Numlock Sunday: Paul Szoldra on the war of the future
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week I spoke to Paul Szoldra, who writes The Ruck, a newsletter I’ve really come to enjoy about national security.
Paul’s been a journalist covering the military and defense space going on a decade, and before that he served in the Marine Corps so he’s one of the most well-versed reporters on the topic in the game. I enjoy his sober and thoughtful analysis a lot.
I thought it’d be great to bring him on to discuss some particularly fascinating stories he wrote recently about the future of drones in warfare and why planning is so essential when the military production pipeline is measured in years.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Paul, you have recently embarked on this new project called The Ruck. It's been going for a couple weeks now, and it is already really great. In your opening thesis statement, you were talking about how there's quite a bit going on in national security that because of headlines about inflation and the economy have really kind of gone undernoticed. What drove you to start this?
Thanks so much for asking me about this and just having me in your newsletter. I love Numlock News. You're great.
The genesis for it really comes to I've been reporting on national security for over a decade. I was as a Marine before that for eight years. I've been plugged in to this space for a very long time, and keep an eye on things and just monitor all these different events all around the world. That's stuff like, what U.S. troops are doing in Iraq and Syria, and what the U.S. is thinking about in terms of the next five to 10 years on the national security landscape. The things that we'll see many, many years from now, the big decisions and the big pivot points in global events that really affect huge, big U.S. policies and affect Americans' lives? They're happening right now. There's a lot of change going on. There's a lot of disruption in national security and military events.
All the while the distribution of information is challenging. If you're just an average American who just wants to know more about these things, where do you go to get that? Most people are using social media. That's where they get all their events and updates. That's where I have gotten a whole lot of my stuff. I see the information space as just challenging to understand what's going on. It's hard enough for me to keep track of this: I have RSS readers, I have Twitter lists, I email tons and have tons of emails, it's really hard to keep track of it. And it's a project where I get to every single week download the events that I've been tracking that week and keep the score. I think that is the purpose of The Ruck, the reason that it exists; the thing that I really wanted to do for people is to allow anyone to get an understanding, have an eye into this world and make it less complex.
It is a very complex and challenging national security environment, but that's what everybody always says, it's always that way. I think that a really big issue that will continue to be a big issue in national security going forward is understanding information.
We saw how information has shaped the battlefield in Ukraine. It changes events. The information war in Ukraine, which I'd be happy to talk about, it helps drive support for the battlefield outside it. There are two wars going on: There's the war in Ukraine actually happening on the battlefield, shooting and there are missiles and all that other stuff. But the way more important war that is going on is happening way outside it, nowhere near the borders; it's happening virtually, it's happening on Instagram, it's happening on Twitter. It is the information operation by Ukraine, by the U.S., and by the West to garner global support for that war, basically in an effort to weaken Russia for the long term. That they are a geopolitical foe of the West and that's the goal, that's what's going on.
One thing about your newsletter that I've really, really enjoyed is that it really reframes a lot of the question about preparation.
Whether you're talking about the situation in the South China Sea, whether you're talking about the current situation in Ukraine, you really kind of get at this idea that the decisions that are being made right now are only going to be happening in, like, 2027. That there's at least a five-year lead time to make any of these materials, or weapons or ships. That literally a weapon that the federal government is purchasing today might not be delivered for five years.
That really presents a massive challenge for folks trying to anticipate what's going to happen. Can you talk a little bit about how the future focus of the newsletter is?
Yeah, I mean, the thing is, I launched the newsletter with a tagline that I've modified a little bit because, with newsletters, you can pivot and change as you go along. And I've done that. And so I started with "unpacking the future of national security." The Ruck, unpacking, sounded cool.
There you go.
Really now it's more I just want to help people get smarter on national security. Understanding this stuff is really important: The Department of Defense doesn't make a decision and snap their fingers and then things happen. It takes really a long time. They do lots of planning, lots of studies. There are really smart people that are looking at all kinds of factors and then trying to basically decide what the future is and trying to figure that out.
I say this a lot, and many really smart national security people in the world say this, too, including people like former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis: We're really, really bad at predicting where U.S. troops will be fighting next.
We never get it right. We had no idea we were going to be fighting in Iraq. We had no idea we were going to be fighting in Afghanistan. All back down the line.
But right now, U.S. planners believe that we are likely going to war with China. What kind of war that is, it really remains to be seen. Is it going to be a direct war over Taiwan? It could be that. It could be all kinds of things. The point is we can't predict the future, but they have to plan for all these different contingencies. There are really more important things than shooting bullets on a battlefield; it's logistics, it's getting and sustaining the troops while they're over there, figuring out things like medical evacuation, figuring out how to get ammo to them. You also have to generate all this combat power, all the missiles and all the munitions in Ukraine. The war has gone on for actually not that long, and our U.S. stocks of missiles and all kinds of other gear has been depleted because we are giving it to Ukraine. That has to be regenerated and it takes many, many years to do that.
All this is to say that what I am trying to do at The Ruck is really just give people an understanding of what that is. Hopefully, when people make these decisions in the Pentagon, it's not like, "Oh, they're spending all this money on this stupid thing, they're spending on X when they should be spending on Y." And all I want for people is, here's the national security perspective on that. Here is why that is important and why we're doing that.
Whether you agree with that or not, that's your perspective, but I want to present the lens of the national security practitioner, the person in the military, the person who is working in this field; whether they're researchers or analysts or whatever the civilian employment that is, I want to share that insight and that world with more people because I really feel like it's really important and a whole lot of people in the United States of America don't pay attention to this stuff.
They don't pay attention until it's too late, or, they don't pay attention and when they do pay attention it's to the wrong sources.
