The current situation is that Russia has abandoned the effort to capture Kiev. Russian forces have been withdrawn from North Central Ukraine and are now operating on an arc from Kharkiv (North East) to Kherson (South Central). So far, Ukraine has won amazing victories and Russia has suffered astonishing defeats. The extreme surprise suggests that we can learn a lot from the war so far.
What have we learned ? I will include things that we really knew already or should have known.
1.It is very unwise to rely on the kindness, mercy or even sanity of dictators. It was generally assumed that Putin wouldn’t actually order an invasion (I assumed this at least up until a couple of weeks before the invasion). It is wise to prepare for the worst. In particular, Xi JinPing seems a lot more sensible that Putin, but he is also very much more powerful.
2.The Russian armed forces are almost as over-rated as the Soviet armed forces were. This is the second time that the forces commanded from Moscow turnes out to be vastly vastly less capable than expected.
Similarly, forces commanded from Bagdhad turned out to be vastly less capable than predicted in three wars in a row. Iraq was expected to defeat the loony and divided Iranians. Iraq was expected to at least inflict significant losses on the Desert Storm forces, and Iraq was thought to be a possible threat even after that defeat.
I think that there are two clear patterns here. The first is that dictators are dangerous to the troops unfortunate enough to be under their command. The lesson of highly effected war efforts dictated by two of three (major) allied dictator during World War II has been overlearned. I don’t understand this — the only explanations I can find is that generals chosen to be reliably obedient are not also capable, that non-experts who are surrounded by flatterers and yes men are dangerous, and that discussion and debate are actually useful (here I think before not during the war but I might be wrong about that). A second is that threats are systematically over-estimated. Here part of the issue is that it is better to be safe than sorry and better to over-estimate than to under-estimate a threat. I am sure another part of the issue is if one asks an organization if it needs a large budget or a small budget, it will report the need for a large budget. Almost all Western experts who assess threats have a strong incentive to over-estimate them.
Oddly, the reaction to the discovery that a major threat is much less major than had been believed is a decision to spend more on defence. This seems odd to me. I assert that defence spending is note based on assessment of threats and requirements for missions. Increasing defence spending is an response short of war (as are economic sanctions). I think it is often a compromise based on the Sir Humphrey syllogism We must do something, this is something, we must do this. For example 19 men with Box cutters convinced the USA that it had to spend more on the US AIr Force and Navy (the Navy budget was increased from $88,795,000,000 in 2000 to $164,777,000,000 in 2008. They were not fighting the Afghan, ISIS, or Iraqi insurgent navies. Why almost double the budget ? I note that the main potential challenge to the USA remains China and clearly wasn’t Russia, however, if one term in a sum is reduced a lot and the others are unchanged, then the sum is reduced. I have found that this argument is controversial.
3.Logistics matters. I was interested by an article on lessons learned in Urkraine. Two of the lessons are things we knew already “Logistics are not Optional”, and “The Human Element (Still) Matters.” I guess given the spectacular magnificence of Russian failure, we can’t really ask that they also find a new original way to fail. But here I don’t want to talk only about Russian tanks running out of fuel and then being towed by Ukrainian tractors. I want to talk about German reliance on Russian natural gas and also about the rate at which Russia is building new tanks (0 per day). Russia is not producing new tanks to replace those blown up by Javelins or captured by Ukrainian farmers, because they can’t obtain necessary components, because of Western sanctions.
It does not make sense to produce weapons using parts from a potential advsary. They are weapons of war which are fine until you are at war. I guess the Western components are microelectronics with no moving parts which don’t wear out, but it is still crazy to build a military industry which is paralized during wars. I’m glad that we have recently learned that the USA is not at all dependent on Chinese manufacturing (I actually was thinking of personal protective equipment in 2020 and only later of inflation due to “supply chain bottlenecks” which are limits on our ability to import from China and forget about actually producing things ourselves. This is clearly a huge vulnerability. It would seem to me that insourcing critical manufacturing is a higher priority than buying more F-35s. Also it is odd that, only now, is the supply of Western components for Russian tanks cut off. It seems very odd to make small amounts of money selling them parts for tanks and then spend large amounts of money preparing to possibly fight those tanks.
