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Evolving Forms of War: A Perspective from the Ukraine Crisis


Zhao Xiaozhuo, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, explains the trajectory of the Ukraine war in terms of two types of warfare: “mechanized warfare,” centered mostly on large-scale platforms such as aircraft and tanks, and “information warfare,” which more systemically integrates such platforms with other tools, including low-cost, dual-use technologies such as drones and social media. Zhao argues that Ukraine has used the latter to its advantage, which has enabled it to—among other things—take out Russian combat platforms through precision strikes.

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The Ukraine crisis was the most important event in the field of international security to have occurred in the past year. Despite many academic studies, the focus on this event is unevenly distributed: While there are many strategic-level discussions, research on the level of combat operations remains rather insufficient. The following article attempts to examine this crisis based on the evolution of forms of warfare (战争形态) so as to analyze the possibilities of future warfare.


Every country has its military forces. The purpose of the military is to engage in combat, and the direction of building the military is to prepare for future warfare. However, the evolution of warfare is not linear. Instead, it advances by leaps and bounds. Future wars never simply repeat the last war. Therefore, every outbreak of war receives a high level of attention from the defense community. Countries take advantage of every war to judge the direction of how war progresses and make military-building plans based on their specific conditions. The Ukraine crisis involves the extensive application of new types of weapons and equipment and the participation of nuclear powers, and it remains a typical proxy war. It is also a war in which military operations are closely coordinated with economic and financial sanctions and countersanctions. From a research point of view, it is a very good specimen, providing considerable insights into military strategy, combat operations, and military construction.

每个国家都有军队,军队是要打仗的,军队建设的指向就是未来战争。但战争演变不是线性的,而是跳跃式的,未来战争绝不会简单重复上一场战争。 因此,每一次战争爆发都会得到防务界的高度关注,各国以此研判战争发展方向,并结合各自具体情况规划军队建设。乌克兰危机是新型武器装备大量使用的战争、核国家参与的战争、典型的代理人战争,也是军事行动与经济金融制裁反制裁紧密配合的战争。从研究的角度看,它是一个很好的标本,无论从军事战略、作战还是军队建设方面都给人们诸多启示。

I. The Ukraine Crisis is a Contest between Two Forms of War


The greatest impression people get from the Ukraine crisis is that the war’s progress went far beyond expectations. The Russian army did not continue to build on its strong and sweeping momentum from the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict and the 2015 Syrian invasion, but became mired in a quagmire on the Ukrainian battlefield. The Ukrainian army reversed its image of weakness from the Crimea incident in 2014. It not only checked the Russian offensive, but also launched frequent counterattacks. This can be explained by many factors, but from the operational point of view, it is because this war is a contest between two forms of warfare, mechanized warfare and information warfare. Mechanized warfare is centered on platforms, with aircraft, tanks, and artillery all fighting independently. It features tremendous destructive power but insufficient operational efficiency. The core of information warfare is systematic warfare (体系化作战), which integrates various units and platforms into a whole. It excels in providing a clear battlefield overview, strong joint connectivity, and precision strikes. Both Russian and Ukrainian forces show qualities of mechanized warfare and information warfare, but it must be acknowledged that Ukraine’s combat philosophy, combat methods, and military organizations lean closer to information warfare. Although Russia is considered to be the second most powerful military power, it did not put many high-end weapons and equipment into the battlefield. Its combat philosophy and fighting style still retain deep marks of mechanized warfare. Looking at Russia’s military strategy, one may even have déjà vu of panzer group and deep battle strategies used in the Second World War.

乌克兰危机给人们最大的感受,就是战争进程大大出乎预料。俄军并未延续 2008 年俄格冲突、2015 年出兵叙利亚时的强势出击、速战速决之势,而是深陷乌克兰战场泥潭;乌军则一改 2014 年克里米亚事件时软弱无力的形象, 不仅挡住了俄军攻势,而且频频发动反击。这一结果可以从多个角度予以解释, 但从作战角度看,这是机械化战争和信息化战争两种战争形态的较量。机械化 战争以平台为中心,飞机、坦克、大炮各自为战,摧毁力破坏力有余,作战效 益不高;信息化战争的核心是体系化作战,将各部队、各平台联成一个整体,突出表现在看得清、联得上、打得准上。俄乌双方都有机械化战争和信息化战争的成分,但不得不承认,乌克兰的作战理念、作战方式、组织形式更接近于信息化战争。俄罗斯虽被称为第二军事强国,但投入战场的高端武器装备并不多,作战理念和打法依然留有深深的机械化战争的痕迹,人们甚至能看到二战时坦克集群、大纵深作战的影子。

