Learning from Real Wars: Gaza and Ukraine

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The U.S. military spends untold time, energy, and effort preparing for its future wars. Yet periodically, real wars intrude to shatter hypothetical concepts and show how the ever-changing interaction of doctrine, technology, and leadership affects the character of war. The conflicts raging today in Ukraine and Gaza offer tragic examples of two markedly different kinds of modern wars — one largely a conventional battle between states raging across thousands of kilometers of disputed territory, and the other an unconventional clash between a terrorist group and a state battling in a cramped and densely populated urban area. Although it is still too early to declare any firm lessons from these ongoing conflicts, they can nevertheless illuminate some worrisome gaps in U.S. military thinking about its future conflicts.

Here are three emerging areas where the U.S. military may be significantly unprepared for the rapidly changing character of modern war. They involve the challenges of large-scale urban warfare, a new definition of air superiority, and the fact that some private companies have essentially become combatants.

The Challenges of Large-Scale Urban Warfare

Though U.S. military leaders continue to emphasize the likelihood of future urban operations, they have not done nearly enough to design and prepare their forces for these exceptionally difficult battles. In 2016, then-Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark Milley observed, “In the future, I can say with very high degrees of confidence, the American Army is going to be fighting in urban areas … [but] we’re not organized like that right now.” In 2023, little has changed. 

 

 

Despite some hard-won experience fighting insurgents in Iraq, the U.S. military has not fought a battle in a major urban center since the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam. Yet, increasing urbanization is one of the clearest global trends of this century. By 2050, the United Nations projects that 68 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. Today, 578 cities have more than one million residents, a number expected to rise to 662 cities by 2030. Today there are also 32 megacities of more than 10 million residents, and that number is expected to increase to 43 megacities by 2030. 

Cities were major battlegrounds during the first year of the war in Ukraine. Though the Russian military would almost certainly have preferred to fight those early battles across large expanses of open terrain, it was inevitably drawn to fight in cities — largely because Russia needed to resupply its forces through the major rail and road networks in urban environments. The intense fighting and widespread devastation of cities like Mariupol, Bakhmut, Kharkiv, and Kherson invoked images of Stalingrad in World War II. In any future land conflict, fighting forces will inevitably face a gravitational pull into urban areas — and the most decisive battles of a future war may well occur there.

Though the war in Ukraine has involved substantial urban fighting, the magnitude of the Israel Defense Forces operation today in Gaza — one of the most densely populated areas of the world — dwarfs virtually all recent urban combat experience. In Gaza City, Israel faces a well-armed and deeply entrenched militant group nested inside a civilian population of 1.1 million, all under the intense glare of international media and the strictures of the laws of armed conflict. Israeli ground forces have employed infantry and armor teams to maneuver through heavily rubbled streets, drawing on techniques developed during its last large-scale Gaza incursion in 2014. It continues to clear buildings, secure terrain, fight through underground warrens, and battle Hamas fighters hidden among hundreds of thousands of terrified civilians. The Israeli Air Force has also conducted extensive airstrikes that have devastated substantial parts of northern Gaza. 

When was the last time a U.S. infantry battalion cleared a hospital — or a skyscraper? The U.S. military would not be able to rely solely on standoff tactics and precision strikes during urban operations in a large city. It would have to resort to large-scale tank-infantry operations to gain control of the urban landscape, which would inevitably kill many combatants and civilians alike. This means that U.S. military ground forces (including the Army, Marine Corps, and special operations forces) should be better organized, trained, and equipped for intense urban fighting. 

A New Definition of Air Superiority

The U.S. Air Force understands that in future major conflicts, it will only be able to achieve localized air superiority during specific windows of opportunity. But the current wars, particularly in Ukraine, show that it probably won’t be able to achieve true control of the air in any future conflict, because cheap and plentiful drones will saturate the skies. 

Expensive legacy air forces are playing a limited role in Ukraine, as air defenses against manned aircraft have become more deadly (and both the United States and Russia seek to limit potential escalation). Drones, however, are an indispensable and omnipresent shadow above every Ukrainian battlefront — providing intelligence on enemy forces, identifying targets for artillery and rocket fires, and carrying lethal munitions that can destroy tanks, maim infantry, and blast logistics depots far from the front. They are also helping neutralize expensive Russian air defenses and target Russian electronic jamming equipment. And long-range drones, not manned bombers, have regularly delivered deep strikes on critical targets ranging from Moscow to Kyiv. 

