Last October, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikocv said in an interview with Politico that “we have a combat testing field in Ukraine during this war.” He clarified that his comments referred to evaluating the various 155mm artillery weapons systems used by the Ukrainian military in their ongoing efforts to turn back the Russian invasion. Still, his sentiment reflects an increasingly prominent aspect of the war: its role as a testbed for Western weaponry and tactics, a trial run for new technologies and strategies in the relative absence of 21st-century near-peer military conflict.
Ukraine, for their part, eagerly embraces its role as beta testers for its western allies’ weaponry: Reznikocv’s comments implicitly encourage NATO countries and military contractors to take advantage of the chance to deploy their shiny new weapons systems in modern conflict, an unsurprising openness from a country facing a far more significant, notoriously stubborn Russian military under the autocratic tutelage of President Putin. In the slow, brutal conflict that the war of attrition in Ukraine is shaping into, powerful Western weaponry has the potential to tip the scales toward the Ukrainian defense. It also gives Western militaries a chance to sandbox new technologies vicariously.
— NEXTA (@nexta_tv) January 4, 2023
Recognizing the allure of Ukraine’s proxy battlefield is not a new idea. Lara Jakes details Western weapons and training being tested in Ukraine in her recent New York Times article “For Western Weapons, the Ukraine War Is a Beta Test,” where she quotes Ukrainian vice prime minister Mykhailo Fedorov as explicitly stating that “Ukraine is the best test ground, as we have the opportunity to test all hypotheses in battle and introduce revolutionary change in military tech and modern warfare” to a NATO conference last year. Fedorov’s comments were presented in praise of their newly employed information system, Delta. This state-of-the-art software program collects and distributes real-time battlefield information to the Ukrainian military command. Ukraine developed the Delta system alongside foreign allies to augment readily available information on enemy forces and efficiently coordinate defense forces, returning a more detailed situational picture to NATO members supporting Ukraine.
As Fedorov suggested, Ukraine reaped significant benefits from integrating the Delta system into their military strategy (for example, assisting in Ukraine’s ousting of Russian forces from Kherson), the success that stoked Western allies’ hopes for the use of similar information systems in future conflicts. Thibault Fouillet, France’s Foundation For Strategic Research researcher, describes the Ukrainian military as a “MacGyver Army” able to adapt quickly and find innovative solutions. Ukraine is fortunate and versatile enough to pursue these solutions with cutting-edge military technologies and theories provided by Western allies and military contractors, a significant upgrade from the paperclips and duct tape used by the inventive hero of the old television show.
Ukrainian forces are using M777 howitzer to hit Russian positions in Kherson oblast, 9 January.
📷AP Photo/Libkos pic.twitter.com/Zst9OfRVws
— UkraineWorld (@ukraine_world) January 10, 2023
One can’t help but be reminded of the deadly military innovations produced by the standstill trench warfare of World War I. Improved machine guns, chemical weapons like poison gas, and the introduction of tanks to the Great War’s stalled front lines pushed casualty numbers through the roof, even though they often failed to produce meaningful strategic victories. The situation in Ukraine, in many ways, reflects the flurry of military innovation in WWI. Allied and Axis Powers then dreamt up new technologies to batter each other in sickeningly ingenious ways.
Now, Western allies equip Ukrainian forces with modern, frequently untested weapons systems and technologies to resist the immense inertia of the Russian war machine. Whereas aviation took tentative steps into warfighting during WWI, a proliferation of foreign-made drones cruised the skies over occupied Ukraine. Though still organizing its military around Soviet-era weapons systems and a rigid top-down chain of command, Russia has widely used cheap Iranian Shahed drones to attack Ukrainian infrastructure and cities rather than risking manned aircraft.
— Feher_Junior (@Feher_Junior) January 10, 2023
Lithuanian company NT Service has provided Ukraine with the EDM4S SkyWiper. This anti-drone gun looks sci-fi enough to belong to Master Chief, the space marine from the Halo video game. In the early stages of the war, Ukrainian forces adapted commercial, off-the-shelf products into an “alibaba army” of surveillance and kamikaze drones. Now the Ukrainian military uses more official drones like the iconic Bayraktar TB2, built in Turkey, or Switchblade kamikaze drones sent from the United States. Lara Jakes writes again in the NYT about the explosively armed sea and aerial drones used by Ukraine to attack Russia’s Black Sea Fleet near Sevastopol, only months after NATO allies publicly, if vaguely, committed to sending Ukraine remote-controlled boats. Despite denying involvement, these attacks hint at the eagerness of Western nations to assess how experimental technologies fare in combat.
Mobile groups of drone hunters are ready. Russia is again attacking Ukraine with Shahed drones. pic.twitter.com/AE5ISewPck
— Maria Avdeeva (@maria_avdv) January 1, 2023
More Iranian-made Shahed drones are shot down above Kyiv. Russia launches them at sleeping Ukrainian cities almost every night. Y'day, on New Year's night, was the latest big attack
— Euromaidan Press (@EuromaidanPress) January 1, 2023
Opportunities to do so have been relatively limited in the 21st century: wars in Afghanistan and Iraq did not subject Western troops and weaponry to quite the same modern, conventional, peer conflict as in Ukraine. But opportunities for combat testing in Ukraine come with a myriad of costs. For one, Western allies and Russian aggressors risk escalating the conflict through snowballing military competition, an external current that boosts Ukrainian military strength and wartime danger for Ukrainian civilians. A recent SOFREP article discussed claims that Russian forces may use thermobaric “vacuum” weapons and cluster bombs, a morally offensive strategy in an urban battlefield full of civilians and a worrying step towards the ultimate lethality of a nuclear strike. Allied weapons systems should be sent to Ukraine to support their war effort, not to exploit its convenience at the expense of vulnerable civilian populations.
Additionally, Western allies and overeager military contractors risk showing their hand to potential adversaries like China and Russia, closely tied countries with an apparent interest in understanding new NATO weaponry. Beijing stands to learn as much from the successes and weaknesses of Western systems as Western militaries do. These concerns should be remembered when determining how to support Ukraine against the Russian invasion.