Absolutely. There's a term for it, the civil-military divide. There are a lot of studies on this; even Secretary Mattis co-authored a book about Americans' views on the military and what they think of it. I've been doing this for a while, and the fact of the matter is, most people don't know what the military does. They don't really understand what troops do every day and how they do things. It's a black box. It's like, they must march around and salute all day or something and maybe they shoot things.
I want to actually hop in on this because you had this really great post that I wanted to make sure that we had time to talk about, which is all about the videos coming out of Ukraine regarding the use of drones, and how it's really raising some alarms at the Pentagon.
You compare them to what roadside bombs were in Iraq and Afghanistan, as a new innovation that not only is going to require some technical development to countermand, but also is going to have to be handled at the level of the GI. Can you talk a little bit about this post and the ideas that you get at here?
I was talking recently to a Western volunteer in Ukraine. He is a former Marine, now working in its territorial defense force there. He's a drone operator, and he was telling me about what they do and they basically go in these rooms, these buildings that they've occupied temporarily, and they're safe there. They're basically building these little bomblets, they're like tiny grenades or small grenades. And they assemble them, they put these 3D-printed fins on them to make sure they're stable when they fall. And then they attach them to these cheap, off-the-shelf drones that they then can go and just fly around the battlefield and look for Russians that are sitting in a foxhole or a trench. And once they spot them, they drop this bomblet on them and kill them or wound them.
It does a couple of things. One, they're taking video of this. So it's all part of the information operation. It shows how Russians cannot be safe in their holes. It scares the hell out of them. It scares the hell out of me as a former infantryman, that's something that you can't really counter. You just have this flying device over you that can drop a bomb on you at any moment. That's pretty scary. There are counter-drone technologies, there are these guns that can take them out of the sky and all kinds of stuff like that, but that's what you see a lot on Instagram if you're paying attention to this stuff, is these drone videos. That's the surface level of, hey, you have this drone that can drop a bomb on you.
We've known this threat for a while. Our troops in Iraq and in Syria have dealt with this at times. But the real threat, the real issue that's sort of changing up the battlefield is using these things for targeting. I was a forward observer a while back when I was in Marine Corps. Your forward observer's job, you're forward of your troops, and you get on a radio and you look through your binoculars, you look out on the battlefield and then you call back the position of the enemy troops and say, "Hey, shoot there, at this grid."
Well now with drones, the forward observation on the battlefield is incredible. Now you can launch a drone from very, very safely away, launch a drone and conduct reconnaissance, find a Russian position. Maybe it's an artillery position or something like that, far off in the distance. They don't even see the drone, they don't even know it's there. You don't need to drop that little bomblet on them, that's a dump, you can instead use the drone to understand where their position is, call in the coordinates and then have a high mobility or a HIMARS rocket strike hit that position. It's game-changer for ground troops.
I think that it's definitely going to be something that the U.S. troops will be facing in the future. In fact, the National Training Center in California, it's the Army's premiere training site that soldiers go to before they deploy overseas. The General there recently put out a video of a drone swarm in action. Basically, it was dozens of drones flying in formation at these exact intervals. It was very precise. Then it flies toward the soldiers who are training and then they have to try to counter that and operate with these things over them, making things very, very difficult.
Whenever I talk to friends who are still in the infantry, I always tell them, I'm like, "I'm so happy now I don't have to deal with this crap. We never had to look up." We never had to look up. That's the thing. In Iraq and Afghanistan, we looked down. We looked for IEDs, we were looking at trash on the road and it was always looking down because we had air superiority. There were no drones and there was no Taliban air force. There were no Iraqi insurgents flying helicopters around. And we had the advantage.
The fight of the future that the U.S. military is training for, planning for, trying to get a handle of, and is frankly not ready for, but they're working on it, is against a peer military, against China. They will probably, perhaps face China in some sort of contingency over Taiwan at some time in the future. Could be five years, could be 10 years, could be never. But they have to plan for it.
When you're planning against China, you're thinking about missiles. Missiles that can reach Japan, missiles that can reach Guam where U.S. troops are. You're talking about drones, you're talking about aircraft that's really advanced. They've stolen F35 specs. They have things from the F22, their industrial espionage has been incredible and they've stolen a lot of U.S. technology and then basically copied it. And so what the U.S. military will then face is the carbon copy of its technology.
Now whether the troops on the other side are quality, and it's really the West versus the closed totalitarian society, are those troops better? That remains to be seen. But it's just something that I'm thinking about a lot and I'm writing about a lot because it's really the big, pressing issue on the minds of a lot of people in this space.
I guess we’re just going to have to leave it there, but why don't you tell folks about The Ruck and where they can find you. Also, feel free to shout out Duffle Blog.
You can find me, first and foremost — I would really love it, if you're reading this, if you check out The Ruck newsletter. It's an email newsletter, please sign up at theruck.news.
LinkedIn in the national security space is great. It's like Facebook for national security nerds, I guess is LinkedIn. They're sharing their work, "I just published this paper" or "check out this strategy document or study" or whatever.
I know I was plugging myself and I went on a tangent. Theruck.news, find me on Twitter. Also I run a second newsletter. I'm also the founder and editor of Duffel Blog. It's a national security-focused satire newsletter.
Which is amazing. Again, even going back to when I was first covering national security in the very beginning of my career, that site was amazing because nothing really gave me a better insight into how this stuff actually worked than that. Huge plug for Duffel Blog.
Yeah. Thank you so much. Yeah, Duffle Blog's been around for over 10 years now. It's incredible to think about that. We're read in the Pentagon and around the world. So check that out too at duffleblog.com.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.