Supporting Ukraine for the Long War
Jack Watling WAR ON THE ROCKS – April 12, 2022
On the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I sat across a conference table from Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi — commander of Ukraine’s ground forces — flanked by his intelligence and planning staff.
His team’s frustration was palpable. They had told their allies in the United States and United Kingdom where their vulnerabilities lay in a fight with Russia for years, while military assistance had been limited in scale. Once the invasion became imminent, military aid was held back because Western capitals did not think there was enough time to train the Ukrainian forces on how to use it.
Ukrainian ground forces have made the same requests of their allies since at least 2019: medium-range air defense, anti-tank weapons, counter-battery radar, counter-sniper systems, counter-drone systems, and basic equipment for mobilized forces. As Lt. Gen. Ruslan Komchak — deputy chair of Ukraine’s National Defense and Security Committee — explained to me days before the war, Ukraine wanted to fight a mobile defense, maneuvering to counter the enemy’s axes of advance, blunting Russian armor, striking Russian artillery
The Ukrainian plan has proven sound, but the dearth of military assistance in the lead-up to the conflict has cost them dearly. Russia attacked along multiple axes, with large, armored thrusts pushing south from Belarus, southwest from Belgorod, northwest from Rostov, and north from Crimea. When the war began, Ukraine could not safely reposition its forces beneath the enemy air threat. They only had enough anti-tank weapons to blunt one axis and chose to use these to defend Kyiv. Lacking a means to attack Russian artillery, they saw their cities turned to rubble. They succeeded in defending the capital but lost considerable ground in the south and east. If Ukraine can blunt the next offensive on the Donbas, it will need to reconstitute its forces for a protracted struggle.
Because military assistance was stepped up so late, Western capitals have prioritized weapons that were immediately usable in blunting Russia’s advance. This aid was critical in preventing Kyiv’s capture. Now that Russia’s main effort has switched to the Donbas, however, Ukraine’s immediate requirements are changing, and their international allies are pledging to meet these requirements, sending T72 tanks, protected mobility, and a steady stream of anti-tank weapons, man-portable air-defense systems, and loitering munitions. But with the risk of Kyiv’s fall having passed, Ukraine’s allies have an opportunity to regain the initiative by providing military aid that requires a longer lead-time, and thereby preparing Ukraine for the threat beyond the coming offensive.
The Ukrainians are bracing for an offensive northward from Mariupol and southward from around Kharkiv. They face a hard month of fighting. The Russian units now appreciate what they are up against and with fewer lines to supply they should be able to bring a greater concentration of air and artillery to bear. The aim will be to surround the Ukrainian troops in the Joint Forces Operating area in the Donbas. At the same time the Ukrainian forces are reasonably confident they can hold, though it will cost them. Ukrainian troops now have only one front against which they must concentrate, where they enjoy numerical parity with the Russian forces and have stationed many of their best troops. They should impose a grueling rate of attrition on their adversaries.
Irrespective of whether Ukraine holds the Donbas by the end of the month Russia will face a decision point. Ukraine has no incentive to accept a ceasefire that would amount to allowing Russia to incrementally annex its territory. But without a tangible success to announce at the Victory Day parade on May 9, the Russian government will need to decide whether it is at war or not. Moscow has committed the bulk of its available combat power to Ukraine. If it needs to rotate units out, it will need to mobilize reserves and retain its last draft of conscripts. This would likely presage a major shift in the rhetoric in Moscow and would delay a renewed Russian offensive for at least another two months as new units were equipped and prepared.
Ukrainian units by then will also be heavily depleted. The question is whether the West can move proactively to deter Russia from escalating to a summer offensive, or, failing that, ensure that Ukrainian units are equipped and prepared for the next round of fighting beyond the Donbas. That will require training on new systems and reconstitution of some Ukrainian units, as well as the replacement of key equipment. If Ukraine’s allies do not start that process now, they risk once again being caught between what Ukraine needs and what its military can absorb in time.
Contesting the Air: U.S. F-16s for Egyptian MiG-29s?
