An Alternative Policy for Enduring Support for Ukraine
By Josh Green
Since the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the United States has given Ukraine $6.3 billion in aid. The aid, most recently in the form of sophisticated loitering munitions, M777 howitzers, and multiple rocket launchers arguably has provided a lethal capability to the Ukrainians. However, this aid creates strategic risk for both the US, Ukraine’s other Western supporters, and Ukraine itself. Beyond raising the risk of escalation with Russia, these diverse aid packages could create a Ukrainian military that is increasingly reliant on a patchwork of Western materiel support. Although this current policy creates capability, it threatens the Ukrainians’ capacity to engage in a sustainable war with an adversary who has considerable war stocks and shorter supply lines.
A policy which emphasizes a focus on creating capacity rather than surging capabilities would likely enable Ukraine to endure over the midterm as well as mitigate long term strategic risks to Ukraine’s Western benefactors. A capacity centered approach would still feature Western nations providing arms; however, these systems and ammunition would be predominantly drawn from Warsaw Pact stores. In addition to the supply of lethal aid, an emphasis on supplying Ukraine with the means to refurbish, regenerate, and repair their equipment likely raises the Ukrainians ability to contend with Russia over a greater period. As tertiary component to this policy adaptation, a more metered approach to supplying single use systems, such as Javelins, Stingers, and Switchblades, reduces strategic risk to the US and its allies. The current policy imbuing sudden capability with these single use weapons is threatening US and Western nations strategic stocks. This alternative policy ensures the enduring capacity of the Ukrainian military to sustain combat and preserves US’ and Western allies’ stores of critical technologies.
Though currently the alliance that is aiding Ukraine appears strong, it could be broken. Russian entrenchment in the global energy market affords Russia possible leverage over Ukraine’s current benefactors. Russia may succeed in eroding Western and US support for Ukraine by exerting that leverage to compel benefactors to reduce or remove their support. A precipitous reduction in Western support would likely have negative impacts on the battlefield, under the current approach. The alternative approach not only creates a more sustainable system, but it also isolates Ukraine from the possible future impacts of a successful Russian leverage campaign against nations that are reliant on Russian energy products.
Recent Lesson Already Forgotten
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) highlighted that a major factor that undermined the Afghan National Defense Forces (ANDSF) in the final phases of the war was the lack of the US’ sophisticated support. The support extended beyond air strikes and intelligence, the US and its Western partners brought with them scores of contractors and billions in sophisticated equipment to aid the ANDSF. The US molded the ANDSF largely after its own military. A large part of the effort over the 20-year campaign was weighted towards creating capabilities and less orientated on capacity building. This produced a force that depended on complex logistics chains that were managed by the US and its partners. Prominently, the Afghan Air Force suffered from increasingly low readiness rates as a result of its reliance on decreasing US support. As US strategic interests drifted elsewhere, the Afghan Air Force was unable to provide critical support to its beleaguered ground forces. Western weapon systems frequently rely on highly skilled maintenance, contractor support, and specialized logistics. As the war in Ukraine continues to be one of attrition and as infrastructure is targeted, managing these types of requirements will become more challenging for the Ukrainian military.
The SIGAR highlighted this specific issue in the report detailing the collapse of the ANDSF. The report states that a lack of Afghan leadership focused on maintenance and resourcing was a major factor that undermined the ANDSF capacity to fight. The ANDSF never became self-reliant, due to oft replenished stocks of Western equipment. When that supply chain cut off, so did the ANDSF’s capacity to wage war. It appears that the US’ and Western states’ policy of flooding Ukraine with increasingly complex and maintenance intensive systems risks many of the same perils that undermined the ANDSF.
