So as it turns out, the Russian armed forces are just marginally better equipped qualitatively than the Red Army in 1989. There are a few thermal sights, a few better radios, some better air defence missiles (that still hardly ever shoot down drones that are less than the equivalent of a WW2 fighter) and their primary self-propelled gun is a little better than the standard of 1989.
Seeing this, the Western defence sector of the past 30 years suddenly looks utterly idiotic. The phony war on errorists with its occupation wars and assassination wars was a stupid distraction, and everyone willing to open the eyes knew it. But now it seems as if practically all talk and efforts regarding modernisation of our armies of the past 30 years was as idiotic as an asylum inmate shouting at and fancily decorating a wall. We never needed or had much use for any “leap ahead”, “revolutionary”, super-networked, artificial intelligence, offensive cyber, hypervelocity missile, railgun, battlefield laser weapon, C-RAM hard kill tech at all.*
We could literally deter the conventional Russian military power with a fourth of NATO’s current ground forces head count in Europe, mostly equipped at 1989 standards (upgraded with mid-90’s anti-tank tech) if only we had also stocked enough munitions & spares and provided good training to this force.
Instead, we followed the promises of high tech like total idiots and wasted hundreds of billions of Euros in Germany alone (and 10+ trillions $ in the U.S.). There are even fools who brazenly claimed that we weren’t spending enough when it was (even before the war) obvious that our budget allocation was the real issue, not the (actually huge) budget size.
Years ago I did warn (and I’m too lazy to look up when exactly) that we overemphasise the technological and material side because the industry sells it, while it cannot make as much business with simply giving the army enough good training. I also criticized an infatuation with prestigious big ticket programs (though mostly in the air & sea context).
The current political climate appears to be in favour of doubling down on the idiocy of this previous generation instead of seeing what the Ukraine War 2022 really is; the exposure of the conventional might of Russia as extremely ‘disappointing’ and hardly standing a chance to defeat even only a third of EU or European NATO.
It IS a return of conventional warfare (again, after 2008), though. This means we should fix some neglected areas.
- We should get training quantity right,
- we should get training realism right,
- we should make training comprehensive (including all wartime tasks),
- we should get the spare parts supply & stocks and thus technical readiness right,
- we should get our munition stocks right,
- we should re-establish useful battlefield air defences of a new kind and
- we certainly should kick out everyone who’s not serious about the army’s real mission.
What we don’t need now is a Leopard 3, more Pumas, more Boxers and the like.
We can turn away from 95% solutions towards affordable 80% solutions that work. The only somewhat realistic conventional threat to us free Europeans right now is a very weak (compared to NATO), backward country that’s looking forward to years of economic disaster. The two potential other threats are far away and not targeting us at all right now.
The cost reduction of such a paradigm change would not be a mere 15 per cent points. The drop from seeking 95% gold plated solutions to working affordable 80% solutions enables a cost reduction of 60…90%. You may have seen footage of Ukrainians destroying Russian tanks with Stugna-P missiles. Those actually cost less than a NLAW or Javelin missile (or what Germany is buying; Eurospike a.k.a. MELLS). The guidance principle is intrinsically cheaper than Javelin’s, and those missiles still seem to blow up their MBT targets.
The only powerful “but” that I see here are
- obsolescence of old equipment (inability to get spare parts produced)
- Russians being occasionally delusional about how crappy their army is, and thus possibly not deterred without an impressive show
The obsolescence issue doesn’t mean we need to replace unsustainable kit with gold-plated kit, period.
The deterrence value should be achievable by letting the world see the performance borne out of robust kit, reliable kit, ready kit, much training & good training.
High tech fever isn’t the only pathway to being impressive. For example, I wrote about a militia. Imagine we had in Central and Eastern Europe 500,000 militiamen at the budget expense of 30,000 full-time active duty troops, and those 500,000 militiamen had 5,000 ManPADS, 20,000 mortars and 200,000 MBT-busting (but cheap) anti-tank weapons. These quantities could be purchased with 5…10% of Germany’s annual military budget and last for 20 years (the mortars for generations). We could have exercises that prove 400,000 militiamen actually show up for duty on a weekend every fourth year or so. That would require a tiny fraction of our current military budget in European NATO or EU and it would convince everyone who has the tiniest bit of an idea about occupations that Russia could not successfully wage war against us** without adding much quantity on its own. No high tech would be required for this.
To waste resources on ill-advised military spending is like robbing from the own nation; the arms industry is the only special interest benefiting from it (at least in the short term). We could have invested the wasted funds into mastering other challenges instead (keyword opportunity costs).
This war shows that we have spent foolishly because spent for the wrong war and against a threat of largely imaginary quality. It’s always a good time to turn smart about spending. Sadly, this war triggered primitive impulses that lead us down a path of wasting even more resources. We’re turning crazy-stupid like the Americans did after 9/11.
Disclosure: I myself did overestimate the Russian armed forces as well. Most notably, I was sure that they had some unpublished ace in the sleeve regarding tank survivability, but they made apparently no progress whatsoever after 1987. I also did not anticipate that their tactical air force would be this inconsequential to hostile ground forces. I was quite a high tech fan by 1998, recovered a little from that and had returned to very demanding (including technically demanding) concepts by 2009/2011.
As a saving grace, I did in the past push back against the pretence that the thousands of Russian tanks in storage were relevant and I pointed out repeatedly that Russia’s armed forces were outnumbered 2:1 by European NATO and the EU (then still with the UK). I also pointed out once that their logistical vehicle situation was troublesome (for them) and that there was little reason to believe that their corrupt government was any more efficient with military budgets than Western governments.
*: The only tech advances in army tech of the past 30 years that really, really mattered were introductions of new anti-MBT tech to defeat the Russian 1980’s tank survivability advances (which we made 15+ years ago already), hard kill active defences for tanks (which we didn’t introduce in quantity), widespread use of better night vision and especially thermal imagers and possibly also a greater proliferation of voice radios in the infantry.
**: I mean this militia in addition to substantial land and air forces, not as an all-alone defence. I’m making the case here that shiny high tech delusions have a cheaper deterrence value substitute.