It’s no secret that Ukraine’s resilience in its nearly year-long war resisting Russian invasion owes something to military aid from the U.S. and Europe. But that aid extends beyond just weapons, munitions and technical instruction. It also includes training and counsel on how to conduct military operations.
A recent Washington Post article reports the Pentagon would like to transform Ukraine’s military by training it to “fight more like Americans.” A senior U.S. defense official reportedly told the Post: “I think if we can train larger formations — companies, battalions — on how to employ fires, create conditions for maneuver, and then be able to maneuver like you’ve seen [the U.S. military] maneuver on the battlefield, then I think we’re in a different place. Then you don’t need a million rounds [of artillery]. We’ve got to get them to that point.”
That means conducting aggressive combined arms maneuvers on the ground — closely coordinating tanks, mechanized infantry, artillery and air power/air defense for mutual support — while relying less on heavy artillery bombardments and trench warfare.
But these comments raised the eyebrows of experts on Russia and Ukraine’s militaries. Michael Kofman, a prominent analyst on Russia’s military at the CNA Corporation, wrote on social media:
“I have no doubt Ukrainian Armed Forces can learn combined arms maneuver, and saw elements of this at [the battle of] Kharkiv. However, without U.S. Air Force air superiority, U.S. logistics, C4ISR etc./ it’s a bit hard to ‘fight like Americans.’ How well would we do without airpower?”
(C4ISR stands for Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance.)
Sticking With History
It is no doubt true that Western militaries have increasingly been inclined to use superior air power as a substitute for ground artillery — and that’s simply not realistic for Ukraine.
While Ukraine’s air force has exceeded expectations by continuing to deter Russia’s more powerful air arm from penetrating Ukrainian-controlled airspace, it remains badly outnumbered and outgunned. It can provide only sporadic support to frontline forces, and it only recently acquired its first precision-guided ground-attack weapons. Due to the high cost and complexity of modern air power, that can’t be changed quickly or cheaply.
In Kofman’s view, the Pentagon risks forcing a mismatch, because of the profoundly different, Soviet heritage of Ukraine’s military.
In a subsequent tweet he elaborates: “[Ukrainian Armed Forces’] way of war depends on [artillery] fires, exploited by maneuver. It is a successor military to the Soviet military, which was artillery-centric, and in that respect is much closer to the Russian military than our own. You have to work with what has proven successful for your partners. Deep strike, precision, better ISR, can help improve UA performance. My bias is that I’m wary of seeing a solution that implies trying to turn that military more into us.”
That’s not to say Ukraine’s armed forces have already changed enormously due to Western weapons, training and counseling ongoing since 2014.
Western Influence on Ukraine’s Armed Forces
Ukraine inherited from the Soviet Union a vast arsenal of armored fighting vehicles and Soviet warplanes. While Kyiv pawned much of it off, including Tu-160 bombers and cruise missiles sold to Russia that are used today to bombard Ukraine, thousands of weapons were put into storage that were refurbished after 2014 for the current conflict. These include T-72 tanks, Su-24 bombers and old air defense systems.
Ukraine’s military received early exposure to U.S./NATO doctrine in 2001 when contingents of Ukrainian soldiers were deployed alongside U.S. peacekeeping forces in Kosovo. Then in 2003-2004, 1,700 troops of the 5th Mechanized Brigade deployed to support the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
Western training and equipment increased heavily after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, and this highlighted vulnerabilities of Ukraine’s Soviet legacy forces to Russia’s comparatively modernized military.
While Washington was slow to transfer lethal weapons, it helped modernize Ukrainian communications, sensors, and transport and electronic warfare capabilities. It notably furnished jammers, counter-battery radars, secure Harris radios, Humvees, Saxon armored personnel carriers, night vision systems, and select infantry weapons including large M82 Barrett sniper rifles and mortars. A limited shipment of Javelin missile launchers finally made its way to Ukraine in 2018.
Hundreds of NATO trainers were dispatched to Ukraine to help integrate these new technologies and tactics. Ukraine’s Air Force also regularly practiced air-to-air combat against F-15s of the California Air National Guard, giving Ukrainian pilots experience developing tactics to use against more technically advanced combat aircraft. This training has proven invaluable in the 2022 war.
