After 20 years of the United States fighting in the middle east and Afghanistan, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early February once again raised the specter of war at Europe’s doorstep . Although the Eastern provinces of Ukraine had been fighting Russians since 2014, the full scale of the conflict was now fully in the public eye, with footage of exploding armored vehicles and drone strikes inundating social media. Now, the United States, hardened by one kind of conflict in the GWOT, is now confronted with an entirely new kind of warfare; one in which the expensive infrastructure that has made the US military the envy of the world seem borderline irrelevant. The days of confronting enemies armed with IEDs, RPGs, and light machine guns may be looked back upon wistfully compared to what aggressive nation-states are fielding on the battlefield in 2022. Let’s take a look at how three months of the Ukraine war has changed the game.
Enter the Javelin
When the war began in earnest in mid-February, the word “Javelin”’ became known to even the layman who paid no attention to foreign affairs. Especially in the United States, where the vast majority of the media was far more focused on domestic politics. Now, social media was awash with video after videoof armored tank columns getting absolutely skullfucked by a handful of Ukrainian infantry guys who got like ten minutes of training on a Javelin trainer and now were in the field just pulverizing the Russians. The javelin even acquired meme status and an entire new generation of global fans. Now, thanks to the amazing performance on the Ukrainian battlefields, the tank is once again being regarded by some pundits as obsolete, which is nothing new. After World War 1, World War 2, the Yom Kippur war in the middle east, and other battles, the tank had been declared, too old, too slow, and unable to keep up with modern armor-penetrating technology found in Anti Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs.) However, each time it seemed to be on the death bed, the tank proved its worth in places like Fallujah and Hue city.
(Fun fact: The machines are called “tanks” because the British engineers who came up with the concept of an armored vehicle with treads that could traverse the muddy fields of the front were obsessed with keeping it a secret. They claimed the factories where the vehicles were being built were manufacturing water carriers for desert warfare. Someone started calling them “water tanks” simplified to “tanks” and the name stuck.)
Back to Ukraine. The Russians have had no answers for the rapid, man-portable Javelin anti-tank missiles. They’ve lost upwards of at least 650 tanks, and over 3000 pieces of heavy equipment and armored personnel carriers. And the United States is watching; the Pentagon is always doing cost/benefit analysis. Which do you think they’d rather fund: A hundred javelins that cost about 150-200K$ each, manned by 3-man teams, or a hundred M1A2 Abrams tanks that cost AT LEAST 6 million$ each? Plus, the tanks are extremely unwieldy, take lots of training, are difficult to deploy en masse, and use up tons of fuel, maintenance, and manpower. A few javelins can be thrown into the back seat of a Hilux, or jumped in with airborne ops, or strapped to the back of a motorcycle. The point is, the Javelin can be fielded almost anywhere, instantly, and wielded with deadly fire-and-forget accuracy with very minimal training.
This is a hotlydebatedtopic, of course. One of the main points against the tanks’ obsolescence argument is that Russia has simply been completely incompetent in their use. Tanks are meant to be used along with infantry in a symbiotic relationship of sorts: the tanks protect the infantry, while the infantry protects the tanks. This, along with effective air cover, artillery, and ISR drones are the very definition of the “combined arms” strategy of modern warfare. As one British military analyst wrote on Twitter:
Russia's disastrous tactics have been a terrible advertisement for tanks. But we should be careful to avoid drawing the wrong conclusions. No artillery support. No infantry support. No air support. This is not how combined arms tactics work in an era of multi-domain operations. https://t.co/aKT16I24Qq
There are other platforms the Pentagon is looking side-eyed at as well. By writing this, I in no way am telling you that the aircraft carrier is in as much danger of becoming as obsolete as the tank. However, there’s no doubt that Ukraine sinking the Russian ship Moskva raised alarms not just at the US Navy headquarters, but the halls of Congress:
“Representative Seth Moulton, a former Marine and Iraq War veteran who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, believes that today’s dissenting generals are failing to comprehend how much technology is changing the battlefield and how quickly the services must adapt. ‘When you look at what weapons are on top of the Ukrainians’ wish list,’ Moulton told me, ‘it isn’t towed howitzers. Top of their list are armed drones, anti-tank missiles, and anti-ship missiles.’”
