Defence & Security

4 Lessons Learned in Recent Conflicts From The Sahel to Ukraine

Published on
April 2, 2024

War no longer exists

The last time the UK formally declared war was in 1942. Instead, the world has been in a state of constant conflict, which has reached almost every continent, and the statistics show that violence in conflicts is increasing. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace’s annual Global Peace Index1, more than 238,000 people died in global conflict in 2023 and they report a huge 96% rise year on year in deaths related to conflicts with 91 countries now involved in some form of external conflict, up from 58 in 2008.

This conflict is wider than the military.

We use war, conflict, grayzone, Special Military Operations and the like fairly interchangeably. None of these definitions really describes the circumstances - with economic sanctions (and investments), cyber-attacks, information campaigns all cohesively attacking systems of Government and aimed at destabilizing nations and societies. The bottom line is that we have economic powerhouses of nations trying to destabilise us by all and any means possible. It is easy to dress this up as ideology, but it appears to be more about economic power and fighting for control of resources.

There is a weaponization of global interconnectedness happening.

As the world has grown increasingly interconnected across trade and information channels, states have weaponised these dependencies to coerce rivals and bring opponents to heel. Economic interdependence has become an increasingly popular geopolitical weapon in states’ arsenals as many capitals have attempted to exploit this tactic.

A warning of this started in the Covid Pandemic with a lack of supply of chips and semiconductors; the weaponisation of energy, resources and commoditised building blocks for equipment are now becoming a feature of daily business. Sanctions are a part of this (for example Huawei and DJI). Sovereign capability throughout all areas of the supply chain are seen as critical, yet it will take many years to build up these capabilities.

What are the lessons the defence industry can learn from this upsurge in conflict?

Lesson 1 = get new kit developed in rapid timescales

Conflict is not about procuring the right kit, it is about getting new kit developed in rapid timescales as we learn more about the enemy's latest capabilities.

We have a track record of learning lessons late and countering new threats slowly. For example, as the enemy IEDs improved during the Afghan conflict, we very slowly improved detection and protection. The years this took cost lives and ensured we had a prolonged conflict.

This, for me, is the key lesson. That for every threat, the other side will quickly work out a way of countering it. And when in constant conflict, each side will learn rapidly how to counter the other side’s most effective weaponry very quickly (as we have seen, in particular with Russian ability to knock out the effectiveness of the £30m MQ-9 Reaper2).  Thus, ALL military technology becomes obsolete quickly and leads to a stalemate (because the other side has the equivalent) until the next innovative and game-changing bit of technology comes along to give one side a short-term advantage.

In conflict therefore, the organisations that can quickly innovate and produce new technologies and capabilities at pace will thrive. I would go further and state that scale-up companies are good at this, whereas large Primes are vital in producing the out-of-date kit that maintains the stalemate whilst this process of innovation takes place.  

I scale up organisations, such as Flare Bright, for a living. The UK defence Scale-up industry is vibrant, but will only remain so if the Govt continue to feed it business and break out of the “stop-start” uncertainty of annual budget cycles and limited follow-on to innovation grants. Companies with management teams who can demonstrate they can cope with rapid growth and deliver new innovations should be the ones the Govt (and MOD) should be harnessing and cultivating.  

There is a strong argument for the UK Govt (and the MOD) to be spending money on organisations that have a proven ability to innovate rapidly, rather than continuing to put competitions and spirals out to industry and procuring small piecemeal contracts related to the latest detailed specifications. The “flash to bang” time for a DASA3 contract is typically 3-4 months from the time of application to coming on contract – that is simply too long for the rapid pace of innovation required, which should be measured in days (or even hours), not months.  

The second point here is about having an ability to rapidly productionise any new innovation. This is akin to having Covid-style Nightingale hospital capability on tap at all times, to rapidly produce new pieces of kit in their thousands, rather than experimenting with a dozen or so at a time. Moving up the Technology Readiness Level4 should be measured in weeks, not years.  

