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The Evolution of Modern Warfare

Updated: Mar 15

200 years ago, European armies marched in lines wearing colorful coats, inaccurately firing spheres of scalding lead at enemies a few hundred yards away in an open field. Then in 1914, what we consider modern war began.

World War I was not understood to be a modern war immediately. The vast technological developments made during the Industrial Revolution left Europe–which had not had great power conflict in 99 years–unaware of what was to come. Soon they found what horrors modern technology possessed when turned against flesh. 

They dug trenches and held their ground, hiding from peril, moving only hundreds of yards per year on some fronts. Artillery fired from many miles away. Rifles accurate up to a third of a mile. Machine guns gave one man the ability to kill hundreds in minutes. By the time the war was over, 40 million were dead, four empires had collapsed and war had changed forever.

Less than 30 years later war changed again. World War II saw improved rifles and artillery, but the main difference was the advent of combined arms. Planes could now go faster and farther and carry massive payloads of bombs. Engines could now move tanks with heavy armor firing artillery rounds with ease. Scores of trucks could move whole units of men and their supplies directly to the front. Trenches were no match for these technological advances. Bombs could be dropped on them, tanks could drive over them and trucks full of infantry would follow behind and clean up what remained. 

The war ended with the most ominous technological advance of all, a nuclear weapon dropped from a long-range high-altitude bomber, which twice eviscerated whole cities and hundreds of thousands of lives instantly.  

War continued on a smaller scale for the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st. Propellers became jets, helicopters entered the fray and missile trucks augmented artillery. Yet offensive tactics still revolved around both quick maneuvers and combined arms. This is what Russia expected to work in Ukraine. However, much like in 1914, large-scale conventional war in Europe had long been absent. 

Advanced Western defense hardware was in Ukrainian hands. When the invasion began, videos of Russian tanks and helicopters being met with laser-guided weapons went viral. These weapons could be fired from miles away and at only a fraction of the cost of targets they destroyed. After a month of brutal fighting around Kiev, the Russians retreated. Fast-paced maneuver warfare had been rendered obsolete, all because tanks and aircraft were now vulnerable to one infantryman.

The tactics reverted to the trenches of 1914. The frontline in Ukraine has been stagnant for a year as it was then. Modern technological horrors such as cheap commercial drones correct artillery in real-time, drop grenades from above or are rigged with explosives and crash into enemy positions.

War is always hell, and it now resides in the trenches in the black earth of Ukraine.


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