29 Nov 2022
In a 1941 speech on a Royal Navy ship, Winston Churchill directed his final comments to the US: “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.” After a significant victory in Kherson, and standing at the gates of Crimea facing a Russian army desperately trying to shore up its ramshackle defences, Ukraine has the troops and morale to defend what it has. However, despite some western assistance, the Ukrainians lack the tools – tanks, missiles and aircraft – to retake their land and impose strategic defeat on the Russians. If the west, and especially the US, is serious about helping to protect Ukraine, decisions on stepping up military assistance need to be made now. If Ukraine is to be able to secure its future after victory – assuming that is what the west truly wants – its forces need to begin to transition to Nato-standard equipment.
The US has not yet declared a political or military objective. However, in April the US secretary of defence, Lloyd Austin, said he wanted “to see Russia weakened to the point where it can’t do things like invade Ukraine”. Is it the intention of the United States genuinely to support military efforts to return Ukraine’s internationally recognised borders? Or does it instead suit US and western decision-makers to support a long war with Ukrainian forces used as proxies to bleed out Russia’s armed forces? Obviously, these are not at all the same thing. Decisions need to be made very soon about increasing military support, and those decisions will tell us which objective is being pursued.
Barring a collapse of Russian forces (which is possible), without a step-change in weapons supplies, it is unlikely that the Ukrainians will be able to defeat Russia. Certainly, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the US chiefs of staff, thinks there will be no victory any time soon, and fears a first world war-type stalemate. With the force levels and weapons they now have, he may be right. While the administration has worked to “clean up” these remarks, they almost certainly reflect the perspective of the US armed forces.
In September, his Ukrainian counterpart, General Valerii Zaluzhny, set out how he intends to achieve victory, starting by raising between 10 and 20 brigades (that is, up to 100,000 troops). These troops will be able to hold the land they have now, but unless they are properly trained and equipped, they are unlikely to be capable of sustained offensive action to complete the liberation of their country. Three additional forms of weapon systems, most of them American, are vital: heavy armour, long-range missiles and air defence.
First, heavy armoured vehicles, especially tanks. As matters stand, the Ukrainian armed forces remain largely equipped with Russian or ex-Soviet equipment. Despite assistance from Nato countries, largely in the form of unwanted ex-Soviet stock from former Warsaw Pact countries, more than half of Ukraine’s’s tank fleet comprises captured Russian vehicles. Ukraine has repeatedly asked for more and better armour to support its campaigns to retake occupied territory. The US M1 Abrams tank is battle-tested and a generation ahead of anything remaining in Russia’s arsenal. Of the 3,000 or so the US has in reserve storage, the Ukrainians would need
far fewer than 1,000 to equip their new brigades. The same considerations apply to the release of up to 2,000 equally battle-proven Bradley armoured personnel carriers to protect Ukrainian infantry. Europe can supply excellent Nato-standard equipment, including tanks, but it won’t. This might be a blessing, as a single large fleet of tanks and armoured vehicles – which the US can supply without seriously affecting its military readiness – makes far better sense than multiple fleets, each with its own maintenance and logistical tail. Supply of American tanks has been “on the table” for several months. They need to go from the table and on to the ships and trains.
Second, one of the keynotes of Ukraine’s success has been Himars, the US-made rocket artillery launcher system which has devastated Russia’s ammunition stocks, and played a major role in offsetting Russia’s artillery advantage. Russia has no answer to it. However, the range of the rocket ammunition they currently have allows them only to attack targets up to 50km or so behind enemy lines. The Ukrainians have repeatedly requested ATACMS (or Army Tactical Missile System) missiles, with ranges up to 300km, for the Himars launchers. These would put at risk Russia’s military bases in Russian-occupied Crimea, or far behind the lines elsewhere. Targets might include the Black Sea Fleet in Sebastopol, or the Russian and Iranian drone-launchers currently immiserating Ukraine’s civilians.
Finally, Ukraine needs a vastly increased air defence capability. Ukrainian combat aircraft, astonishingly, are still operating. Over the next year or two it will need to be re-armed with western aircraft. The aircraft most often touted is the American F-16 fighter, the mainstay of many Nato and other air forces. There are plenty of these available. However, they are maintenance-intensive and possibly not suited to Ukraine’s airfields. And there are other options, such as the Swedish Saab Gripen.
More urgently, dozens of the latest anti-aircraft and anti-missile launchers are required to provide a systematic, effective and sustainable defence of Ukraine and its beleaguered people. The Ukrainians have requested top-of-the-range US Patriot and Italian-French SAMP/T launchers to shoot down ballistic missiles. The western systems already delivered, one German IRIS-T and two Norwegian-US NASAMS are a small fraction of what is needed.
The best way to ensure that Russia is, in Lloyd Austin’s words, “weakened to the point where it can’t do things like invade Ukraine” is to arm our allies properly to defeat them now and deter Russia in the future. Whether it is ever permitted to join Nato, a Ukraine armed with a relatively modern Nato-standard arsenal of heavy weaponry would become – like formerly neutral Sweden or Finland – capable of operating with western allies to secure its borders and those of Nato.
There is no time for delay: it will take many months to supply this essential equipment and to train troops to use and maintain it. Stepping up weapons supply would indicate that the US has opened the arsenal of democracy with clear intent for victory.
Most important, it would avoid an long drawn-out, bloody conflict with absolutely no guarantee of Ukrainian success. Getting this right will shorten the war and save thousands of Ukrainian – and incidentally Russian – lives.
Frank Ledwidge is a barrister and former military officer who has served in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan