Ukrainian soldiers and burned out vehicle
Ukrainian soldiers look for and collect unexploded shells after a fighting with Russian raiding group in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv in the morning of February 26, 2022, according to Ukrainian service personnel at the scene.
(Photo by Sergei Supinksy/AFP via Getty Images)

Exquisite and Expensive Weapons Are No Panacea for Ukraine’s Counteroffensive

The almost mythical allure of exquisite promises, with expensive price tags, continues to plague foreign policy establishments the world over. But at what cost?

Writing in The Baroque Arsenal, British academic Mary Kaldor argued that the increasing sophistication and technical complexity of military technology was far from guaranteed to bring about success on the battlefield. Indeed, the baroque direction of today’s modern military fighting forces implies the existence of what Kaldor referred to as ‘an entire supporting cast’ of actors including scientists, technicians, soldiers, and workers that can ensure the development, deployment, and maintenance of any new system. The decision to pursue more highly advanced weapons also does little to change the base technology; meaning an aircraft will always be an aircraft, but some will fly a little faster, further, or quieter than others. Yet the almost mythical allure of exquisite promises, with expensive price tags, continues to plague foreign policy establishments the world over.

The desire for technological complexity generates a three-pronged problem. First, advancements in one military system often infect others. Consider those aircraft with greater range than their predecessors – those then require greater fuel storage capacity at airbases and onboard aircraft carriers. Second, complex systems become harder to operate, compelling longer training regimens, and will eventually produce diminishing returns as more and more effort is required for less and less overall improvement in military effectiveness. Third, and most importantly, the drive towards greater military complexity is pushed by those with vested institutional interests in such a process, meaning, as Kaldor writes, it is all ‘designed to preserve the military-industrial structure.’ The difficulty in overcoming these issues is, obviously, magnified in a nation, like Ukraine, which is already at war.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a growing chorus of voices in the West have pushed to provide the Ukrainian military with ever greater techno-military capabilities - regardless of the issues defined by Kaldor, and many others, warning that more advanced and more expensive military technology is no panacea on the battlefield. Initial calls for handheld anti-tank rocket launchers to repel the Russian assault were met with a huge delivery of Javelins from the US by mid-May 2022, amounting to around two-thirds of its existing arsenal – 5,500 systems costing $176,000 each. The system was christened ‘Saint Javelin’ by some Ukrainians, deemed ‘the original Protector of Ukraine that started it all,’ and took up an idol-like status in religious depictions of the weapon. This is eerily reminiscent of the ‘beautiful ideals [that] were painted for our boys who were sent out to die’ in World War I, which Smedley Butler argued, back in 1935, were fashioned to hide the horrific suffering and heartbreak of war.

And despite the opening fanfare surrounding Javelins, it quickly became clear that these were not enough to repel the Russian invasion. The technological discussion then shifted to long range rockets, the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS for short, as the next solution for Ukraine’s defense. Still, the effectiveness of these systems is debated. HIMARS are most effective against fixed targets, which requires accurate intelligence and chains of communication to relay exact coordinates. Dr Marina Miron of Kings College London argued ‘that HIMARS caught the Russians by surprise, but it doesn't change the balance of power.’ Perhaps this explains why just over one year since the initial deliveries of HIMARS, with a range of 50 miles, the Biden Administration has ‘changed its tone’ on the introduction of longer-range MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) – capable of hitting targets around 200 miles away.

How, precisely, does environmentally decimating a nation simultaneously save it? Is this utilitarian equation worth it when it comes to ejecting invaders?

With multiple attacks already reported within Russian territory, including a small strike on the Kremlin, hits on oil refineries in Southern Russia, and blasts on residential buildings in Moscow, long-range systems with larger payloads raise the specter of escalating both the incidence and destructiveness of similar occurrences. This, of course, was why western governments were initially hesitant about introducing these technologies into Ukraine. US officials begrudgingly admitted that NATO weapons were used in a cross-border attack into Russia’s Belgorod region in May 2023. How many times do American Humvees need to go storming into Russia before provoking a response that irreparably shatters our entire world? An unnamed ‘senior Pentagon official’ had a nonchalant response to the New York Times on the topic saying: ‘Look, it’s a war, this is what happens in a war.’

And alongside these artillery debates was the question of tanks. Throughout 2022, NATO coordinated with its allies to acquire, upgrade, and distribute Soviet-era tanks, like the T-72, for the Ukrainians. These requisitions, however, escalated and eventually sought more technologically advanced western tanks like the German Leopard 2, British Challenger 2, and American Abrams, which is advertised by its manufacturer, General Dynamics, as ‘battle-tested and battle-victorious.’ Considering the post-Abrams state of affairs in both Iraq and Afghanistan, one wonders just where those ‘victorious’ battles actually occurred.