NATO influence fostered improved small-unit tactics and a drive to nurture an experienced corps of non-commissioned officers, especially Sergeants. Whereas Soviet doctrine invests little in NCOs, U.S. doctrine emphasizes empowering junior officers and NCOs to take the initiative as long as it’s in accord with the superior officer’s intentions — a principle known as ‘mission command.’ These tactics combined with secure communications, drones, and night vision have enabled small Ukrainian units to defeat larger Russian forces.
In the months running up to Russia’s February 2022 invasion, the U.S. finally began providing large volumes of Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger air defense missiles, which helped Ukrainians defeat Russia’s clumsy initial offensive. But in April, Russia’s military refocused its efforts on a slow, grinding artillery war in Eastern Ukraine in which close combat weapons were of limited help.
In response, the U.S. and its allies began supplying howitzers, shells, and eventually HIMARS rocket artillery that could (and did) precisely strike Russia’s forward-deployed ammunition depots. These inputs, combined with exhaustion of Russian ammunition and manpower in wasteful frontal assaults, eventually bled away the momentum of Russia’s summer offensive.
By late August, Ukraine was ready to go on the offensive. But Pentagon planners fretted that the defensive tactics refined by the Ukrainians from years of fighting wouldn’t work in an offensive, due to a lack of training in large-unit (battalion or brigade-level) combined arms operations.
Ukraine nonetheless conducted two successful offensives in the fall: a slow assault on Russian forces entrenched around Kherson city in southern Ukraine running from late August to mid-November, and in September, a lighting campaign in the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine that caught Russia by surprise. Western inputs to these campaigns included HARM anti-air defense missiles, new air defense systems, and numerous armored troop-carrying vehicles. Additionally, the UK and U.S. began training thousands of Ukrainian troops at European bases.
In the coming months, Ukraine will also receive sophisticated Patriot and SAMP/T long-range air defense systems to protect against ballistic and cruise missiles, and GPS-guided glide bombs that could make Ukrainian air strikes far more effective than currently, though still involving risks due to range/altitude limitations.
Ukraine has also notably innovated tactics and technologies independently of foreign aid, particularly in regard to drones. Ukrainians developed and used their own battle management app to connect drone spotters directly to Ukrainian artillery fire direction centers, allowing for very rapid and accurate fires. They’ve also adapted numerous cheap civilian drones to deliver shockingly effective grenade strikes on personnel and armored vehicles — a method not yet practiced by the U.S. military. Ukraine has even converted large drones into cruise missiles capable of long-distance strategic attacks.
Retired Australian Maj. Gen. Mick Ryan remarks in a tweet that “the Ukrainians have proven they can beat the Russians in the defense, and in offensives, without ‘fighting more like Americans’. Perhaps the West needs to give them the resources they need – and we can all learn to ‘fight more like Ukrainians.’”
Overall, Kofman’s critique is that Ukraine’s military benefits more from evolving and enhancing its current structure rather than fundamentally reorganizing on the pattern of the U.S. military.
He warns: “Folks can also judge for themselves, looking at the history, how good we are at converting other militaries to ‘fighting more like Americans.’”
That brings to mind U.S. efforts to build professional armies in Vietnam, and in Iraq during its war against ISIS. While the U.S. was successful at creating capable elite units in those countries, including Iraq’s Golden Division and Afghanistan’s air force and special operations units, it repeatedly failed to create rank-and-file regular forces that could withstand determined adversaries. To be fair, some lower-profile military assistance programs have been more successful in the Philippines, Bosnia and Croatia, and in the later stages of the anti-ISIS war.
Kyiv believes it can continue to liberate territory this winter and spring despite over 200,000 new conscripts currently undergoing training in Russia. But victory in Kharkiv was possible due to a lack of Russian personnel combined with achieving surprise, while Russia’s Kherson defeat was facilitated by its unfavorable position on the western side of the Dnieper river. Such favorable circumstances seem difficult to recreate.
However, Kofman argues that Ukraine may yet conduct maneuver breakthrough operations by creating prerequisite conditions — that is, by attriting Russia’s manpower until it again struggles to defend the entire length of the frontline. But that will require sustained Western support, which is admittedly not easy, given limited artillery shell manufacturing from NATO states accustomed to relying more on air-dropped smart bombs.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, War is Boring and 19FortyFive, where he is Defense-in-Depth editor. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.