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Nicholas Khoo

Ukraine war a testing ground

Ukrainians clear unexploded ammunition near Kherson after the withdrawal of Russian soldiers. Photo: Getty Images

War has always been the ultimate testing ground for technology and tactics. Russia's war in Ukraine will be no different, writes Nicholas Khoo. 

Polish President Andrzej Duda confirmed on Thursday that a Soviet era missile that landed in the Polish village of Przewodow, about five miles from the Ukrainian border, was accidentally launched by Ukrainian forces.

According to Duda, “Ukraine’s defence was launching their missiles in various directions and it is highly probable that one of these missiles unfortunately fell on Polish territory." He added that “there is nothing, absolutely nothing, to suggest that it was an intentional attack on Poland”.

The incident raises an important question. What if Russia chooses to test Nato’s resolve by deliberately launching a missile that hits a Nato state that borders Ukraine?

Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, Nato’s founding document, states that any attack on a Nato member in Europe or North America “shall be considered an attack against them all”.

Once a member invokes the principle of collective self-defence, Nato can respond with “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area”.

If Russia does choose to test Nato resolve, then it reminds us of an important reality - war has always been the ultimate testing ground for technology and tactics. Some examples from World War I and II highlight this reality, which should be kept in mind as the Ukraine war unfolds.   

On the technology front, the tank was first tested in combat during World War I. The modern machine gun that was developed in the 1880s was used to great effect in that war. The Vickers machine gun was widely deployed by the British for the first time during the war, while the Germans had the MG 08. On the artillery front, the French 75-millimetre field gun that was developed in 1897 featured prominently.

In terms of tactics, the trench warfare that was a central feature of the final year of the American Civil War (1861-65) became a hallmark of World War I. The Kiwis at Gallipoli understood this as much as any of the combatants.

In World War II, the Americans introduced revolutionary nuclear weapons technology to end the war in the Pacific.

The Germans perfected the Blitzkrieg which emphasised speed to overwhelm the French in 1940. The tactics of air warfare - reflected in sustained bombing campaigns - evolved to a new level.

The war in Ukraine is no exception to the technology and tactical testing ground concept.  

Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s vice prime minister and minister of digital transformation, confirmed this recently. According to Fedorov, “Ukraine is the best test ground, as we have the opportunity to test all hypotheses in battle and introduce revolutionary change in military tech and modern warfare.”

Kyiv’s success in its war with Russia reflects the marriage of Ukrainian skill and bravery with Western technology and tactics. 

In terms of technology, the US has made available to Ukraine a real-time information technology system known as Delta. It is an online network that Ukrainian troops and officials use to share details about the Russian military.

The combination of Delta and advanced Nato military equipment explains Ukraine’s recent stunning success in the Kherson region of Southeastern Ukraine. 

And technology is changing how war is fought. For example, unmanned aerial vehicles or drones have emerged as a major feature of the war.

To counter Iran supplying advanced Shahed-136 remote-controlled drones to Russia, Turkey and the US have provided Ukraine with their own drones, the US Switchblade and the Turkish Bayraktar TB2.

The effect has been spectacular. On October 29, Ukraine launched a simultaneous ‘kamikaze’ drone and remote-controlled boat attack against Russia’s naval fleet at Sevastopol.

In respect to tactics, the US has put Russia on the defensive by pre-emptively releasing information. Before the war started on February 20, the Biden administration warned the world that it had hard intelligence that Russia was about to invade Ukraine. In early November, the US released information about internal Russian discussions on nuclear weapons use. 

The US has also made the tactical decision to provide unprecedented military and economic aid to Ukraine, but not to participate directly in hostilities. According to the Stimson Center in Washington DC, since the start of the war the US has provided US$17.6 billion in security assistance. This surpasses US aid to any state in any single calendar year since 2000.

The Prussian military strategist Clausewitz is surely right that “war is the continuation of politics by other means”. But it is equally true that war will be the continual testing ground for technology and tactics in the 21st Century.

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