The transparent battlefield has changed everything

Monday, September 4th, 2023

The War in Ukraine, Edward Luttwak notes, is a war that must be fought by sheer, grinding, attrition, just like the First World War on the Western Front, with almost none of the maneuver warfare exploits that made celebrities of Guderian, Rommel, Patton, and Rokossovsky in the Second World War, and Arik Sharon in 1967 and 1973:

All those masters of war won disproportionate victories with surprise offensives. Arriving in fast-moving columns, their forces greatly outnumbered and overwhelmed a specific sector, while the bulk of the enemy, distributed across an entire front, could not intervene in time.

In other words, “manoeuvre warfare” depends entirely on surprise. Even in the Second World War, there was reliable aerial photography, so that pre-battle concentrations of tanks, trucks and artillery tractors could not escape detection as they gathered over a period of weeks. But once the offensive columns moved, it was hard to keep them under observation, let alone predict their destination. Photography was impeded by night, clouds and enemy fighters, leaving more than enough uncertainty to deceive enemies with decoys, simulated radio traffic, and the false tales of double agents.

This is how it came to be that on D-Day, 6 June 1944, the strongest German Panzer columns ended up being massed behind Calais to face Patton’s fictional First United States Army Group, while the Allies were landing in Normandy 230 miles away. Douglas MacArthur’s Inchon landings in September 1950, which nullified a string of North Korean victories in the preceding months, likewise achieved total surprise by very elaborately simulating a landing at Kunsan, 100 miles to the south.

None of this could happen now. The Americans, Russians and other military powers have observation satellites equipped with synthetic-aperture radars, capable of revealing single tanks, let alone any large grouping of forces, regardless of visibility, while their returns are refreshed often enough to detect troop movements in hours if not in minutes. Any other information drawn from intercepts, aerial reconnaissance or ground observation merely supplements this reliable intelligence. It is enough to make the battlefield transparent and operational surprise impossible, killing off the manoeuvre warfare that can win battles quickly and without mounds of casualties.

In early summer, when the Ukrainians deployed the precious “operational reserve” they had built up, there was no great mystery as to what they would do with it: attack somewhere south of Zaporizhzhia and fight their way down to the Black Sea.


While the Ukrainians were training and deploying, the Russians south of the Dnipro were digging trench lines shielded by minefields that stretch roughly 625 miles — 185 miles longer than the Western Front at its greatest extent. Napoleon called this style of linear defence a “cordon”, a thick rope made of infantry to hold the enemy along a long front. And, in his own time, he rightly explained why cordons were the stupidest way of defending a front: the enemy would arrive in columns and easily cut through the few troops holding the particular sector they attacked.

But once again the transparent battlefield has changed everything. Watching the Ukrainians advance in real time, the Russians could send their forces to intercept them in equal if not greater numbers. And even if the numbers were equal, the combat would be unequal because the Russians would be shielded by their minefields and by their trenches.


  1. Bruce says:

    Siege warfare is horrible, but the capital investment does lead to new tech. The long wars with the Turk got us guns, the Western Front got us useful airplanes, Ukraine looks like where we get good cheap drones.

  2. Brrrp says:

    Think of drone swarms as flying minefields with limited battery life. Good cheap drones coming to a town near you. Soon.

    War is escaping the limitations of space. Deniability is the only thing lacking.

  3. Crosbie says:

    Given the long observed similarities between maneuver warfare and naval warfare, does the same logic spell the end for blue water surface navies?

  4. VXXC says:

    “It is enough to make the battlefield transparent and operational surprise impossible.”

    He is well aware there are always counters and deceits and the principles of war do not change. One of them is surprise.

    This man Luttwak’s historical books should be read, “Strategy” should be read. However when he’s in salesman mode [and he is] cum grano salis.

    On Ukraine he and Van Crevald have thrown away their reputations undoubtedly from blind ethnic motives.

    Ukraine in particular the open ground where the Ukrainians insist on fighting – to be fair the Russians aren’t usually obliging them with urban combat – it’s a particularly difficult problem to hide or maneuver without detection. Yet for years this was done in Ukraine prior [it's vital to keep moving if the drones are about unmolested, although drones can and often are molested] and it was done to an extent in Syria. It was also done in Vietnam.

    The claims that maneuver is dead and surprise is now impossible shall go the way of drones change everything…no, they didn’t no more than airplanes and submarines changed everything. Nor Torpedo boats, which were to render the dreadnoughts obsolete, etc etc.

    We heard this all during Desert Storm and Afghanistan and the Azeri-Armenian War and lo and behold…

    In fact lets back up and see what the sages were saying about attrition and trench warfare before it returned in Ukraine in 2022.


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