"That was a missed opportunity": Elliot Ackerman on how failures in Ukraine could help with Iran

The future of warfare is changing. It "will come down to who can deploy the new technology most effectively"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published April 17, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Saturday’s attack on Israel by Iran is an extreme escalation in the decades-long shadow war between the two countries, one that entered a new phase with the horrific events of Oct. 7 and the terrorist attacks by Hamas. The Iranians undertook this action in retaliation for a suspected Israeli airstrike on its consulate in Damascus, Syria, which killed several high-ranking officials in April. As quoted by the Financial Times, a United States military official described Iran's attack on Israel as "the largest-ever single barrage of ballistic missiles and attack drones launched against a country."

Almost all the missiles and drones were destroyed by the Israeli military and its allies. It is now being reported that a large number of Iran’s ballistic and cruise missiles failed to launch or crashed before reaching Israel. The few missiles that did reach Israel caused minimal damage and no deaths. Unfortunately, a seven-year-old girl was severely injured by shrapnel near the Nevatim Airbase in Southern Israel.

The Iranian attack was publicly choreographed to be more of a symbolic act of retaliation and signaling than one intended to do maximum damage. To that point, the Iranian government announced that they had ceased their offensive military operations against Israel. However, on Sunday Iran cautioned that it reserves the right to respond with far greater and more lethal force in the future if they deem it necessary.

Israel’s war cabinet, which consists of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, defense minister Yoav Gallant, and former defense minister Benny Gantz, have met several times since Saturday’s attack by Iran. On Monday, the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Lt. Gen Herzi Halevi said that Israel will respond to the Iranian attack. The form of this response, be it a direct military strike, cyberwarfare, or a covert action has not been publicly revealed. The Biden administration is cautioning the Israelis that the United States will not (publicly) support military retaliation against Iran. The clear goal of the Biden administration is to de-escalate the conflict between Israel and Iran before it spirals out of control into a much larger and potentially much more destructive regional war that will inevitably drag in the United States.

As of the time of this writing, and based on what is publicly known, the Israelis have not launched a counterattack on Iran. In keeping with its deterrence policy, the Israeli government is signaling that if such action is to be undertaken it will occur sooner rather than later.

In an attempt to better understand these tumultuous events, what they mean for the Middle East and the world, and how Iran’s attack on Israel is understood in combination with the war in Ukraine, I recently spoke with Elliot Ackerman. He is the author of several bestselling books, including "2034: A Novel of the Next World War." His new book is "2054: A Novel." Ackerman is also a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a Marine Corps veteran who served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor and the Purple Heart.

We have Iran retaliating against Israel on Saturday by launching hundreds of drones and missiles. How are you making sense of all this?

We are starting to notice a pattern with the Iranians. When they are placed into a position where they know that for domestic political reasons they must respond, the Iranians calibrate its efficacy. For example, after the U.S. killed Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the Iranians responded, but their missile attack wasn't effective. No U.S. service members were killed by that strike into Iraq. At the time, what the Iranians did was widely derided as being evidence of incompetence. But in the context of Iran's response to the Israeli attack on the consulate in Syria, the Iranians chose to respond directly and not through their proxies. The Iranians understood that their weapon systems weren't going to be able to get through the Israeli, American, British, and Arab countermeasures. The Iranians can claim a victory for having tried to hit Israel, but at the same time the Iranians do not have to fear the massive Israeli retaliation that would occur if all 250 plus of their drones had found their targets, leading to civilian deaths inside Israel.

"Every time any actor decides to roll the iron dice of war, there is a significant chance that they are going to miscalculate. "

Obviously, the danger in that type of approach from the Iranian point of view is that you are relying on the efficacy of your adversary's countermeasures to ensure that the conflict doesn't spiral out of control.

The American news media almost always depicts Iran as being irrational in its behavior. For example, the Iranians were retaliating for Israel attacking its consulate in Syria and killing numerous high-ranking officials. That context tends to be intentionally lost in the mainstream American news media narrative. What we are seeing with Iran attacking Israel is an example of tit-for-tat and part of a much larger picture of strategic decision-making and maneuvering.

What you are saying here is very important and is not exclusive to the Iranians. This gets to human behavior. When we look at an adversary and they are behaving in ways that do not make sense to us we assume that they are irrational. However, in reality, they are entirely rational in their behavior — but they are proceeding from another paradigm or understanding of the facts. That puts the impetus on us to understand their behavior. To that point, if you are the Iranian leadership in Tehran, how do you see the world? If we make that mental leap, we can better understand their behavior and appreciate its rationality.

