The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.

The Allure of Technology

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt Nestor R. Levin, USAF

Hindsight is 20/20. When Russian forces invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the consensus was that Russia would quickly achieve victory in three days thanks to its technological superiority. Yet, Ukraine not only managed to halt the Russian invaders but also pushed them back on multiple fronts. A year later there was the same belief that superior technology supplied to Ukraine would turn the tide of war and break through Russian lines in Zaporizhye within a week. This also did not come to pass. Instead, it has become evident that technology alone cannot avoid attritional warfare. There is a deep-seated belief that more advanced Western technology and expensive weaponry are the panacea that will ensure that both Ukraine and the US DoD will succeed in high-cost, high-intensity, near-peer conflict. Yet, the scorched fields and blasted-out trenches from southern Ukraine to Bakhmut highlight the need to prioritize the utilization of cheaper alternative means and platforms that can be easily massed. 

The search for technological advantages in war is a common theme throughout history as belligerents have sought ways to both defend themselves and overcome their opponents' defenses. When coupled with developments in tactics and organizations, this has often resulted in periodic shifts in primacy between offensive and defensive capabilities. When offensive military technology cannot provide a sufficient advantage to overcome the defenses of an opponent or the opponent quickly adapts to counter the new technology, conflicts between similarly enabled adversaries often devolve into attritional contests. 

The Russo-Ukrainian War has been a real-time example of this phenomenon. While the Ukrainians demonstrated innovative ways to pair cheaper technology with sophisticated operational employment, the Russians have copied their methods in recent months, even outpacing them in certain cases. For example, after the Russian Air Force suffered most of its aircraft losses earlier in the war, they have pivoted to relying on stand-off munitions. However, the high usage of cruise missiles up to the winter of 2022-2023 was expensive and economically inefficient. Therefore, the Russians developed guided versions of the FAB-500 and FAB-1500 munitions as a cheap and plentiful alternative with a comparable price to American glide munitions like the GBU-39 and JDAM.[1]

With the end of the Cold War, there were major changes in the American military and defense industry. Active duty end-strength decreased from some 2.1 million personnel in 1989 to 1.3 million in 2023.[2] The consolidation of 53 major defense contractor companies into only 5 companies by 2000 led to a reduction in weapons program competition.[3] The corresponding decline in the defense production industrial base had proven insufficient to even meet the demands generated by the sustained combat operations in Ukraine. Furthermore, the continuing trend to rely upon high-tech weapons and capabilities, such as stealth and precision strike capability, has led to an increasing cost of weapons systems to the DoD.[4] When paired with problematic incentive structures and consolidation in the defense-contractor community, this has led to large price hikes in weapons acquisition.[5] Although the Truth in Negotiations Act (TINA) had been created to ensure pricing and cost data transparency, it unintentionally diminished competition by driving out smaller companies that were overburdened with accounting requirements. Not only did it drive down competition, but it also further disincentivized investments in intangible costs such as R&D and software, particularly as the required sharing of pricing data could prove detrimental to a company’s overall business. As the Russo-Ukrainian War has demonstrated, sustained combat operations consume large quantities of munitions and more high-tech cruise weapons may not be cost-effective.[6]

Even though the US has pivoted towards peer/near-peer conflict readiness, as seen by the 2018 National Security Strategy, we have not properly reprioritized our budgets to focus on the key fundamental requirements of large-scale near-peer conflict. Prior to the outbreak of war, for example, the Air Force prioritized boosting high-end long-range stealth systems while slashing much of the procurement request for munitions in its 2022 fiscal year budget request. JDAM munition requests fell 88% from 16,800 in FY 2021 to under 2,000 in 2022, while numerous other vital munition requests were also cut. As the Air Force was “comfortable” with its weapons stockpile, these funds could “be plowed back into advanced systems” to focus on “the high-end fight”, where weapons should be “more survivable.[7] However, the Russo-Ukrainian War has demonstrated that “the expenditure of those high-end weapons in conflict could be higher than we estimated.”[8]Although the US DoD is slowly realizing the need for cheaper, plentiful weaponry and capabilities in large-scale conflict, the painstakingly long acquisition system focused on high-end expensive platforms and other changes to the defense industry will make this shift difficult. 

