In the 1860s the Europeans watched the American Civil War in horrified fascination. It had been almost 50 years since the Napoleonic Wars, when they had been in a real war with matched combatants. They had been mainly fighting colonial wars, where their advantages in discipline and weaponry were overwhelming.
The two American sides were much more comparable. They were making complete use of the radical new technologies of the day. They communicated instantly via telegraph. They moved enormous amounts of men and materiel by railroad. They had deadly new weapons like the Spencer repeating rifle and the Gatling gun. They foreshadowed aerial combat by using hot air balloons for reconnaissance. They built the first military submarine. They foreshadowed the next century of naval warfare by introducing ironclads. This was a tech war of a kind that no one had seen before.
We’re seeing the same thing happen in Ukraine. The last evenly matched war was Iran v Iraq in the 1980s, and neither of those countries were particularly advanced. US v Iraq/Afghanistan was no contest, nor was Russia v Chechnya, NATO v Serbia, or everyone v everyone in Syria.
Now the major new IT technologies are seeing serious military use. Satellite reconnaissance and electronic intercepts let the US warn everyone that Russian forces were building up on the Ukrainian border. Cyber-attacks are happening on both sides. The Javelin self-guided anti-tank weapons are destroying Russian armor. Satellite data links like Starlink are letting everyone share data even when cell towers and fiber cables are down.
The most striking new tech involves drones, near-autonomous aerial vehicles. These use lightweight batteries, motors, sensors, and electronics to make craft that are too small to be seen on radar but can maneuver on their own to get close to the enemy. Large drones, like the US Predator and Reaper, could be built in the 90s, but the small ones need the latest advances, and only became possible in the 2010s. Now consumer versions cost less than $1000, and are everywhere. This Guardian story – The drone operators who halted Russian convoy headed for Kyiv – describes how civilians are using drones to find Russian trucks, and even building their own.
Somewhat larger drones like the AeroViroment Switchblades can carry enough munitions to dive into and kill a tank. That company has come a long way from building human-powered planes like the Gossamer Condor, or solar-powered stratospheric cruisers like the Helios, planes that can stay up for months at a time and act as cell phone relays. Its brilliant founder, Paul MacCready, would probably not approve of the turn the company took after his death in 2007, but sales have been great. A $6000 Switchblade can kill a million-dollar T-72 tank, and that’s a deal that everyone will take.
Larger still are the Bayraktar drones from Turkey, which can carry 150 kg of ordnance for up to 4000 km. It’s named after its designer, Selçuk Bayraktar, a hugely popular figure in Turkey who is actually the son-in-law of its dictator, Recep Erdoğan. He learned a lot about drones while getting his master’s at MIT, so he’s a genuine Tony Stark figure. A New Yorker profile is here. My alma mater might relish having such alumni, or it could be worried that it’s becoming the go-to school for supervillains, including people like the Koch brothers and Benjamin Netanyahu.
What all this means is that the old ways of making war are done. Tanks are done. Manned aircraft and helicopters are just expensive targets. Even ships are done – consider the pride of the Black Sea navy:
Its anti-missile defenses were occupied by Bayraktars while Ukrainian-built cruise missiles hit it from the other side. This isn’t tech from say, Japan – it’s stuff that can be built in second-rank powers like Turkey and Ukraine. That gives hope to beleaguered places like Taiwan, but has to make US admirals nervous. One aircraft carrier costs as much as literally millions of drones.
Beyond even all these changes is the loss of control of information. Propaganda is getting harder. The US couldn’t manage it in Iraq, and even the extremely tightly controlled Russian media is in trouble. Images and video leak out everywhere. The Russians had natural allies in this war, with a few people on the far left condemning any NATO involvement, and lots of people on the far right cheering on an authoritarian flexing his military muscle. Yet pictures of blindfolded civilians who have been shot in the head have shut them up. Even the right-wing propagandist Tucker Carlson couldn’t make the line “Why should we care about Ukraine?” work, and has gone back to race-baiting.
The cellphones that take all those Twitter pictures use the same silicon and radio technology as the guidance on the drones. The precision equipment that can put a thousand components into a phone can also make an artillery shell that can hit a target within 5 meters 20 km away. Modern tech is about accuracy and scale, about building a billion chips each with tolerances of nanometers. It has transformed civilian life, and we’re watching it change the world of war as well.