All of those tanks, along with American Bradley armored fighting vehicles and others, would eventually be procured and sent to the front, with the US even choosing to arm its Abrams with depleted uranium munitions. While they are certainly capable of living up to their moniker of ‘tank killers,’ depleted uranium rounds also pose an immense environmental and public health threat. As now widely reported, depleted uranium is linked to cancers, birth defects, and environmental harm – all of which has been noted in regions of Iraq, like Fallujah, where it was used extensively. The decision to use such weapons, then, calls into serious question the stated objective of ‘liberating and defending’ Ukraine. How, precisely, does environmentally decimating a nation simultaneously save it? Is this utilitarian equation worth it when it comes to ejecting invaders?

The bad, although inevitable, news of destroyed Western tanks began to break almost as soon as Ukraine had announced the start of its counter-offensive. Russian artillery strikes coordinated by drone destroyed at least one Leopard 2 and likely damaged others, while four Bradleys were also left wrecked and abandoned. Russia was also managing to electronically jam Pentagon provided smart bombs so they were, as a former CIA official put it, ‘not performing in the manner expected and how they perform in other war zones.’ In less euphemistic language, Russia is stopping multimillion-dollar weapon systems in their tracks with drones, artillery shells, and jamming equipment that costs, at best, a few thousand dollars. The baroque arsenal strikes again.

In sum, this has produced a conflict that is best described as a stalemate – at least in the sense of a mostly rigid frontline, but absolutely not in terms of human devastation. Somewhere in the region of 350,000 Ukrainian and Russian soldiers have been killed or injured in the course of this modern war, waged with weapons that made big promises but failed to produce a battlefield-altering impact; on both sides. The military industrial complex, however, is having a field day. Stocks in the Big Five (Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics) were outperforming the S&P 500 by around 18% after a year of conflict in Ukraine, which was actually predicted by Raytheon CEO Greg Hayes who expected ‘to see some benefit’ from the ‘tensions’ in Eastern Europe prior the outbreak of war. German military-industrial titan Krauss-Maffei Wegmann is also enjoying $563 million in new funding from the German parliament to replace the Leopard 2 tanks it sent to Ukraine.

With a renewed push to send fighter jets to Ukraine, these trends only seem set to continue. At least some US officials have voiced concerns that Russia’s advanced air defense systems would ‘easily’ shoot the proposed F-16 fighters out of the sky, while the British government has argued that ‘it is not practical to send those jets into Ukraine’ because F-16s are ‘extremely sophisticated and take months to learn how to fly.’ At least the British seemingly understand at least some of the consequences of maintaining a baroque arsenal. The US though, with a government clearly beholden to the military industrial complex, ‘has signed off on the delivery of F-16s from European countries to Ukraine’ and is set to begin training Ukrainian pilots in July. The unintended (or perhaps intended) consequence of this summer-long training and deployment regime is that it incentivizes the Ukrainians to hold off on peace talks, as they continue to fall deeper into the promise-laden trap of the technologically baroque military industrial complex. Russia has also repeatedly warned of ‘enormous risks’ involved with the West sending advanced fighter aircraft to Ukraine.

All told, NATO and Ukraine are pursuing a fully Machiavellian strategy in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The historical record of supposedly technologically superior military forces in war does not offer a promising outcome either. The US struggled in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq to achieve anything even close to what might count as victory – despite arming itself with many times the firepower and capabilities of its adversaries.

Analogous trends extend far back into human history. In 1098, at the Battle of Antioch, Harari argued in the Journal of World History that Christians finally broke the siege of Islamic forces armed with superior technology, demographics, and economics, after the discovery of the Holy Lance, which inspired the Crusaders, and running out of food, which put them into a position of desperation. Then the tables would eventually turn back against the Crusaders, and their almighty crossbows, after the socio-military concept of Jihad emerged that would end up ejecting them from the Middle East once and for all. The simplistic proposition of ‘better’ technology always winning wars ignores everything else happening around those systems that may, or may not, contribute to a favorable outcome.

All told, NATO and Ukraine are pursuing a fully Machiavellian strategy in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Writing in The Prince, Machiavelli argued: ‘The main foundations of every state, new states as well as ancient or composite ones, are good laws and good arms; and because you cannot have good laws without good arms, and where there are good arms, good laws inevitably follow, I shall not discuss laws but give my attention to arms.’ But the abdication of politics for the fictitious promises of the military industrial complex will only prolong this conflict. When all is said and done, a pen will resolve the war in Ukraine – not some supposedly better weapon system.

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