI.” And, of course, the same is now happening in the defense economy, where the joke in the Pentagon is that the generals don’t know what AI is, but now want to buy it by the barrel.
Another new inflection point started with what might seem just a joke, but actually opens a serious new front in both cybersecurity and warfare.
The internet began in the 1960s as a U.S. military research project space for improving human communication. Ever since, the cyber threats to this network of networks have been about attacking these very same human communications, whether to steal them or block them.
But, over the last decade, the conventional Internet has transformed to become not just a place for human communication, but also the operations of many of the systems that run our world.
At the start of the conflict, Russian hackers attempted to go after a variety of Ukrainian-networked systems from power grids to space communications. But like with their conventional military attacks, they met with little success. This was due to a combination of Putin setting his own forces up for failure, by not preparing them for the war he denied he was planning, and by the actions of clever, prepared cyber defenders in Ukraine aided by an international coalition of cyber experts.
Immediately after this, Ukrainian-allied hackers, included in what became known as the “Volunteer IT Army,” began to swing back. They hacked any vulnerable Russian systems they could find, in a campaign that lacked much coordination or planning. Yet, every so often they met with success. One that made global tech news was the fun story in February 2022 of electric car charging stations being digitally defaced in Moscow. Hackers sympathetic to Ukraine took over the computer displays to post some mean, but arguably true things about Vladimir Putin (The translation: “Putin is a dickhead”). But what history should note is not the vandalism on the outside, but what was happening on the inside: a system shutdown.
It was arguably the first “Internet of Things” (IoT) attack in a major war. If you owned an electric car in Moscow and wanted to power up your vehicle, you were as out of luck as Putin's tank forces in Ukraine. The prank certainly didn’t sway the war, but think of what could be done in the future by a group or military unit that was more organized, with more preparation, intelligence, and planning, going after a wider, more ambitious set of targets, such as an entire infrastructure.
Such attacks using digital means from afar to cause a physical effect on an enemy are the future of not just cybersecurity, but also warfare. Our world is becoming ever more networked with, and thus ever more reliant upon, the internet-linked devices that now run the operations of almost every area of critical infrastructure and even operate within your home. Unfortunately, though, we are recreating in the IoT many of the same original sins that have haunted cybersecurity from the origin of the Internet a half century ago. The attack surface is growing exponentially, adding more and more targets to be potentially hacked. Yet, as happened in the prior two generations of computing, security is too often an afterthought in IoT design and op, due to unclear accountability and a general lack of requirements and regulation. The outcome is that too many vulnerabilities are just baked into the IoT systems that we rely more and more on. And attackers will exploit that.
This means digital attacks will increasingly have physical effects. This will especially be the case in wartime, where the normal limits of cyber deterrence fall by the wayside, and the incentives for causing harm are far different for militaries than cybercriminals’ incentives for profit.
Another inflection point in the history of war is when a technology that has already been used in conflict is brought together in a new application, doctrine, or organization that finally allows it to reach its true potential, remaking the rules of what is viewed as the best ways to fight. A good example is how the tank may have been introduced in World War I, but it was its incorporation into the Blitzkrieg in World War II that established a new mode of mobile-armored warfare and helped the Nazis take over much of Europe.
We may well one day look at the Ukraine war and unmanned systems (“drones”) in much the same way history looks back at the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s as a historic proving ground for the Blitzkrieg to come.
After long being doubted by defense analysts and military leaders, unmanned systems have been successfully used in conflict for well over a generation. Yet, that doubt remained widespread, as they had made their mark primarily in counter-insurgency missions in conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq, counter-terrorism strikes in places like Pakistan, and their use in relatively small-scale wars of mismatched sides like in Libya. Indeed, literally as the fighting in Ukraine was beginning, the leading academic journal in international security published an article arguing that drones were not all that significant in conventional warfare.
That academic and military debate is now over. Unmanned systems proved to be incredibly significant in the fighting in Ukraine, across various roles and even domains. They proved crucial to stopping Russian tank columns, both in firing their own missiles and, even more importantly, by providing pinpoint accuracy for Ukrainian artillery and missile strikes that have hollowed out Russian forces. They equally played important roles at sea, participating in the sinking of Russia’s Black Seas flagship and striking at Russia’s naval bases in Crimea.
What has also been notable is the array of unmanned systems filling the battlefield. The important roles and missions have been carried out not just by large expensive, military-grade systems the size of the manned airplanes they are replacing, but also by fleets of now literally thousands of small, cheap, often civilian-provided drones. Every unit on both the Ukrainian and Russian now uses them, not just to scout ahead, but also carry out strikes with accuracy that would have been impossible just a few decades ago for the most high-end military system.
As with AI, the use of drones is advancing every week in the war, as each of the sides, and their outside partners, learn more. Iran, for instance, has gained feedback from Russian use of its Shahed and Mohajer systems in areas that range from how they perform in different scenarios and weather to the devilish need to dampen its noise, because Ukrainian civilians under attack can hear the drones diving toward them. An apt historic parallel of the Russian drone swarm strikes on Ukrainian cities may be the Germans’ first use of missiles and rockets to attack English cities in 1944—an enemy losing on the battlefield trying to sway the population through terror bombings with a new technology.