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What was the reasoning behind how the Iranian government calibrated its use of force against Israel?

These decisions are always made for both internal and external consumption. After the strike against Israel on Saturday, the mullahs declared that it had achieved all of its objectives — without declaring what those objectives were in the first place. These claims of victory were packaged for an Iranian domestic audience. Just as in the United States, domestic politics drives most everything. The end game for the Iranians is to continue to sow enough division in the Middle East, so that they have influence. Ultimately, chaos in the Middle East means that Iran is not made peripheral by the other actors in the region.

Wars are often caused by errors in signaling and other miscalculations. How can the conflict between Iran and Israel, as seen with this most recent escalation, spiral out of control into something much worse?

If the Iranian drones had found their targets and hundreds of Israelis were dead, then the crisis would have escalated. We would be seeing a very different response by Israel as compared to what is likely coming. Every time any actor decides to roll the iron dice of war, there is a significant chance that they are going to miscalculate. Embedded in all wars, including those wars where both sides want to fight, is a basic miscalculation because both sides always believe they can win. By definition, both sides cannot win at the same time. It's a very dangerous game that everybody is engaged in right now in the Middle East. All we can do is hope that the current crisis deescalates and that this brinkmanship, these tit-for-tat exchanges of fire between Israel or Iran or whomever else, stop.

How is Israel calculating its response to Iran's attack and the larger conflict in the region post-October 7?

In the American media, the predominant narrative is that October 7 and September 11 are comparable events. That is the wrong paradigm. Israel is not experiencing the attacks on October 7 in the same way we Americans experienced September 11. September 11 was not existential for the United States. People were not wondering if the U.S. would still exist in two or three years. A cornerstone of the Israeli experience is very much having their backs up against the wall existentially, surrounded by neighbors, many of whom had pledged to destroy them or don't even recognize the right of Israel to exist. October 7 is more like what the United States and the British faced with Nazi Germany in World War II. This means as a nation, Israel has a much higher threshold to endure the ire of the international community by being so tough in their response to October 7.

 Who has the greater power to inflict harm on the other? Israel or Iran?

They can both annihilate each other if they want to. Israel has nuclear weapons. By all reports, the Iranians have the ability to enrich uranium and create nuclear weapons in short order. If both sides were to ever take the gloves completely off it would be devastating for the region. The more important question is: Which party is going to be most effective at outmaneuvering the other? Will it be Israel or Iran that can use the combination of military power and diplomatic power to box the other one in?

As others have highlighted, one of the ways to understand the conflict in the Middle East at present (and much longer term) is as a proxy war between the United States and Russia. Using that framework, if you are Russia how are you assessing these recent developments?

Unlike the alliances that we see between the United States and Israel or Jordan or Ukraine for example, these are very different from how Russia approaches its international relationships. Russia doesn't have allies, they have interests. Russia's shared interests with the Iranians up to this point are that the Iranians have provided them with weapons. Russia and Iran are also mutual antagonists of the United States. But I don't think that the Iranians or the Russians are going to support one another in the same way that we see with NATO and Ukraine or the Western nations and Israel.

Drones are at the center of the story of how Iran retaliated against Israel. In the Ukraine war, drones are dominating the battlefield. Where are we in the story that is the future of war?

The great 19th-century military theorist Clausewitz said that "the nature of war is slaughter." There's nothing that I've seen that would lead me to believe that, despite all the exquisite technology we have today, the fundamental nature of war has changed. However, throughout the ages, we have created new tools to make war. We're at a moment where there are many new tools that are arriving on the battlefield. Those new tools force commanders to innovate. I've traveled to Ukraine several times since the war started. Every time I return to Ukraine the war has a different shape. There's new technology; tactics and countertactics have been developed; the cycles just seem to be getting faster. We can count on that cycle to speed up in the future. I am of the belief that if there is ever a peer-to-peer level war in the 21st century, specifically in the next 10 to 15 years between the U.S. and China, or NATO and Russia, or whoever it may be, we'll look back at Ukraine, and say that this was a moment that was like the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Technologically speaking, the Spanish Civil War served as a preview to the Second World War. In Ukraine, we may be witnessing a similar type of preview.

War is a lethal classroom. How fast are these changes happening on the battlefield? How do experts such as yourself assess them?

