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.
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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.
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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.
December 28, 2022 at 4:30 pm
Irag’s and Afghanistan’s rank and file troops were far more interested in a regular payday than actually fighting. So different than the incentivised and resilient Ukrainian forces who have demonstrated time and again their determination.
Maj. Gen. Mick Ryan was spot on with his assessment.
December 28, 2022 at 4:31 pm
Ukraine has taken western training and adapted it to their situation. They have demonstrated a flexibility that is impossible in Russia because they have utterly no trust in the enlisted ranks. While Ukraine is fighting more like a western army, there are lessons to be learned by the west in the manner in which Ukraine has fought a numerically superior force to a standstill and started pushing them back.
December 28, 2022 at 5:09 pm
Definitely not. American army is trash. It’s a floating trade union. All they do is brag about how the new technologies and computers are doing all the work for them, but they are still getting paid the same. Now they are saying that France should pay to fight Russia because America has got other priorities. Those priorities turned into US forcing Japan to double their military budget against China.
It’s a fucking mothballed disgrace.
December 28, 2022 at 5:28 pm
Does American army need to
Be more like Ukrainian army?
You know they are not agonizing over pronouns in battle !
December 28, 2022 at 6:17 pm
You say that the Ukrainian army should become similar to the American one, but keep silent about the fact that a some more Fed rate hikes and the American economy will become similar to the Ukrainian economy – full of holes and insolvent?
Who will pay for the banquet? Since the 2000s, the Fed rate has increased 16 times, from 0.25% to 4.5% – US bonds already have a negative yield, why does no one see this, and how long can the US economy work in this mode?
December 28, 2022 at 6:21 pm
The ukro armed forces would be more like hitler’s military considering what they’ve been doing since the days of Minsk agreement.
Minsk agreement was a ceasefire and a plan for a self-ruled donbass but neither was carried out.
Jnstead, the ukros advised by foreign opeeatives waged a near 8-year trench warfare of attrition combat against donbass inhabitants.
The only path for the ukros is final defeat on the battlefield. After all, even the mighty army of babylon-on-the-potomac was defeated in nam. And in afghanistan after 20 years.
December 28, 2022 at 9:46 pm
Your screed sounds much like projection. Claiming the US army is trash rings hollow since they have trained Ukraine forces and provided weapons that putin can only snivel about, while getting his ass kicked at every turn. I guess WWI tactics are useless. NATO and the US are very similar, training together and I suspect that strikes fear into Putin’s bowls. Once Ukraine has kicked your sorry ass out of Crimea they will be a great addition to NATO. While russia will be isolated, cut off from Western technology with an economy set back to the soviet days, a pariah with zero credibility and a severely weaken army. Never to achieve the dream of being a respected world leader. You had the opportunity to prosper beginning with the end of communism, but putin betrayed your country as he and his friends raped the country of riches.
It seems you and your troll friends are afraid to admit you will never be a superpower, have low tech outdated weapons for a poorly trained and equipped group of drunken rapists committing war crimes for which you’ll be held responsible. It must suck to be you without a future. BTW, thank putin for strengthening NATO. Happy HIMARS, Patriot batteries and more to come.
One question: how long before putin gets a lesson in gravity and rapid deceleration?
December 29, 2022 at 2:33 am
Roblin’s article is completely unbalanced. He raises an interesting question, but then turns over his entire article to a single source that is basically complacent and negative about entertaining possible improvements in UKR war strategy.In so doing,the piece fails to properly address the issues it poses.
Allow me to help Roblin. IMO,UKR,long-term,does need to get away from trench warfare, artillery-intensive campaigns, and in any way basically emulating Soviet-style military doctrine. It’s one thing to know the ways of thy enemy; but the defeat of thine enemy really means confronting him with a doctrine he is unprepared to confront,and unable to counter. UKR is doing a great job of battlefield innovation. But, long story short, I believe that it’s mobility and special operations that will win the day for them.
Злой пьяный руссккий медведь с балалайкой
December 29, 2022 at 4:55 am
The US and NATO armies, which were thrown out sooner or later from all theaters of operations and countries during the second half of the 20th century and in the 21st century, can only set a negative example for someone.
To pounce like a flock of jackals on one country and then lose is the creed of the collective West!
December 29, 2022 at 6:56 am
God bless people in the world.
As Free Market, the supply to Ukraine is so far away, Ukraine military should not adopt the America utility model. France, which is responsible for supply to E.U., shall be in charge of after-sale services in Ukraine, an initial proposal by France President Macron.
God bless America.
December 29, 2022 at 8:48 am
God bless people in the world.