On April 14, 2022, the Russian cruiser Moskva, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, sank. There are different theories as to what caused it to sink, but one common theory is that it was sunk by two Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missiles. The cruiser Moskva was 186 meters long and had a full-load displacement of more than 10,000 tons. To sink the ship, the two missiles would have to strike its critical parts. According to reports, the missiles of the Ukrainian army did hit such critical parts. One missile had hit the engine, causing the cruiser to lose its power; and the other had hit the ship’s magazine, causing it to detonate. In the early morning on January 1, 2023, Ukraine fired six HIMARS rockets and launched a surprise attack on a temporary garrison in the town of Makiivka in the eastern Ukrainian area controlled by Russia. Russia reported that the attack killed 89 Russian troops, but Ukraine claimed that a total of about 400 Russian troops were killed with 300 more injured. This raid was also carried out with precise accuracy. What enables Ukraine to have carried out strikes with such precision? It is believed that this was done using cell phone signals, especially since so many new recruits were using their cell phones at the same time at the start of the new year. These two events reveal that the Ukrainian army, with the support of NATO, possesses powerful capabilities in detection and surveillance, intelligence transmission, command and control, and precision strikes. Namely, their capabilities in carrying out systematic warfare: quickly identify targets—seize the window of opportunity—deploy combat troops—implement precision strikes. Although the Russian army has also carried out powerful strikes on important military targets in Ukraine, overall, their degree of precision and combat effectiveness are relatively poor, and there is a lack of coordination among various units, between air and ground forces, and between combat and logistics forces.

2022 年 4 月 14 日,俄罗斯黑海舰队的旗舰莫斯科号巡洋舰没沉。沉没原因众说纷纭,人们普遍相信其中的一种,即被乌克兰两枚“海王星”反舰导弹击沉。莫斯科号巡洋舰长 186 米,满载排水量一万多吨,用两枚导弹击沉必须打在非常关键的部位。据悉乌军的导弹就是打在了关键部位,一枚导弹打在发动机上,把动力打没了;另一枚打在弹药库上,把弹药库引爆了。2023 年 1 月1 日凌晨,乌克兰发射 6 枚海马斯炮弹,对俄控乌东城镇马克耶夫卡一个临时驻地发动突然袭击。俄方称袭击造成 89 名俄军阵亡;乌方称共约 400 名俄军死亡,另有 300 人受伤。这次突袭也打得非常准,是什么确保乌克兰能够进行精准定位打击呢?据信是手机信号,尤其是新年伊始众多新兵同时使用手机。这两起事件背后反映的是北约支持下乌军强大的探测监视、情报传输、指挥控 制、精确打击能力,即体系化作战能力:快速发现目标—抓住机会窗口—部署 作战部队—实施精确打击。虽然俄军对乌克兰重要军事目标也进行了有力打击, 但总体看,精准程度、作战效益要差一些,各部队之间、空地之间、作战部队 与后勤部队之间缺乏协调。

II. Cheap Weapons are Playing an Important Role


For thousands of years, combat platforms have always been the focus of building the military. The bigger the platform, the better; the more complete its functions, the better; and the more advanced the equipment, the better. Guided by this thinking, aircraft carriers, cruisers, multi-purpose fighter jets, bombers, and advanced tanks have become the targets pursued by major powers, while their prices have also been steadily rising. The Ford Class aircraft carrier of the United States cost $13 billion U.S. dollars, each B2 stealth bomber costs $2.4 billion, and each M1A2 SEP main battle tank costs $8.5 million. However, in the context of systematized combat, the efficiency of cheap weapons is multiplied, and expensive combat platforms may be destroyed with a single blow. During the Ukraine crisis, the combat efficiency of the three cheap weapons has been astonishing, leaving a deep impression on observers.

千百年来,作战平台始终是军队建设的重点,平台越大越好,功能越齐全越好,装备越先进越好。在这一理念的指导下,航空母舰、巡洋舰、多功能战斗机、轰炸机、先进坦克成为各大国追逐的目标,价格也一路攀升。美国“福特”号航母造价 130 亿美元,B2 隐型轰炸机单价 24 亿美元,M1A2SEP 主战坦克单价 850 万美元。然而,在体系化作战背景下,廉价武器的功效倍增,昂贵的作战平台可能不堪一击。在此次乌克兰危机中,三种廉价武器作战效益惊人,给人留下了深刻印象。

The first is Javelin, a single-person shoulder-fired anti-tank missile. This missile is easy to carry and operate. It can be called an “idiot-proof” missile because it can be launched with only simple training. After the target tank enters its range, one only needs to aim at the tank’s general direction and pull the trigger. After the missile is launched, one can just leave it be. It is not only self-powered, but also can automatically find the target with an extremely high hit rate. A considerable number of Russian tanks were destroyed by Ukrainian Javelin anti-tank missiles.