The Russo-Ukrainian War may prove to be a harbinger of the future character of war, much like how the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 and the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 foreshadowed the slaughter of trench warfare in WW1 and the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 demonstrated the greater threat posed by developments in tanks and air power. The attritional nature of the Russo-Ukrainian War has similarly demonstrated that advanced equipment is not as cost-effective as a larger mass of cheaper alternatives.[9] For example, the Ukrainian strike on the Russian Black Sea Fleet that forced much of the fleet to relocate to Novorossiysk and Feodosia used naval drones in tandem with aerial drones and Storm Shadow/SCALP missiles.[10] By using numerous drones and other assets as decoys to reveal Russian fire patterns and defense positions, Ukraine was able to strike Russian SAM systems with only a limited number of Western missiles. Thus, the use of cheap drone platforms in sacrificial waves bolstered the strike rates of the more expensive munitions that followed. Cheap reconnaissance drones also make it difficult to mount concentrated armored assaults. During the recent Russian assault on Avdeevka, Ukrainian reconnaissance drones provided its garrison with high operational awareness, allowing them to direct more accurate artillery fire to slow down the Russian advance. In a potential portent for the Indo-Pacific theater, Ukraine has also used cheap naval drones directly against surface vessels in harbor or at sea. The low price of drones presents a significant ability to scale as a single F-35 costs about the same as 55,000 Chinese DJI Mavic 3 drones. This is not to say that such expensive weapons platforms are outdated, but rather there needs to be a cost-efficient balance between cheap platforms that are easily scalable and a core of advanced platforms.[11] Therefore, Ukraine needs a ‘mass’ of cheap platforms, such as drones, artillery, munitions, and transport, instead of focusing on providing high-end platforms such as the latest tanks. 

The Russians have already been applying these lessons in theater. Its elastic defense in Zaporizhye has been infused with this principle of cost-effective, mass-produced technology.[12] Although Ukraine had an early battlefield monopoly on the use of kamikaze and FPV drones, as seen in the Battle of Bakhmut, by 2023, Russia has begun to outproduce Ukraine in drones, which has significantly increased their strike rates, as demonstrated during the recent Ukrainian counteroffensive. By using a scouting drone to detect Ukrainian vehicles or infantry, Russian drone operators have been able to guide a Lancet, a loitering anti-armor and anti-personnel drone weapon, on target. Even if the Lancet fails to destroy the targeted vehicle, it can disable it which allows other drone-guided artillery or ATGM crews to destroy it. Fielded in mass and with an improved range, it has been a menace for months, even striking Ukrainian airbases.[13]

As the complete saturation of the battlespace with enormous quantities of artillery and constant swarms of ISR drones has led to a more attritional approach to war, the ability to replenish spent munitions and replace lost platforms is crucial. According to NATO Military Committee Chair, Admiral Rob Bauer, many NATO countries lack sufficient reserves and stocks of combat-ready armor and munitions as “we started to give [weapon systems and ammunition] away from half-full or lower warehouses in Europe, and these stores are running low.”[14] Throughout the war, Ukraine has rationed its limited stocks by emphasizing counter-battery fire and using drones to guide artillery. Conversely, Russia has adapted by increasing munition production and adopting tactics to lower its consumption. By transitioning to a war-stance economy, Russia is now producing as much as seven times more ammunition than Western manufacturers.[15] Russia has shifted away from the old Soviet doctrine of saturation fire, using reconnaissance-fire methods with drones more frequently to save munitions so it can provide a more sustainable long-term rate of fire.[16] Despite these measures, Russia’s increased production cannot meet the demands of sustained combat operations as it recently had to source shells from North Korea.[17]

