Troops need speedy, battlefield training with longer-range missiles that can repel Russian forces in open areas; ‘Texas’ demonstrates the art of the ambush
By Yaroslav Trofimov
April 29, 2022
The Wall Street Journal
ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine—An American trainer known to his Ukrainian students simply as Texas carefully drew on a school blackboard the outline of a Russian T-72 tank and a plan of the surrounding area, and explained how he had ambushed it with a Javelin missile earlier this month.
Then he picked up the missile and its charcoal-grey command launch unit, or CLU, showing to a few dozen Ukrainian soldiers the correct firing positions. Another U.S. trainer, Mark Hayward, a 53-year-old retired U.S. Special Forces operator from Alaska, stepped in with advice on how to operate the antitank weapon in varying weather and light conditions. “I know you are all infantrymen, but with this, you need to behave like snipers. Play spy games,” said Texas, a Ukrainian-born American whose real first name is Anton and who didn’t want to disclose his surname because his relatives still reside in Ukraine. “Everything is in your hands; 90% of the success depends on you, the operators, and only 10% on the missile.”
Weapons supplied by the U.S. and other Western allies, particularly the Javelin missiles that have a range of up to 3 kilometers—longer than the ranges of guns on most Russian tanks—have played a critical role in enabling outgunned Ukrainian forces to repel the massive onslaught of Russian armor since the war began on Feb. 24.
Even more sophisticated weapons systems, such as 155 mm howitzers with precision-guided munitions, are beginning to flow to Ukraine as Washington and partners start to provide Ukrainian troops with NATO-standard heavy weapons that could blunt Russia’s advantage in armor, artillery and aircraft.
The bottleneck for this influx of aid is training. Ukrainian soldiers must be taught quickly to operate sophisticated and unfamiliar systems—in the middle of a war, and as Russian cruise missiles strike warehouses, railway hubs and bases deep in the Ukrainian rear.
In Western militaries, soldiers who operate these weapons undergo weeks or months of training before firing their first live shot. The U.S. and other nations in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization pulled their military trainers from Ukraine shortly before Russia invaded.
This means that American and other Western volunteers, such as Mr. Hayward and Anton, are filling the skills gap, lecturing at Ukrainian military units near the front lines—and sometimes taking part in the fight themselves. “We wound up being Javelin trainers by default,” Mr. Hayward said. That involved, among other things, watching YouTube training videos and poring over complex manuals once he arrived in Ukraine, to bring himself up-to-date.
The basic U.S. Army Javelin training program comprises 80 hours, according to the field manual. Training in the Javelin system usually takes 80 hours in the U.S. military but is being done in two days in Ukraine. “Here, we are trying to teach soldiers to be able to use Javelins in two days, so they can go out and carry out their combat tasks,” said Lt. Col. Serhiy, the head of training for Ukraine’s 128th Separate Mountain Assault Transcarpathian Brigade, which operates on the front southeast of Zaporizhzhia and in Donbas. Like other Ukrainian military personnel, he isn’t allowed to disclose his surname. “Training during the war means less theory and more practice,” Lt. Col. Serhiy said.
It takes only a few hours to master the shorter-range missiles, such the British-made NLAW and German-made Panzerfaust, that are better suited for the kind of urban combat that took place in the suburbs of the capital Kyiv in March. The far more complicated Javelins are indispensable for the battles under way now in the wide-open areas where the 128th Brigade is deployed, such as the rural countryside here in the southern Zaporizhzhia region,
because they allow troops to strike from afar before becoming targets themselves. The U.S. has supplied some 5,500 Javelin missiles to Ukrainian forces, according to the Pentagon. “Javelins are perfect for effective fire here in the open fields,” said Capt. Ivan, a company commander with the 128th Brigade whose unit in recent days seized a village in the Zaporizhzhia region. On Thursday, plumes of dark smoke from Russian shelling rose at a nearby tree line as loud thuds shook the village’s buildings. A burned-out Russian armored personnel carrier was on the roadside nearby.
