New Weapons for a New War
By Todd Davis
Military technology and tactics become stagnant over time. Whenever there has been a large time gap in conflicts between major powers military theory has had to adjust to new battlefield realities. During the American Civil War, the Union and Confederates began using strategy and drill from the Napoleonic Wars half a century earlier. Quickly, it became apparent that because of the accuracy of rifled small arms and cannons, it was no longer possible to use those tactics. Europe learned the same lessons in the Boer War and more prominently in World War One. The advantage swung to the defender and primacy was put on entrenchment and static fortifications.
World War Two again shattered previous military theory and ushered in the era of blitzkrieg. Mobile warfare, encirclements, and air interdiction were the new kings of the battlefield. And then, for the last eighty years, we had no major wars. Nations built their armies under the nuclear umbrella, knowing that a decisive conflict would likely be settled with weapons that could end civilization as we knew it. Theory stagnated as countries built armies that resembled those from World War Two continuing to make better versions of the Sherman and T-34.
Wars fought by the world powers, Afghanistan (by both Russia and the United States), Iraq, Vietnam, Georgia, Chechnya, Syria, and so on were largely throwbacks to the old colonial wars of empire fought by the British. Sometimes winners, sometimes losers, Russia and the United States were not fighting a nation that was willing or able to engage in the type of major land battles their armies were developed to fight. Instead of fighting each other with professional armies, they were fighting insurgents and irregulars.
The conflict in Ukraine changed everything. For the first time in nearly a century, large modern nation-states were engaged in a full-blown war. Ukraine possessed one of the most modern armies in the world having been funded and trained by NATO since 2014. Russia would not be fighting another Georgia or Afghanistan, there would be no armed insurgencies and rebel leaders. This became especially true when NATO decided to go all in on the war and supply Ukraine with every modern weapon system that it could spare. Since no country had fought a war like this in nearly a century, the learning curve was steep. Old tactics didn’t work. Armored spearheads and encirclements were no longer possible. Defensive fortifications supported by a plethora of mobile tank-killing weapons curtailed maneuverability. Battlefields at Mariupol and Bakhmut began to resemble Verdun and Passchendaele.
During World War Two, the Soviet Army was overwhelmed by the Germans in Operation Barbarossa. Summer of 1941 taught the Red Army hard lessons. But the Russians proved to be one of the more adaptable armies in the world and they put those grueling, bloody lessons to good use in the winter of that year with a counter-attack outside Moscow that pushed the Germans back hundreds of kilometers. The Soviets would take another year and a half of defeats and setbacks before seizing the strategic initiative and by the time it launched Operation Bagration in 1944, the Red Army had mastered mobile warfare like no other nation had ever seen. Bagration destroyed Army Group Center and collapsed the German lines. The Russians would not stop advancing until they took Berlin.
In the span of four years, the Soviet Union was able to not only develop the operational doctrine to conduct these massive armored offensives (Bagration involved 2 million Russian soldiers) but also the industrial capacity to arm the formations fighting them and the logistical base to support them. Now, in Ukraine, Russia achieved a monumental victory at the Battle of Bakhmut. Here are the weapons that swung the tide.
Following Gorbachev’s disastrous surrender to the West and the naive trust his successor Boris Yeltsin placed in NATO promises, Russia conducted precious little military development from 1991 through the early 2000s. At the start of the Ukraine war, Russia was effectively backward in drone technology. Battlefield experience showed how important drones were for surveillance but also, more decisively, in combat situations.
Drone use in warfare is familiar to Americans as Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump widely used drones during the colonial wars of empire in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans used expensive Predator drones to target insurgent targets but the application of drone use on the modern battlefield was taken to new areas by the Russians.
Russia first started using Iranian-produced Shaded 136 drones to conduct tactical strikes. Building upon the success it was having with these, Russia greatly increased the production of and use of its own ZALA Lancet drone. The Lancet was only revealed in 2019, so for a new weapon to go from prototype debut to mass battlefield use in only three years is remarkable.
