Logistics, Smart Bombs, and Trade-offs
Shock and Awe
Americans are used to seeing the opening of an invasion start with a spectacular series of bombings on enemy air defenses, supply depots, troop concentrations, and other critical targets. The media feeds us a curated reel of "bomb sight" footage, and CNN reporters watch the bombs hit from hotels, rarely fearing errant strikes.
It can be surprising that the Russian invasion of Ukraine didn't start the same way. Laser-guided bombs are around 50 years old!
The Economic Logic of Smart Bombs
US smart bombs like the GPS-guided JDAM and the laser-guided Paveway cost somewhere between $10,000 and $30,000 to manufacture. They are nearly 100% accurate in hitting a target, while unguided bombs are stuck with single-digit accuracy numbers. Unguided dumb bombs cost $2000-$3000 per bomb. Smart bombs payout immediately by requiring a fraction of the ordinance.
JDAMs - They literally strap some fins and a GPS-guided controller onto surplus Vietnam bombs. Source
It is worse than that, though. A fighter jet like the US Navy's F-18 costs over $10,000 an hour to operate, not including tankers. A B-52 bomber costs $70,000 an hour. Attacking targets using dumb bombs requires ten times the sorties at a significant cost premium and exposes planes and pilots to more risk.
Many analysts claim that Russia has a significant shortage of smart bombs even though it seems unfathomable given the logic.
Air Power and Smart Bombs Eat Logistics
Smart Bombs Substitute for Artillery
Artillery is the unsung hero of maneuver warfare. Artillery barrages lay waste to enemy defensive positions allowing tanks to exploit the breaks. It provides close fire support to protect the armor and eliminates enemy artillery. And it fires on enemy air defense systems to allow entry for aircraft into battlespace.
On the downside, Cold War-era artillery is extremely slow. In Desert Storm, the US tanks and armored personnel carriers had to slow down and wait for the howitzers and rocket launchers. Duds are non-trivial when firing tens of thousands of rounds on an enemy position. The unexploded rounds are a hazard for armor moving past.
When an artillery battery fires, enemies can deduce its location from the shell trajectory. The guns must move after firing. In Iraq in 1991, the artillery found it difficult to "shoot and scoot" while also maintaining comms. Even self-propelled guns in a unit had physical communication wires, hampering their movement. Luckily, the Iraqis could not mount effective counter-battery fire because of poor training and equipment.
Following the Gulf War, the US made significant changes to its artillery force. Force size roughly halved while slow self-propelled guns were retired. The Army introduced the Palladin, a faster 155mm self-propelled gun that could operate without wired communications. While the overall force size decreased, the number of Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) increased. The Army also developed smaller, nimble counter-battery radars and faster target designating vehicles. Other new development programs included a lighter towed howitzer, guided rockets, and guided artillery shells. The trend was towards lighter, faster, more accurate systems that require fewer logistics and men to achieve the same firepower. The motivation for changes was high as many in the military wanted to cut artillery from the team in favor of aircraft-based close air support.
Modern smart bombs fired by aircraft can provide support and screening for fast advancing mechanized columns instead of artillery. In the early Afghanistan conflict in 2001, the US deployed zero artillery because of its weight and logistics challenges. Combat aircraft were able to cover US ground forces against light Taliban forces.
In the 2003 invasion of Iraq, armor columns brought much less artillery than in 1991. Aircraft took over the strategic mission, leaving counter-battery fire and all-weather close fire support to artillery forces. The cannons shot faster and more accurately than their predecessors without slowing the advance. Howitzers improved their time to engage targets from three minutes to less than one minute, while MLRS units went from over forty minutes to seven minutes. Future artillery detachments promise to be even lighter with near 100% guided munitions that reduce ordinance tonnage, cost, and sustainment burden.
The footprint of a force with guided munitions is much smaller than a traditional force and can make rapid advancements. If the Russians lack adequate guided munitions, they must use artillery to support their ground units. Emulating a US-style quick armor advance means an impossible logistics situation or leaving ground units vulnerable without cover.
Air Superiority is also a Substitute
I'll define air superiority as flying your planes unbothered while the enemy has near-zero air operations. You have to shoot down the enemy planes and destroy their ground-based air defenses.
Like the artillery example, the US carries relatively few air defense assets with its armor. Fighters provide air cover instead.
