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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Technological developments in conventional warfare

This is the fifth in a series of sections of an essay entitled "International Relations in the Twentieth Century: the Russian Snake". The other sections can be found at and the entire essay will be published online once completed.


In Europe, war is back. Yet its structure appears fundamentally to have changed. That is because everyone had forgotten about the Arms Race except Russia. Now we are in a position in which the United States is unable to use her massively superior air power to prevent the Russian invasion of a peaceful neighbouring state allied with the United States. American air power was traditionally the bulwark of NATO and global stability in the period after World War II. Now the war in Ukraine is being fought more or less without air forces at all. Instead it is a Ground War. What happened? Why can the United States just use her overwhelming air capacity to dominate military theatre, as she did in so many earlier wars that she participated in after the end of the First Cold War? Something fundamental has changed, and we need to investigate what it is.

Aeroplanes saw their first military theatre outing in World War I. However the technology was still fairly primitive and the use of air war was not outcome determinative. German Zeppelins sought to bomb Britain's east coast but because a zeppelin was essentially a balloon full of flammable hydrogen, they were extremely vulnerable to ground fire and could only really be used for reconnaissance missions. By World War II, aeroplane technology had advanced sufficiently that bomber aircraft could be used to attack cities. They were not particularly accurate and were used more to terrorise civilian populations than to target specific military objects. Nevertheless the industrial city of Dresden was destroyed by US and British bombers, and many British cities suffered significant bomb damage, including London. During this period, fighter 'planes were developed to combat bombers, such as the British Spitfire. This model, of bombers sent to undertake attacks upon ground targets; and fighter jets, scrambled to intercept them, captured the military imagination for decades thereafter.

However the development of Great Power nuclear deterrents to some extent started eclipsing the bomber / fighter air war variant as early as the 1960's. Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM's) followed the development of technology for the exploration of the outer atmosphere and inner space, firing rockets into the atmosphere that would then release a series of missiles travelling at speeds of up to Mach 27 in principle carrying thermonuclear warheads. These warheads would be travelling so fast that there was no way in principle to stop them. Hence the only means of preventing nuclear attack was to build the same such ICBM's that could do the same thing in the opposite direction. From this developed the theory of mutually assured destruction ("MAD"), particularly when submarine-launched ballistic missiles were developed in the 1970's.

The theory underlying SLBM's was that ICBM's could be fired from deepwater submarines in locations that were impossible previously to divine, in the event that the submarines did not receive an appropriate routine indicator that the outside world had not been nuked. Therefore, in principle, SLBM's served as an assurance of mutually assured destruction and these are now the principal method by which nuclear powers maintain their "second strike" capacity (i.e. the capacity to ensure that if they are attacked by nuclear weapons, then they will be able to retaliate by obliterating their opponents). In this way, the peace is kept between nuclear powers. If any nuclear power attacks another one, there is a risk that the attack will be escalated until the powers use nuclear weapons each against the other, at which point both powers at war will destroy one-another. Hence direct warfare between nuclear powers will not take place. At the time nine countries possess nuclear weapons; of which two, the United States and Russia, possess 90% of those nuclear weapons between them.

Nevertheless plenty of other states may go to war. During the Cold War, there was a plague of wars that were fuelled by Great Power intervention. Thus one or both of the parties to a civil conflict were supported directly or indirectly by one of the sides, fuelling the war to continue longer than it otherwise would have, particularly if (a) one side would quickly have been eliminated without the support of a Great Power (e.g. the Vietnam War - the South Vietnamese would have been quickly overrun had it not been for direct US intervention); or (b) two opposing Great Powers engaged in Cold War confrontational politics are each funding and/or providing military support to competing sides in a war (as happened in Angola, Mozambique and a variety of other African conflicts). In the First Cold War, it was routine for one or both sides to provide military equipment and advisors to the antagonistic parties in a conflict that had begun in any part of the world, much as Ukraine has been supported through the supply of money, military equipment and technical expertise by a variety of western countries opposed to Russia's invasion of her. As a result, Russia's domination of Ukraine is going much more slowly than it would have done had Ukraine not had access to the West's, and particularly the Americans', enormous resources. Hence we see a Cold War pattern playing itself out again in the Russia-Ukraine war.

Nevertheless the aeroplanes and the bombers have disappeared. As recently as the 1990's, bombs were delivered against antagonistic Serbian positions in both Bosnia and Serbia by the US Airforce, dropping laser-guided bombs and using cruise missiles with so-called inertial guidance systems: computers that carry satellite images of the landscape and that can steer themselves around intervening obstacles in their course to destroy a very specific target. Now nobody is engaging in bomber missions, and few fighter 'planes have been deployed in the war in Ukraine. What has changed is that ground- or ship-based missiles have become a lot more prevalent, particularly in the armed forces of the Russian Federation. A new generation of supersonic (travelling at more than Mach 1) or hypersonic (travelling at more than Mach 3) missiles have been developed, that can be fired from a variety of ground-based installations and that have medium to long range (let us call medium range up to 500km, and long range missiles that can go further). Therefore there is no need for the expense of bombers in order to fire weapons carrying conventional warheads, together with the risk that bombers are shot down. If there is no need for bombers, then there is no need for fighters either, whose role is to protect the bombers and to engage in dogfights with other fighters; or to fire their own air-to-ground missiles. Aeroplanes are expensive and, if a Great Power is fighting a war at a distance, one needs an aircraft carrier in order to deliver them into theatre. So aeroplanes have suddenly become at least partially redundant.

