Russia’s Path to the High-Tech Battlespace

  • Published

Russia’s Path to the High-Tech Battlespace by Roger N. McDermott. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2022, 470 pp.

Roger McDermott fills a gap in the literature on the West’s perception of Russian combat capabilities with Russia’s Path to the High-Tech Battlespace, demonstrating how the Russian military has created the military theory, command and control (C2), and advanced weapons to continue threatening US and Western interests. He provides key insights into Russian decision-making, C2, and military modernization. McDermott’s work is exceptionally well-researched, drawing extensively from Russian primary sources, especially professional military journals, general news outlets, and specialized military news sites. As McDermott demonstrates, despite missteps and apparent setbacks from its overt invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Russia remains a potent military power. It may not reach parity with the West, but it retains the theoretical, organizational, and technological potential to continue disrupting the international order for the foreseeable future. This book is a useful overview for military and policy professionals confronting Russian aggression.

McDermott is a leading Western expert on the Russian military. He serves as a senior fellow in Eurasian military studies with the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, DC, and is a visiting senior research fellow at the department of war studies at King’s College in London. Further, he is an assistant editor for the Journal of Slavic Military Studies. He has authored numerous articles and books, including The Reform of Russia’s Conventional Armed Forces (2011).

Russia’s Path to the High-Tech Battlespace continues his research tracking Russian military modernization. His work nests in the body of English-language literature on Russia’s military, providing details not available in other sources. Bettina Renz and Igor Sutyagin have written on Russian military reform but with greater focus on the military overall, especially new weapons and logistics. Several researchers evaluate ongoing Russian military performance, notably Dmitri Trenin, Justin Bronk, and Michael Kofman, but McDermott provides the foundation to better understand the military actions those writers describe. Finally, much like McDermott, researchers such as Timothy Thomas and Charles Bartles present concepts from the Russian point of view; however, McDermott emphasizes how the Russian military is achieving its own vision of future warfare.

McDermott organized Russia’s Path to the High-Tech Battlespace in two main parts. His first four chapters review Russian military theory, outlining the modernization of the Russian military based on its updated doctrine, then providing specific case studies of Russian military modernization. This section culminates with a chapter evaluating Russia’s performance in Syria as a case study to understand to what degree the Russian military has reached its own modernization goals. Then McDermott dedicates each of the last three chapters to Russia’s most advanced weapons: hypersonic missiles, electronic warfare, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). He considers these in light of Russian warfare theories, their planned employment, and examples of fielding and use. These chapters give context to the media hype involving Russian advanced weapons, where technical specifications are sometimes confused for capability. Understanding how the Russian military plans to use such weapons sets expectations for Western military planners who may confront them.

McDermott concludes that Russia can, indeed, perform advanced warfare tasks using modern systems, but only in limited operations. Russia’s C2 is sufficient to steer limited operations, such as in Syria, but does not have the depth for large-scale combat operations. His conclusion stems from the link between Russia’s beliefs in the changing nature of war and its battlefield outcomes.

The Russian military understands warfare development in terms of generations. According to Russian military discourse, civilization has progressed through multiple generations with advances in technology and improvements in military art. Advanced nations are now fighting in the sixth generation of warfare, characterized by high precision weapons and a quickened reconnaissance-strike contour. Nations which have achieved the level of network connectivity required for sixth-generation warfare control the speed and timing of combat operations. Conventions of earlier generations of warfare may still be necessary in specific contexts, such as with counterinsurgency or what the West terms low-intensity conflict, but a nation possessing superior sixth-generation capabilities can choose the time and pace of war to be successful. From Russia’s own analysis, as McDermott describes, it has not fully realized sixth generation warfare. It has the advanced weapons, though not always with the C2 networks to make it fully effective.

Airpower exemplifies Russia’s incomplete progress towards sixth generation warfare. Advanced airpower is an essential element of sixth-generation warfare, though Russia views it almost exclusively in the form of precision strike. Airpower allows combatants to apply force with greater rapidity and lethality than other platforms. This leads Russian analysts to describe sixth-generation warfare as non-contact war, where precision munitions could affect targets with minimum risk. From the Russian perspective, in contrast to Western theories, airpower is considered purely a vehicle for precision-guided munitions. Neither McDermott nor any of the Russian theorists he quotes discuss the requirement for air superiority. Russia’s failure to consider air superiority, and McDermott’s lack of discussion regarding Russian air theories, illustrates the doctrinal shortfalls which have perhaps led to Russia’s poor performance. In terms of real battlefield outcomes, Russia has proved unable to gain air superiority during its conflict in Ukraine. In turn, this has reduced the Ukraine war to an attritional, high-contact campaign, with significant losses of manpower and materiel. Without air superiority, Russia has been unable to fight the kind of war it planned, as McDermott describes.

Since Russia’s Path to the High-Tech Battlespace was published just as Russia was invading Ukraine in 2022, McDermott did not have the opportunity to review his assessment. In the foreword, Bartles briefly touches on that disconnect, noting the impact operations in Ukraine may have on Russia’s future development. That the Russian military struggled to employ its advanced systems in a large-scale conflict proves McDermott’s point that its military modernization was uneven and incomplete. As Bartles notes, however, over the next decades the Russian military may absorb and implement the lessons it is learning in Ukraine to continue its path forward.

Beyond its insight into the Russian military mind, Russia’s Path to the High-Tech Battlespace highlights the importance of beliefs in shaping the conduct of wars. Russian theories regarding sixth-generation warfare are closely linked to the Western concept of the revolution in military affairs. This concept, popularized in the 1980s and 1990s, posited the nation that can gather and exploit information the fastest will be the most successful in combat.

Over the past three decades, the US military has achieved an advanced level of network-centric warfare. Nowhere is this more evident than in the robust American networks providing C2, as well as sensor-to-shooter links. The US military’s information dominance is arguably its greatest strength. However, recent struggles to implement joint all-domain C2 illustrate that Western militaries should not take this advantage for granted. Constructing networks, weapons, and the training to use them effectively will take deliberate effort. Despite the work McDermott describes Russia has taken to achieve this level of warfare, its struggles underscore how important it is to get it right.

Lieutenant Colonel J. Alexander Ippoliti

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."