A $500 IED pins down an American armored column for hours…a Muslim lunatic with an explosive vest necessitates a $50,000,000 security upgrade at a border crossing….a $35,000 drone destroys (maybe) a $10,000,000 Leopard II tank…a $500 Qassam rocket requires at least one $50,000 Tamir missile to shoot it down.
One of the glories of market economies is how fast expensive and rare technology quickly can become available to everyone. Obviously militaries clamor for the highest tech, in part because it is better for their needs, but also because it is unreachable for all but the richest nations. That is the technological advantage that America has had for many years. But the explosion in computing power, sensor technology, and controller cost has blurred those lines.
The war in Ukraine has made it increasingly clear that modern warfare is now undergoing its own aggressive period of commodification. The driver of this is somewhat ironic: technology initially developed for military purposes, such as GPS and advanced electronic optics, has been designed for consumer products, and their price dragged down. The commodified versions of the technology are now being used to create new weapons systems that are highly effective and cheap.
The most prominent piece of this sort of now-commodified technology in the Ukraine war is Russia’s ZALA Lancet drone. These have been used extensively to target tanks and other vehicles belonging to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. It is now commonplace to see videos of Lancet drones being used to destroy advanced tanks, such as the German Leopard II.
Consider the relative costs. A Lancet drone costs around $35,000. It appears to be easy and quick to produce, with ZALA Aero Group announcing it will increase production by “several times this year.” A Leopard II tank, on the other hand, costs around $11 million. It is also slow to manufacture, with maybe fifty or so produced each year.
This is where things begin to get absurd. On a pure cost basis, Russia can produce 314 Lancet drones for every Leopard II tank Germany produces. This gets even more dramatic if we factor in relative prices in the two countries by using purchasing power parity (PPP) adjustment—how economists make accurate international economic comparisons. With this, we find that, for the cost of producing one Leopard II tank in Germany, Russia can produce 683 Lancet drones. This raises an obvious question: is the battlefield worth of a Leopard II equivalent to nearly seven hundred Lancet drones? Probably not.
The commodification of the battlefield we have seen in Ukraine calls into question much of contemporary Western military strategy, which seems to focus on producing high-quality, high-cost equipment in the hope it can overwhelm inferior forces. Nor is this solely the case in a grinding war of attrition, as we have seen in Ukraine. Since the outbreak of the war in Gaza in October this year, we have seen various other aspects of Western military strategy be called into question by the process of rapid battlefield commodification.
[Aside from the questionable math and my suspicion that the Russian success against the Leopard II might be exaggerated, this is a worthwhile article.]
The question is: how can 1st World nations combat the high-tech-low-cost attacks of their sometimes stone-age adversaries?
The answer is simple, and absolutely antithetical to the post-modern concept of limited war, limited casualties, surgical strikes, restrictive rules of engagement, and political expediency trumping any military considerations on the battlefield.
Return to total war. Until Western technology dominates $35,000 drones that can kill anything on the battlefield, the only sane response is to discard the 21st century conceit that war can be manipulated and titrated and guided and massaged to arrive at a specific end that has no significant casualties or destruction. That is nonsense, and the experience of the last 70 years proves it.
Israel should have leveled Gaza, and saved the hundreds of soldiers who have died and will die in their careful campaign to destroy only Hamas infrastructure, and kill only Hamas terrorists.
The United States should have leveled every Iranian base in Syria after the first drone was used to attack one American installation.
The West should have bombed every Houthi installation the second a single ship was attacked in the Red Sea.
The short-term answer to commodity drones and RPGs and rockets is power. Oceans of artillery and bombs fired at every target of opportunity. They are reasonably inexpensive, and surprisingly accurate! But the goal is not pinpoint accuracy to kill only the drone operator in a spider hole in an abandoned building. The goal is to terrify and intimidate and destroy the will to fight.
That is a disproportionate response, and it is axiomatic that to win a war, one needs to destroy more and kill more than one’s opponent. Proportionality has become an excuse to avoid victory.
We need more victories and fewer proportionate and ultimately inconsequential military adventures. That will save lives…the important ones in our armed forces, and even those among our enemies, since protracted wars, simmering and seething just below the surface ultimately kill more people than a short, swift, violent response.
*Apologies to Harold MacMillan