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27 November 2023

Cheap weapons, new wars

Warfare is increasingly about low-tech not high-tech arms – and the US is falling behind.

By Malcom Kyeyune

This is the second of a three-part series of essays on the end of “the new American century”. Part one can be read here.

As the United States finds itself plagued by both economic and military crises, and as Israel tries to defeat Hamas in Gaza while also trying to fend off attacks from Hezbollah in its north and Houthi rebels to the south, a number of similarities present themselves between the current situation in the Middle East and a conflict in central Europe fought around 600 years ago. The Hussite Revolution that took place between 1419 and around 1431 was not just a religious conflict; it was an early example of a military revolution that is still unfolding today.

At the beginning of the 15th century, central Europe entered a time of upheaval. This began as a religious dispute, centred in the kingdom of Bohemia, when the words of the Czech theologian and Christian reformer Jan Hus began to spread through Prague and its environs, igniting a full-on revolution. The execution of Jan Hus in 1415 for the crime of heresy did little to stop war and catastrophe; Hus’s followers, who called themselves the Hussites, refused to elect a new monarch and insisted on their reformist interpretation of the Christian creed. This made them the target of five consecutive papal crusades. As Bohemia was a small nation ganged up on by many of its neighbours, the outcome seemed like a foregone conclusion: the revolutionary Hussites seemed to have lost the war before it even began.

But the Hussites did not lose. Despite being outnumbered, and even though their soldiers were peasants facing the best of central Europe’s military elite, the Hussites won spectacular early victories – and kept winning. Apart from having excellent commanders – Jan Žižka, generally considered one of the best military commanders in history, being the most famous – the Hussites were lucky to have been living at a hinge point of military history.

Cannons and handguns weren’t new in 1419 but they hadn’t been deployed in a systematic way, and tactics hadn’t yet been developed for their use in combat. Thus Žižka found that by pioneering new strategies his enemies had never seen before, and which they had no effective way of countering, he had a real advantage. Peasants armed with relatively cheap mass-produced weapons shouldn’t have been able to defeat much larger forces of professional soldiers, but this is exactly what happened. Žižka’s innovative defensive strategies (built around Czech “war wagons” that could form mobile, easily defensible strong points) made the new gunpowder weapons integral in a way they hadn’t been before. Inside the relative safety of the wagon fort, the time-consuming reload process wasn’t as much of an issue, and the heavy cavalry charges of the elite German knights could easily be repelled.

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Both Israel and the US have armies that are, conventionally, far more powerful than their opponents. Israel has thousands of tanks and one of the world’s largest air forces (which is quite noteworthy, when you consider that it is a small, resource-poor country with less than ten million people), and the US has a dozen aircraft carriers, more than 10,000 military aircraft, and a large (but shrinking) army. They are up against mostly non-state actors who do not have the means to operate air forces, blue-water navies or large tank armies. Why, then, does the international situation in 2023 seem so much more intractable than it did 20 or 30 years ago?

One useful frame for understanding the dynamic of 1419 (and, increasingly, the 2020s) is that there is an ongoing shift in the balance of power between platforms and weapons. Military platforms tend to be expensive, in terms of resources and labour. They are often complex, and that complexity limits who can access them. A good example of a “platform” is a tank, or a modern fighter jet. These require an immensely intricate industrial chain to produce. A fighter jet requires a trained pilot (and the costs of training can run into tens of millions of dollars), airbase infrastructure, fuel, spare parts, weapons, mechanics and other support personnel for maintenance.

The German heavy cavalry was the fighter jet of 1419. A mounted, heavily armoured knight required plenty of wealth and labour availability to sustain; warhorses were purpose-bred and not cheap either; high-quality arms and armour required a lot of time and skilled work to produce; and so on. The system we today call (somewhat anachronistically) “feudalism” looked like it did in no small part because it was set up to produce and maintain these expensive full-time warriors. In Sweden, the old word for nobility – frälse – means “exempt”: nobility was quite literally the status of being exempt from ordinary taxes due to providing trained, mounted and well-armed warriors to the monarchy.

When these knights faced down peasant soldiers, they invariably won. But during the Hussite Wars, the German knights were suddenly confronted by a reality in which new and relatively cheap weapons – if used in a manner that compensated for their weaknesses – could inflict lots of damage even in relatively untrained hands. In the decades and centuries after, heavy cavalry lost more and more of the advantages it held during the Middle Ages.

It is easy to forget just how old Western military equipment is. Individual tanks or airplanes have often been around for several decades, and many of the models come from the 1970s or early 1980s. Consider for a moment that the US’s Apollo space programme had at its disposal a guidance computer with a whopping 72 kilobytes of read-only memory. Today, an ordinary phone has many million times more computational power than that, at such a tiny fraction of the cost that they are affordable to most individuals around the world.