The second is the single-person shoulder-fired Stinger anti-aircraft missile. Its size and mechanism are similar to those of the Javelin anti-tank missile, except that it is used to attack aircraft. It has been proven to be able to shoot down the Russian Su-25 attack aircraft, Su-34 fighter, and even the Su-35 fighter. The Su-25 attack aircraft is equipped with 24mm titanium alloy bulletproof steel plates on the bottom and sides, giving it strong survivability. Although it is known as an “air tank,” it still cannot withstand the strikes by Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Many people were surprised that the Russian army was never able to seize air supremacy over Ukraine. One important reason for this is that the Stinger missiles gave a great deal of trouble to Russian air forces, especially when Russian combat aircraft would fly at low altitudes.

二是单兵肩扛式“毒刺”防空导弹。其尺寸大小、作用机理与“标枪”反坦克导弹类似,只不过是打飞机的,把俄罗斯苏- 25 攻击机、苏- 34 战斗机甚至苏- 35 战斗机都打下来了。苏- 25 攻击机底部及四周装有 24 毫米的钛合金防弹钢板,具有很强的生存能力,号称“空中坦克”,但还是难以抵御“毒刺”防空导弹的打击。许多人惊讶俄军始终没有夺取乌克兰的制空权,其中一个重要原因,就是“毒刺”导弹给俄罗斯空中力量造成了非常大的困扰,尤其在俄军作战飞机低空飞行的时候。

The third is the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The Ukraine crisis can be considered the war that involves the most UAVs in history, and both sides have deployed UAVs in large numbers. The most typical case happened over Snake Island in the Black Sea, where a TB2 UAV from the Ukrainian military destroyed a Russian Mi-8 helicopter, while a second UAV recorded the entire event. This was likely the first time in human history that a UAV shot down a manned aircraft.

三是无人机。乌克兰危机可称为史上无人机使用最多的战争,双方都出动了大量无人机。最典型的案例就是在黑海蛇岛上空,乌军的一架 TB2 无人机把俄罗斯的一架米- 8 直升机打掉了,另一架无人机把整个过程完整摄像记录下来。这应该是人类历史上第一次一架无人机击落了一架有人机。

In terms of value, the price of one Javelin missile is several tens of thousands of U.S. dollars, the price of one Stinger missile is only $100,000, and many drones cost only a few thousand dollars each. However, the tanks they have destroyed are worth hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, and the helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft they have shot down are worth millions to tens of millions of dollars. This gives them an extremely high cost-benefit ratio. This shows that, under the system of information warfare, the significance of cheap weapons embedded in the system has risen rapidly, while the problem of defending combat platforms has become more pronounced. This trend will have a massive impact on military building of various countries.

从价值上讲,“标枪”导弹单价几万美元,“毒刺”导弹单价也就 10 万美元,很多无人机单价才几千美元,但被它们击毁的坦克价值几十万至几百万美元,被击落的直升机和固定翼飞机几百万至几千万美元,效费比是极高的。这说明,在信息化作战体系下,嵌入体系的廉价武器作用快速上升,作战平台的防护问题进一步凸显,这一趋势对各国军队建设将产生极大的影响。

III. Proxy Warfare has Entered a New Stage


The Ukraine crisis is a classic proxy war, with Russia on one side and NATO on the other. Ukraine is the country that provides the manpower and land for war, while basically everything else needed for the war, including weapons and equipment, military training, and financial support, are provided by NATO led by the United States. NATO reconnaissance aircraft fly dozens of sorties over Poland, Romania, and the Black Sea every day. Together with satellite surveillance, maritime reconnaissance, and human intelligence, they provide a steady stream of battlefield intelligence to Ukraine. Of even greater note, at the start of the crisis, the United States and the West imposed unprecedented economic and financial sanctions on Russia and persistently kept Russia in diplomatic isolation.

