I do not usually comment on the Ukrainian crisis at the tactical level. Thank God, there are enough experts who know even better than Mr. Putin whether the village will be seized by Russian invaders from the right or the left. If I am addressing the issue at this level, it is only because, in my view, we have managed to accumulate a critical mass of tactical-level misconceptions that threaten the interests not only of the Ukrainian side but also the security of the West at a strategic level. Commentary by Robert C. Castel.
The first of these misconceptions relates to the effectiveness of the Javelin, Stinger and other “miracle weapons.” The other day I read a renowned foreign expert who gave a precise estimate as to when the last Russian warplane and last Russian tank would fall. On what does the astute analyst base his prediction?
A Javelin anti-tank missile is much cheaper and much quicker to produce than a Russian anti-tank missile. A Stinger is much cheaper than a military air vehicle. The West can produce and deliver these devices in far greater quantities than the Russians can replace their losses.
It’s all just a production planning and distribution challenge, a sort of IKEA in camouflage. The renowned foreign expert scorned the Russians for not being able to do even such a simple head-counting exercise and graciously reassured the reader that the buffoonery will soon be over and we can once again return to the calm of the climate and COVID panic.
At first, I thought it was a peculiarly British form of humor. It took me a little while to realize that the brave pundit was deadly serious, and on that basis he was already heralding the defeat of the Russians, the fall of Putin, the break-up of Russia and all the other happy news.
The problem is that in a real war things work a little differently.
I don’t underestimate the effectiveness of these tools of war. Especially as I have had some unpleasant encounters with them, and I will carry the shrapnel of a Russian armor-piercing missile in my body for the rest of my life. However, I also know from experience that real war does not look like what the brave analyst described.
There is nothing linear, no predictable proportionality in a real war. There are no miracle weapons.
In war, the only miracle is man’s endurance in inhuman situations. At the moment it is the Ukrainians. It was morally important and the right decision to support the underdog by handing over these combat tools. At the same time, if we want to give practical meaning to our actions, it is no less important to realistically assess the effectiveness of these means.
Land and air combat vehicles have never been invulnerable. The Javelin, the Stinger and their counterparts are not revolutionary innovations, but merely half-century-old technological developments. Even in situations where these assets have caused tactical surprises — such as during the Yom Kippur War — the other side has adapted very quickly to new threats. In 1973, the Israeli army developed tactical solutions in a matter of days to neutralize the anti-tank assets of the Arab armies. In 2006, Hezbollah’s Kornets initially inflicted losses on Israeli armored forces, but even in this case they failed to stop a determined all-arms attack. Over time, technological aids were added to the tactical response. I do not have data on the effectiveness of Russian-developed active defense systems (Afganit, Arena, Drozd, etc.), but the fact is that in 2014 Israeli combat vehicles equipped with similar devices successfully resisted attacks by Russian anti-tank missiles equivalent to the Javelin.
In air warfare, similar processes were at work. The Stinger and its counterparts proved very effective in the 1960s and 1970s in the Middle East and Afghanistan, but since then a number of tactical and technological solutions have been developed to counter their threat. These technological solutions are now so widespread that they can also be found on civilian passenger aircraft.
Why is it important to be aware of the inherent limitations of these tools? Because
we must not be lulled into the delusion that if we deliver a certain amount of camouflaged green-painted tubes to Ukraine, victory is assured.
If we are seriously committed to helping Ukraine, it is time to look for more, and more effective, solutions in the toolbox.
But this kind of misunderstood optimism is only one side of the coin.
The other side of the coin is the danger that we are creating for ourselves by proliferating these weapons systems.
The same miracle weapons that can vaporize a Russian fighter jet into aluminum confetti are no less deadly against our good old low-cost airliner whisking us away to a sunny holiday after the COVID quarantine.
The same Javelin that can slice a Russian tank in two from several kilometers away will peel an ammonia or bromine gas tank in the industrial quarter of a major western European city with equal efficiency.
Unfortunately, this is not just a theoretical threat, invented by paranoid security analysts for the layman’s benefit. Over the past decades, more than half a million shoulder-launched anti-aircraft devices have been manufactured, and tens of thousands of them are still unaccounted for today.
Since the 1970s, more than 60 attacks on civilian airliners have been carried out with such missiles, resulting in more than 1,000 deaths.
Since the vast majority of these attacks have taken place in Africa, war-torn parts of Asia and Central America, the phenomenon has remained almost entirely below the stimulus threshold of Western audiences. It is also a little-known fact that the US has spent tens of millions of dollars buying up these weapons on the black market before they can do any serious damage. What has changed in this respect with the Ukraine crisis? The fact that Europe is now a war zone and Stingers do not need to be smuggled into the continent. They are already here, and taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the Schengen borders, they need to travel just a little more before catching a plane full of tourists in the air.
It’s only a matter of time before the Javelins, Stingers and other weapons shipped to Ukraine will come back to haunt us.
The Soviet and allied secret services provided Europe’s terrorist organizations with all the goodies during the Cold War, and we can be confident that the Russians will now revive this tradition.
Unfortunately, it is not at all impossible that Europe’s passenger planes will soon start landing in aluminum confetti. This is a particular threat to the popular low-cost airlines, which cannot afford to invest a million dollars per aircraft in Israeli or American defense systems. The Russians, for their part, will jump at the chance to mutter about extremist Ukrainian terrorists. It is even possible that the serial number will readily identify the NATO country from which the Stinger came to Ukraine, a weapon that then caused hundreds of deaths upon returning to the West.
The war in Ukraine will probably be the boring stuff of history lessons while the Western secret services are still spending their merry days in hell buying up, seizing and disarming their lost Stingers and Javelins.
All this is not to say that Ukraine should not be helped by Stingers and Javelins. It just means that we should not be naive. On the one hand, we must not be naive about the effectiveness of the weapons systems that are being handed over as aid. On the other hand, we must not be naive about the dangers that are inevitable with such a technology transfer.
The Javelin, Stinger and other glorified war technologies will soon haunt us as the modern equivalent of mines and aerial bombs left over from the World Wars for decades to come — somewhere in Europe.