The longer range Shaded drones (called Geranium-2 in Russian service) are now being used to degrade Ukraine’s infrastructure. Lancets have a wide variety of applications on the battlefield being used to attack tanks, AFVs, artillery, and air defense systems.
Continuing a trend we have seen throughout the war, Russia is able to produce cheaper more effective weapon systems than its NATO opponent. Geranium and Lancet drones cost about $15,000 each. Compare that to the cost of an American-made Reaper drone which sets the taxpayers back $32 million apiece.
Ukraine inherited the excellent S-300 air defense system from the Soviet Union and one of the flaws in the operational doctrine of all modern air forces is the high manufacturing cost of fighters and bombers. Russia cannot afford to get its best aircraft shot down. Traditional bombing required aircraft to be above its target to drop munitions. This brings the planes directly into the teeth of air defense systems. Glide bombs solve this problem on both a tactical and production level.
A glide bomb is a conventional bomb that has been upgraded with a precision-controlled GPS system and wings. The bomb can now be released on a flat trajectory allowing it to “glide” toward its target. Glide bombs are extremely accurate, allowing for precision strikes that minimize civilian casualties. Russia is using Su-34 and 35 jets to release glide bombs outside of the range of Ukranian air defense networks. The planes cannot be targeted and the bombs fly in and hit their marks.
Russia is conducting up to 20 strikes a day with glide bombs. And, unlike Lancet drones that carry a 40-kilogram warhead, glide bombs deliver one and half-ton payloads that cause serious damage. Russia was able to devastate Ukrainian positions in Bakhmut with these, in particular, they wreaked havoc on high-rise buildings Ukraine was using as defensive strongholds. Ukraine currently has no effective way to defend against glide bombs and these are a major problem for any large Ukrainian formation attacking on open ground.
Glide bombs further showcase Russian ingenuity in developing a weapon system from the hardware they already have in stock. Russia has hundreds of thousands of bombs it can convert to glide bombs at very little cost. Currently, the FAB-500M-62 is the most commonly used munition as a glide bomb platform.
Penicillin Counter Artillery System
In January of 2023, the Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed that the 1B75 Penicillin counter-battery system was being used in Ukraine. Penicillin went from drawing board to operational use in warp speed time. Russia began using it in test trials in 2018. The first two units, manufactured by the Russian defense conglomerate Rostec, were only delivered in 2020. Penicillin is another example of Russia moving from prototype to battlefield use in a phenomenal timeframe.
What is Penicillin? It’s a counter-artillery system mounted on a KamAZ chassis capable of detecting the launch of enemy mortar, artillery, and MLRS ordinance. When Ukraine fires one of these weapons, Penicillin can detect the launch in as little as five seconds allowing Russian artillery to find the firing position with pinpoint accuracy and to deliver a precision retaliatory strike.
Penicillin fulfills a similar role to the US-made AN/TPQ-37 Firefinder and the Swedish-designed ARTHUR system. However, what makes Penicillin stand out over these two NATO designs is that Penicillin does not use radar to track projectiles, it uses sound waves. An array of thermoacoustic sensors and both optical and infrared cameras are set up around the Penicillin unit. The sensors detect sound waves produced by the incoming fire while the cameras track the projectiles in flight. Radar is also capable of tracking shells and rockets, this is how NATO systems work. Radar-based systems have two major drawbacks; small targets like mortar shells may be undetected, and, most importantly, a radar-based system may be suppressed with electronic countermeasures, effectively being rendered “blind” or destroyed with weapons designed to hunt radar. Penicillin has no such disadvantages.