Above the Russian and Ukrainian front lines, drones are now dominating what has been called the “air littoral” — the space between the ground and the higher altitudes of manned air operations. Control of the airspace above armies locked in ground combat was once the sole domain of costly and sophisticated high-tech air forces, but today it is being achieved by armadas of cheap drones. This upheaval is rendering traditional concepts of air superiority incomplete, if not obsolete. 

The war in Gaza also shows how drones are changing the meaning of air superiority. The Israeli Air Force is one of the best air forces in the world and flies some of the world’s most advanced manned aircraft, while Hamas irregulars function with effectively with no air force at all. But even the bloody Hamas attacks on Oct. 7 included multiple attacks by relatively cheap drones against air and naval targets, many of which were savagely effective despite Israel’s unchallenged conventional dominance of the air. 

Both conflicts suggest that true air superiority can no longer be achieved solely by building a multi-billion-dollar, high-tech air force to defeat similar adversary capabilities. And there will be even more drones flying over future battlefields than there are today, since they are increasingly inexpensive and are now widely available to any state or group who wishes to buy them. Cheap drones, especially when employed en masse, will continue to dominate the air littoral and pummel forces on the ground, while highly advanced and expensive air forces seem virtually powerless to stop them. For troops on the ground, attacks from masses of $200 drones are just as deadly as bombs dropped from multi-million-dollar enemy fighters. The U.S. Air Force should figure out how to achieve superiority in this newly-contested airspace against swarms of unmanned drones — a mission for which its exquisitely costly jet fighters are entirely ill-suited. 

Some Private Companies Are Essentially Combatants

Drones are not the only commercial technology to play a central role in both Ukraine and Gaza. Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite network is probably the most famous example, which currently provides the entire internet backbone that Ukraine is relying upon to fight its war. But commercial products being adapted for wartime use are visible everywhere in both conflicts — including the profusion of cheap Chinese DJI Mavic drones and Hamas fighters using commercial internet in Gaza to enable their communications and to promote terrorist videos to a global audience. 

This has enormous implications for future wars. Smaller states and non-state actors will be able to buy satellite images that are just as good as those from extremely expensive military satellites — and which will further increase the transparency of the battlefield. That means that a wide range of weaker states and non-state actors — like Houthi rebels, Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria, Islamic State fighters, and drug cartels in Latin America — can now access images that were once the exclusive provenance of the world’s major powers. 

The use of commercial technology during military operations raises some extremely challenging issues. One involves the limited ability of the U.S. government to affect the actions of private companies. Let’s use Starlink as an example here. The U.S. government can prevent Musk from providing imagery to Russia, under the sanctions established after the invasion of Ukraine. But if Musk decided to terminate Ukrainian access to Starlink, as he has repeatedly threatened, there’s not a whole lot the U.S. government can do. It could nationalize Starlink as a critical strategic asset, but it is hard to imagine that drastic step being taken in anything short of a truly existential conflict for the United States. It could also try to name and shame Musk by holding congressional hearings or mobilizing public support. But ultimately the decision is entirely up to Musk, regardless of its enormous strategic implications. Shutting down Ukrainian access to Starlink would instantly make the Ukrainian military far less effective — and could even provide Russia with a decisive strategic advantage.

There are also many complex legal issues here. To continue with the Starlink example, does international law allow Russia to legally strike Starlink satellites, since Ukraine is clearly using them to enable military operations? If the answer is yes, to what extent does the U.S. government have any responsibility for either protecting those satellites or compensating Starlink for any losses? And if the answer is no, and Russia were to attack the satellites anyway, to what extent would it deter companies from supporting future military operations, and with what consequences? We are not lawyers, and we don’t claim to understand the intricacies of the laws that would be involved. But we nevertheless believe that the unprecedented integration of commercial technologies, and the companies that provide them, into military operations will raise novel practical and legal issues that will directly affect the U.S. military in its next conflict. 

Conclusion

Real wars provide insights into the changing character of war that peacetime concepts and wargames can never fully reveal. The wars raging in Ukraine and Gaza show that the U.S. military should increase its preparations for large-scale urban conflict, expand the concept of air superiority to address the problem of drones in the newly contested air littoral, and work with the U.S. government to think through some of the thorny issues raised when private companies essentially become combatants. The wars in Gaza and Ukraine should be an urgent catalyst for the U.S. military to challenge some of its assumptions and accelerate its adaptation to the new ways in which wars are being fought.

 

 

Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (ret.), and Dr. Nora Bensahel are Professors of the Practice at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and are also contributing editors at War on the Rocks, where their column appears periodically. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Jacqueline Parsons

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