There is another issue. Russian ground-based surface-to-air missiles, in particular the S-400 series of SAM's, developed in 2004, have become widely respected as the world's best surface-to-air missile system. They employ a three system in which the first vehicle keeps radar and other means of tracking to detect an enemy incoming missile or aeroplane; the second locks onto the travelling object's speed, location and other coordinates, and the third fires a missile with an inertial guidance mechanism that travels at up to Mach 14 to intercept the incoming enemy aerial object. S-400's have a medium range and can be used against aircraft flying at high speed and high altitude, as well as against incoming missiles. (It is an open question whether they could intercept an incoming ICBM or SLBM so as to disactivate it before detonation; nobody has ever tried). The net result of this is that air war has effectively been eliminated as we know them, wherever the S-400 is deployed. The West's surface to air missile systems are inferior; the US Patriot missile system, that is slower and less effective than the S-400 system, was designed for asymmetric warfare, the sort of war that the Great Powers were having in between the two Cold Wars (the one that ended in the 1990's and the one that has only just begun). In asymmetric warfare, one may be seeking to use SAM's against inferior aeroplanes and missile systems, as in the First Gulf War in which US Patriot missiles were used with some success against Iraq's SCUD ballistic missiles. In Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Russia has developed a series of hypersonic missiles, such as the the Kalibr and the Tochka, which again the United States does not have access to.

Therefore Russia has overtaken the United States in an Arms Race that the United States thought it had won in the 1990. As the United States was turning the development of its battlefield technology towards asymmetric warfare and counter-insurgency methods that would come to be used extensively in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States' two major military engagements in the inter-Cold War period, Russia was developing a series of weapons that would give her the advantage on a battlefield not against asymmetric opponents but against strong opponents such as other Great Powers that might support a Ukrainian resistance to a Russian invasion. The situation we find ourselves in now is that Russia's superior missile technology has rendered symmetrical air warfare mostly unimportant, because air warfare can be precluded through the use of missile hypersonic ballistic missile technology. Russia has been quietly beating us at the Arms Race in the area in which that matters in a ground war such as the invasion of Ukraine.

Russia was always been more interested in ground wars than in other sorts of wars, and her air warfare capacity has always been poor; her single aircraft carrier remains in a sorry state. The reason Russia wants to maintain ground wars is because her ground army has the potential to be very large, depending upon the extent to which the Russian President is willing to use his unilateral powers of conscription. Because Russia's political psychology is autocratic and one in which media censorship is largely suffered, she has the capacity to conscript and indeed to lose far more Russian troops as a proportion of her (very large) population than most can most liberal democracies with their traditions of free media. Hence focus upon relative advantages in ground wars, such as ballistic missile technology, amplifies Russian relative power in the conduct of warfare. Moreover the reason Russia wants to be effective in ground wars is because her imperial aspirations are for the territory of her neighbours. Russian history has always been so. It was when she invaded Afghanistan in the 1980's; at that point Afghanistan was an adjunct of the Soviet Union. Only with territorial dissolution of the Soviet Union has the Russian Empire ceased to have a direct border with Afghanistan. The invasion of Ukraine is an invasion of adjacent mostly flat territory, which suits shelling, tanks, infantry movements and ballistic missiles. To compensate for her weaknesses in air warfare, Russia has concentrated upon developing military technology that renders air warfare largely obsolete.

Will things change? Undoubtedly the Western powers will soon develop their hypersonic missiles, if necessary copying the S-400, Kalibr and Tochka technologies and improving upon them. The United States and her allies may develop hypersonic missiles that can outpace the S-400's. She may reach the point at which her fighters and bombers can fire such missiles; and/or that weapons can neutralise the effects of Russian surface-to-air missiles. So far, such technology, such as the Sentry Gun, appears not to work or can be easily frustrated. The Russian destroyer the Moskva, sunk by a subsonic Neptune cruise missile (essentially a Tomahawk cruise missile repainted), evaded the Moskva's three Sentry Guns by the use of three cheap drones. (A Sentry Gun is an automatically firing gun that sets its own direction of fire using a computer, designed to create a wall of ammunition to defeat incoming missiles and other offensive weapons. It turns out that you can persuade them to focus on harmless drones to the exclusion a genuine danger such as an incoming cruise missile.) Once the technology to defeat Russian missiles is developed, Russia may develop even faster missiles. There may be a ballistic missile arms race. Only where the United States and her allies achieve parity with Russia in such technology, and in particular technology is developed to prevent hypersonic missiles from sinking aircraft carriers, may air warfare again have a renaissance. For now, until Russian hypersonic ballistic missile technology is overcome in one way or another, it seems too dangerous to sail an aircraft carrier into military theatre, because it may always easily be sunk by a ballistic missile, just as was the Moskva.

It is always impossible to predict the future, and that applies as much to conventional weapon technology as to anything else. However for now, air warfare and aircraft carriers appear to be on hold, and ground wars are the likely immediate future of proxy warfare in the Second Cold War.

The truly frightening apex might be reached where a side believes it has developed surface-to-air missile capacity in such a way as to neutralise ICBM's and SLBM's, thereby making it tempting to conclude that one side or the other has a "First Strike" capacity for nuclear weapons. (This is the capacity to strike first so conclusively that one's nuclear-armed opponent does not have the capacity to strike back, and Mutually Assured Destruction is thereby no longer assured. This makes the use of nuclear weapons, and the mass murder of tens or even hundreds of millions of people, more attractive.) Let us pray that no side develops ballistic missile technology sufficiently good to achieve this In the meantime, let the new Arms Race, based around hypersonic ballistic missiles and mechanisms to neutralise them before impact, begin.


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