How Ukraine can inform military modernization efforts
We only know big [platforms]and we are two generations behind in adopting smaller, more effective and more efficient tools of war.
— Vice Admiral Bob Harward (retired), Executive Vice President of International Affairs of Shield AI and former member of the United States National Security Council
the Ukrainian battlefield should inform the military modernization efforts of the United States and its allies. We all started with a plan, and it’s time to take recent information into account and adjust accordingly.
The many videos of Stinger missiles and man-portable air defense systems wiping out Russian helicopters – just as the Afghans did against the Russians in the 1980s – or rows of tanks being destroyed – just as the United States destroyed Iraqi tanks in the 1990s – should inform our modernization efforts.
The fact that we are shipment of 17,000 anti-tank weapons to Ukraine Countering tanks begs the question of why Poland is willing to spend $6 billion on 250 tanks, or why any nation would bring tanks to the modern battlefield.
The math here is simple, straightforward, and blindingly obvious:
- A $10 million tank is defeated by a $175,000 Javelin, a $6,000 Carl Gustav rocket (this author’s favorite weapon as a SEAL), or a $100 improvised explosive device.
- An $18 million Russian Mi-28 attack helicopter is defeated by a $120,000 Stinger missile. When you add in the costs of pilot training and skill (probably $5-10 million each), almost $30 million was destroyed by a cheaper, more mobile weapon system.
On tanks: They have their place on certain battlefields, for certain missions, against certain weapon systems. But overall, a big reduction is needed, because these battlegrounds are few and shrinking fast. Anti-armour weapons, anti-tank weapons and armed drones simply made the tank obsolete. Congratulations to the Marine Corps for shut off its MOS tank in 2020; the military should consider the same. Ineffective armor isn’t armor – it’s heavy, bulky and expensive waste.
On Attack Helicopters (not Transport Helicopters): This is a more difficult question for me, as Attack Helicopters hold a special place in my heart as they have brought incredible value to my deployments in Afghanistan. But MANPADS have not proliferated much in Afghanistan and if the modern battlefield will be filled with MANPADS, as we see in Ukraine, we must fulfill the attack helicopter mission with something much cheaper and less Dear. The Achilles heel of a $35 million Apache helicopter is a $120,000 MANPADS. And this will be true for all future attack helicopter systems, so we need to find a way to accomplish these missions with less expensive resources.
Swarms of highly intelligent AI-powered drones will soon be able to perform most attack helicopter missions (including tank destruction). Additionally, they will soon be able to perform most missions that other vulnerable and expensive aircraft like the Global Hawk and Predator normally perform. “Soon” is defined as within the next two years, or before the introduction of any next-generation attack helicopters.
The cost of the drone is unlikely to reach parity or fall below the MANPAD. But losing a million dollar drone that is part of a larger swarm is far better and more economical than losing a $35 million Apache and the two experienced and highly trained pilots who fly it.
Every nation considering buying a new helicopter, large drone (group 5) or piece of armor should stop and think about how they can accomplish the same mission for much less. Yes, we still need some important means for some missions. But these missions are becoming increasingly rare and, as such, we should reduce the number of important assets that we buy.
We had a few sayings in SEAL teams: “Plan your dive, dive you plan” and “the enemy has a say, so read and react.” These two sayings are in natural tension with each other; the first on respecting the plan, the second on adjusting the plan.
The trick is knowing when to stay the course or when to adapt. Let us learn lessons from the Ukrainian battlefield and adjust our modernization efforts and legacy arsenal accordingly.
Brandon Tseng is the co-founder and chief growth officer of Shield AI, as well as a former US Navy SEAL.