Modern technology has changed the delivery of food, taxis, and now bombs. Just as we drop a pin to get a ride, soldiers drop a pin to make other humans turn die.
Military and consumer technology have always co-evolved this way. Food tech has always been weaponized, with farming and hunting tools literally turned into weapons. Same for ‘ride-hailing’, as in chariots and beasts of burden. The same technology that enabled agricultural surplus also enabled fighting over it, and so both sets of tools evolved together.
In modern times, the military ARPANET became the Internet, which is now being used to call in kills. Drones began carrying bombs in the 1850s, then they were used to film weddings, and now NATO uses them to bomb weddings, coming full circle. Swords are constantly being beaten into plowshares and then back into swords again.
Today the big technical innovation being re-militarized is recognizable to anyone that uses a smartphone app. The ubiquitous combination of reliable GPS maps and constant connectivity. I’m old enough to remember a time before this. I remember getting hopelessly lost, struggling to read a map, and then calling my mother for help, which just stressed both of us out. This problem has been solved by military technology gone civilian (GPS, Internet) and we take it for granted. But it’s important to remember that these are not just military solutions, these are military problems.
Where the fuck am I? and Where is the enemy? are the most immediate question in war. And these are effectively solved. The pinpoint accuracy we’ve come to expect from various ‘Uber of X’ products has now become generalized ‘Uber of War’.
Today, both Russian and Ukrainian soldiers and drones (ie, robots) can A) know where they are and B) call in enemy locations to distant artillery. This can be done within minutes and with high accuracy. As a recent report from Randy Noorman via West Point says:
Although not always portrayed as such, the war in Ukraine is, or at least has become, a peer conflict, largely because of the extent of Western and especially US support, providing Ukraine with significant amounts of advanced weapons systems — not to mention real-time battlefield intelligence to help identify Russian targets for Ukrainian long-range precision strikes. As a result, this is the first war in history in which both sides are capable of striking throughout the opponent’s tactical and operational depth with a high level of accuracy.
The practical result of this is that Ukrainian soldiers can call in air strikes using their GIS Arta system and Russians can do the same thing. In some cases these coordinates automatically go to available artillery or back to command. It’s like Foursquare for spotting nice places to murder instead of restaurants.
The uber-uberization of war is the proliferation of drones on the battlefield, many of them consumer DJI models. These flimsy devices are generally invisible to radar. As Simplicius The Thinker says, “small drones will be buzzing and watching you at all times no matter how big of a ‘super power’ you are, and any troop concentration you foolishly expose onto the field will be quickly bombed by a competent foe.”
Not only can you have your location called in, you’re effectively watched all the time by cheap bots. Sound familiar? Constant consumer surveillance and military surveillance are two sides of the same coin.
As a recent West Point report (via Simplicius) discusses, ever since nuclear weapons, armies have been afraid to mass together. Any concentration of forces is highly vulnerable to being blown up at the assembly point itself. As the West Point report says (discussing Russian military evolution):
The first major change occurred during the 1950s, following the realization that any large-scale conventional war would involve the employment of nuclear weapons. This had a significant impact on Soviet military strategy and subsequent military force structure, as it increased the vulnerability of the traditional concentration of forces necessary for conducting deep operations. Units would need greater mobility to increase survivability. The subsequent Zhukov reforms therefore aimed to transform the larger and more cumbersome mechanized and rifle divisions of World War II into smaller and more mobile tank and motor rifle divisions.
Nuclear attacks never happened (MAD), but these divided divisions have stilled proved necessary. ‘Conventional’ missile technology has grown formidable enough to destroy formations without going nuclear. Noorman calls this non-nuclear ability massed aerospace attack. As they write:
These new NATO and especially US precision-strike capabilities, initially designed against Soviet follow-on echelons, were eventually deployed against Iraq during the First Gulf War in 1991. While the coalition air campaign went on for thirty-nine days, the ground offensive lasted a mere one hundred hours. Eight years later, the NATO campaign against Yugoslavia was even fought entirely without deploying ground forces. Both conflicts strongly influenced the Russian view of future war and determined the types of attack that Russian forces must be able to defend against, especially the threat of a massed aerospace attack.
With increasingly accurate command of the air, the conventional idea of a ‘front’ and ‘flank’ are gone. Those concepts imply an enemy that pokes you in the front or the side, and doesn’t shit on you from above like a bird. Today we still draw front ‘lines’ on a map, but these are political, not military concepts. Artillery can now create a front hundreds if not thousands of kilometers ahead, and the flank is wherever planes and satellites can reach, which could be everywhere.
The result of massed surveillance and massed aerospace attacks is that mass infantry formations become a huge liability. They’re just sitting ducks, waiting to get blown up from afar. Air defenses and electronic warfare (jamming) can mitigate this threat, but not eliminate it. So in practice, armies just don’t mass up in big Braveheart formations anymore. As Simplicius says, “Just last week there was ‘rumor’ that a Chechen commander who gave a ‘rousing speech’ to a large collection of his troops ended up being visited by the HIMARs fairy within moments.”
