War has changed – shockingly so

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis


War is a horror; so is terrorism, an insidious substitute to war.

Problem is, war has changed in our days. War has changed in shocking but also in ensnaring ways. War has been always changing and adapting – all along getting ever more deadly. Passing from longbow to gunpowder must have been a horrible experience for European belligerents of the 14th century; so was greeting the Gatling gun on battlefields of the mid-19th century. Far worse was surely the experience of chemical gas in the trench warfare of WWI, of the atom bomb to end WWII…

War theatres of the last decades, with the use of advanced/digital weaponry have given the impression that a version of – horrific, too, but less mass-exterminating – precision warfare. The Iraqi, then the Afghan experience have lured the West to the belief that war was something that happened far away – of geopolitical concern, of course, but something that happened “to others”. Surely not to Europeans/Westerners…

Then Ukraine came along, getting back war – real war, not of the digital kind – to European territory. Then again, such war was fought essentially in a proxy configuration: the West supplied weaponry, ammunition, intelligence support – along with diplomatic and public-opinion encouragement – but it was Ukrainians who fought it out with the Russian invaders (plus some volunteers and/or mercenaries). As war raged on, those who had the composure to follow closely started to realise that WWII memories were back, with atrocities and proximity building a potent mixture and raising the spectre of PTS in our neighborhood (What is PTS? Post-trauma syndrome). Then of course came the Hamas aggression to Israel, the horrors visited upon civilians, the extensive Israeli retribution to Gaza – the whole of the Middle East getting closer to flare-up. (Some days earlier, a more localized conflict leading to the exodus/expulsion of tens of thousands of Armenians from Nagorno Karabakh /Artsakh eluded attention: one more “forgotten conflict”).

Both the Ukraine conflagration and the Gaza shock left behind one further disturbing realization: technologically advanced/top of the arsenal missiles and precision rocketry deployed, with assorted field armory and air cover – at a cost of millions (of dollars, or euros, or roubles) a throw, paled compared to UAVs and RPAs. That is, unmanned aerial vehicles and remotely piloted air-systems. Such drones, as they came to be known, along with their sea-borne relatives, carrying explosive charges further to providing missile guidance/targeting and often flying in “coordinated/synchronized flocks” have proved exceptionally effective. “Suicide drones” were added to the weaponry mix. As their cost can be of as little as 35.000 dollars, while they can be of Turkish or Iranian issue, even when shot down in droves they constitute formidable weapons. Tanks have been destroyed by suicide air drones, whatever their armour; naval ships put out of commission by seaborne drones. Of course heavier/more sophisticated versions, such as Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones carry a price tag of some 5 million US dollars (even then, they compare favourably to the some 25 millions for US-made Reapers). Still, put in context of the missile systems costs, they have plummeted. Moreover precision targeting and drone versatility have indeed  upended the configuration of warfare.

From the plains of Ukraine to the mountains of the South Caucasus to the Gaza/Hamas (or Lebanon/Hezbollah) Israeli border, this change in warfare is the portent of dangerous things to come.  Turkish discourse over the demilitarization of Aegean Islands (please look at the map, measure distances) carries a new message when taken in such a context. While the throwback to trench warfare and attacks on civilians at AK-47 gunpoint compound an image of an ever-darker future.