The face of war has changed. With the recent wars in Syria, Africa, Ukraine, and the Philippines, few had been blind to this. However, there are some of the changes that are happening below the surface that may go unnoticed by some. The oft comparisons to history’s wars and their structure bring an interesting light into what is becoming the norm for future conflicts.
The idea of a relatively short, contained, and easily defined war is disappearing. Wars of tomorrow are turning into long campaigns that encompass more functions than a traditional army can sustain. One look at Ukraine shows us how the key resources of manpower, munitions, and morale are not as sustainable in drawn out conflict as they might be in a short war.
These long wars are taxing on troop numbers, ammunition reserves, and the willingness of the soldiers to continue the fight. All three are items many nations don’t possess in large enough quantities for sustained campaigns. Modern post-Cold War armies are small and highly professional, but lack the ability to rapidly refill their rank due to high technical requirements. This would be akin to having to replace an entire software development department within six months, and still stay competitive in the market.
In Ukraine, both sides are vehemently committed to holding the territory they have, as well as taking more. As the human and political investment increases in the conflict, the likelihood of either backing down decreases. This creates a fertile environment for a long war that drags on almost indefinitely. However, unlike wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, the intensity and turnover of man and material is exponentially higher.
NATO troops participate in a joint training exercise in Poland. (AP photo via BBC)
This begs the question if countries like the United States or an alliance like NATO are prepared for long conflicts with near-peer enemies. These types of armies would have to contend with battlefield realities that only Ukraine has had to deal with in the modern or post-WWII era. These divide into three categories; manpower, munitions, and morale.
Manpower is already something the Russo-Ukrainian war is showing to be a factor few had thought about would become an issue. With both sides now relying on “volunteer battalions” and territorial guard units, the quality of the soldiers on the front lines is deteriorating. As a result this may cause a rise in alleged war crimes, brutality to non-combatants, and inaccuracy with heavy weapons.
To combat this, many nations may need to find systems to put in place in the event of emergency that would ensure a continual flow of fresh and capable recruits to be able to replace the casualties of a long war. However, to do this requires immense planning.
For the majority of Western nations, it takes 5 to 6 months to produce a technically and tactically capable warfighting soldier (i.e., infantry, artillery, tanker, etc.). Even at the outbreak of a large war between similar powers, a national government would likely be hesitant to alarm the populace by issuing a call for recruits and the raising of new regiments. Even if they only wait 6 months, it would be at least a year before these recruits would be properly ready to serve.
The bodies of Russian soldiers before being transported to Russia from Ukraine, (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
Maintaining some model of continual recruitment, conducting basic training in smaller numbers, and maintaining a large but active reserve could offset this potential setback. With new battlefield technologies, more advanced weaponry, and modern warfare requiring a more intelligent and intellectually agile soldier, this 5 to 6 month timeframe is only going to lengthen as time progresses. Altogether making the importance of keeping the old French system of Levee En Masse relevant into the 21st century.
Next, munitions and the supply of hardware would likely become an issue. While many Western military machines and technology are state-of-the-art, their cost has also made mass production largely unsustainable. The ability to equip an immense number of soldiers with capable but cheap equipment has been relegated to the history books as each standard infantryman’s kit reaches 6 or even 7 figures in cost.
Another lesson from the grueling warfare in the east of Ukraine is the almost hourly loss of sensitive and costly equipment and vehicles. Just as with Ukraine, other nations may not be capable of mobilizing all of its domestic industry. A nation under attack is likely to have a crippled production capacity due to threats of shelling, capture by the enemy, or the aforementioned manpower shortages.
Trade and industry agreements such as those between NATO and EU members may be able to support this eventuality. However, arms-specific agreements could prevent a constant need for arms shipments, the likes of which Kyiv pleads for weekly. An example of this shortcoming is the shortage of FGM-148 Javelin Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM) systems and FIM-92 Stinger Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS).
A March 21 photo shows damage and fires from Russian shelling of a residential area in Mariupol. (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies via The New York Times)
At the time of writing, the United States needs at least 4 years to replace the number of Javelin ATGMs they have sent to Ukraine over the past 5 months. Additionally, it could take up to 5 years to replace all the Stinger MANPADS that were sent. Of course, this assumes the US or other country won't draw from this reserve of arms.
This problem exponentiates when used on an even wider scale. The probability of a nation being capable of sustaining a long war and overcoming the enemy while maintaining the munitions needed to carry to victory lessens with each month the war drags on. Ukraine would almost certainly have been overtaken if it weren't for the immense material and financial support from the West.
The final issue of morale is a much more difficult issue to tackle than the two aforementioned. Preparing the military and population for the immense daily losses of a near-peer long war. Casualty numbers in Ukraine on both sides would shock and stun Western nations. After the significantly lower numbers seen daily and weekly in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prospect of losing 200 or more per day could cause mass dissent.
This could force the hand of a Western nation’s leader to sue for peace and suffer significant geopolitical losses. In terms of long war, the population may see a massive socio-cultural shift, the ripples of which would affect the country for generations. Preparing for something like this is exceptionally difficult, if not outright impossible.
The government’s only hope, aside from censorship and attempting to hide casualty numbers, is to frame it in a similar way Ukraine has done. While Kyiv has been mostly transparent about casualty numbers, they have spun much of it into a heroic tale of national defense. This marketing tactic preserves much of the image the government desires while not attempting to cover things up. Covering up casualty numbers almost never works, and certainly doesn't stand the test of time.
The end of short, sharp, and containable wars and the potential for long and “messy” wars may spell the end of modern military doctrine. Of course, the idea of another WWI or WWII style near-peer conflict across entire continents is best avoided by diplomacy. However, as seen in Ukraine today, even the best diplomats cannot sway the actions of a dictator bent on ruling in an aggressive and totalitarian way.
Cover photo credit: AP Photo/Andrew Marienko