The F-15 and F-16 fighter planes, which remain the workhorses of many air forces, had their first flights in the early 1970s. And while they’ve been upgraded with better sensors and computers over time, the concept of a manned fighter jet was still conceived at a time when electronics were primitive and “computers” were unfathomably capital-intensive. The only way to drop a bomb from the air was to fly up there and do it in person – in other words, to invest in an immensely complex and expensive platform. The modern aircraft carrier – long seen as a symbol of raw military might – follows the same logic: it is a fundamentally pre-electronic military platform, which has since had electronics slapped on to it.

To understand just how revolutionary the advent of truly cheap, DIY weapons promises to be, consider the cost of dropping a bomb from a fighter jet. An F-35 stealth fighter costs around $90m. Training a pilot to fly the plane can easily cost another $10m. Sustainment costs are around another $10m for every year the plane is in service. That’s approximately $110m for one plane, one pilot, and one year of operating it. Weapons are of course extra, and so are the airbases or aircraft carriers required to use these planes. A new Iranian-made Shahed-136 suicide drone, by contrast, comes at a price point of around $20,000. As a weapon, it’s not without limitations (the warhead, for example, is around 50 kilograms), but in terms of pure cost, it has a huge advantage. Merely for the cost of training an F-35 pilot, an air force could afford 500 of these suicide drones, which have the additional benefit of requiring much less in the way of base infrastructure or trained personnel to operate.

To take another example: a single Javelin anti-tank missile costs around $200,000. At the onset of the Ukraine war in 2022, there was a lot of hype surrounding this weapon system: it was the apex of military modernity and Western high-tech superiority over poor and backwards Russia. The vaunted “Saint Javelin” was expected to lead Ukraine to victory. But Javelins have turned out to be antiquated and fairly irrelevant compared with the real stars of the show: cheap FPV (first-person view) drones. Even old, inexpensive anti-tank warheads can be used with great precision and almost no risk to the operator when strapped to a tiny remote-controlled helicopter; all the operator has to do is pilot the drone to a weak point on a tank or a trench filled with soldiers.

Twenty years ago, the idea of a “Hamas airforce” attacking Israeli soldiers from the air would have been ludicrous. Today, there are videos of Hamas doing just that: using these cheap, camera-equipped drones to drop grenades on both Israeli soldiers and tanks. Ordinary consumers can buy an FPV drone for as little as $1,000 today; for an organised military, the cost is likely to be lower. The Russian military, though initially sceptical of the utility of these drones, has come around to their potential; it now manufactures thousands of these drones a day in quite basic garage-style workshops, using pre-made components and simple hand tools.

Cheap electronics, cheap rocketry, cheap explosives; they are pushing effectiveness in warfare away from large, expensive, complex and capital-intensive platforms, towards cheap and plentiful weapons. A single Javelin missile might be twice, even ten times as effective as an old high-explosive anti-tank warhead attached to a drone, but it’s not 200 times as effective, nor is it as safe and easy to use. A 12-year-old could, using what is essentially a video-game controller, single-handedly take out a tank with an FPV drone. They wouldn’t even be able to lift, much less operate, a portable missile launcher.

Does this mean there’s no longer any point in fighter jets, or that Israeli Apache helicopters have become worthless? No. But in a tragic sense, like the battleships on the eve of the Second World War, these ageing and fantastically expensive weapons now embody a West that has mostly run out of imagination, with its view of the world frozen in time.

In 2023, just as in 1419, the Western world is militarily dominant. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. Our carriers might be increasingly ancient, our weapons might be twice or even three times as old as the soldiers firing them, and our planes might be slowly falling out of the sky due to rust and metal fatigue. Nonetheless, according to 100-year-old conventional wisdom, the side armed with the most expensive and complicated weaponry will win. Yet, in Ukraine and the Middle East, the West is confronted by enemies that don’t think like we do. From the Houthis in Yemen to Hezbollah in Lebanon, to the Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq, we face religious and nationalist armies that shouldn’t be giving us any trouble – and yet they are. The same goes for Russia: a nation with a GDP smaller than Belgium’s should have been defeated months ago, ground into dust by superior weaponry and large economies – and yet it wasn’t.

At some point in the past few decades, our understanding of the world became antiquated. As Israel increasingly struggles against non-state actors capable of inflicting real damage at a tiny fraction of its defence budget, as missiles and drones increasingly rain down on the US military bases in the region, Al-Asad and Al-Tanf, one can see the glimmering of a new, Middle Eastern Hussite revolt. Unfortunately for us, we’re the Germans, not the Czechs.

Read more:

The return of the “longest hatred”

JFK and the myth of the great martyr-saviour

The end of panda diplomacy

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