At the beginning of a conflict, drones, eavesdropping aircraft, and satellites identify radars and surface-to-air missile batteries for artillery, stealth bombers, and long-range missiles to decimate. Fighters and bombers destroy enemy aircraft in the air and on the ground with missiles and smart bombs. Once the skies are clear, bomb trucks like the B-52 and other attack planes relentlessly target enemy troop concentrations with guided munitions.
Under air superiority, man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) like the stinger missile aren't a threat. Most MANPADS have 10,000' ceilings while planes drop smart bombs from 30,000'. Smart weapons also have standoff capability. An unpowered JDAM bomb can glide over 25 km.
In contrast, the Russians struggle to gain air superiority because they have not destroyed Ukrainian anti-air batteries. Their planes are at higher risk because they require more sorties to complete a mission like destroying radars or missile sites. They also have to bomb at low altitudes to make their dumb bombs more accurate, putting them at risk from MANPADS.
Lacking guided weapons and the intelligence apparatus to find targets makes defeating modern air defenses extremely challenging. Suppressing enemy aircraft becomes difficult. Russian columns have to bring more anti-air assets, increasing their size and logistical requirements.
Modern Anti-Tank Missiles are Gamechangers
American Javelin Missiles and British NLAWs are the stars of the war.
The Ruthlessness of Third-Generation Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs)
Tanks and infantry-fired anti-tank missiles have been in a 100-year evolutionary race. Even in WWI, it was quickly apparent that while tanks could break through defensive lines, they were vulnerable without infantry support. Enemy soldiers could sneak around to a tank's blindside and destroy it.
Infantry-fired missiles have gained range and smarts, while tank armor has gotten thicker, heavier, and added layers. The constant has been that effective armor tactics require dismounted infantry to screen and engage enemy infantry to prevent them from teeing off on vehicles from concealed positions.
Third-generation systems like the Javelin are another leap forward for anti-tank infantry. The effective range of the Javelin is over 4000 meters, well outside infantry support. For reference, the longest sniper kill ever recorded was from 3500 meters. Regular infantry struggles to engage outside of 500 meters.
The Javelin is also a fire-and-forget missile. Older models like the TOW were wire-guided and bulkier. The operator steered them until the missile hit the target. A Javelin operator shoots the missile and runs to cover. Armor has a better chance against wire-guided and laser-guided missile teams since the operators are vulnerable during missile flight, and accuracy requires more skill. To compound the difficulty, missiles like Javelins and NLAWS are top-attack munitions. They hit the vehicles on their roofs where armor is the thinnest.
Russian tankers welded "cope cages" on their tanks in an attempt to ward off top-attack munitions. It doesn't seem to be working well. Source: Reddit
Countering Long-Range Anti-Tank Missiles
Single file armor on roads is easy pickings for Javelin crews or even less capable anti-tank missiles. Ideally, vehicles would fan out across fields with dismounted infantry providing cover from short-range missile attacks. Javelin teams couldn't engage more than a few tanks at a time. Small spotting drones directing artillery could screen outside infantry range.
American artillery required extensive modernization, digitization, and training to achieve quick fire times. The Russians have many conscripts and are using unencrypted radios to communicate. Artillery batteries alone may struggle to screen hit and run ATGM attacks on armor without close air support or long-duration missile-carrying drones. Russia does have enough tanks to absorb heavy attrition.
The "mud season" and poor Russian tire maintenance amplified Russian tactical weaknesses by limiting armor to roads.
Is the Tank Dead?
The fate of the main battle tank is a common debate topic. The US Marine Corps recently ditched their heavy armor because the weight-for-survivability trade-off became less favorable (Americans aren't the only ones with third-gen ATGMs). The tank isn't dead yet, but its utility decreases rapidly without air cover and proper screening. Modern weapons raise the cost and skill required to deploy them effectively. It is easy to imagine the average vehicle weight decreasing while tanks become less numerous and more niche.
Implications for The Ukrainian Conflict
Are Russian Generals Stupid?
Many analysts were shocked by Russia's initial performance and tactics, myself included. The plan makes sense once you consider political constraints and the lack of guided munitions. The only way to achieve a quick victory was a limited precision strike on Ukrainian facilities paired with lightning runs and deep attacks by Russia's elite paratrooper units. The alternative of suggesting a lumbering conventional attack once things dried out would get you sent to the gulag. The lightning attack with a backup convoy had a non-zero chance of avoiding the gulag. Russian units have seen more success in Southern Ukraine where it is less muddy and political aspirations match Russian capabilities better.