This de-monopolization of drone strike technology and capability will be one of the most present pacing challenges facing most professional forces in the coming years. In the current Israel-Hamas War, Israel’s renowned Iron Dome defense system was overwhelmed as Hamas saturated the air space with thousands of crude rockets and missiles, which allowed many missiles to bypass its air defenses. As seen in Ukraine, Hamas also used small FPV drones carrying specialized explosive munitions to sow chaos by striking vulnerable IDF communications and logistics sites and even assisting in the destruction of Israel’s formidable Merkava main battle tanks. The use of loitering UAVs with low-cost launch mechanisms in mass against ground assets of an adversary is becoming a rapidly successful pattern as seen in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, the Russo-Ukrainian War, and the Israel-Hamas War. 

The United States DoD and acquisition system must pay close attention to these developments. The lack of large munition manufacturing centers paired with overbudget projects is a major security concern. Some analysts are already calling for the United States to “revert to the principles of mass and redundancies”.[18] This approach enabled the Allies to overwhelm Nazi Germany’s focus on producing qualitatively superior equipment, which also often led to wasteful wartime procurement initiatives that only produced small numbers of overly-engineered wunderwaffen.[19] Relying solely on sophisticated systems may not be enough as the last several years suggest there is a point where quantity, when intelligently applied, can overwhelm quality.[20] US weapons procurement projects do not typically start behind schedule or over budget. Yet as so often happens in procurement systems, where incentive systems must be carefully balanced between the DoD, contractors, and politics, a “mission creep” in innovation and weapons development often occurs. This is further compounded by no-bid cost-plus contracts, where the Department of Defense incurs more risk and pays enormous sums for project delays and bottlenecks.[21]

US forces can no longer assume air superiority, as they had in Iraq and Afghanistan now that cheap, loitering munitions in mass can punch through even the most advanced air defense systems. The importance of dispersal has already been seen in Ukraine as Ukrainian troops have quickly realized concentrations of forces are targeted with lethal speed. Therefore, Ukranian troops remained dispersed in platoon and company-sized units until the last possible moment. Ukraine also keeps its limited number of combat aircraft dispersed by having them constantly launching from one base and landing at another to minimize the risk of attacks while grounded.[22]

The good news is that the DoD is already taking steps to adapt to the evolving nature of warfare by adopting dispersion, combat agility, and logistical readiness as counters to ever-present ISR and drone ubiquity. Several years ago, the US Air Force began adopting the Agile Combat Employment (ACE), a new doctrine based on peer-to-peer conflict, especially vis-à-vis China, to ensure combat power survivability. Essentially, rather than concentrating forces in several vulnerable large bases such as Guam or Ramstein, assets will be distributed among dozens of locations in austere environments with pre-positioned equipment on-site.[23] As air assets are most vulnerable on the ground, this distribution would reduce the impact of any potential enemy strikes. However, the logistical burden will be high as it will require greater efforts to supply multiple sites with munitions, food, fuel, and other essential items in potentially contested environments. [24]Therefore, the US needs new technologies that promote independence and self-sufficiency, such as using renewable energy to minimize or eliminate the need for external resupply. 

Although innovation is often only perceived as expensive and sophisticated systems or devices, it can also be new tactics or uses for existing cheap technology. Having been forced to do more with less, Ukraine has been an exemplar of the latter. For example, the battalions of Ukraine’s 3rd Assault Brigade have embedded UAV strike and reconnaissance teams to coordinate with their mortar teams.[25] Conversely, despite the ubiquity of drone technology, NATO training provided to Ukrainians did not include drone utilization.[26] Learning from Ukraine’s experience, the DoD should consider integrating mobile teams of security personnel and drone operators into the ACE concept to provide improved protection at austere sites.

