The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

How Changing Military Technology Has Contributed To End of Empire

Before WWI, strategically, machine guns were offensive weapons. They were used to expand the European empires against opponents who didn’t have them.

Come WWI, it turned out that they were defensive weapons which made offensive operations very hard if both sides had them.

Armor and air made fast offensive operations possible in WWII, and aircraft carriers made air the queen of the ocean and the king of force projection against nations without large air forces.

Over the past twenty years two major things have changed in military technology. I’ve written about both in the past.

The first is the spread of cheap and effective drones and missiles. It was always clear that drones were not going to be weapons of the powerful. What matters for weapons systems is who can afford them. If you need aircraft carriers and you’re not a major country, you’re shit outta luck. The end of medieval nobility arrived with gunpowder weapons, specifically cannons. King could afford them, nobles couldn’t, and old style castles couldn’t stand against them.

Another thing about drones and missiles right now is that defenses against them aren’t very good. Hit missile defenses with a large enough wave of attack and some will get thru, and if you have decent intelligence, some will get thru and destroy some of the air defenses.

In the old days if you wanted to bomb, bomb away and inflict terrific damage on someone without them being able to strike back, you had to have a lot of aircraft and either basing rights or aircraft carriers. Now they just have to be in missile and drone range. And often the missiles and drones are way cheaper than the defenses.

This means it’s easy to hurt the other guy. No more Israel pounding Lebanon and Lebanon can’t strike back, even though Israel’s military budget is way more than Hezbollah’s. Likewise missiles and drones are great at shutting down naval traffic, as the US, UK and Israel are discovering.

But what has happened at the same time is increased strategic ability to defend. Improvised explosive devices, cheap drones and missiles, and the way that armor (tanks, etc…) has become almost worthless. You can’t punch thru, anymore, if you don’t exhaust the defender first or take them by surprise. We’ve seen that in Afghanistan, but we saw lesser version in Iraq and Afghanistan; the US could take the cities, but everywhere else they were in danger: take out a convoy and get hit by IEDs and guerilla attacks.

It’s easy to hurt the other guy, but it’s very had to take and keep territory. “Big Arrow” war requires massive overmatch in forces.

To put it crudely, any pint-sized country or reasonable sized militia is in the game: they have weapons that can threaten anyone near them. There’s no “stand off and bomb”, not even for the US, unless it wants to withdraw from its overseas bases. The enemy can almost always hit back. If Israel goes to war with Hezbollah, Hezbollah, with at least 150k missiles can and will flatten Tel Aviv if Israel decides to flatten Beiruit.

One-sided deterrence is broken. “You win on the ground quickly and you can’t hit us from the air without us being able to retaliate.”

That the new military technology status quo.  There are exceptions, and there are particular cases (many people think that navies are essentially obsolete except for submarines in any real war, and submarine detection technology is advancing so quickly that even subs may be useless soon.) But basically, it’s hard to conquer someone who’s properly prepared (Armenia was not, Ukraine was, Hezbollah is, Hamas is.) And it’s hard to shut down drone and missile based retaliation, so you can’t have nice little colonial wars like Gulf I where you hit them and hit them and all they can do is take it.

War, war always changes.



The Sun Sets Slowly—Then Quickly


The Terminator Future (The End of Meat)


  1. bruce wilder

    A fundamental development is the detachment from and distance between the business end of the weapon – the explosive or projectile – and the operator.

    The fact that the pilot was in the warplane and the soldier in the tank or ship created a kind of deterrence leverage in that a key tactical decision-maker was personally vulnerable and easy to locate. In WWII, a number of weapon systems in certain uses basically required soldiers to commit suicide – the kamikaze was made famous by Allied propaganda but the U.S. had some, too.

    But the new reality is that the weapon is in no fixed relation to its operator. And the suicide of a semi-autonomous drone is meaningless; you might be able to deceive or confuse a drone, but you cannot scare or demoralize one.