Lesson 2 = use cheap and expendable kit where possible

I have just come back a week’s ski touring, where you can get very hot, cold, wet or sweaty within minutes of each other. The kit everyone has was a major talking point. My philosophy has always been either buy very cheap (noting it is “good enough” and then layering up, and not worrying when it gets trashed), or go top of the range and exquisite. Somewhere in between never seems to have the right cost / benefit mix.

On this trip I was layering up cheap but effective kit, which gave me much more flexibility for different weather conditions than those with a single expensive outer layer, which turned out to never be the Goldilocks “just right” for the conditions required, despite having air vents and other features.

Psychologically, people like telling everyone about the expensive and amazing bit of kit they have invested in, and once the money is spent it is hard to talk about its deficiencies. This is mirrored by senior officials’ reluctance to admit that they may have made mistakes in the fundamental specs and Conops with large procurement projects. The premise of cheap and expendable kit reads across to defence procurement.

What we have seen in conflicts is the use of cheap kit, cobbled together with other layers of cheap kit to give flexibility, capabilities appropriate for any situation and combat mass. Drones with hand grenades attached in Ukraine are a case in point. With the costs of conflict and equipment being destroyed regularly, the cheap and expendable route is emerging as the winner. This may be the final death knell of Norman Augustine’s tongue-in-cheek Law (XVI) that, “In the year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one aircraft…”5

Cost curve is not working.

What we have seen is the “cost curve” not working. We are using $2m missiles fired from US Navy and Royal Naval ships in the Red Sea to take out $2k drones fired by Houthis6. This is unsustainable. I remember asking the Commanding Officer of 3 PARA back in the height of the Afghan campaign whether he thought about the P&L of his contacts, in particular with regards to using £50k+ Javelin missiles to knock down mud walls in tiny villages.

The answer was a firm no – that his job was to focus on achieving his mission and protecting his soldiers. With the cost of war going up (UK has pledged £12 bn to Ukraine thus far7, compared to an annual total spend of £1.1bn according to figures from OBR8), this premise can no longer be valid unless the UK declares itself in a total war (and even then, the economics of war come in to play even more starkly).  

Speaking at the 2024 AFA Warfare Symposium in March, Gen. James Hecker described what the U.S. has learned from UAVs in Ukraine, and how they will change warfare.

I think we're finding …that we just can't concentrate on the Exquisite because we don't have enough money to buy all the Exquisite stuff that we need, so we have to also bring some low-end stuff. The war in Ukraine is short of Manpower and ammunition and according to Ukraine's Minister for Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov in certain areas of the Front, FPV (First Person View) drones are destroying more targets than artillery.  These are the drones where the operator wears goggles and then flies them like a kamakazi into the target so the unarmed drone would first find it and then they would send up the fast racer to go and actually strike it.

Hamas was reported as using makeshift drones that successfully evaded Israel’s state-of-the-art defences on Oct 7.9

Lesson 3 = there is no hiding place on the battlefield

Seeing coverage of drones chasing Russian soldiers through their limited cover before closing in and killing them is becoming regular media fodder.10 This projection of controllable kinetic effect by drone will shape conops – taking cover from line-of-sight round or parabolic artillery is now no longer effective. And traditional camouflage is largely redundant with surveillance drones and satellite imagery across the entire electromagnetic spectrum making the battlefield very transparent. One of the lessons that the US military is drawing from overseas, specifically in Ukraine, is a heightened emphasis on cover and concealment tactics.

"The future of warfare is scary. The pace of technological developments for these types of threats is going to out-race your ability to create things to counter them." said a US Army training officer in a recent interview.11

Combining this with the cost curve mentioned above brings out another interesting lesson. In the history of conflict there have been various studies of the effectiveness of kinetic effect (whether small arms, artillery or more sophisticated weapons). It’s difficult to come up with definitive answers, but statistical studies typically come up with 20,000–100,000 rounds expended per casualty caused by a unit.