Instead, large forces have to be coordinated electronically rather than physically. Just as Uber assembles the equivalent of local cab company using local cars, Uber militaries like Ukraine literally use civilian cars to assemble in the dark. As Simplicius says:
It’s now been long established since that time of the Kharkov offensive that Ukraine’s tactic goes as follows: they spend several weeks, or even months, slowly precipitating troops into a staging area by moving those troops in very gradually, in civilian uniforms and vehicles, and only under the cover of darkness. Each night there may be civilian cars of a few dozen troops driving into some place like Mala Tokmachka. The same goes for armor which is kept very distributed in a wide expanse of villages in the general region, brought in at night under tarps one piece at a time and accumulated over a long period of time.
Then, as the time of the offensive gets closer, the troops get their battle orders while still living and operating wholly as ‘civilians’ in this rear area, screened by a frontline of other forces 20–40km up. When it’s only several days to a week out, the troops begin to be issued uniforms and the armor is more closely consolidated. We know this from leaks and intercepted comms, for instance from the recent Zaporozhye offensive, where intercepts showed that the main vanguard brigades like the 47th, 33th, etc., were being issued their uniforms and papers only days before the assault.
And only at the moment of striking do the brigade commanders give the final go-ahead to consolidate fully into companies which can move out by the cover of darkness. This is the type of clandestine, distributed and nonlinear operations that have now become the hallmark of the modern battlefield.
What makes these unmassed armies necessary is massed aerospace, but what makes them possible is modern communications. Ancient commanders had to bunch up troops even under arrow and cannon-fire because how else would you command them? You had to physically see what was going on and physically yell at people. The telegraph, wireless, and now satellite have changed all this and rewritten the rules of war.
As the Soviet military theorist Major General Vladimir Slipchenko said, “Fundamental concepts such as “front,” “rear,” and “forward line” are changing. . . . They are now passé and being replaced by just two phrases: “target” and “non-target” for a high precision remote strike.” In response, the West Point report says, “This is reducing large-scale engagements and thereby necessitating a concentration and synchronization of effects, rather than a traditional physical massing of troops. In turn, this places an extra burden on command and control, especially when contested by electronic warfare.”
The same technology that lets “Uber-Of-X” companies coordinate a bunch of ‘independent contractors’ is used to coordinate the “Uber-Of-Death” that is modern ‘network’ warfare. Such a ‘virtual’ army is able to operate as a mass with a “common plan and objective” without all being in the same physical space (and becoming a target). It’s controlled chaos in the cloud.
Until Ukraine, this type of network warfare remained largely theoretical. The 1990s Gulf War was what the West Point report calls “the first war of the new high-tech age”, but it was such a one-sided affair that no one really noticed. As the report said:
The Gulf War was a practical demonstration of the truth that technological superiority in weapons could cancel the enemy’s numerical advantage in weapons long come of age. It was the first time in the history of wars that formidable ground forces half a million strong did not put up a fight in an effort to win. They were only fully deployed in the last days of the war when the Iraqi army was as good as finished by air and missile strikes that went on for weeks.
Another distinction of the campaign against Iraq was that reconnaissance, fire, electronic, and information warfare forces of different branches and arms of the service were integrated the first time ever into a shared spatially distributed reconnaissance and strike system making wide use of modern information technologies and automated troops and weapons control systems.
While this fancy system worked, it worked against an antiquated army that had been crippled by sanctions and no-fly zones. It worked in a brute force kind of way, but people still didn’t know when two networked armies met. That’s what we’re finding out now.
Ukraine is the first modern battlefield, ie not just holding a poor country down and beating it to death. Both Russia and Ukraine have (or had) air cover, some form of missile defense, tanks, drones, and electronic warfare units. Ukraine’s forces have been destroyed twice now, but for a time, it was a battle between the two largest armies in Europe, with similar capacities. As the West Point report says, “As a result, this is the first war in history in which both sides are capable of striking throughout the opponent’s tactical and operational depth with a high level of accuracy.”
In this battle of modern operating systems, Ukraine is like Android and Russia like iOS. Ukraine has a hodgepodge of different equipment operating under a lot of different ‘partners’. Russia is almost completely vertically integrated, albeit with a heavy reliance on contractors. Despite being very different operating systems, they’re both doing the same thing. Delivering death, at scale, using technology.
