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How Drones Are Changing War 

Cheaper technology means a return to offensive dominance, which makes the whole world more volatile.

Combat training of Ukrainian soldiers in Zaporizhzhia

On a humid Bengal summer day of 1757, the imbecilic, smug, and peevish warlord, the Nawab of Bengal Siraj ud-Daulah, did what any teenager with technologically advanced French-made artillery would have done in 18th century India: He attacked a tiny British garrison. The Nawab’s forefathers wouldn’t have existed without British protection from their fellow “Indians” (no such nation existed yet), particularly the marauding and feral Marathas from the west coast, but the nobility were not known for their gratitude. Siraj, followed by a host of 40,000, marched to a point 140 miles north of Calcutta and met the forces of Robert Clive, 3,000 strong including around 700 Europeans. 

But the outnumbered Clive possessed a few things that Siraj didn’t. Clive grew up reading Cardinal Richelieu and had an uncanny knack for realpolitik that helped him in grasping local alliances regardless of race or religion. He also had fate on his side. It heavily rained the day before the final battle, turning the terrain muddy and dampening both the Bengali spirit and their gunpowder fuses.

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Most importantly, he had sheets of cheap tarpaulins, a relatively advanced and cheap product of the Industrial Revolution, which he had brought from Bombay to cover his own gunpowder. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. Clive’s furious cannonade tore through Siraj’s cavalry charge, won Bengal, established the British Raj, and started the era of “defense dominance” in modern military history, which continued, apart from a brief interval when the Germans blew a hole through the Franco-British lines, until 1940. 

Two hundred and sixty-five years after the battle of Plassey, another army was thwarted miles from a major city. In 2022, the Russians sent massive, meandering columns towards Kiev to decapitate the Ukrainian leadership, but what they did not foresee were small raiding platoons of Ukrainian soldiers with British- and American-made anti-tank weapons—and yoga mats. The Ukrainians held these foam mats, each costing about a dollar fifty, over their heads to prevent Russian thermal imaging drones from detecting human heat. Cheap technology overwhelmed mass, signaling a return of “offense dominance” in war.

Is the future one of long attritional proxy wars, siege technics, expensive weaponry, and overwhelming defense? Nothing, except an all-out great power war, would be more civilization-ending for our species. The questions of resolve and deterrence are back, as is the vexing, misunderstood, convoluted, and often tautological concept of the “offense-defense” balance. So what is this murky concept? 

In very broad terms, the offense-defense balance relates to a whole body of literature in international relations which defines whether offense or defense has an advantage in a given situation and the relative strength behind them both. The core concept is that there are several variables, such as terrain, geographic proximity, and technology, that can alter a state’s calculus about the relative costs and benefits of offense or defense, thereby influencing its statecraft. 

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In his most influential work on the topic, Robert Jervis wrote, “When we say that the offense has the advantage, we simply mean that it is easier to destroy the other’s army and take its territory than it is to defend one’s own. When the defense has the advantage, it is easier to protect and to hold than it is to move forward, destroy, and take.” 

That might sound axiomatic, but the inferences drawn are profound. The relative cost in this context refers to conquest of territory: actual military action with actual strategic implications, specifically to “attack, seize, hold a portion of a theatre” and thereby alter the course of a conflict. The causal logic isn’t about the ease of an action but rather the strategic result of it. In short, the question is not just who wins and loses but who decides to initiate an act of war and who is deterred, based on the perception of advantage and disadvantage.

Geography, too, plays a factor. Terrains that are flat, such as plains and deserts, favor offense. Forests, swamps, mountains, and the sea favor defenders. Distance favors defense, too. If the attack is too long and thinned out, it risks the logistics chain and proves itself open to punitive raids. Climate is an open variable but usually favors defense. Extreme cold, mud, or sludge can destroy entire armies. Sheer mass can occasionally overcome heavy defense, D-Day and the later Napoleonic campaigns being prime examples. Military history, however, boils down the offense to defense ratio to roughly 3:1. An invading force ideally needs three times or more the number of defenders to commit to a successful offensive. 

The most important, and fluid, of all determinant factors is technology. The history of warfare is a story of humans trying to use technology for either offensive or defensive advantage. Chariots, armored horses, and tanks have all been used to increase mobility and lethality and break open the defensive constructions of the enemy. The walls of Constantinople that withstood thousands of years of siege warfare were finally taken down by an unprecedented heavy cannon designed by a lone and clever Hungarian in the service of the rising Ottoman empire.