This will come down to who can deploy the new technology most effectively and react to how the other side uses it in turn. It is a cycle of innovation and counters and who can pivot and adapt and outpace and innovate better than the adversary. When we look at the future of war, the winners and losers are going to be defined by who can toggle between different types of technologies the quickest. Who can go from high-end exquisite platforms such as the F-35 and Ford-class aircraft carriers and then, after losing them, toggle to lower-tech forms of warfare? The future of warfare is going to be a mix of very high-tech and very low-tech. The winners will be those who can operate seamlessly between the two extremes.

The battlefields of Ukraine are now like the trenches of World War I — but with 21st and late 20th-century technology. As a science fiction fan, it is like Warhammer 40k or perhaps even Dune or one of those other great dystopian universes. It is surreal in a dark and tragic way. It is also very frightening for what it portends about the future. 

The last time I was in Ukraine, several soldiers showed me videos of trenches being cleared. The trenches looked like something out of the First World War. But the soldiers clearing them had a half dozen drones in front of them. The drones would go first, and if they encountered the enemy, the drones would detonate. It was emblematic of the old and the new: a trench from the First World War being cleared by the latest technology. Toggling between the high tech and low tech as I explained earlier is using electronic countermeasures to shut down the drones. We could deploy a specific type of electronic countermeasure packet in this one area that is going to shut down our enemy's drones. We're going to have a window of two hours where they can't operate their drones. No cell phones. No GPS. You can't operate any of that type of technology. Inside that counter-electronic warfare bubble. You're going over the top and shooting each other in the face with a rifle. In this modern war, and especially future war, that is the type of toggling that forces are going to need to be able to do between the most exquisite intelligent AI-powered drone swarms and knowing that you can lose them at a moment's notice. That will mean switching to compasses and calling in artillery using a map — and doing it all seamlessly.

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One of the claims that we are seeing now, is that the war in Ukraine is proof that the mass movement of troops on the modern battlefield is no longer viable because of the ability of the adversary to quickly find and mass fire(s) against them. If true, this will dramatically change the nature of combined arms and other approaches to maneuver warfare. What are your thoughts on this?

These things come in seasons. One can make the argument that the mass movement of troops is dead because those troops will be observed and taken out with drones. But if you are able to deploy electronic countermeasures, that give you, for example, a 100-kilometer square area, or even a 10-kilometer square area, where you know nothing is flying then you can mass troops at a specific point. The history of war is counters to counters, it is a lethal dance. The United States needs to have a military that can be nimble enough to adapt in that way because that cycle is only going to get faster.

What has happened with the narrative that these "wonder weapons," be it Abrams tanks, ATACMS, HIMARS, Bradley fighting vehicles and soon F-16 fighters, will be decisive and turn the tide in favor of the Ukrainians. Many experts cautioned against such simplistic premature conclusions. Unfortunately, it seems that too many among the news media and general public consumed that hopium and are now being surprised by the facts on the ground in Ukraine.

There is the old saying that the only better answer than "yes" is a quick "no" — and the worst answer is the slow "no."  I would argue that what we've done to Ukraine is even worse, in some ways than the slow "no" in that we have given them the slow "yes." So, if in March 2022, the Abrams and ATACMS and F-16s started showing up that could have made a real difference. But just like how on the battlefield, one maneuvers through the air, the land, and the sea. Time is also a maneuver space on the battlefield. We allowed ourselves to be badly outflanked in terms of time and dragging our feet to deliver the Ukrainians these weapons systems. The nature of the battlefield has changed. The Russians are dug in ways they weren't dug in early on. The efficacy of these weapons systems is not going to be as great as it would have been two years ago. Should we still send those weapons over? Yes, we should, and they will still make a difference. But that was a missed opportunity. And I would argue that had those weapons shown up much more quickly, we could be in a very different position in Ukraine today.

What do the Ukrainians need right now from the United States and NATO?

Sustained support that the Russians believe is going to last. What will bring Putin and Zelinsky to the table is if Putin believes that he doesn't have the option of waiting the Americans and Europeans out. So, counterintuitively, by going all in on the war and convincing our adversary that there's no way we're leaving, you get a shorter war. The way you get a longer war is by equivocating and by making your support contingent on too many variables. We saw this in Afghanistan with our failures to defeat the Taliban. The Ukrainians need the United States as a country to assume a posture that convinces the Russians that our resolve is not faltering, and that the Ukrainians will be able to fight in perpetuity. That is the clearest way to get the Russians to the negotiating table to end this war.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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