Here I think the issue is fairly clear — the US (and Germany) respond to concentrated interests. Military procurement increases profits of some firms, export controls reduce profits of some firms. Paying to obtain natural gas from sources other than Russia reduces profits for some firms (in particular those competing with firms in countries which have their own natural gas).
Fossile fuels are one of our top two vulnerabilities (the other is the Russian and Chinese ICBMs which can kill a large fraction of us in half an hour). This has been true for decades. It remains true even though the USA is has become a fossile fuel exporter again. German and even US strategic preparedness depends more on natural gas liquification plants, tankers, and terminals than on fighter planes and aircraft carriers. In the medium run, it depends more on wind turbines, Photovoltaic cells, batteries, pumped hydroelectic power storage, heat pumps, electric vehicles and a network of charging stations than on liquified natural gas. I think this is plainly true. I also think that ideology and partisanship will totally anialate the national security case for renewable energy.
There are two points which involve enough profit opportunities for concentrated interests that they might actually be considered. FIrst the Strategic Petroleum Reserve was an excellent investment. It has done more for US strategic security than, say, the B2. The cost of building it was about $4 billion (about a tenth the cost of the B2 program). The cost of the petroleum minus the revenue of sales should be negative — it is emptied when the price is high — oil is bought long before it is sold. The interest cost to the US Treasury is hmm roughly round about zero. This is publicly owned storage and pumping capacity (socialism). It is US government intervention in markets. It is good policy. There is a similar opportunity now. We would like expanded natural gas liquification capacity to weaken Putin. There is a problem “Developers, though, will be wary of whether the current boom in Europe might fade well before the expiration of the new L.N.G. projects, which are generally expected to operate for 20 years” Obviously a solution is for the US Federal Government to bear the risk, say commissioning public gas liquification plants. This will not happen for three reasons. First, while it is quite all right to spend money on weapons which are not used, spending money on something which *might* generate revenue but doesn’t is failure classified as waste (google Solyndra). Second, it is socialism (note that, when fossil fuels were involved Winston Churchill was a socialist and founder of BP). Managers of private firms do not like competitors who can borrow paying negative real interest and they are influential. Finally, this will give the US Federal Government an interest in fossil fuel consumption, so environmentalists will be opposed (this is a real problem unlike the other two)
4.Robert often doesn’t know what he is talking about (again something we knew already). Like many others, I assumed that the Russian army would quickly defeat the Ukrainian army and that the real war would be an insurgency v counter insurgency. I assumed that the pattern would be similar to the US UK invasion of Afghanistan and the US UK AUstralian invasion of Iraq. As always I am not at all humbled by my error.
5. some relatively cheap weapons are highly effective. They include Javelin, NLAW, Stinger, and StarStreak shoulder fired missiles. They also include Bayraktar drones. They may include Switchblade suicide drones (not depoloyed yet). They have somethings in common or especially they all lack some things. Shocking price tags, as noted they are relatively cheap, even those made by the US are a very small part of the US weapons procurement budget (total less than 0.1%); Pilots — none have pilots; Hulls, none are ships; Stealth technology — none are steathly; armor — none are armored. Most fall under the heading smart munitions and hmmm it would not be polite to say “dumb platform” but it is certainly true that they have low tech and relatively slow platforms (guys on foot or tripods on jeeps). The effectiveness of shoulder fired missiles against tanks is not news. It was demonstrated when Chad defeated Libya in the “Great Toyota War” of 1987. I can’t find the link, but this is the conclusion of dozens of US war games. It is not clear to me why Taiwan hasn’t ordered 100,000 Javelins and 100,000 switchblades (second total cost $ 600 million or about 0.1% of their cash on hand. 100,000 switchblades sure seem more likely to be useful than 6 F-35As.).
I also don’t understand why the US hasn’t switched to drones and cruise missiles. Actual attacks on air defences are mostly done with cruise missiles. High tech super expensive planes have not been used much and have been used to do things that cheap old planes could do. In particular, if a pilot is sent into deadly danger, it is not OK to increase the risk of death to save a few tens of millions. This is not true for a drone. This makes a huge difference.
I note that one approach to war is the human wave (not for us) another is the robot wave — it is possible to overwhelm defences with large numbers of cheap missiles and drones each of which could be shot down. It has seemed to me for 40 years that this is the sensible approach. I am aware of no evidence collected in those 40 years which would tend to undermine my view.