Moats, trenches, wires, and mines, on the other hand, have been used to innovate defense. The heavy armor worn by French knights was an advantage in sunny France but a liability in muddy England, where they were picked at by agile English archers. Tanks that win wars in a North African desert are death traps in the Eastern European snow. Firepower has also favored both offense and defense. Rapid-firing Martini-Henri rifles were used as an offensive advantage in India and a defensive advantage against the Zulus. Gatling guns on a hilltop were used to devastating effect during the American Civil War by defenders. Similar guns were used to spread abject terror during offensive raids atop Soviet Hinds flying over Afghanistan—up until they were trumped by superior and cheaper technology in the hands of the defenders in the form of shoulder-launched air-defense missiles. 

Complications naturally arise when the static variables are married with perceptions. Robert Jervis outlined that offensive superiority increases the benefits of conquest and therefore incentivises war. Offensive superiority also contributes to arms races, therefore leading to war. Finally, offensive superiority heightens erroneous perception of offensive advantage and therefore leads to war. The First World War is considered a classic case study of a volatile culmination of an offense-dominated rush. New technologies in firepower, airpower, tanks, and ship-building led to an arms race and “security dilemma” spiral. New technologies also result in miscalculations and overestimations of one’s own resolve and misunderstanding of what total mechanised warfare will unleash. 

It is understood in hindsight that defense dominated both in the American Civil War and the First World War. That changed with the Germans using a combination of terrain, tactics and extra light armour to their advantage in the early days of the Second World War, deploying “combined arms” tactics and airpower to devastating results. This was the only time a Blitzkrieg was remotely successful, both on a tactical and strategic level, a result of its peculiar time and circumstances. Smaller, cheaper dive bombers also marked the last gasp of gigantic battleships. 

Likewise, the conflicts in Ukraine and Israel both show that pretty much every assumption can now be turned on its head and the world is sailing to uncharted waters as newer technologies disrupt the offense–defense balance again. Consider Ukraine in February 2022. After almost a century of theoretical chaos and debate, “defense dominance” had arguably been solidified in military thought. But Ukraine should not be considered a defensive war. The original Russian offensive succeeded in penetrating the country in four axes and, despite Russian miscalculation and incompetence, gained over 42,000 square miles of ground in a matter of weeks. Likewise, Ukraine’s Kherson counteroffensive gained thousands of square miles in days, despite Russian deep defenses. 

Similarly, in Armenia, Azerbaijani forces used small artillery brigades and extensive use of cheap drones to locate and decimate Armenian defensive columns. The war in Gaza has seen offense dominate on both sides. The original attack by Hamas was rapid deployment in small combat groups that overtook Israeli border forces, fences, and heavily fortified settlements and managed to murder over 1,400 people before the overwhelming might of the Israeli army could stop them. In turn, Israeli columns have so far not been bogged down in any urban warfare and have extensively used both airpower and tanks to pound Gaza.

In Ukraine, technology made all the difference. A 21st century war of conquest that at times seems like a 20th century one, it has involved mass attritional warfare, anti-tank and anti-personnel mines, Dragon’s Teeth fortifications, and muddy trenches. But consider the ways drones have been used on both sides. Ukraine’s successful defense of Kiev can be attributed to cheap and superior tech from the Western side, whether in jamming Russian signals or target coordination. Manpower loss on both sides was roughly equal. Ukraine isn’t a peer power to Russia, nor are they trained in combined arms with top-tier Western airpower, so sooner or later sheer mass would come into play. Without Western support, Ukraine would have shared the fate of Armenia. It would have been considered an offense dominant war, and that would have been that. 

But the simple fact that Ukrainians have blunted the Russian aggression is not the whole story. Ukraine sunk and deterred some of Russia’s capital ships not just with British Storm Shadow missiles but with Ukrainian-developed unmanned sea-baby drones. The Russians were not far behind. They quickly adopted the play by using even cheaper drones to track, break, shoot, and kill German Leopard tanks. These drones, around $400 apiece, allowed Russian platoons with shoulder-fired missiles to trap gigantic hulks of armour and obliterate them. In the Israeli theatre, Hamas used rudimentary drones costing around a hundred dollars, combined with motored parachutes costing around $6,000 to overwhelm Israeli defenses. Every single Interceptor missile from Israel’s Iron Dome costs around $40,000. Hamas makes their cheap rockets from stolen water pipes, costing around three hundred dollars each, and fires them at roughly equal parity. 