    It will be increasingly difficult to carry out operations that expose a lot of meat, but it will take a while to fully develop the capability to deploy swarms with decentralized control. But the ability to slow movement of troop concentrations is now. Centralized surveillance and control is easier to think thru initially but it exposes high-value targets in the control nodes and attempts will be made to protect those. Well-organized states may have a comparative advantage in development speed. The bet Russia placed on far stand-off planes and hyper-speed projectiles looks smart.

    If you can not find or hit the tactically important meat, the alternative will be, as in Gaza as in Tokyo or Dresden, to harm the meat you can find and which cannot escape.

  2. Purple Library Guy

    I’ve noticed a couple of things about the way the fighting in Ukraine has developed. One is that both Russia and to a lesser extent Ukraine have adopted a tactic of successive waves of drones and missiles. Generally a big wave of drones go first, trying to do some damage but mainly so you can watch and see what shoots your cheap drones down, and so you can use up the enemy’s air defence on your cheap stuff. Then a wave of missiles to actually penetrate and hopefully to wipe out some of the air defence you already spotted. Then in the Russians’ case, maybe some Kinzhal hypersonic missiles the enemy totally can’t stop, to definitely take out the highest value air defence and a couple of key targets you wanted to really make sure of.

    The second thing is, armoured vehicles. Both Russians and Ukrainians have ended up using armoured vehicles as disposable infantry delivery systems. They use the fact that vehicles are faster than walking people to drive some people as close to the front as they think they can get away with, then they just abandon them because they know they’re gonna get droned soon. Actual tanks still to some extent get used as tanks, to add a bit of punch to an offensive, but even there nobody seems to expect them to last very long, although the crew seem to escape fairly often when the tank gets whacked.

    One thing that hasn’t changed much is, minefields are really effective.

  3. StewartM

    But what has happened at the same time is increased strategic ability to defend. Improvised explosive devices, cheap drones and missiles, and the way that armor (tanks, etc…) has become almost worthless. You can’t punch thru, anymore, if you don’t exhaust the defender first or take them by surprise.

    If you’re correct, this means all wars will be WWI again. Armor, in providing a fairly survivable way of providing one’s infantry a mobile platform for direct fire artillery and a mobile machine gun bunker, so to speak, combined with infiltration tactics (from the Germans) is what restored mobility to the battlefield and made the quick advances of WWII possible. It’s always more desirable to win a victory by mobility, by encircling your opponent, cutting off his food/ammo/supplies, than it is by bludgeoning him to death. Moreover, the bludgeoning bit usually grinds up the terrain, making it a moonscape that’s difficult for you to advance through even if you succeed in annihilating him.

    I recall studies were done on this–given two equal-sized infantry formations facing off against each other, and give one side a single tank. The result is that the side with the tank is more likely to win and moreover more likely to lose fewer people in doing so. Then give them two tanks, then three, then four, then a platoon, and this trend escalates. Moreover it doesn’t really matter how “good” the tank is, by tank aficionado criteria. It’s why old T-34/85 tanks or Shermans (WWII tanks) could still be useful in a battlefield situation even today. It’s also why in WWII the Soviets kept making otherwise fairly-useless T-60 and T-70 light tanks until mid-WWII—yes, against any halfway decent tank or anti-tank defense they were worth much, but in cases where the opposing Germans didn’t have much in the way of either tank or anti-tank defenses they could be highly useful. Moreover, the Soviets needed time to transition the factories making these light tanks away from making these light tanks to making much more useful T-34s, SU, and IS tanks and by 1944 that goal was achieved.

    From everything I’ve read and heard, the reason why modern anti-tank hand-held missiles and drones work is by exploiting the fact that tanks are designed to fight other tanks—the thickest and best armor has to be positioned on the tank’s front, to deflect or absorb shots by the high-velocity direct-fire rounds from the main guns of other tanks. This means the armor elsewhere is thinner and more vulnerable; the tank sides get the next priority after the front in armor placement, followed by the rear, and lastly the top. Modern anti-tank weaponry (drones and hand-held missiles) take advantage of this by being directed at a tank’s top armor. This allows penetration of the armor using the smaller payloads of hand-held and drone weapons (you can’t deliver a large payload if the criteria is that a man must be able to hold and fire the weapon, or a drone has to fly with it).