It’s striking how this war played out much as earlier theorists thought it would. As Noorman says, citing American scholars of Soviet methods:
“In 1990, Lieutenant Colonel Lester Grau, of the Soviet Army Studies Office at the US Army Combined Arms Center, wrote a report on Soviet forecasting of future war, stating:”
The Soviets see non-linear battle as one in which separate “tactically independent” battalions and regiments/brigades fight meeting battles and secure their flanks by means of obstacles, long-range fires and tempo. . . . Large units, such as divisions and armies, may influence the battle through employment of their reserves and long-range attack systems, but the outcome will be decided by the actions of combined arms battalions and regiments/brigades fighting separately on multiple axes in support of a common plan and objective. . . . Tactical combat will be even more destructive than in the past and will be characterized by fragmented [ochagovyy] or non-linear combat. The front line will disappear and terms such as “zones of combat” will replace the outdated concepts of FEBA, FLOT and FLET. No safe havens or “deep rear” will exist.
That’s broadly what has happened. At first, both Russian and Ukrainian troops couldn’t bunch up or they got destroyed, and both took hits deep in what would have been a safe ‘rear’ before. Both were able to use location and communications technology to form ‘virtual’ massed armies, and call in deadly deliveries from above. Then they ended up at an effective stalemate. As with any technological shift, if you both have it, you’re both stuck. Then you’re back to the same logic as humans throwing stones at each other and seeing who has more humans and stones.
The End Of This War
All of this fancy shit, at relative parity, turned into a muddy war of attrition, basically the same effect industrial technology had on World War I. At this point the difference in operating systems became important.
As our ‘Android’ example, Ukraine does not make its own hardware. They rely on random, completely mismatched hardware ‘donations’. Unlike Android, they don’t control the ‘software’ either. They have to make major decisions with (really by) NATO, which won’t let them become a member but lets them get dismembered. After destroying two full armies, Ukraine had to crowdfund a third ‘Kickstarter’ army over many months, completely losing any element of surprise. Then they had to undertake a counter-offensive because they had to ‘ship something’. Since they’ve lost air cover, this counter-offensive is completely suicidal, but they’re doing it anyways because they have no control of anything at all. Now Ukraine looks like one of the poor countries NATO brutalizes more than a NATO army. Which is actually what they are. They are NATO victims whom NATO will never admit into their club. As I’ve written, with friends like these, who needs enemies?
On the Russian side, they make their own hardware and control their own destiny. They have a vertically integrated production system from bullets to tanks to satellites. They can attack or not attack on their own timetable, not dictated by foreign powers.
These two states may have started out doing the same thing, but Ukraine is not even an independent state right now, according to NATO. They’re Schrödinger’s State, which may or not exist depending on when you open the killing box. As the head of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg said: “we all agree that the most urgent and important task now is to ensure that Ukraine prevails as a sovereign, independent, democratic nation in Europe. Because unless we do that, unless Ukraine prevails, then there is no issue to be discussed at all related to membership.” This is the Catch-22 Ukraine is put in, from its so-called friends. They can get protection from Russia, if they beat Russia first. Which is simply not going to work out. Whatever Ukraine started out with, they have been attrited down to nothing.
These two armies may have started out with similar systems, but one is a proxy and the other is the real thing. Don’t take my word for it, here is Noorman, writing from the military college at the heart of Empire:
Meanwhile, the Russian army is adapting and its reconnaissance-fire complex continues to evolve, becoming highly responsive and with its artillery less vulnerable to counterbattery fire. Russian forces are also increasingly relying on loitering munitions for counterbattery fire and effectively using electronic warfare to counter Ukrainian UAVs. Ukrainian HIMARS strikes are even partially countered by Russian air defenses, while Russian command-and-control infrastructure has become much more resilient. Russian forces also rarely employ armor and infantry in concentrated assaults and in the defense occupy dispersed positions, while increasingly drawing on artillery to blunt Ukrainian attacks.
Only fools who believe their own propaganda say the Russian military is all brute force and dumb. They have in fact been planning for the current Uberization of war since the end of World War II and they have obviously adapted and learned a lot from bitter experience.
The Latest Evolution Of War
The modern battlefield mixes the convenience of ride-hailing with the carnage of total war. It has troops hiding in civilian vehicles, seeking enemy positions with drones, and dropping a pin to unleash destruction from kilometers afar. Modern armies mass virtually instead of physically, networking themselves digitally instead of shoulder to shoulder. Modern warfare is highly sophisticated systems doing absolutely basic and brutal things to human beings. This latest evolution of our greatest devolution would be quite weird to anyone from the past, but is weirdly recognizable to any smartphone user today.
As Georgii Isserson said in 1936, “Each historical period is pregnant with a new one and displays new rudimentary tendencies and forms.” The interesting thing is that war is not some isolated part of history. It emerges from the tendencies and forms of civilian life, and then merges back into them constantly. It’s like two streams of blood and grain, dipping in and out of each other incessantly. Sword to plowshare, ride-hailing to artillery-hailing, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. All of our ‘innovation’ cancels itself out and we end up where we began. As Cain and Abel, beating each other to death in the muck.