Ukraine Can't Win Without Counter-Battery
The Unfortunate Math
The Ukrainians are still likely to lose even with Javelins and the Russian Air Force taking itself out of the battle. Once things dry out and Russians resume their usual tactics, their artillery will mow down the defenders and level Ukrainian cities even with numerous armor losses.
Ukrainian forces will have to pull a hat-trick and find a counter-battery solution as effective as Javelins are against tanks.
Possible Counter-Battery Tactics
If the Russians struggle with targeting Ukrainian guns, crack teams of Ukrainian artillery (if these exist) armed with drone feeds and artillery radar could humble Russian artillery batteries. Shoot and scoot!
Ukrainian irregulars and special forces could have continued success against supply lines. The Russians could also choose to kill any human behind their front lines, and their units won't only be snaking columns. Without guided weapons, this is a WWII-style conflict.
A third option is micro-drones carrying small bombs. The Ukrainians have a handful of larger Turkish TB-2 drones, but these are probably too rare and vulnerable to meaningfully disable Russian artillery. Ukraine also operates a micro-drone called the Punisher that carries several tiny bombs bombs 50 km. A 3 kg bomb may not destroy a gun tube, but many other parts of an effective artillery system are less armored.
Hobby airplane or Ukraine's savior? Source: The Times
It will truly be 21st-century warfare if the Ukrainians win by building hundreds of hobby-size drones and programming them into formidable fighting machines.
Western Sanctions Need to Cut Off Smart Bomb Components
Many blemishes will suddenly disappear if the Russians can increase the production of guided munitions. Western countries need to know what components the Russians are importing and put extra effort into stopping them.
Implications Beyond Ukraine
China and Taiwan
The US is probably vastly underestimating the cost-benefit ratio of selling defensive weapons and basic gear like encrypted radios to Taiwan. Theoretically, China can counter many of these weapons with brute force, modern weapons, and proper tactics. As we've seen with Russia, the margin for error for attackers is small. Make them earn it!
The Future of US Power Projection
Recent conflicts have forced adaptations to make the US Army, Marines, Naval Aviation, and Air Force more effective fighting forces. They have no match in conventional warfare, and the Ukrainian conflict further proves the point. Even in a counter-insurgency, the combined units controlled vast swathes of territory with relatively few troops and low numbers of casualties. Drones seem to be the main disruptive force that could upset this state.
Drones are a continuation of the precision-guided munition paradigm. Smart bombs can make a plane 20x more effective. Drones are force multipliers across the board. The Army and Air Force have been drone leaders but need to continue to invest in drones across the spectrum. They need large, expensive drones that can operate far from bases and inexpensive micro-drones that can disrupt enemy formations or intercept enemy micro-drones. Modern warfare is an o-ring industry because enemies exploit gaps relentlessly. As the Russians show, it easy to build a Potemkin Army that looks fierce but lacks basics like a stockpile of cheap laser-guided bombs.
Because drones increase the leverage of existing forces, there is no reason the US Military can't be even more dominant for decades to come. Lopsided conventional engagements like Desert Storm were just the start. It is also a warning that giving up military leadership to another global power will not be linear or gradual in any way.
The US Navy has been peerless (and still is) for 80 years. It is vulnerable to specific scenarios with land-based missiles and planes but hasn't had conflicts to force changes and sharpen the iron.
East Asia is where US power projection relies on the Navy because of vast distances and few fixed bases. As the book "Fire on the Water" points out, Air Force and Navy fighters do not have the endurance to control the airspace over places like Taiwan in a conflict. Navy carriers are vulnerable to barrages of missiles that cost a fraction of what a carrier group does.
The book's recommendation is to lean heavily on the new Air Force bomber, the B-21. It could carry large numbers of long-range air-to-air missiles to prevent swarms of Chinese aircraft from operating over Taiwan. The Navy should spend less on carriers and F-35s, more on new missiles and drones, improve their ability to reload vertical launch missile tubes at sea, and develop longer-range surface-to-air missiles.
Politically, this switch has been challenging. Congressmen love giant programs like Ford-class carriers and F-35s. In the past, Navy fighters were instrumental in supporting ground troops. Small, fast planes provided better support when bombers only had dumb bombs. Carriers are less valuable in a world where a B-52 provides close air support as accurately as an F-18 and anti-ship missiles outrange Navy fighters.
The Navy needs to modernize like the Army artillery units after Desert Storm. Ships that fire faster, further, are more survivable, and require less sustainment would continue power projection dominance in blue water and reassert it into the littorals well into the 21st century.
The rest of the world is still adjusting to the new realities of precision-guided munitions, and we can't let off the gas.