    The Russians have experimented with “cope cages” (metal contraptions/baskets sited above the tank) which are intended to detonate the payloads of hand-held or drone weapons before the top armor is struck. Like everything in the Ukraine war, we really don’t know how effective this defense as been. Likewise, there are ‘active’ defense systems (systems that fire automatically to detonate such warheads before they strike the armor) but here again we don’t know how useful this is.

    Lastly, if we have gone back to WWI, then, well–that requires mass armies of those sneered-at nonprofessional conscripts. That will be a bad thing in terms of the waste of human life, but it may actually mean that our social betters (the real ‘useless eaters’) will stop regarding their countrymen as useless eaters to get rid of. Although being seen as cannon fodder isn’t that great of a promotion.

  4. Ian Welsh

    I would suggest, instead, mass autonomous drones as the primary arm–not infantry. It will be a pure case of the side with the most industry and resources swamping those without. (Article on this soon.)

  5. bruce wilder

    The Russia-Ukraine War may well be seen by history as the last war of the 20th century, recalling as it does the artillery barrages of WWI and witnessing the profligate use of so many obsolete armored vehicles.

    What is not so clear is how effective has been the selective use of precision weapons by the Russians has been. The Russians presumably have very good human intelligence on Ukrainian operations to inform their use of precisely targeted weapons and I would credit the Russians with a strategy predicated on not wanting to simply lay waste to a country which has been the scene of so much Russian history. But Ukraine for obvious reasons wants to paint “the orcs” as monsters targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure. So we do not have a clear picture at all of how effective the 21st century weaponry has been or the nature of successive campaigns against the electrical infrastructure or more recently munitions production.

  6. bruce wilder

    a Valmy of the drones?

    could happen

  7. VietnamVet

    Unless drone weapons are developed that are sturdy enough to attack in massed formations to breakthrough and destroy the logistic systems on the ground behind the trench lines; WWI has returned. Flank attacks through Poland, Belarus, or Crimea are likely to go nuclear. Either an armistice is signed and DMZs built on the line of contact or World War Three becomes endless. There is no doubt that this is what the war profiteers desire and want, but sooner or later one side or the other will run out of men and resources and then governments will be overthrown like the Russian Monarchy in 1917 or surrender like Imperial Germany in 1918.

    I don’t know if Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Tim Cook, or Mark Zuckerberg realize it but globalization is finished. Global choke points can no longer be kept open by Western Carrier Battle Groups. Singapore is indefensible. The US public health system has collapsed. The second largest wave of COVID infections is washing across the USA but is ignored to keep the economy churning. In fact, the West has to kowtow to China and the Eurasian Axis and agree to allow the free flow of trade and a negotiated peace if Western Oligarchs want to keep their wealth. But the protection money will cease flowing through Wall Street and the City of London. Mass transport will be built in China. The US Dollar will only be worth the resources that are left in country and the value of American labor; not based on all of the global trade done in dollars that is about to end. The US public education system is finished. All students will have to go in debt to have an education. Then climate change strikes.

  8. Soredemos

    Tanks have always been disposable weapons. This absolutely isn’t anything new. It’s only in the last few decades where the US hasn’t fought anyone remotely close to a peer opponent and where weapons production has morphed into purely being a bloated profit driven sector that NATO has adopted the model of a relative handful of fantastically expensive Lamborghini tanks. A model that has completely broken down in Ukraine as it turns out they aren’t actually any better than a ‘Russian clunker’ but NATO has a very limited vehicle pool of them and no ability to quickly produce replacements.