Russian and Ukrainian positions in the village were about 2 kilometers apart, and troops attempting to advance with shorter-range missiles such as NLAW exposed themselves to Russian fire well before being able to strike, he said.
A private first class in Capt. Ivan’s company, Oleksandr, said he started his Javelin training at a base in western Ukraine two days before the war began, with a proper simulator. His first shot on a simulator failed, he said, but the machine made him understand how to operate the system in real life. “If you haven’t used a simulator, it will be very hard to figure out the right sequence, the way the joystick works, the right way to prepare,” Oleksandr said.
He has since destroyed nine Russian armored vehicles, including at least three tanks. “Without the Javelins, it would have been very hard to stop the enemy pushing ahead,” Oleksandr said. “They now know that we have the weapons that can hit them very effectively, and of course it demoralizes the enemy and keeps them in check.”
The U.S. and its NATO allies have been sending Javelins, Stingers and other weapons to Ukraine to help the country defend itself from Russian attacks. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday explains how some of these weapons work, and why experts say they’re useful to Ukrainian forces. Photo: Ukrainian Defense Ministry Press/AFP via Getty Images
Mr. Hayward, a resident of Nome, Alaska, came up with another solution to make training easier. The Javelin’s launcher, or CLU, has a total battery life of roughly four hours, which means that it drains quickly even when it’s switched on for training. Units that he has worked with in Ukraine were unable to procure spare batteries.
So Mr. Hayward, Anton and Ukrainian engineers assembled their own alternative power source using motorcycle batteries, cables from a DIY store and a 3D-printed frame for classroom training.
Mr. Hayward says he decided to come to Ukraine immediately after hearing news of the Russian invasion, inspired by President Volodymyr Zelensky’s statement early in the war that he needed weapons and not a ride out. A medical trainer who works in indigenous communities across the Bering Strait from Russia, Mr. Hayward said he had an additional reason to join the fight. “I can guarantee you that the Russia that’s willing to invade Ukraine and bomb its cities just because the government won’t surrender to it is the same Russia that would be willing to cut off fuel barges to Nome and let me and my family freeze,” he said.
In the first days of the war, he flew to Poland. There, a friendly taxi driver arranged for him to buy a used ambulance for €4,000, or about $4,200, which he painted green and now uses to move around Ukraine, with a motorcycle and a large flag of Alaska inside. Anton, an American volunteer, inside a military vehicle. He left his wife and three small children back home in Texas. Anton, 35, a Houston-based manager for a large industrial-services company, was moved into action after watching on TV scenes of his birthplace in northern Ukraine being shelled by Russian troops in February. He left his wife and three small children behind. “This is not a war of good versus evil but of normal versus evil,” he said. “Normal people were living normal lives, and then Russia decided to wage war on them.”
The two Americans—who are Mormon—met at a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple in Lviv, Ukraine, and ended up connecting informally with a Ukrainian Marines brigade operating out of the southern city of Mykolaiv. The Mykolaiv Marines welcomed Anton, Mr. Hayward and a handful of American and British veterans with Javelin experience. Anton, unlike other foreigners, didn’t have any military experience, but the Marines took him anyway because he is a competitive shooter and, more important, speaks Ukrainian and Russian.
Neither Mr. Hayward nor Anton received any formal paperwork from the Ukrainian military, or signed any contract. This week, following an informal referral from the Mykolaiv-based Marines, Anton and Mr. Hayward
moved to the Zaporizhzhia region to hook up with the 128th Brigade. They started off by “fixing” three supposedly malfunctioning CLUs after realizing a mistake in the brigade’s translation of the manual. One soldier leaving the class, Serhiy, recalled how he fought against Russian forces in Donbas in 2018. “At the time, their tanks used to drive up and shoot straight at us, and there was nothing we could do,” he said. “I wish we had Javelins back then.”
Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at firstname.lastname@example.org