TLDRUpFront: AI, Drones, and even AI Drone Swarms could be considered like the introduction of IEDs into modern battlefields, definitely have an impact at a moment in time, but any ‘game change’ influence they have in the moment is mitigated by adaptation counter-adaptation dynamics between competitors over time.
Adaptation counter-adaptation system paradigm leading to Red Queen’s race.
FullContextInTheBack: Cardboard drones in the Russian-Ukrainian war are in the news. And it’s a good opportunity to bring up one of my favorite competitive dynamics competitive innovation leading to a red queens race and the nature of the war in Ukraine. That’s always important when these hype videos claim out X,Y or Z thing is going to “decimate” Russian forces. Or in reverse that some Russian advantage is going to ‘crush’ Ukrainian defenses.
First, to clear the details….the drone is made of advanced wax foamboard but it’s called “cardboard” because that’s what it looks like. And as you know with material science these days you can get a lot of structural support out of modern lightweight materials, a bonus if they aren’t detectable by normal radar.
So definitely it’s a “thing”…and it was alleged to have been part of a drone-swarm attack used on a Russian airfield to scotch several fighter jets and air defense systems over the weekend. Related to that attack, the first caveat here is most of what we know from this attack is coming from Ukrainians. So grain of salt time, but Russia’s confirmed an attack happened (if not the losses) and it’s not unreasonable so we can work with the reported details as assumptions. From what Ukrainians shared these weren’t going singly up against flying Russian aircraft ala Top Gun but approached as a swarm over a military installation. No one knows the count, could be 5 or 50. And probably mixed types, though this style would help catch them off guard because of the low radar profile. Normally these particular models are used for recon but Ukrainians have proven adaptable at sticking munitions on anything that can fly, drive, or float, and using it to attack Russian forces. It’s got modified drone speed boats that give it an anti-ship capability deep into the Black Sea. So anytime you catch enemy planes on the ground and can deliver things that go boom you’ve got a tactical win. But only a tactical win.
This is all part of the normal adaptation counter-adaptation cycle of competitive dynamics. A new adapted “thing” comes out on the battlefield, and for a period of time, it gives a competitive advantage. Bonus points if it leverages asymmetry, the fighter jets damaged in the attack probably cost tens of millions of dollars while the attack cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
This happens a few times with the new adaptation, until the other side counter-adapts. Then the cycle begins anew.
This is not much different in concept than insurgents figuring out new IED tactics and techniques to use against US and coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’d come out with a new configuration of an IED, they’d do some harm, and we’d counter-adapt. Some of these are high-brow tech, others low.
A very similar attack to this happened at Camp Leatherneck in terms of the “tactical win”. They caught a bunch of our high-end jets in cantonments in 2012 IIRC it was the largest single loss of air force capability since Vietnam. So a massive tactical strike. The delivery mechanism there was less drone wave and more human wave coming over the wall armed with grenades, IEDs, and wearing SVIEDs. Had these kinds of commercial drones existed back then, I have no doubt they’d have been used against us as well. Nor are we ‘past’ human wave raiding tactics in the war in Ukraine just because we have drones. It’s always going to be a mix of what’s the best tactic for this situation.
The key with these adaptation and counter-adaptation dynamics is they tend to revolve over time into a homeostasis red queen race. You have to constantly adapt and counter-adapt just to keep pace, but no single adaptation gives enough of an advantage or for long enough, to break out of the red queen race cycle.
And that’s the case in this war. It’s one reason I’ve been trying to train people to be cautious on so-called game-changers which tend to come out periodically in conflicts: Javelins, HIMARs, precision howitzers, Baktyar drones, IED drones…even my converted speed boats or this one. All of them begin as an adaptation on the battlefield that sees initial success, the opponent counter-adapts, and we’re back in the red queen race.
By the time I hit Afghanistan the adaptation counter-adaptation cycle for IEDs was down to 90 days. Which was the time a new IED attacking, or countering method, could be considered ‘useful’ before something else came along.
Why I’ve been advising the mental model of sustained, grinding, attritional conflict (think WWI or Korean War) for 18 months now on how to think about this war. Unfortunately in red queen races it’s an exogenous factor that breaks the cycle, not an incremental adaptation. (I’ve marked the resource one of these on the outer side as exogenous inputs into Competitor A and Competitor B’s adaptation and counter-adaptation loops.
Indeed in the case of IEDs, it resulted in an interesting “end”. We finally out-resourced the insurgents with MRAPs which are ungodly large and expensive armored wheeled boxes that are very good at protecting the troops inside from IEDs. And it pretty much neutered the IED threat as the deployment spread across our forces. But the insurgents then simply adapted out of an IED red queen race and into a new strategy altogether (focusing on soft target civilian attacks). Meanwhile, the cost of the MRAP program; along with all the other costs of sustained deployment, drained financial and political coffers in the US leading to increased pressures to withdraw and stop the loss of human lives, suffering, and $$$.
In the end, we ended the red queen race with an asymmetry that favored us, but in doing so contributed to an asymmetry that favored the Taliban and lost the conflict to them.
Original Story I was Asked to Respond To: https://youtu.be/0LTvXHCsDGE
One of the problems with any weapon like this is that it can be used by both sides. I think you are right about this quickly becoming a red queen race, if it isn’t already.