Admittedly, a lot of those rounds are fired by crew-served weapons firing full auto, and a lot of it is ‘suppressive fire’ rather than being aimed at a target. But the cost per casualty could be extrapolated to be around £100k+. With FPV drones regularly reaching their target and at a cost point of <£1k per drone, the costs have been brought down massively. This in itself is a key lesson of recent conflicts.  

Lesson 4 = AI is still in its infancy

David Hambling writes in Forbes magazine12&13 about the reduction of trying to use AI in drones – simplicity seems preferred. I’m sure AI has transformed some aspects of intelligence gathering, but fundamentally, AI is still basically pattern recognition in large data sets, so suits imagery and language, where a human will lack the ability to see the detail in the mass of data. But AI decision making is a long way away still.


It is worth reflecting on George Orwell’s 1984 and the perpetual war it describes.

The parallels with today are striking.  

“The war, therefore if we judge it by the standards of previous wars, is merely an imposture. It is like the battles between certain ruminant animals whose horns are incapable of hurting one another. But though it is unreal it is not meaningless. It eats up the surplus of consumable goods, and it helps to preserve the special mental atmosphere that the hierarchical society needs."

"War, it will be seen, is now a purely internal affair. In the past, the ruling groups of all countries, although they might recognize their common interest and therefore limit the destructiveness of war, did fight against one another, and the victor always plundered the vanquished. In our own day they are not fighting against one another at all. The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact."

"The very word "war," therefore, has become misleading. It would probably be accurate to say that by becoming continuous war has ceased to exist.”

Footnote: these are personal views of the author and do not reflect any particular views of any of the organisations he is associated with.


  1. Global Peace Index Map» The Most & Least Peaceful Countries. Vision of Humanity. Published August 28, 2023. Source »
  1. Reals T. Russia-U.S. drone collision: Pentagon releases video said to show fighter jet hitting MQ-9 drone over Black Sea. Published March 16, 2023. Source »
  1. Defence and Security Accelerator. GOV.UK. Published March 26, 2024. Source »
  1. House of Commons - Technology and Innovation Centres - Technology Readiness Levels. Published 2024. Source »
  1. Wikipedia Contributors. Augustine’s laws. Wikipedia. Published February 22, 2024. Source »
  1. A $2M missile vs. a $2,000 drone: Pentagon worried over cost of Houthi attacks. POLITICO. Published December 19, 2023. Source »
  1. Mills C. Military assistance to Ukraine since the Russian invasion. House of Commons Library. Published April 2, 2024. Source »
  1. A brief guide to the public finances - Office for Budget Responsibility. Office for Budget Responsibility. Published February 9, 2024. Source »
  1. Newman M. Israel’s Advanced Defenses Are Pierced by Makeshift Hamas Drones in Gaza War. Published December 19, 2023. Source »
  2. ССО України / SOF UA. ⚡Мінометну позицію та живу силу противника знищили воїни 8 полку ССО. YouTube. Published online March 22, 2024. Source »
  3. ‌Epstein J. Drones are watching “at all times” and show just how “scary” future wars will be, says a US Army officer focu. Business Insider. Published March 14, 2024. Source »
  4. Hambling D. Russia’s Automated Killer Drones May Not Be Working As Planned. Forbes. Published February 14, 2024. Source »
  5. Freedberg SJ. The revolution that wasn’t: How AI drones have fizzled in Ukraine (so far). Breaking Defense. Published February 20, 2024. Source »
Written by
Chris Daniels
Chris Daniels is a strategic advisor on commercialising start-ups and scale-ups, focused on aerospace, defence and DeepTech. He is CCO at Flare Bright, a tech and software machine learning assurance company for the drone and UAM industry, director of ARPAS, the UK drone industry trade body, and is on ADS Group’s Drone Platform & Counter Drone Group Executive. Chris has an MBA from IESE Business School, a Mathematics degree from Oxford University and previously served in The Parachute Regiment.
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