Besides, Democratic Party claims to care about earth, and it often attack President Trump and US military with this lie. However, many behavior and things of Democratic Party are wasting energy. Our military never study seriously how much precious energy is wasted in foreign wars initiated by Democratic-Republican Party.
In Ukraine socialism warfare, E.U. and Democratic Party waste lots of oil with long distance supply of U.S. military, but people will say this is the wrong of U.S. military or America, not the wrong of Democratic Party. When U.S. military officers say they need enough supplies, E.U. and Democratic Party always say U.S. military is greedy.
God bless America.
December 29, 2022 at 11:42 am
Does Ukraine’s Military Need to Become More Like America’s?
Why would they want to work towards being incapable and unsuccessful?
December 29, 2022 at 3:42 pm
The real difference is between Authoritarian Cultures which produce “Regime Protection Armies”, and Democratic Cultures which produce “Field Armies”. The reason America has failed to stand up armies in places like Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, is because Authoritarian Cultures can’t support “Field Armies”.
On the one side Regime Protection Armies are good at rooting out disloyalty, and crushing Rebellions. But the soldiers are not trusted, and they require “Orders” to do anything on the battlefield, because the Regime fears the weapons will be turned on them.
Field Armies on the other hand are designed to destroy other Field Armies, and the professional soldiers (NCOs) are trusted to take the initiative, and take advantage of “Targets of Opportunity”. Their “Orders” read more like guide lines, the how of achieving them is left up to them. “Battle Plans never survive contact with the Enemy” Field Armies recognize this fact, and focus on immediately responding to changes on the battlefield.
The nascent Democratic Culture in Ukrainian is forcing its Army from the “Regime Protective Army” it inherited from the Soviet Era, into the “Field Army” model common to the West. Man for Man, Field Armies are superior to Regime Protection Armies with kill ratios heavily in their favor. Despite being outgunned 3 to 1 by the Russians, the Ukrainian “Field Army” is winning. And while the limited numbers of Western smart weapons are adding significant Combat Power to Ukraine, they are still mostly armed with Soviet Era weapons, and kicking ass with them. The “Bleeding Edge” Ukrainian adaptation to drone warfare is leading Western armies to organize their doctrine in that direction, and forced Russia to respond with Iranian drones.
In conclusion: Ukraine’s military has become more like America’s, but only because Ukraine’s Democratic Culture has become more like America’s.
December 29, 2022 at 5:34 pm
Ukraine can’t afford to have a military like the US. They can’t afford their own which is why we handed them 100 billion.
December 30, 2022 at 1:20 pm
Gay? DEI? No…probably not.
December 31, 2022 at 10:02 am
The USA military had been in the Ukraine transforming that military for 12-14 years now…
December 31, 2022 at 12:32 pm
The US Army is a very dangerous enemy and you would have to be reckless to pick a fight with it – even in its rather degenerate present woke condition.
But it is a “thin force”, designed to win quickly and decisively – or for low intensity and prolonged combat.Along with its MIC.
Seems to me that Russia has gone the opposite direction and is waging war on an industrial scale and long term basis – across many spheres.
The UAF is like the Wehrmacht in WW2 – started off pretty good and got degraded over time through losses and economic damage. Meanwhile the RKKA got better – aided by lend lease to be sure.
I’m not saying history will repeat. But the UAF is gradually becoming a hollow force via losses. It remains to be seen whether Ukraine or Russia will run out of PBI first, but IMHO this war will not become more hi-tech but more low tech and attritionly brutal.
Betting against Russian willingness and ability to absorb losses has proved (mainly) futile in the past. But who knows, may work this time? But don’t expect a pro-west replacement for Mr P.
December 31, 2022 at 11:07 pm
Ukraine should avoid at least one aspect of the American military… the current obesity of America’s soldiery. I was in California recently and saw many service men and woman milling about while shopping. I was surprised to see how fat they are. That today’s military leaders have given up on enforcing physical fitness and appearance makes one wonder what else is lacking or hyped as “battle ready”.
January 1, 2023 at 11:59 am
the war on ground seems relatively equal and maybe even in Ukraine’s favor. However Russian civilians sleep in warm houses, have electricity and comfort and no pain while Ukraine civilians are living in hell. We can’t(and wont’) help except with more training (in Poland) and some weapons which are end of life from inventory. This is not a fair fight.. Russia is evil no doubt and Putin is insane but unless the West helps with planes/boots(not happening) this must end in months with loss of land by Ukraine in East. The fact that zelensky says he want to retake crimea is very disturbing but we dont contradict hime