The Ukrainian Air Force has maintained a valiant resistance but has slowly been attritted and constrained by expanding Russian combat air patrols and air defenses. Unless Ukraine gets more jets, Russia will be increasingly free to raid deep inside Ukraine, striking its logistics hubs and training facilities. Replacing the Ukrainian Air Force’s MiG-29s, however, poses several challenges. Western-designed aircraft would be prohibitively slow to deliver, not only because of the pilot-training implications but also the maintenance infrastructure and training for ground crew.
A further complication is that most modern Western aircraft will have communications and other equipment fitted that is sensitive and removing it from aircraft to be sent to Ukraine will take time. This is, incidentally, one of the primary barriers to sending Ukraine the Polish MiG-29s Warsaw offered early in the conflict. These aircraft have NATO equipment upgrades (primarily communications and avionics) that would need to be removed to prevent compromise. The airframes themselves are of an older, less lethal model to begin with, and are also heavily worn.
There are alternatives, however. Egypt recently procured 46 MiG-29Ms of the latest Russian standard, along with a compliment of R-77 active radar-guided missiles which Ukraine has repeatedly requested. Egypt has also ordered Su-35s, but when these were flown against Egypt’s French-built Rafales, their inferiority became starkly apparent. In consequence, it is probable the Egyptian Air Force would welcome a one-for-one replacement of its MiG-29Ms with U.S.-made F-16s. Egypt already flies a substantial number of F-16s, and it already has the infrastructure for an expansion of its F-16 fleet. There are no concerns about U.S. capabilities being compromised with the transfer of advanced F-16s to Egypt: The U.S. government has expressed willingness to export F-16s to Turkey — in spite of Russian-made S-400s being present on Turkish soil — as well as to Taiwan.
In the first month of the war in Ukraine there was insufficient time to explore such options. Arranging such a complicated deal requires considerable diplomatic legwork, and few expected Ukraine to withstand the initial assault. Now that the conflict is protracted, however, such options are viable — indeed vital. The MiG-29M, while an effective air-defense fighter, lacks the range to contest the air over the Donbas, especially in the face of an expanding Russian air-defense presence. But it would offer protection for western Ukraine. The delivery of Switchblade-600 loitering munitions, meanwhile, should give the Ukrainian forces a tool for harassing Russian air defenses, potentially creating windows of opportunity for more aggressive air operations from all Ukrainian aircraft and aviation.
Securing the Land: Don’t Send Odds and Ends
Although the immediate need is for a continued supply of anti-tank, man-portable air-defense systems, and other air defense missiles, Ukrainian ground units will inevitably be attritted by the intensity of Russian firepower, no matter how ineptly deployed and led Russian formations are in the close fight. Ukrainian military priorities are likely to change as they shift into a maneuver battle to destroy Russian forces and capture key terrain, rather than conducting a positional urban defense to defeat Russia’s initial, failed coup de main. Three requirements stand out: air defenses, protected mobility, and artillery ammunition.
Although Ukraine possesses air-defense systems, these will struggle to provide mobile support to ground forces if they cannot be cued onto target by supporting radar. Russia has had success in knocking out many of the wide-area search, fire control, and target acquisition radar supporting Ukrainian anti-aircraft batteries. Ukrainian surface-to-air missiles continue to pose a serious pop-up threat to intruding Russian aircraft but will be less effective in providing mobile defense to Ukrainian forces nearer the Russian border. This is exacerbated by the fact that some of the support vehicles for Ukrainian air-defense systems are chronically short of spare parts and cannot therefore be used in their mobile role.
Ukraine has been clear that it needs to transition away from Soviet legacy air defenses for several years. The request from Kyiv since at least 2019 has been for the U.S.- and Norwegian-produced National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System, a medium-range air defense. While less well known than the Patriot, this system is widely deployed and is the air-defense system that provides coverage for the White House and other high-value assets in Washington, D.C. This would be the most capable and appropriate system for NATO to share. NATO members in Europe are themselves short of air defenses and donating systems would therefore be difficult, but the production line remains open. Although Ukrainian crews would need to be trained on the system, this could be done outside Ukraine.