乌克兰危机是典型的代理人战争,一方是俄罗斯,另一方是北约。乌克兰就是出人出地,而战争所需的其他东西,包括武器装备、军事培训、财政支持等,基本上都是以美国为首的北约提供。北约的侦察机每天在波兰、罗马尼亚、黑海上空飞行几十架次,结合卫星监视、海上侦察、人力情报,把战场情报源 源不断地提供给乌克兰。更不要说危机伊始,美西方对俄罗斯实施了史无前例 的经济金融制裁,自始至终进行外交孤立。

There is no doubt that the Ukraine crisis has greatly expanded the proxy war in both its breadth and depth. Ukraine was formerly a republic of the Soviet Union, and its weapons and equipment, combat philosophy, and command and control systems were all Soviet-style. When the Crimea incident erupted in 2014, the Ukrainian military system was no different from that of the Russian military in many respects. However, in the short period of only eight years that followed, Ukraine has transitioned its military from the Soviet-style system to the NATO system to a great extent, and it has been carried out in a rapid pace as well. The performance of the Ukrainian military in the Ukraine crisis has shown the outstanding result of this transformation. This reveals a very cruel reality. Namely, as long as the U.S.-NATO group provides sufficient weapons and equipment, military training, and intelligence support, supplemented by economic and financial sanctions and diplomatic isolation of the opponent, it can provide sufficient support for a weak force to battle a strong opponent in a very short period of time. This may change the future geopolitical environment and even the international strategic landscape to a great extent.

毫无疑问,乌克兰危机不论在广度还是深度上,都极大地拓展了代理人战争。乌克兰过去是苏联的加盟共和国,武器装备、作战理念、指挥控制系统都是苏式的,2014 年克里米亚事件爆发之际,乌军体制与俄军在许多方面并无二致。然而,在接下来的短短 8 年时间里,乌克兰在很大程度上实现了从苏式体制向北约体制的军事转型,而且转得非常迅速。乌军在乌克兰危机中的表现反映了转型的成效。这揭示了一个非常残酷的现实,即美国北约集团只要提供充分的武器装备、军事培训、情报支援,辅之以对对手的经济金融制裁和外交孤立,在很短时间内就能扶持一支弱小的军队与一个强大的对手作战。这在很大程度上可能改变未来地缘政治环境乃至国际战略格局。

IV. Civilian Technologies are Widely Used in Warfare


In the Ukraine crisis, commercial technology has made a deep impression on observers, the most well-known being Elon Musk’s Starlink system. In the early stage of the conflict, many people were questioning why Russia did not destroy Ukraine’s command and control system. In fact, though the Russian military did have this option at first, the involvement of the Starlink system made this a much more complicated issue. First, the Starlink system has thousands of satellites, so it is impossible to destroy them all. Second, if Russia truly wanted to attack the Starlink system, it would be tantamount to declaring war on the United States, and the scale of war would expand dramatically. Finally, attacking the Starlink system would also mean expanding of the war into space, while space warfare is an important symbol of war escalation.

乌克兰危机中,商用技术给人留下了深刻印象,最有名的就是马斯克的 “星链”系统。冲突前期,很多人都在质疑俄罗斯为什么不把乌克兰的指挥控 制体系摧毁,实际上俄军并非没有这样做,只是“星链”系统介入后,问题变 得非常复杂。首先,“星链”系统有几千枚卫星,是不可能全部摧毁的。其次,真要攻击“星链”系统就等于跟美国直接开战,战争规模将急剧扩大。最后, 攻击“星链”系统也意味着战争向太空发展,太空战是战争升级的重要标志。

UAVs are also an important example. Both Russia and Ukraine have modified commercial UAVs and added necessary military equipment so that they can be used on the battlefield for aerial reconnaissance, relay communication, artillery range correction, and even firepower strikes. Civilian UAVs and military UAVs are no longer readily distinguishable.


With the increasing commercialization of civilian technologies, the boundaries between civilian technology and military technology are becoming increasingly blurred, the extension of civilian technology to the battlefield is inevitable, and the composition of warfare is becoming more complex. This will have an important impact on the international security situation. More and more countries can easily obtain technologies and equipment from the international commercial market and use them in combat immediately or only with slight modifications. This has a huge impact on the balance of power between the two sides in a war. It will be even more problematic if an international terrorist organization intervenes. A terrorist can spend a few thousand dollars to buy a simple drone, load it with a bomb, and then drop the bomb on a high-value target to produce a horrific terrorist attack.


In short, with the rapid advancement of science and technology and changes in the geopolitical environment, the forms of warfare are undergoing significant changes. To a certain extent, the Ukraine crisis is symptomatic of these changes, and it also pushes the evolution of war forms toward deeper dimensions. We should stand at the forefront of the military revolution, keenly observe these changes, and discern the possibilities of future warfare.


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Cite This Page

赵小桌 (Zhao Xiaozhuo). "Evolving Forms of War: A Perspective from the Ukraine Crisis [从乌克兰危机看战争形态演变]". CSIS Interpret: China, original work published in China Security Studies [国家安全研究], February 28, 2023

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