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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Beating the Odds: How Ukraine Fought Russia to a Stand Still

T-72 tanks from Poland. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

It all comes down to one word: Training – The Ukrainian armed forces have been sent a plethora of new military hardware – some of which they are familiar with – such as the T-72 tank – other systems that are new such as the M777 towed howitzer. The latest systems require training, and it is not always readily apparent how the Ukrainians will receive operating instructions on the new weapons. Since the Ukrainians are not a member of NATO, they had to depend on existing military relationships to accelerate different aspects of training necessary to operate all the new acquisitions and succeed in modern warfare. How did the defenders learn to be so successful against the Russians?

U.S. Army National Guard a Secret to Ukrainian Success

The Ukrainians have a long history of partnering with various U.S. Army National Guard units and some Ukrainian regiments have been trained by these American reserve units for decades. The California Army National Guard has been conducting training exercises with the Ukrainian military since 1993. Elements of the California guard, part of the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, were training Ukrainians for three months before the invasion. The Florida Army National Guard, also part of the 53rd Infantry BCT, sent 160 members of their unit to train Ukrainians before the war. 

No Complaints from the Ukrainians

The American trainers found that the Ukrainians were tough and didn’t complain when faced with hardships. They also took to the training like “A”-students. Paul Wade retired from the California guard as a master sergeant and conducted training missions in Ukraine during the mid to late 2000s. 

“You can tell they have this grittiness, and they were like sponges when it came to anything we had to offer in the way of military training,” Wade said. “They didn’t need those small luxuries. I complained about the breakfast, but something like that didn’t bother them,” he told Stars and Stripes. “They needed very little to do their jobs and they really pumped up their chest whenever we gave them approval.”

Individual Training to Huge Multinational Drills Helped Prepare the Home Team

Sometimes the Ukrainians participated in large-scale training exercises with NATO members. Operation Rapid Trident in September 2021 featured 6,000 troops from 15-countries along with 4,000 Ukrainian soldiers and a small contingent from the Washington Army National Guard’s 81st Stryker Brigade Combat Team. The idea was to help Ukraine with combined arms warfare to better instill in them the ability to deploy infantry, armor, and artillery simultaneously. There were also joint airborne operations during the exercise. The Ukrainians learned how to react to a digital battlefield in which subordinate units use computer-aided systems to attack and defend.

Adjustment of Strategy and Tactics After the Cold War

Ukraine was part of the Soviet Army for decades during the Cold War. The Ukrainians were trained by the Russians, and they only knew ponderous and outdated tactics in a top-down manner. Company officers and non-commissioned officers often waited on orders from above before they moved rather than adjusting on the fly and making decisions in a fluid manner while thinking on their feet. After that era ended, they needed to transition to a force that would take on an oversized enemy such as Russia with 21st-century tactics.

Everyone Gets a Slice of Training

NATO trainers took a “whole of military approach.” This meant that everyone from the private up to the defense minister learned about modern warfare and the need for innovative and asymmetric tactics.

Donbas Frozen Conflict Was a Good Training Ground

Ukraine also had participated in a shooting war in the Donbas region against pro-Russian separatists in 2014. This conflict entailed the Ukrainians asking for even more strategic, operational, and tactical help. NATO trainers also saw the strengths and weaknesses of the Ukrainians by collecting intelligence on the various firefights and engagements against the pro-Russian separatists.

Always Improving 

In addition, NATO partners gave instruction on capacity building in which the upper echelons and even defense contractors took intelligence and data garnered from the field and asked for specific assistance in improving the military. This capacity-building seeped down to individual units at the company level – giving junior officers in platoons confidence in taking the initiative with self-reliance on battlefield necessities – capabilities that NATO countries often take for granted after fighting in Afghanistan.

Taking a Page from NATO

For example, the Canadian military also gave instruction to Ukrainian rapid reaction infantry forces by sharing knowledge about urban combat and battlefield medical procedures. This led to the Ukrainians getting better at conducting ambushes and forcing the enemy into “kill zones” where they could use drones, rocket artillery, and howitzers to punish the enemy. Also, the Ukrainians learned how to treat casualties and remove them from the battlefield for treatment.

Filling the Need for Support Troops

The Ukrainians have also made good use of support troops such as mechanics and emergency ordnance bomb technicians. They are recovering abandoned and damaged Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers and sending them to mechanics for refurbishment. Bomb techs neutralize and disarm mines, unexploded bombs, and booby traps. These skills would not have been possible without foreign armies giving them the confidence that comes along with training at a high level.

Train the Trainer on Modern Arms 

When it comes to new hardware such as heavy artillery that the Americans have provided, the Pentagon is ordering elements from the army to allow visits from Ukrainian soldiers for instruction on how to run these systems. The idea is for personnel to learn how to train others back home after they take a rotation in the United States. The Ukrainians understand the high stakes. Their survival depends on learning how to operate new systems.

Following the Principles of Warfare

The Ukrainians are also studying the principles of warfare such as the unity of command, the economy of force, speed, and security. This would not have been possible without modern training. Ukrainian high command devises the concept of battle and end-state strategy. This is communicated down to the lowest level. Whether it is defensive warfare or counter-attacks, even the lowest-level soldiers understands his or her task and purpose. 

Patriotism Fuels Success

All of this has been made easier by the Ukrainian military’s patriotism and willingness to rally around the flag. This means a greater sacrifice for the common good that results in better morale. This leads to success on the battlefield, which is reinforced by social media and global media coverage of engagements that have punished the Russians. This is a glorious or virtuous cycle. 

The Ukrainian military has much going for it. It has shown the ability to sponge up instructions, accept hardships without complaint, combine front-line infantry and armor with combat support units, and partake in combined arms tactics. It also has strategic clarity from the president of the country, to the ministry of defense, to the general staff, all the way down to the territorial defense volunteers. This could not have been achieved without outside training, but it is also a testament to inherent Ukrainian bravery, smarts, and toughness.

Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.