We only know big [platforms], and we are two generations late in adopting the smaller, more effective, more efficient tools of war.— Vice Adm. Bob Harward (ret.), Shield AI executive vice president of international business and a former member of the U.S. National Security Council
The Ukrainian battlefield should inform U.S. and allied military modernization efforts. We all started with a plan, and it’s time to take in recent information and adjust accordingly.
The numerous videos of Stinger missiles and man-portable air defense systems annihilating Russian helicopters — just as the Afghans did to the Russians in the 1980s — or the rows of destroyed tanks — just as the U.S. destroyed Iraqi tanks in the 1990s — should inform our modernization efforts.
The fact that we are sending 17,000 anti-tank weapons to Ukraine to counter tanks begs the question of why Poland is set to spend $6 billion for 250 tanks, or why any nation would bring tanks to the modern battlefield.
The math here is simple, straightforward and blindingly obvious:
- A $10 million tank is defeated by a $175,000 Javelin, a $6,000 Carl Gustav rocket (this author’s favorite weapon as a SEAL) or a $100 improvised explosive device.
- An $18 million Russian Mi-28 attack helicopter is defeated by a $120,000 Stinger missile. When you add in pilot training and proficiency costs (likely $5 million to $10 million each), almost $30 million was destroyed by a cheaper, more mobile weapon system.
On tanks: They have their place on certain battlefields, for certain missions, against certain weapon systems. But by and large, a great reduction is required, as those battlefields are few and decreasing rapidly. Anti-armor weapons, anti-tank weapons, and armed drones have simply made the tank obsolete. Kudos to the Marine Corps for cutting its tank MOS in 2020; the Army should consider the same. Armor that is ineffective is not armor — its heavy, cumbersome and an expensive waste.
On attack helicopters (not transport helicopters): This is a harder one for me, as attack helicopters have a special place in my heart because they delivered incredible value on my deployments in Afghanistan. But MANPADS weren’t highly proliferated in Afghanistan and if the modern battlefield will be filled with MANPADS, as we are seeing in Ukraine, we must fill the attack helicopter mission with something far cheaper and less expensive. The Achilles’ heel of a $35 million Apache helo is a $120,000 MANPADS. And that will hold true for all future attack helicopter systems, so we need to find a way to accomplish those missions with less expensive assets.
Artificial intelligence-powered swarms of highly intelligent drones will soon be able to execute most attack helicopter missions (to include destroying tanks). Further, they’ll soon be able to execute most missions that other vulnerable, expensive aircraft like the Global Hawk and Predator normally execute. “Soon” is defined as in the next couple years, or before any next-generation attack helicopter is introduced.
It’s unlikely the drone cost will reach parity or be less than the MANPAD. But losing a $1 million drone that is part of a larger swarm is far better and more economic than losing a $35 million Apache and the two highly trained, experienced pilots who fly it.
Every nation considering buying a new helicopter, a large (Group 5) drone or a piece of armor should pause and think about how it can accomplish the same mission for far less. Yes, we still need certain large assets for certain missions. But those missions are becoming sparser, and as such we should reduce the number of large assets we buy.
We had a couple sayings in the SEAL teams: “Plan your dive, dive your plan” and “the enemy gets a say, so read and react.” Those two sayings are in natural tension with each other; the first about sticking to the plan, the latter about adjusting the plan.
The trick is knowing when to stay the course or when to adjust. Let’s learn from the Ukrainian battlefield and adjust our modernization efforts and legacy arsenal accordingly.
Brandon Tseng is the co-founder and chief growth officer of Shield AI, as well as a former U.S. Navy SEAL.