Another indication of adaptation is how the DoD has recently announced the Replicator program in August which aims to field thousands of autonomous, attritable systems such as loitering munitions in the coming years. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks stated, “Replicator will galvanize progress in the too-slow shift of U.S. military innovation to leverage platforms that are small, smart, cheap, and many.”[27] To enable Replicator, the DoD must adjust its technology acquisition processes in order to leverage private sector expertise. For example, the new Defense Innovation Unit is soliciting technology from industry for platforms to test the sensor and payload capacity for such drones in Replicator.[28] AFWERX, initiated in 2017 as an Air Force innovation hub, is forging the path ahead for synergy between DoD needs and industry, circumventing some of the friction in acquisition processes, as well as the defense contractor bottleneck.[29] By soliciting proposals from hundreds of start-ups and small businesses with lowered risk guardrails, and reviewed by subject matter expert evaluators, programs such as Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) are revitalizing the national defense industry to meet the new and difficult challenges of the 21st century. SBIR/STTR programs have been successful, receiving billions in annual funding, and have yielded a high return on investment.[30] DoD programs such as AFWERX among others (SpaceWERX, Army Futures Command, and Space Systems Command Front Door) for companies with a strong innovation and start-up mentality mitigate aforementioned difficulties for small businesses.

The following are several notable takeaways for the US Air Force and DoD: 

1. Quantity is indeed a quality of its own 

2. Innovation on more expensive weapons platforms can lead to diminishing returns

3. Massed drones and near omnipresent ISR demand new doctrines based on dispersion and agility 

4. The proliferation of cheap military technology has multiplied the lethality of the battlefield considerably

5. Improving commercial sector synergy with the DoD is vital in response to new battlefield realities 

6. Recent events validate the need to double down on current operational planning and technical innovation frameworks. 

Italian general Giulio Douhet once declared, “Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur.”[31] We must be ready to acknowledge problems, adapt to new evidence, and question previous assumptions to be ready for the next major fight. To echo Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Charles Q. Brown Jr, if we “fail to adapt, we risk losing.”[32]

2nd Lieutenant Nestor Levin
Lt. Levin graduated from the United States Air Force Academy in 2022, with a degree in Engineering Chemistry and Russian. He is a Master’s degree candidate in Chemical Engineering at Purdue University. He is a Language Enabled Airmen (LEAP) Scholar in Russian with interpreter training in support of the ACE mission through the USAFSOS Language School. He has served as a technical evaluator for the AFWERX SBIR/STTR Phase I Proposal Evaluation Cycle. He is a 61C/D (Scientist- Chemist, Physicist) in the Air Force and will report to Space Systems Command in Los Angeles as his next assignment. 


Disclaimer:  "The views expressed in this article represent the personal views of the author and are not necessarily the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Air Force, or The Air University."



[1.] Joseph Trevithick, ”Here is What Each Of The Pentagon’s Air-Launched Missiles and Bombs Actually Cost,” TheDrive, last modified February 18, 2020,

[2.] Lawrence Kapp, FY2023 NDAA: Active Component End-Strength, IN11994 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2022), 2,

[3.] Office of The Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment,  “State of Competition within the Defense Industry Base,”February 2022, 22-27,

[4.] Luke A. Nicastro, Defense Primer: Conventional Ammunition Production Industrial Base, IF12251 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2022), 1-2,

[5.] Bill Whitaker, “Weapons Contractors hitting Department of Defense with inflated prices for planes, submarines, and missiles,” CBS News, May 21, 2023,

[6.] John Wharton and Tate Nurkin, “Why is US defense acquisition falling behind? Blame the TINA paradox,” The New Atlanticist, August 10, 2021,

[7.] John Tirpak, “USAF Slashes Bomb Funding, Hinting at New Systems or Return to Boom and Bust,” Air and Space Forces Magazine, June 2, 2021,

[8.] Joe Gould, “US defense industry unprepared for a China fight, says report,” Defense News, January 23, 2023,

