Infrastructure Wars

Photograph Source: Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt – Public Domain

In 1944, a V-2 rocket blew up my parents’ house in St John’s Wood in London, reducing it to a heap of ruins. Fortunately for my mother and father – and for me – they were both out at the time. I still have the telegram which my mother, Patricia Cockburn, who was safely in Cumbria, sent to her mother. It begins: “I hope you are alright. My house destroyed…”

As a child, I learned that the V-2 explosion had vaporised much of the furniture in the St John’s Wood house, but a small round marble table had survived which I could see in the front room. It was not unscathed and had a great scar across its surface where the blast had ripped out the yellow, red and green stone inlay. I used to run my fingers down the crack and gained a healthy respect for the destructive power of ground-to-ground rockets.

The damaged table and the story of the V-2 strike also left me with a strong fellow feeling for people bit by rocket fire, most recently in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Lviv, Odessa and other Ukrainian cities. A difference from my parents’ experience is, of course, that many of those whose houses have been hit were at home at the time.

A lot has stayed the same in missile warfare since the Germans were firing V-1s and V-2s at London 80 years ago, but much has changed radically without the rest of the world paying attention. And it is the results of these changes which we are now beginning to see play out in Ukraine today.

Iranian-made drones

The White House is accusing Iran of supplying drones and missiles to Russia and on Thursday said that the Iranians had sent advisers to Crimea to instruct Russian military personnel on how best to use Iranian-made drones and missiles. The National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby, said that Iranian troops are “directly engaged on the ground” in Crimea supporting Russian drone attacks on Ukraine’s power stations and other key infrastructure.

This may well be true, but misses the point that we are looking at a new type of warfare that has taken decades to develop and has already changed the strategic balance in the Middle East. Put briefly, the US and its allies have lost their monopoly of precision guided missiles which they previously enjoyed.

I was in Baghdad in 1991 when US missiles and smart bombs systematically destroyed the Iraqi power stations, electric transmission cables, oil refineries and oil storage facilities. It did not take the US air force long to do this to 70 per cent of Iraqi generating capacity – much of it damaged beyond repair. Baghdad soon smelled of rotten meat thrown out by people when their fridges and deep freezes lost their power supply. Blackouts became the norm at night and life in Iraq largely returned to the pre-electric age – aside from limited power from little petrol-powered generators whose put-put sound was inescapable in the capital.

Great accuracy

In that period, it was only the Americans who had the capacity to quickly cripple a country’s infrastructure beginning with its electric power system. Even in a major oil producer like Iraq, petrol and diesel became scarce with boys selling bottles of them, often diluted with water, beside the road.

For many years, it was only the US that possessed large numbers of precision guided weapons capable of hitting any target precisely at long distance. But others have since made successful efforts to catch, notably Turkey and Iran, which have both turned themselves into what some military specialists call “drone superpowers”. Iran, in particular, has had a strong incentive to develop a weapon to counter the air superiority of the US and its allies in the Gulf.

A telling example of the vulnerability of infrastructure and economic assets to drone strikes came in September 2019 when on a single night drones and cruise missiles – almost certainly launched by the Iranians though they deny it – hit Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais with great accuracy. Saudi oil output was cut by 50 per cent and world oil prices surged. Not only was the damage great and vastly expensive to repair, but much of it had been caused by drones costing as little as $15,000 each.

Easy to damage

The same strategy is now becoming visible in the war in Ukraine, with Russia targeting the Ukrainian electricity system, knocking out 30 per cent of its generating capacity in a few days. Blackouts are becoming familiar in Ukrainian cities and lack of power also affects water and sewerage systems. Much can be repaired and Ukraine is looking for more and better anti-aircraft equipment, but swarms of drones and less frequent cruise missiles will overwhelm almost any defence, however sophisticated it may be. Infrastructural targets like power stations, oil refineries and water utilities are by their nature large, impossible to move, difficult to hide and easy to damage.

The worst has not happened yet. Russian military strategy has so far proved shambolic since President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February. Reports that the Russians have started systematically degrading Ukrainian infrastructure using cheap drones and missiles may turn out to be premature. Presumably, Putin is aware that Ukraine would probably hit back at Russian infrastructure using similar methods, and this might give him pause.

There is a western fixation on Russia’s potential use of tactical nuclear weapons, which is understandable. But there are other non-nuclear and very destructive things that Russia and Ukraine could do to each other in the present war – and this new type of drone warfare is one of the them.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).