In turn, the Ukrainians, and its NATO suppliers, are learning how to better integrate the rapidity of intelligence and strike allowed by these systems and advanced command and control networks.
In fact, it is through AI’s integration with unmanned systems that the next phase of this technology’s use in war is opening up in Ukraine. Increasingly autonomous systems are being deployed in Ukraine more and more, sometimes melding with the concept of “loitering munitions,” operating singly and increasingly in swarms.
And, here too, this growing importance and wider adoption means that we are, like with airplanes, seeing the first fights between these technologies. The first drone-on-drone dogfights in Ukraine again signal what is to come in the future of war.
Another area where a long-used technology has reached new heights in Ukraine has been in the weaponization of social media.
While “cyber war” is the hacking of networks, perhaps what has been more significant in Ukraine has been its evil twin “LikeWar,” the hacking of people on the networks, by driving information viral through likes and shares.
There is a long history of the once playful realm of social media being weaponized, from its use in terrorism by ISIS in Iraq to Russian spy agencies’ use to influence other nations’ elections. In Ukraine, though, this new form of information warfare hit new levels of strategic significance by reshaping a major conventional conflict.
One major effect came from the sheer scale and importance of open-source intelligence (OSINT). In Ukraine, each and every cell phone and its social media account acted as a new kind of spy sensor and simultaneous broadcast network, collecting the most minute tidbits of information, then providing it to the world to sift through and consider its greater meaning.
OSINT, for instance, proved crucial to debunking Putin’s claims that Russia was merely reacting to an emergency and not planning an invasion, thus undermining his political strategy from the start. In turn, Ukraine has mined OSINT from literally millions of local civilians and hapless Russian soldiers’ posts, to track and target Russian military moves. Indeed, the information has been so extensive and valuable, that the Ukrainian government even created an app, Diia, to manage the flow from outside OSINT volunteer spies and analysts.
Where social media has arguably been the most strategically significant, though, is how Ukraine’s leader utilized it to turn the tables on the supposed Russian masters of information warfare. Before the war, Volodymyr Zelenskyy was little known outside of the region. Inside Ukraine, polls found him and his party with just 23 percent support. Essentially, he had little global influence and was the least unpopular of a set of deeply unpopular Ukrainian leaders, amid distrust of the government in general. These very same political dynamics may have tempted Putin to think just a slight push would topple the regime.
However, Zelenskyy made masterful use of the online space to get out his message while his nation was under attack. He then drove it viral through a savvy strategy that utilized everything from personal demonstrations of leadership and bravery to quips and memes.
This online effort yielded real effects. Very soon, Zelenskyy became a global icon and 91 percent of Ukrainians rallied to support his actions. The Ukrainian state and society didn’t collapse the way Russia hoped would happen in the first few days of fighting. Indeed, besides the rapid swing in Zelenskyy’s polling, surveys also show that now 70 percent of Ukrainians believe that their military is the side that will win the war, despite their still real disadvantage in force size and territory losses. In war, human will matters, and the digital realm has proven a valuable new means of reaching and mobilizing that will.
But where the online show has also been a crucial win for Ukraine is in reaching and influencing a second key target audience: us. No matter the attitudes and bravery of its people, Ukraine only had a chance if it enlisted the outside world in its fight. And here, Ukraine went from not being on most anyone’s mind to literally the most popular cause in the world. The surprisingly viral sympathy for its cause then reshaped the political context everywhere from the U.S. to as far away as Japan and Australia, altering both political priorities and what policies leaders thought their populations would be willing to support. Indeed, the last month’s controversy over Germany sending tanks to Ukraine (which it finally did, again due to changing attitudes) underweights what a historically momentous shift has taken place in just the last year, casting aside 75 years of German foreign policy.
Drafting the Next Chapter
Ukraine’s win of the likewar also had a powerful economic effect. Some 400 of the top 500 companies pulled out of the Russian economy, not because it was required by law or sanctions, but because to do business in Russia became viewed as bad for business. The reverberations of this new kind of geopolitical canceling will affect not just the Russian economy for the long term, but how other nations think about their own economies and war.
And this may be one of the most significant effects of the Ukraine war for not just the future of war on the battlefield, but decisions about war itself. The first major conventional conflict of the 21st century in Europe took place between what were then the 9th and 56th biggest economies in the world, according to the IMF. And yet, it disrupted everything from energy markets to supply chains, not just for combatants themselves, but for the wider world. While Russia was soon reduced to recycling microchips from old refrigerators, altered grain prices risked stability in nations as far away as Asia and Africa.
This points to one of the larger questions now being wrestled with in capitals like Washington, DC, and Beijing. It is challenging enough to reshape military plans and technology to reflect the lessons of Ukraine. Yet, they must also now rethink what the future of war means for how national and economic security connect.
▶️ Press Play: Lessons from the War in Ukraine
In a new video, Peter W. Singer discusses the lessons that the war in Ukraine teaches about the future of war after one year.