Drones aren’t “new”. They’re been around for a lot longer than most people think. Cheaper, stealthier drones are just the next step. Same with drone swarms. The parallel to IEDs really is striking.
I think this is the difference between examining a “thing” in a modern conventional war and studying that “thing” as it interacts with other things at scale in a modern conventional war. Hollywood, like everything else it does, has done a terrible job communicating how massive and widespread modern conflict is. Whether it’s irregular or conventional. In the movies, our perspective is the camera that follows a mission, or a group, or a location, or a front. But there’s no easy way to convey what happens when tens of thousands of determined people split into sides and are determined to deter, defeat, and if needed kill the other – and they have access to the kinds of resources tens of thousands of people; let alone the budgets of state actors, can muster.
I heard on one of Michael’s podcasts (I think…maybe it was Perun) the number of material and manpower losses suffered by Ukraine and Russia. It’s a Princess Bride level of “inconceivable” and yet both are still grinding away at each other and Russia is preparing for another mobilization in the fall of a reported 300-400k.
One odd effect of this war I wish I could get data on and visualize is how much it has changed the total available global armaments. I imagine if you could somehow graph the total firepower or combat capability represented by all the world’s armies, you could detect a noticeable dip in the last 18 months as some of the largest forces in the world send not just their frontline; but all their excess and supplies and stores into a single front. We’re basically churning through the decades of Cold War buildup and it’s depopulating the available stocks until if/when manufacture catches back up with production.
I’m reminded of the old saw out ww2 about US manufacturing, British intelligence and Russian blood. This war isn’t going to be won by tactics, it’s going to be won by logistics. And while NATO may not have troops on the ground, as you pointed out, logistically they we are up to our necks in it. And unless we start taking it seriously on the logistical front, it may become an even bigger problem.
Definitely agree that wars are won on logistics. And we’ve been in it for most of it now with providing rearmament and resupply. It’s been an odd mix of politics on what gets sent a kind of boil-the-frog escalation wherein we are now supplying full NATO continuum from advanced missiles to tanks to planes without the ‘trigger’ of threatened response earlier on. That being said there’s an odd infliction intersection between two curves I can visualize in my head but would be hard to map out.
Both forces are facing a drifting goals mechanic of downward arcs of manpower capabilities (e.g. numbers * experience) and that’s leading to the stalemate and the reality that they’ve had to adjust downward initial strategic goals.
On the other hand, the platform-quality curves are inverted. Even as available capabilities reduce for both sides, the per capita “quality” of each incremental marginal next unit decreases for Russia but increases for Ukraine as they move from Soviet-era material they had on hand to a much more modern NATO kit. These curves are not matched in the same time phase however; to use (and maintain!) the new kit requires extensive training which can’t just be done overnight. Whereas Russia’s resupply of the lower kit doesn’t have that time delay, at this point they’ve about stocked out Iran and are moving onto North Korea for resupply even as their bootstrapped arms industry retools in reaction to sanctions.
However that time delay factor is too easily overlooked and can reduce the marginal quality benefit. One reason I wasn’t a fan of the push to have Ukraine’s “counter-attack” this summer. It was just too soon given the NATO training and half the needed platforms weren’t even available (e.g. tanks and F16s). Better to have let Russia bloody itself over the winter, consolidate and secure the front while still maintaining the kind of deep strikes we’ve seen on reducing capability, and then launch the major counter-offensive in the fall or even (ideally) next spring. Instead Ukraine’s bleeding resources for incremental gains on the front, capabilities that won’t be there to match up with the new platforms as they come online.
Then again, that may not be politically tenable in the West. Logistics may indeed trump strategy but politics still trumps both.
Wars are bloody messes indeed. Few if anyone wins.
To what degree are the Russian and Ukrainian economies capable of re-stocking their war supplies? No one will manufacture anything without being paid to do it. I can see this leading to massive debt to NATO countries for Ukraine and to China for Russia, and I’m not exactly comfortable with the idea of Russia becoming any more indebted to
China than it already is.
Well, Ukraine is already not able to restock their own war supplies. They have some local drone-kit volunteer groups but AFAIK very limited industrial manufacturing capacity which isn’t surprising given that the war’s being fought on their territory.
There are signs Russia is re-industrializing but the sanctions make that harder to make advanced kit. Expect a shift to simpler, easier to mass produce items like ammunition, artillery, and drones than high-end stuff like fighter jets and ballistic missiles.
“No one will manufacture anything without being paid to do it.”
This is where it gets tricky. Open your aperture of “someone being paid” to a historical time frame. In some ways the *already paid-for* stockpiles of NATO and the Soviet Union are being fed into the Russian-Ukrainian war. A lot of the $/rubel values of military equipment being sent to the front has already been paid for well in the past.
Although I haven’t seen recent numbers I would not be surprised if the rate of consumption/destruction is continually draining those Cold War-era stocks and the resupply is not up to snuff *yet* on either side. This means expect gaps in capabilities as the war runs on which is adjusted to longer operational pauses, more limited offensives, or a kind of “frozen war” not unlike the DMZ between North and South Korea.
” I’m not exactly comfortable with the idea of Russia becoming any more indebted to China than it already is.”
That ship’s already sailed. At least in my view, Putin is already a vassal of Xi. A petulant thorn-in-the-side-you can’t-always-tell what-to-do vassal more like Kim Jong Un to Xi…but a client state nonetheless.