The situation on the ground in Ukraine has highlighted shortcomings with both belligerents’ equipment. Falsely, many believe US and Western systems are markedly superior to those of Warsaw Pact systems. The most recent discourse has centered around artillery. In response, the US has provided the Ukrainian military with M777 howitzers and HIMARS rocket launchers, claiming these weapons will give the Ukrainians the ability to outrange Russian howitzers. A review of known Ukrainian artillery systems reveals that the M777 only outranges a handful of the 152mm Warsaw Pact systems the Ukrainians are thought to employ. Even then, the discrepancy in maximum range is nominal, no more than a few kilometers. Although a focus on maximum range helps characterize the dichotomy in capabilities, it is not a true bearer of the equipment’s potential.
The HIMARS’ also only provides a nominal range advantage to comparable Russian and Ukrainian systems, and the much-touted GMLRS missile relies on sophisticated US GPS for its accuracy. It is unclear if the US provided the materials required for those missiles to utilize GPS, if not, they become much less accurate. Though both the M777 and HIMARS systems do provide a slight tactical advantage; evaluation reveals the advantage to likely be nominal. This new equipment is alien to the Ukrainian military and requires weeks of training before it can be deployed, as well as likely requiring specialized maintenance that can only be provided by technicians should certain faults arise. Weighing the slight tactical advantage versus the realities of these systems employment, Warsaw Pact systems offer the capacity advantage.
Tooth to Tail becomes Teeth to Tails
If the capabilities were overstated, then an understanding of the logistical requirements appears to be the opposite. The 126 US provided howitzers alone is enough to outfit seven US Army artillery battalions. This amount of towed artillery likely increases the logistical burden for the Ukrainian military by vastly diversifying its supply chains. In addition to the US support, several other NATO allies have supplied similar weapons to help Ukraine achieve a uniform capability in regard to their 155mm howitzers. Each additional weapon system creates its own unique supply chain. As an example of this increasingly convoluted supply network, Germany provided several PZH2000 155mm self-propelled howitzers. In a similar effort, other NATO nations donated older M109 self-propelled howitzers. Though both the PZH2000 and the M109 are 155mm, and therefore have a similar maximum range, there are very few interchangeable parts between the two systems, if any at all. This well-intentioned policy of introducing capability could result in several complex and convoluted supply chains that extend great distances, are wholly dependent on US and Western support, and difficult to manage.
A policy hinged on rushing capabilities risks stretching supply chains over entire continents. Beyond the stocks of consumable parts that were part of the Western aid packages, intricate or sophisticated parts may have to be sourced from depots or factories in the supplying nation. Warsaw Pact parts of similar rarity may be closer at hand. In a war that has been dominated by discussions regarding interior and exterior lines, the force with the shortest lines likely preserves an advantage. Shortened lines allow for speed and security. With Russia seeking to target Western weapons shipments, the increasing reliance on Western parts and ammunition is a possible vulnerability. Extending those lines to cross oceans and relying on multimodal transport only increases the risk of unaccounted for factors, such as weather events and cyber attacks
Regardless of the system’s origins, regenerating and refurbishing equipment inside Ukraine shortens timelines. The ability to regenerate battle damaged equipment inside Ukraine is critical. In the case of Warsaw Pact weapon systems, the inherit knowledge required to conduct repairs is likely resident inside Ukrainian formations, as well as the repair parts. Given the proliferation of Warsaw Pact systems, should parts not be available in Ukraine, there are likely stores in nearby former Warsaw Pact countries. If critical components or ammunition is found further afield, the US and its Western partners could leverage their wealth and capacity to bring that aid into Ukraine. Additionally, should Ukrainian units overrun Russian lines, they likely could cannibalize Russian equipment to create spares. A CNN report highlights just that, as Ukrainian volunteers near Kyiv refurbish Russian equipment to be repurposed. This will not be possible if the bulk of the Ukrainian military becomes a collage of Western systems.
A policy that provides the Ukrainians not just with spares and ammo, but the equipment required to maintain an army at war is a critical adjunct to the proposed policy of preferencing a Warsaw Pact supply chain. Supplying more modern industrial capabilities to increase refurbishment capacity, like additive manufacturing, could enhance the Ukrainian’s capability to regenerate equipment. When considering the likely proximity of Warsaw Pact systems, as well as the depth of institutional knowledge regarding those systems, Warsaw Pact systems allow for rapid capacity and capability regeneration.