Providing Ukraine with tactical mobile air-defense systems such as the National would allow Ukraine to maneuver near the Russian border and retake towns while raiding Russian supply lines as it successfully did in 2014 and 2015. The Ukrainian forces would need to remain mobile to avoid being heavily attritted by Russian artillery firing from across the border in Russia itself. Ukrainian mobility would also need to be protected, since moving at speed necessarily exposes vehicles to ambush.
There is a considerable risk that NATO countries will pull whatever worn-out armored vehicles they have in storage and begin to ship them off to Ukraine. This would be less than helpful. The prospect of Ukraine receiving a myriad of vehicles with completely different spare requirements, characteristics, and levels of wear would be a logistical catastrophe. It would overwhelm the already-stressed logistical capability of the Ukrainian armed forces. Moreover, many of the vehicles in this category are no longer in production, and so the availability of spare parts would be limited. Training to use these systems would consequently be inefficient. Instead, NATO allies should standardize around as few types as possible of armored vehicles (for which a production line is still open) and focus on providing quantity. The exact type of vehicle chosen is less important than the consistency and parts availability. Finally, Ukrainian land forces need artillery. In the first instance they will need Grad and 152mm howitzer ammunition, which NATO can draw from older Soviet stocks.
Supplying Ukraine with a significant volume of new armored vehicle types and some specialist weapons systems is much more complicated than simply delivering equipment. Since training must happen outside of Ukraine, it would most likely need a “train the trainer” approach. On the Ukrainian side, concealing the routes by which equipment was being delivered— and where Ukrainian units were reconstituting and being issued equipment — will be essential as well as difficult. The precise details of how this might be done are better not discussed in public.
Nevertheless, it is worth stating that while there are many difficulties involved, Ukraine’s allies also need to be relaxed about not knowing all the details as to how the Ukrainians will manage the process in-country. The Ukrainian military has demonstrated its competence at planning and its ability to execute those plans. International partners would do well to consult, but they should stop second-guessing what Ukraine can and cannot do as regards organization within its borders.
Denying the Sea with Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles
Russia has functionally blockaded the port of Odessa while firing large volumes of cruise missiles from its ships to strike targets across southern and western Ukraine. The ongoing threat from the maritime flank not only pins down Ukrainian forces but could become a serious problem if Russia succeeds in seizing the Donbas and then shifts its main effort toward Odessa, rather than heading northward to Kyiv. Putting the Russian Navy at risk should be a priority.
The best means of doing this is the provision of anti-ship cruise missiles. The United Kingdom has already signalled its intention of doing this, although the system it intends to provide has not yet been officially disclosed. Weapon systems like the Harpoon would require careful discussion with the Ukrainians as regards the kill chain and launch platform. The risk of the Ukrainians launching without track-quality data on a target is that the missile could strike non-Russian targets in the Black Sea. For this reason, NATO partners may decide that shorter-range systems are a better option. Irrespective of whether Harpoon missiles are provided specifically, a comparable system offering a medium-range sub-sonic capability would be ideal for disrupting Russian naval operations. While too short-ranged to disrupt Russian resupply of Syria or the wider Black Sea, it would hold Russian ships at risk off the coast and greatly complicate any blockade of Odessa.
The provision of military equipment to Ukraine should first and foremost be driven by solving practical problems. In NATO doctrine there is a growing emphasis on the deep battle, shaping the next fight and the fight beyond, to ensure success in the close. In Ukraine, the provision of tactical training by the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada to Ukrainian units has proven its worth. But the provision of lethal aid was left too late, exacerbating the problems that Ukraine faced in the close fight. Today Ukraine’s defiance has bought time and an opportunity not only to stave off further Russian gains in the Donbas, but also to shape the battle beyond it. If Ukraine’s allies act today, they may deter or at least prepare for a summer offensive. If this opportunity to shape subsequent rounds of fighting is missed, and Ukraine’s allies remain fixated on the close battle right now, then NATO risks having to provide Ukraine with more and more prestige anti-tank guided missiles and man-portable air-defense systems, running its own stockpiles low, and failing to overcome some of the wider challenges that constrain the Ukrainian military’s ability to fight optimally. It is time to regain the initiative.
Dr. Jack Watling is a research fellow for land warfare at the UK Royal United Military Services Institute.