The war in Ukraine has been described as the most high-tech conflict to date. It has seen the use of drones, loitering munitions, smart munitions, GPS, night vision goggles, cyber warfare, social media, and even autonomous vehicles/weapon systems. Yet, plenty of older technology is also being employed – including vehicles older than the troops doing the fighting.
In recent months, videos have circulated online that showed train cars hauling Cold War T-62 medium tanks from storage in Siberia. The Soviet-era vehicles had been upgraded for use by the Russian Army to replace the thousands of main battle tanks (MBTs) lost in the 14-month-long conflict in Ukraine.
Russia may even be employing older T-54/55 series tanks, while it has also returned to service other Cold War vehicles including the BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicle. In addition, according to posts on social media, some Russian troops have been issued with body armor, equipment, and even small arms dating back to the 1960s and 1970s.
Yet, the Kremlin isn’t alone in using older hardware.
Even before Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Kyiv’s militia units were equipped with small arms dating back to the Cold War and even earlier. There were reports of some troops refurbishing the Degtyaryov DP-27 light machine gun – nicknamed “Stalin’s Record Player” due to its pan-shaped top magazine – while others were issued with the Pulemyot Maxima PM1910 (PM M1910 Maxim) machine gun. The water-cooled heavy machine gun was developed before the First World War.
World War I Tech
It isn’t just the PM M1910 that dates back to World War One. Units of the Ukrainian 28th Mechanized Brigade are engaged in trench warfare in the Eastern Donbas region that has evoked comparisons to the fighting on the Western Front in the First World War.
While the trenches are much the same as those from 1916, the Ukrainian troops are using 21st-century technology including satellite-enabled Internet service, smartphones, and drones to spot enemy positions. But according to a recent report from the BBC, one piece of equipment is right at home in the trenches – old wind-up phones.
To make outgoing calls, the Ukrainian soldiers must literally wind up the device with a handle. It is also wired, with cables running back to the headquarters.
Such “old school” technology offers a major advantage over today’s compact devices; namely that the enemy can’t listen in. It is different for the antiquated phones to be monitored, and even if the enemy could tap into the lines, they still couldn’t use it to pinpoint the exact position of the devices unless they followed the cable.
Both sides have gotten very good with electronic warfare that is used to detect and intercept mobile phones and radios. Such communications can also be blocked, leaving troops at the front lines blind to enemy movements, while it is impossible for them to receive orders.
Technology industry analyst Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group said he isn’t surprised in the least that such analog communication is being employed alongside the latest digital devices.
“As we move to more and more advanced computing technologies, and Quantum computing becomes more viable, the ability to protect communications becomes more difficult,” Enderle told Clearances.
“But, even if you can’t decrypt a signal, you can track it, then using Kamikaze Drones or artillery, take out the radio and the people around it. Wired communications are far harder to track, and far more difficult to intercept because you must compromise the cable which doesn’t announce its presence and even if you find it, you must follow it to its destination to target the communications officer.”
Analog communications may be safer when it comes to ensuring that troops aren’t being tracked, but it is often more resistant naturally to EMP (electromagnetic pulse) like exposures. It is potentially more reliable – at least provided the cable isn’t cut.
“It is also far cheaper and less difficult to create, and Ukraine is cash and manufacturing capacity strapped. Downsides are it is best for voice – data speeds are magnitudes slower than current digital technology – and you do have to run the wire,” explained Enderle.
“Since you can harden digital gear and use burst transmissions and unusual frequencies to lower the chance of discovery, if given a choice, most would likely prefer digital technology over analog,” Enderle continued. “However, Ukraine often doesn’t have that choice and the digital technology they have likely is vulnerable to tracking and EMP destruction making them favor, at least in some cases, older analog technology. Often, what you have is significantly more useful than what you don’t have.”