  9. Tallifer

    The U.S. is a “fat buffalo trying to take a nap” as hungry wolves approach, the [European diplomatic] envoy mused. “I can hear those Champagne bottle corks popping in Moscow — like it’s Christmas every fucking day.” (source: Politico)

  10. Purple Library Guy

    What I’ve been wondering all this time is, why aren’t drones shot down rather more than they seem to be? I’m talking about the smallish, fairly slow-moving FPV drones used near-ish to the front lines to attack armoured vehicles or little groups of infantry in trenches. Or the little non-kamikaze ones that drop little grenades on people.

    It doesn’t seem conceptually like it would be that hard to do; people shoot birds, so why can’t some guy with a sniper rifle shoot down a drone? But clearly it is hard or people would be doing it, which mostly they don’t seem to.

  11. Soredemos

    @Purple Library Guy

    You have to know the drone is there before you can attempt to shoot it down. There are no hunting hounds for flushing out flocks of drones.

  12. Forecasting Intelligence

    OK Ian, what’s your outlook for warfare in the 2030s/2040s?

    Will we see the return of WW1 era mass conscript armies battling it out with huge drone wars in the skies? Presumably those countries that can secure access to energy and can shift to a war economy will do better than those that struggle and/or cannot access secure energy supplies?

    Russia should be a winner in this new era, the Americans at least have to oceans to hide and have access to resources from North and South America so they should be ok (although the American living standard will get seriously hit by the end of globalisation/US hegemonic order).

    Europe is f**cked, little resources, huge welfare costs and a complacent population divided in western Europe by a growing minority of Muslims who could easily unite with the growing hordes coming from the south to overthrow secular governments and install sharia based emirates instead.

    Eastern Europe is in better shape but they will probably have to do a deal with the Russians eventually…

  13. StewartM

    Ian Welsh

    I would suggest, instead, mass autonomous drones as the primary arm–not infantry

    Wouldn’t that be countered by jamming the signals to the swarms of drones? Or do you suggest these drones will be AI-governed? (That too could be overcome).

    If no infantry, who’s going to occupy the terrain you capture?

    I would agree our elites would love to ditch having to be nice to the poors, but I think the recent wars where low-tech infantry beats Cap Weinberger “Be all you can be!!” technology is a sobering moment.

  14. Carborundum

    “…the US could take the cities, but everywhere else they were in danger…”

    You and I remember Budapest very differently.

    More seriously, the big lesson is speed kills but occupying space for any substantive period of time costs. As to the current obsession with missiles and drones, be wary of forecasting trendlines from watching idiots fight badly.

  15. Altandmain

    One of the big lessons is that the US military industrial complex is weak. The US simply was unable to engage in mass production on a scale needed to prevail.

    To win, the Western nations would have to outproduce the Russians. That didn’t happen. instead, we saw the US industrial base struggling to keep up with a nation that they once disdainfully called a “gas station masquerading as a country”. It turns out the US was the paper tiger and it highlights the danger of believing in your own propaganda.

    There were other issues. The Russians were able to successfully jammed a number of Western systems and thus far, the US and NATO nations have been unable to adapt.

    It would suggest that the Russians were able to out-innovate the West and is more advanced at one of areas the West wrongfully assumed it was better at – electronic warfare. The same is true in artillery, drone warfare, etc. Drones are advancing extremely rapidly right now, with new generations being released every couple of months. It’s like planes were during WW2.

    Even scarier, the Russians have technologies like hypersonic missiles. There are no American equals to the Kinzhal and Zircon. Not only does the nation that the US looked down on have better technology.

    The US is in trouble – and entirely self-inflicted. The greed of the rich destroyed the empire.

  16. Curt Kastens

    I find it hard to believe that we have seen the true extent of western military technology development. The current conflict was forseeable ever since 2003 at the latest. Both sides have certianly been preparing for this showdown for decades. It still seems plausible to me that the signs of apparent western military weakness are deliberate ploys designed to achieve some devious purpose.

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