Early US policy appeared to recognize the availability of Warsaw Pact systems and the immediate impacts they could make of the battlefield. However, recent policy decisions, such as the decision to provide more M777 howitzers and HIMARS, is a shift in the opposite direction. The Department of Defense bestowed $165 million in aid that is specifically designed to supply the Ukrainians with the same systems and ammunition already within their ranks. According to the same report from The Atlantic Council, this will likely allow the Ukrainians to bring these systems to bear much faster than the Western supplied systems, as no training is required and the lethal aid is easier to move forward. Despite the simplicity of this logic, the authors of the Atlantic Council article advocate giving Ukraine sophisticated Western heavy weapons under the premise that those weapons will allow Ukraine to gain and upper hand. This is a short-sighted policy that is predicated on an unprecedented level of Western support. A reliance on Western support to achieve a position of advantage is a vulnerability given Russia’s leverage capacity. Not only must Ukraine achieve a position of advantage and impose costs, but Ukraine must also sustain that advantage long enough to coerce Moscow to negotiate an end to hostilities. A return to a policy that favors Warsaw Pact equipment over sophisticated Western systems ensures the longevity of the Ukrainians’ military capacity as expressed through equipment and readiness.
Long Term Strategic Risk
The risks of a myopic focus on capabilities extends beyond Ukraine to its Western benefactors. As mentioned, supplying weapons to Ukraine gives Russia casus belli to strike against NATO logistics hubs outside Ukraine. Although to date, Russia has not. Beyond the acute risk of conflict enlargement, this policy could backfire should a more existentially concerning crisis erupt elsewhere. At a heightened pace of delivery, the US risks outstripping its ability to domestically produce critical components and replace systems. Although it is unclear what the level of capacity is for the US defense industrial base, short of an all-out war effort, production of military specific items will likely remain as it has been. To date, the US alone has provided approximately one third of its overall Javelin supply and a quarter of its supply of Stinger missiles. Under a similar policy of inundation, the UK now finds itself years away from returning its stocks to pre-Ukraine War levels according to Admiral Sir Tony Radakin. The policy of capability surges, as witnessed through complex Western systems, Western ammunition, and single use weapons creates strategic risk that is likely unacceptable in the long term.
A more conservative policy of preferencing Warsaw Pact single use weapons, such as anti-tank weapons and man portable air-defense (MANPADS) appears a more sustainable alternative. Other elements in this realm, such as loitering munitions, have no Warsaw Pact analog that is readily available. Therefore, those unique systems, like the Switchblade, could be provided sparingly to fill urgent operational requests on a by need basis. This will reduce the risk to US strategic stocks, as well as continue to create a sustainable Ukrainian army that can fight with or without massive Western and US support.
It is unwise to equip an army in the image of the US or NATO, particularly in the face of a war that could grind on indeterminably. The US reduces the risk of the Ukrainians becoming reliant on complicated and diverse Western support by channeling the preponderance of nonlethal and lethal aid to Warsaw Pact equipment and filling niche capability gaps with distinctive Western single use weapons. Implications of this adjusted policy will likely shorten supply chains and mitigate the vulnerabilities of Ukraine’s exterior lines. Warsaw Pact weapons, specifically artillery, present a comparable capability to US and Western equipment in terms of maximum range and accuracy. Warsaw Pact systems’ supply lines are likely already somewhat organic, and the ability to requisition parts is less reliant upon US and Western assistance. An alteration of the current policy that is more centered around capacity rather than capabilities is likely enduring. A shift to this policy may be viewed as unpopular; it is tough love that ensures the Ukrainian military can continue to sustain itself in the face of unpredictable Western support.
The views expressed are those of the author. They do not represent the views of the Department of Defense, the US Army, or any other organization.
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