The pride of the Black Sea fleet, the warship was sunk by the Ukraine-developed R-360 Neptune cruise missile, stunning the world. It was impressive enough on its face; even more so when one considers that the Neptune program only started in 2014 upon the Russian invasion of Crimea. The missile itself was designed on the Soviet X-35 Zvezda cruise missile with significantly improved range and electronic capability. Even more remarkable, the entire development program has only cost 40 million dollars US, making it supremely cheap, especially considering it sent the feared battleship right to Davy Jones’s locker. Even more cheap considering the US Navy is dropping about 13 billion dollars for its newest nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald Ford. And while the Neptune is impressive for the country of Ukraine, it has nothing on more modern militaries. The Neptune has a range of about 200 miles and flies at a subsonic speed. China, on the other hand, has the Dong Fen class cruise missile, flying at hypersonic speeds and a range of up to a staggering 2,500 miles. Naval ship anti-missile technology is scrambling to evolve to keep up these deadly threats.
What About the Drones?
Yes, the drones. The United States was very fortunate to be the absolute leader in drone technology for decades, but other countries are catching up. In Ukraine, the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone has wreaked havoc on Russian armored columns with its laser-guided bombs, achieving such a mythical status among the Ukrainian people that it has become the subject of folk songs. It first gained widespread notoriety when it was used by Azerbaijan to devastating effect in the 2020 Azerbaijan-Armenia war. The TB2s price (about 2 million dollars,) it’s small size (small enough to be carried on a flatbed truck,) and rapid upgrade systems (the manufacture sends out several software updates per month to keep up with latest tactical trends) make it an extremely attractive alternative to the technologically-superior-but-far-more-expensive US Reaper drone. When compared to the lengthy and byzantine US military upgrade and parts procurement process, the TB2 is so attractive to foreign buyers that it is now operated in at least 13 other countries.
It seemingly baffles experts, who say the TB2’s slow movement should make it an easy target for anti-aircraft systems yet is evasive enough to avoid and destroy the systems designed to take it out. The only real current defense against the TB2 is an enemy fighter jet. But legions of TB2s can be purchased for the price of a single F35 jet; the platform cost itself again comes into play. It is possible that the bumbling Russian military is starting to figure out how to defend themselves against the deadly Turkish drone attacks, as the pace of social media videos showing the TB2 in action is starting to slow down in recent days. The creator of the TB2, Selçuk Bayraktar, is a celebrity in Turkey, having almost two millions followers on Instagram… which, as we all know, is the 2022 measure of fame. Bayraktar and his family is also extremely close with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As this excellent background article in the New Yorker notes:
“Bayraktar briefed (former prime minister and Islamic nationalist Necmettin) Erbakan on his work, and by the mid-two-thousands Bayraktar was spending his school breaks embedded with the Turkish military. The Bayraktar family also had ties to Erbakan’s protégé, Erdoğan, who was elected Prime Minister in 2002. Bayraktar’s father had been an adviser to Erdoğan when he was a local politician in Istanbul, and Bayraktar recalled Erdoğan visiting the family house.”
Close to power, indeed. The United States has been watching and taking notes, and, it must be said, was talking about the importance of preparing the US military for near-peer conflicts with nations such as Russia and China even before the Afghanistan war had come to an end. Militaries are notoriously slow to respond to new realities; one can recall it took dozens of disastrous cavalry charges into German machine guns and deadly sniper killings in WW1 for generals to finally accept that the days of horse warfare and shiny, colorful uniforms had come to an end. And the drones, javelins, and cruise missiles are just the beginning. What happens when drone swarms made up of hundreds of tiny aircraft descend upon dug-in positions, or man-portable Electromagnetic Pulse cannons become more practical? Perhaps we’ll be back to iron sites and gunpowder very, very soon.
BK is the host of the popular international news podcast, “World News with BK,” now with almost 300 weekly episodes. A military veteran, BK served in the elite United States Air Force Pararescue (PJ) teams. He is a graduate of some of the military’s toughest schools, among them the USAF Pararescue indoctrination course, US Army Special Forces Combat Diver Qualification course, the USAF Pararescue Medical course, and the US Army Military Freefall (HALO) school.
Sign up for exclusive military humor, new releases, and special offers only for you.
VET Tv is the #1 streaming service for the military community. With thousands of hours of military-themed content, we’ve brought humor, documentaries, and original content that have helped over 1 million veterans worldwide.