[9.] Katie Crombe and John A. Nagl, "A Call to Action: Lessons from Ukraine for the Future Force," Parameters 53, no. 3 (2023), 21-25,; Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds, “Stormbreak: Fighting Through Russian Defences in Ukraine’s 2023 Offensive” (London: Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, 2023), 6-13, 24-25,; Vinod Anand, “Impact of Technology on Conduct of Warfare,” Strategic Analysis, 23 no.1 (1999),

[10.] Veronika Melkozerova, “Ukrainian attacks force Russia to relocate Black Sea Fleet,” Politico, October 6, 2023,

[11.] Philip E. Ross, “Budget drones in Ukraine are Redefining Warfare”, IEEE, May 17 2023,

[12.] Watling and Reynolds, “Stormbreak,” 24-25.

[13.] David Axe, “Russia’s Tiny Drones are now Flying Far Enough to Blow Up Ukrainian MiGs at Their Bases”, Forbes, September 19, 2023,

[14.] Brad Lendon et al, “Western ammo stocks at “bottom of the barrel” as Ukraine war drags on, NATO official warns”, CNN, Last modified October 4, 2023,

[15.] Erin Snodgrass, “Russian Manufacturers are making up to 7 times as much ammunition as Western arms makers, Estonian defense official says,” Business Insider, September 13, 2023,

[16.] Matthew Luxmoore and Michael Gordon, “Russia’s Army Learns From Its Mistakes in Ukraine,” Wall Street Journal, September 24 2023,; Mick Ryan, “The Russians Keep Evolving,” Futura Doctrina, April 17, 2023,; Michael Peck, “The war in Ukraine is pushing Russia away from its WWII-style artillery strategy, and experts say its’ a concerning trend,” Business Insider, September 7, 2023,

[17.] Sam Cranny-Evans, “Russia’s Artillery War in Ukraine: Challenges and Innovations,” Royal United Services Institute, August 09, 2023,

[18.] Andrew A. Michta, “Mass still matters: What the US military should learn from Ukraine,” New Atlanticist, October 3, 2023,

[19.] Jacquelyn Schneider, “Does Technology Win Wars?,” Foreign Affairs, March 3, 2023,

[20.] Gabriel Honrada, “US Abandoning M1 Abrams tank headed to Ukraine,” AsiaTimes, October 9, 2023,

[21.] Anna Louie Sussman, “DoD Contractor Mergers Upped Use pf No-Bid, Cost-Plus Deals”, The Digest, No.1 (January 2019),

[22.] David Axe, “Russia’s Tiny Drones.”

[23.] U.S. Department of Defense, AFDN 1-21, Agile Combat Employment, (Curtis E. Lemay Center for Doctrine Development and Education, Maxwell AFB: Department of Defense, 2022), 1-10,; Jennifer Hlad and Amy Hudson, “Ace-ing the Test,” Air and Space Forces Magazine, May 1, 2020,

[24.] U.S. Department of Defense, Agile Combat Employment, 1-10. 

[25.] “3rd Assault Brigade,” MilitaryLand, accessed on October 15, 2023,

[26.] Jamie Dettmer, “Ukraine’s forces say NATO trained them for wrong fight,” Politico, September 22, 2023,

[27.] Noah Robertson, “Pentagon unveils Replicator drone program to compete with China,” Defense News, August 28, 2023,

[28.] Courtney Albon, “Defense Innovation Unit seeks modular test system to scale drone tech,” Defense News, October 3, 2023,

[29.] Colin Sandor, "Assessing the Effectiveness of AFWERX Ability to Influence Regional Participation Rates and Capture Cluster Specific Technological Innovations," Masters Thesis, (Air Force Institute of Technology, 2021), 34, 56-59,

[30.] Office of The Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment,  “State of Competition,” 15.

[31.] Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air (Maxwell AFB: Air University Press, 2019 edition), 27.

[32.] Chris Gordon, “Change Must Continue: Brown Reflects on Time as Air Force Chief of Staff,” Air and Space Force Magazine, September 12, 2023,

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