The wars in Ukraine and Israel are between non-peers. In a near-peer competition between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the latter rolled over the former. Armenia relied on lumbering Soviet-era mass and armor; Azerbaijan used cheaper Israeli and Turkish drones for offense domination to devastating effect. Armenian tanks and artillery were supposed to serve as their traditional platforms for offense. In fact, they were the victims of sustained superior tech and mass attack. The massive predator platforms turned to prey, similar to an old lion being devoured by a pack of small hyenas. 

What happens when technologically advanced major powers go on arms buildup? If mass-produced cheap drones can stop the Russian army in its tracks or overwhelm Israeli border defenses, how will it look when Britain, France, and the United States start to revise their military doctrines and incorporate cheaper swarm tech, only this time in the aid of offensive capabilities? What if the offense-defense difference itself is blurred? 

If cheap tech will indeed change battlefields and signal a return to an offense-dominant world, then the trends lead us to reconsider some priors. It would mean that legacy platforms will be abolished for cheaper swarm platforms. If wars indeed start looking like they are from an earlier century, cheap tech similar to pom-pom guns that can shoot down cheap drones will take the place of expensive anti-air missiles that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Tanks will go away, and drone production will increase instead of F-35s. Aircraft carriers will be vulnerable to submarine drones. Mechanised systems will replace humans. Nearshoring of rare earth elements needed to enhance chip production will urgently start. Economic systems will undergo wholesale changes. War doctrines would be revised in favour of offense more than defense. Pre-WW1 punitive raid tactics and pre-WW2 rapid mobility warfare will make a comeback. 

Robert Gilpin predicted in his 1981 book War and Change in World Politics, “Military innovations that tend to favour the offense over the defense stimulate territorial expansion and the political consolidation of international systems by empires or great powers.” A tilt towards offense will result in more international volatility. These are not just idle speculations. Oversized and overpriced platforms mean nothing against cheaper and more mass-produced tech. Nazis spent years perfecting the design of Stukas and building gigantic Schwerer Gustav guns and were simply outproduced by smaller and cheaper Soviet and American tech. We are about to replicate the era immediately after the Industrial Revolution and immediately prior to the European colonisation of the globe. 

The Department of Defense has taken note. DoD is now spearheading an initiative, incidentally named Replicator, “to create cheap drones across the air, sea, and land in the ‘multiple thousands’ within the next two years.” The implied target is clearly a peer rival. Gigantic Chinese carriers risk being overwhelmed not by dozens of F-35s but by thousands upon thousands of drones. “Here’s a metric for me: 1,000 targets for 24 hours,” said Admiral John Aquilino, head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, recently. “Those will be an asymmetric advantage. So operational concepts that we are working through are going to help amplify our advantages in this theater… There’s a term, hellscape, that we use.”

The reverse is also true. American carrier groups risk total obliteration in the hands of Chinese coastal batteries aided and targeted by land operated drones. Consider the fate of Russian heavy war cruiser Moskva, on a mass scale. Deterrence is established as denial of aggression from both sides. 

Smaller states might not be so lucky. The ability of a small African, Asian, or Latin American country to manufacture either high-tech signal jamming or low-tech pom-pom guns to offset drone swarms will invariably be significantly lower than the ability of rich powers to manufacture thousands of drones or cheap rockets. That doesn’t mean we will see occupations in the style of Iraq 2003. But in an era of great power rivalry, it certainly would result in individual great powers showing force and seeking protectorates by committing overwhelming punitive violence on those low on the pecking order, without crossing the threshold of a total war with another rival power.

 In short, we are possibly entering a world similar to the 19th century: low-threshold but constant imperial violence on smaller states, without any nation-building, under an overarching great power peace. The world will again be divided between the colonizers and colonized. 

There is no way to predict the future, but whatever future we face, the technological arms race has already started and society must adapt to it, including changes to our economic and educational models. Because, in the grand scheme of things, regardless of the number and mass of combatants or the global balance of power, it is always better to be on the side holding the Martini-Henry guns than the one brandishing the assegai.

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