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Fighting With Numbers

Image via Saul Loeb/AFP

Ask any government statistician: The B-1 Bomber won us the Cold War. Not in the way you might think. No bomber ever dropped payloads over Russia, and the victory wasn’t overnight. But by its specific characteristics—anti-radar stealth, low-altitude speed, cheap production and maintenance—the B-1 waged a different kind of warfare: cost imposition. 

To protect against a potential nuclear attack, the USSR would need to invest in territorial air defense. That meant patrols that could mobilize in an instant, without advance radar warning, and here’s the kicker: on borders stretching across 11 time zones. In other words, it cost us far less to put them in the air than it did for the USSR to shoot them down. And if you need to spend on air defense, here are some things it’s harder to spend on: infrastructure, manufacturing, consumer goods, medical research, education. Complaints from ordinary citizens soared.

Russia is once again at war, and once again, they’re losing. In order to turn the tide, they’ll need to do some cost imposition of their own. Whether by careful strategic planning or good fortune, the Russians seem to have stumbled onto a similar advantage. This time, it’s the Iranian-made Shahed-136 drone. These drones can fly at low altitudes, avoid radar detection, and strike targets deep in Ukrainian territory. They also cost $50,000 to make. 

In January, Ukraine faced a barrage of 84 of these drones and downed each one. When asked how, Ukrainian officials pointed to the Western-made “National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems” sent by the United States a few months after the start of the war. They cost $500,000 to fire. Each.

If you’re Putin, this is a statistic you tape to the kitchen fridge. Ukraine isn’t footing the bill, but cost imposition can still hurt. Instead of squeezing Ukrainian civilians, for whom the Russian threat is existential, it squeezes American taxpayers, who increasingly regard the war as a sideshow. 

According to a Pew Research poll, the percentage of Americans who believe the United States provides too much aid to Ukraine has jumped 19 points since March 2022. If Russia can continue to impose massive costs on the West, American politicians might force Zelensky to sue for peace on terms more favorable to Russia. As former Defense Secretary James Mattis once put it, “The United States doesn’t lose wars, it loses interest.”

Russia has seemed keen to continue this pursuit, so whether or not it yields them a favorable outcome depends mostly on the Western response. Above all, it will depend on whether the technological response to the Shahed is quick enough, mean enough, and most importantly, cheap enough. 

In January, the US Army held a competition among defense contractors seeking to find a system capable of doing just that. On April 4, the United States announced a large package of military aid to Ukraine focused on air defense which included a handful of newly-dubbed “Mobile c-UAS Laser-Guided Rocket Systems.” This program is still largely experimental, and the contract winner is still undisclosed, but some of the best performers in January’s competition had operational costs of less than $30,000 a piece. 

It isn’t time to celebrate yet. There are still the problems of integrating these systems, testing in battlefield conditions, tweaking, and full rollout if all goes well—all of which will take time. This delay may prove crucial to Russia’s overall strategy. If Russia can exploit it, they could impose outsized costs before the other shoe drops. 

Fundamentally, though, the Shahed-136 is less important than what it represents. If the last 30 years were typified by largely isolated threats to American security, these next 30 will see a new era of consolidated great power competition—one where large semi-industrial powers led by China work together to disrupt the US-led liberal international order. 

If the Cold War offers any indication, as each side weaponizes its industrial capabilities to outpace the enemy, the outcome will come down to the numbers. The longer this hypothetical conflict drags on, the more we might expect to see cost imposition strategies take shape in both camps.

The B-1 Bomber plan worked because it recognized a fundamental weakness in the Soviet Union; namely, that as economic woes compounded, discontent would grow, and revolutions within the Eastern Bloc and Soviet Republics would destroy the enemy from within. We shouldn’t presume to know the inner workings of the Chinese economy, nor the extent of popular discontent therein, but some speculate that similar hard times are coming for China. It’s America’s job to find novel ways to exploit them.

It’s less flashy than seizing Beijing, but if America can utilize cost imposition strategies in a potential conflict with China, then we might not have to.