Nearly 80 years on from the end of World War II, it is striking how much of that conflict remains with us. This is of course true in terms of historic legacy—politicians who compare themselves to Churchill, for example, or fears of German power within Europe.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine makes clear that we still live in World War II’s shadow in other ways too. The Russian military, for example, shares many similarities with the great armies of that period. The country’s ground forces are built around large numbers of heavy armored vehicles, most famously tanks, and concentrations of heavy artillery. Much like the German Wehrmacht’s plans for attacking the Soviet Union in 1941, the Russians expected to blast holes in Ukrainian lines with their big guns, and then move tanks and armored personnel carriers through the gaps to make rapid advances, with Russian fighters and bombers in support. Even the Russian navy, with its large surface vessels not too dissimilar in shape and size from those you could have seen in the Pacific or North Atlantic in the early 20th century, was discussed as a force capable of launching an amphibious assault on the Ukrainian coast, much as the Allies did on D-Day in June 1944.
We know now that none of this worked out quite as Moscow had planned. In part, this is because of the basic inadequacies of the Russian military, which have revealed themselves to be manifold. Yet to focus on these factors would be to ignore a deeper shift under way, one that holds out the prospect of reshaping both the structure and expectation of militaries around the world.
Russia’s botched invasion and Ukraine’s remarkable fortitude in fighting back have illustrated the diminishing power of the heavy and expensive unit of military power, its role challenged by nimbler, easier-to-use—and, crucially, cheaper—systems. Tanks, fighter jets, and warships are being pushed into obsolescence, giving way to new tools of conflict. In the process, we are seeing the very nature of combat change. In fact, we may be witnessing in Ukraine the final war of 20th-century militaries.
This transition is most evident with the tank, the king of the land battlefield since World War II. At the time of its invasion in February, Russia held not just a significant numerical advantage over Ukraine in terms of the number of tanks in its arsenal, but a qualitative edge as well—Russian tanks were judged to be some of the best in the world. What we have seen, however, is a tank massacre: Tallies of Russian tank losses range from 700 to 1,200, an enormous loss out of a total arsenal of perhaps 1,500 that took part in the initial invasion.
The tank’s vulnerabilities—it is ill-suited to many types of terrain, inflexible in its movements, and the opposite of stealthy—have been known for years, but until this war they had not been exposed so clearly. During World War II, the Germans developed an excellent and cheap handheld anti-tank weapon, nicknamed the Panzerfaust, which struck fear into the hearts of many American, British, and Soviet tankers. However, the Panzerfaust had an effective range of only 30 meters when it was first deployed, and technological advancements extended that to only 100 meters by the end of the war. If a soldier using a Panzerfaust missed (or even hit, it must be said), it was likely to be the last thing he ever did. In Ukraine, by contrast, many Russian tanks have been picked off at distances of two miles or more, by small groups of well-concealed Ukrainian soldiers using handheld anti-tank weapons.
This swing in favor of smaller and cheaper defensive weapons has been matched in the air. The Russian air force, which was expected to dominate, has been significantly disrupted by Ukraine’s use of a range of cheaper systems, again including a number of handhelds, among them Stinger missiles that have been in service for almost half a century. Such systems render Russian pilots incapable of carrying out patrols, restricting them to quick point-to-point missions. By neutering Russian airpower, including helicopters, in places such as the Donbas, Ukrainian forces have retained desperately needed mobility. So even when the Russians do make advances, the Ukrainians can adjust. Along with their low-cost anti-air equipment, the Ukrainians have also made good use of cheaper unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to scout Russian positions and launch attacks where possible.
On the seas, the story has been similar. Maybe the most shocking moment of the war so far was the sinking of the Russian Black Sea flagship Moskva, apparently by a homemade Ukrainian anti-ship missile. If Western reports are to be believed—Kyiv has steadfastly refused to comment on its role in the vessel’s sinking—the Ukrainians used two relatively cheap systems to destroy the Moskva: They employed a drone to distract the Moskva’s defensive systems, then hit the ship with two missiles—leading to a catastrophic internal fire and the eventual sinking.
This wide-ranging success of cheaper, simpler systems against the ostensibly more advanced (but more expensive) equipment that is a feature of the world’s great militaries is something that has been prophesized for decades, since the advent of the Panzerfaust. If it is now a reality, that has significant implications for how armed forces the world over plan and strategize. As the counterinsurgency expert T. X. Hammes has argued, the improvement of defensive firepower has made forward movement very difficult, changing the balance of modern warfare very much against the attacker.
What the Ukraine conflict has revealed is that this shift might be even more dramatic than most have imagined, a change that for the past few decades has been obscured by the overwhelming battle-winning (if not war-winning) capabilities of the American armed forces. The U.S. has held such a marked technological, logistical, and training advantage that its large offensive forces were typically able to thwart the efforts of forces using smaller and cheaper equipment.
Going forward, however, the Russian experience is probably more instructive for all states—even the U.S. (American struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan point to even its enormous advantage eroding.) The effectiveness of defensive firepower will only improve. Anti-tank weapons will achieve longer ranges, and their detection ability and accuracy will get better. Drones will be able to stay in the air for longer and avoid detection better, while increasing their lethality and improving their own computational performance. The ability of both to destroy heavy land vehicles while remaining unseen will improve. The massacre of Russian vehicles we have seen in Ukraine will become the norm, not the exception. Navies that want to risk having their ships near the shores of a well-armed enemy will need to contend with huge salvos of anti-ship missiles and even anti-ship drones, far more than their anti-missile capabilities can now handle. This has consequences around the world: If the Chinese were rash enough to attempt an amphibious assault on Taiwan, or the U.S. were rash enough to send large carrier battle groups to the Chinese coast in a battle over the South China Sea, the result would be the Moskva many times over.
The future shape of militaries is open to debate. What is clear, though, is that investing in large World War II–era materiel such as the heavy tank, enormous aircraft carrier, and super-expensive fixed-wing aircraft has never been riskier. As far less expensive but still lethal systems continue to improve, the investment that will be required to protect larger, more expensive weapons systems will be financially crippling, even for the American military. Instead, political and military leaders will need to start conceiving of an entirely different battlefield, full of lighter, smaller, more mobile, and in many cases autonomous or remotely operated weapons. In essence, they will need to prepare for the first wars of the 21st century.