The U.S. military stands at an intellectual and structural crossroads. It seeks to field new, transformative capabilities while maximizing the current force, optimizing itself for high-end combat against a peer adversary. In this quest for lethality, the U.S. can embrace a truly networked, distributed force – but only if it makes the necessary investments in connectivity and information security. 5G development must therefore be a military priority, conducted with defense needs in mind.
We rarely get a clear look at the future of combat. A twenty-year gulf separated the Great War and World War. The conflicts between were either too small to provide a real window into future war or spilled over into the World War. The same was true of the gap between 1870 and 1914: there was little recognition of the way space, time, and mass had been refracted through the railroad and long-range artillery piece, modifying operational calculations.
The interstices give us the adage about fighting the “last war,” focusing on the wrong systems, and misunderstanding or incorrectly anticipating a variety of operational demands. France’s Maginot Line is the most notorious example. The French Army staff tightly controlled military innovation and determined that concentrated fires and methodical advances were the only way to win wars. A different technical-tactical combination, German bewegungskrieg, (maneuver warfare based on deep penetration of the enemy) was more effective, albeit also luckier. The U.S. is equally guilty of fighting the last war. It never conceived of operational theory to the same degree of sophistication as the Soviets. The classic trope that the Soviet Union relied on mass, while the U.S. looked to technology, is only half-right. Both sides depended on mass, but the Americans relied on technologically induced mass, while the Soviets coupled mass with a sophisticated understanding of operational art. It was not until the 1970s that the U.S. “caught on”, and developed a doctrine based on the intellectual demands of modern combined-arms large-scale combat.
The Ukraine War, however, demonstrates one of the trends that will dominate future combat. It is not the viability or non-viability of this or that system. Indeed, systems and equipment are not a useful analytical lens. A tank is simply a protected artillery piece designed for mobile combat, a large warship a mobile air defense and strike platform. Rather, the war has revealed the relationship between dispersion and concentration.
In principle, this observation is not new – the U.S. Army’s studies on the future of war identified the need for dispersion and the shifting character of mass as far back as the mid-1990s – but in practice, the way in which it has been expressed is worth attention. Ukraine’s success has stemmed from its ability to disperse and concentrate effectively. It has used lighter, faster moving forces at almost every turn to erode a heavier Russian military. It has been dispersed because it is mobile, it has long-range fires like HIMARS, PzH-2000s, Caesars, and other artillery pieces, and most critically because it is networked. Ukraine’s artillery fire-control system has tasked individual guns to targets at an extremely low level of command dispersion, while also allowing for precise coordination between deep, middle, and short-range fires. This coordination allowed numerically inferior Ukrainian forces to resist Russian pressure in the Donbas and ultimately spoil Russia’s advance.
This same force has now gone over to the offensive, conducting a sustained corrosive campaign against Russian units in Kherson and Kharkiv Oblasts, undoing Russia’s hard-fought gains of many months in days or weeks, and applying pressure elsewhere. Through proper coordination, dispersed Ukrainian units take territory and then use these positions to employ fires. By not massing in the conventional sense, Ukraine avoids a concentrated Russian riposte, and more crucially, denies Russia any tempting targets for a thermobaric or low-yield nuclear weapon if the situation degenerates severely for the Kremlin.
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