Radar systems do have a longer range; the Firefinder detects projectiles at 50 kilometers and ARTHUR has an effective range of 60 kilometers compared to the 1B75 Penicillin’s range of 25 kilometers. However, because it doesn’t use radar, Penicillin is almost impossible to find, NATO has no equivalent technology, and the 25 km range works well in the claustrophobic, WW1-style battlefields on which this war is being decided. Penicillin along with enhanced jamming techniques is one of the primary reasons the effectiveness of the US-supplied HIMARS systems has been dramatically curtailed over the last several months.
Kinzhal Missiles and Air Defense Degradation
Since late spring of 2022, Russia has conducted a series of strikes on the infrastructure of Ukraine. Sometimes these attacks would knock out power, sometimes they would hit water or internet distribution nodes. The conventional view was that Russia was trying (and failing) to cut the electricity in Ukraine. After nearly a year of these attacks, it has become clear that what Russia really was doing was degrading the Ukrainian air defense system.
Russia has been experimenting and attempting to come up with the ideal way to attack high-value targets within Ukraine. They will flood the area with cheap Geranium drones overwhelming Ukrainian air defenses. Russia will then strike the target with conventional missiles like the Iskander. Russia has begun to use its first-generation hypersonic missile, the Kinzhal, more and more recently as production of these high-tech projectiles has ramped up.
Hypersonic missile technology is one area of advanced weapon design where Russia is leaps and bounds ahead of the United States. The US has no functioning hypersonic missile. The US Army recognizes this deficiency and described hypersonic missile research as one of the key areas it must improve upon. What is a hypersonic missile? A missile capable of moving at extreme speeds that cannot be detected or intercepted by any air defense system currently in use by NATO.
Recently the world saw spectacular footage of a US-supplied Patriot missile battery attempting to intercept a Kinzhal missile. The Patriot launched 30 missiles into the air over a period of ninety seconds, unable to find and bring down the Kinzhal before being struck and destroyed. The Kinzhal was designed to destroy NATO air defense units like the Patriot and also to target warships, specifically Carrier groups. Kinzhal can also carry a nuclear warhead. Upon seeing in combat that nothing NATO has can intercept the Kinzhal and realizing how vulnerable it is to this type of missile the Western propaganda machine immediately went into motion. Ukraine claimed it had shot down a Kinzhal, going so far as to have the mayor of Kiev Vitali Klitschko pose with a projectile that was clearly not a Kinzhal. Remarkably, the Pentagon repeated this fabrication. Later claims by Ukraine that they shot down 6 Kinzhals in one night are too preposterous to accept by anyone save the most ideological devotees of the Kievan regime.
And yet, the Kinzhal is such a clear and present danger to NATO that we must ask, are Western politicians running these countries making decisions based upon a fantasy that they have a shield against the Kinzhal? Bear in mind that the Kinzhal is only the first generation of Russian hypersonic missile, they have two more in the prototype stages. Kinzhal changes how the US can deploy its carrier fleets, it changes how NATO would be able to conduct an air war, and most importantly, it changes how we must assess a nuclear threat when a Su-35 fighter can launch a Kinzhal that can’t be intercepted.
Assault guns are not a new technology. Russia developed the best assault gun in the world during World War 2, the SU-100. Germany knocked out more Soviet tanks with the StuG III than it did with any of its tank models. World War 2 era assault guns mounted a large gun on a tank chassis without a turret making them less expensive to produce than a tank while giving them a lower profile making them harder to detect. Since whoever got the first shot usually decided an armored engagement, assault guns ambushing from camouflaged positions proved to be deadly weapons.
As the Second World War progressed, the Soviets attached assault gun regiments to its Mechanized Corps directly supporting infantry divisions. The highly effective ISU-152 was essentially an artillery piece mounted on a T-34 chassis. The ISU-152 could knock out German tanks but was also extremely potent engaging infantry in urban combat. One shell could often bring down a building or bunker. During the expansive city battles for Budapest and Berlin, the ISU-152 was at the forefront of Red Army assault formations.
The war in Ukraine has demonstrated the need for tanks while emphasizing the weakness of tanks. Tanks are not capable of conducting armored offensives on the deadly battlefields of the Donbass without taking huge losses. Ukraine squandered nearly all the tanks it had and then all the tanks NATO gave it during the offensives at Izyum and Kherson. Russia lost a lot of tanks in the first few months of the war trying to replicate Second World War inspired armored thrusts against entrenched infantry.
And while Ukraine wants more advanced tanks; Leopards, Challengers, and Abrams to conduct offensive operations that have already been demonstrated do not work due to the multiplicity of ways a modern army can destroy large masses of armored vehicles, Russia has adapted and focused on using tanks in an assault gun role. Tapping into its large stockpiles of previous generation tanks, Russia has upgraded old T-62 and T-54/55 tanks and is using them as assault guns.
Evolving Russian tactics during the war no longer has armored units attacking entrenched Ukrainian positions. Instead, Russia will deploy the T-62s and T-54/55s up to a mile from the frontline. There are far fewer anti-tank devices that can hit them at that range while the excellent tank guns are able to provide fire support for infantry BTGs. When Russia does use tanks on the offensive, it uses them in small numbers, one, two, or three tanks supporting infantry in the role of BMPs then moving back from the direct combat zone. Like in WW2, Russian infantry is riding into a tactical engagement on the tanks, dismounting and going on the attack while the tanks withdraw to a safe distance where they can support the infantry but are more protected from Ukrainian artillery strikes.
Incidentally, the T-54 uses the 100 mm D10T gun, first found on the SU-100. What is old is new again.
Adapt, Darwin, I Ching. Whatever.
Tom Cruise’s character, Vincent, in the Michael Mann movie Collateral, has a line; “Adapt, Darwin, I Ching. Whatever, man, we gotta roll with it.” Mann feels the sentiment is important enough that he has Jaime Foxx’s character Max repeat it in a later scene. Historically, this has also been the view of the Russian army. Back at the beginning of this article, I mentioned that Russia learned over the course of four years how to conduct mobile warfare and defeat Germany. Within the syntax of these words is hidden the incredible crucible the Soviets went through. Russia would lose 25 million people fighting against Nazi Germany. Cities would be depopulated as their civilians were killed on an unprecedented scale. Enormous numbers of prisoners were taken and sent to concentration camps in Poland, most never to return to Russia. The scale of loss within the Soviet Union is too staggering to fully comprehend; there wasn’t a single family not affected by the struggle, all were called on to sacrifice, some with their lives fighting Germans, some with their labor digging ditches and gun emplacements around Kursk, many who wouldn’t have anything to eat because all available food was being sent to maintain the Red Army.
Despite the privation, despite the cruel and vicious press of the Wehrmacht and SS divisions deep into the motherland, the Soviet Union adapted to the new era of modern war. Russia moved entire factories out of the path of the invading Germans and relocated them to the Ural Mountains. They built T-34s at the Tractor Works in Stalingrad while being bombed by the Luftwaffe and sent finished tanks from the assembly line straight to the battlefield. They did whatever it took to survive. By the end of the war, Russia had designed the best tanks and AFVs the world had yet seen. And, most importantly, they won.
Today, the largest shock among the NATO general staff is how ineffective its weapons are against the Russians and how rapidly the Russian army has adapted to the course of this war. America, and by extension NATO, has never fought an artillery war like this. They don’t understand it. None of their operational doctrines are prepared for this. Russia closed off the flanks and forced Ukraine to fight at Bakhmut and over the course of nine months killed over 50,000 AFU soldiers decimating nearly half the brigades under Ukrainian colors. Russia achieved the most significant military victory of the 21st century by making adjustments and revamping military ordinance and tactics. Russian flexibility and experience don’t bode well for NATO as the conflict heads deep into its second year. If Russia didn’t quit in 1942 under far more excruciating circumstances, they sure aren’t going to quit in 2023. And the only way Ukraine can win is if Russia quits. NATO is locked into a wrestling match with a Bear and the Bear is evolving.