Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy:
“I like new questions,” he said. “It’s not interesting to answer the questions you already heard.” He is frustrated, for instance, by repeated requests for his wish list of weapons systems. “When some leaders ask me what weapons I need, I need a moment to calm myself, because I already told them the week before. It’s Groundhog Day. I feel like Bill Murray.”
Zelenskyy’s wish list isn’t a state secret.
The day after Zelenskyy released this list, President Joe Biden announced an $800 million package to Ukraine that included some of these items. Yesterday, we learned that less than a week later, the United States is close to announcing the next $800 million package, one that would boost the current American contribution to $3.2 billion in military aid since Biden took office, with no end in sight. As far as the United States is concerned, the floodgates are open, already checking off 155mm artillery (eight M777 howitzers and 40,000 shells), Armored Personnel Carriers (APC, 200 M113s), and 11 Mi-17 Russian-built helicopters that were supposed to go to the Afghan army but … you know. In addition, the United States is delivering critically important anti-battery radar, which tracks the source of incoming artillery so it can be targeted and struck by Ukraine’s own guns, as well as 500 more Javelin anti-tank missiles, 300 more suicide drones, 100 Humvees, body armor, explosives, ad small arms.
If you checked in on the peanut gallery, you’d see people claim that the shipments are “too late” (it’s not, that just dumb), that it’s “not enough” (of course it’s not, but that’s a week and a half’s worth, which is a lot), and lots of complaining that what Ukraine really needs is aircraft. Well, sure, but the United States doesn’t have the Soviet/Russian aircraft it can already fly and service. Though …
Aircraft? What aircraft?
At yesterday’s Pentagon press conference, held by Press Secretary John F. Kirby:
Q: And you said earlier that the Ukrainians have now more fighter aircraft than they had two weeks ago. Can you give us …
KIRBY: More operable fighter aircraft than they had two weeks ago.
Q: So can you give us an idea of—did they receive more? And an idea of how many? Dozens?
KIRBY: I would just say without getting into what other nations are providing that they have received additional platforms and parts to be able to increase their fleet size—their aircraft fleet size, I think I’d leave it at that.
Platforms and parts.
Q: What is a platform?
KIRBY: Platform is an airplane in this case. They have received additional aircraft and aircraft parts to help them, you know, get more aircraft in the air. Yes.
Those were very carefully chosen words to say “we’re not sending any aircraft, but, magically, they have more planes!” There have been long-aborted plans to have Poland and/or Romania send Soviet-era planes they’re phasing out, and “backfilling” those nations with shiny new American F-16s. The only way to interpret this is that Ukraine isn’t just getting some of those planes, but that they already did.
Note, Ukraine has “denied” the Pentagon’s claims, and I use the scare quotes there on purpose.
1) The use of the word “officially” is hilariously weird. Oh yeah? Officially? What about unofficially? Poland tried to pawn its Mig-29s to the United States, to transfer to Ukraine. It wanted to erase its footprints. The U.S. was like “LOL no.” So of course this transfer has to be off the books.
2) “New aircraft.” That’s some pedantic parsing, I know, but these aircraft are old.
3) They admit they have more operational aircraft, but go back to “we just got some spare parts” as a way to provide plausible deniability when Russia counts all the new MiGs Ukraine has back in the air.
A close reading shows zero inconsistency between the Pentagon and Ukraine’s statements.
Regardless, everyone agrees Ukraine has more aircraft than it did before. That’s progress on another items on Zelenskyy’s list. Now let’s start training pilots and ground crews on F-15s or F-16s, whatever is easiest to maintain. You know how there are civilian military contractors in war zones? They’re not all Blackwater mercenaries. Many are maintenance personnel. I’m now persuaded this would be a viable stopgap measure to both help maintain these modern aircraft, as well as play NCO and train Ukrainians to eventually take over the tasks themselves. I’d just want to make sure Ukraine had the hard shelters and air defense systems in place to protect these aircraft on the ground, because Russia would launch the remainder of its missiles if it had a chance to take them all out.
Artillery, and more artillery!
The current $800 million package had 18 M777-towed howitzers and 40,000 shells, and people wailed, “It’s not enough!” No shit. That was the first batch. Biden said today that the U.S. was prioritizing sending more artillery, and the next $800 million package will undoubtedly expand on that order. Canada is also sending M777s, which makes things easier for Ukraine. Remember: Logistics and maintenance have to be as simplified as possible, so standardizing around fewer systems is ideal.
Furthermore, as much as I was hoping for the self-propelled M109, which essentially is an artillery gun on tracks, the U.S. must be paying attention to Russian woes in Ukraine, especially losing a great deal of their own self-propelled artillery guns to General Mud. Towed artillery is less likely to suffer from those problems. And all of NATO has loads and loads of 155mm shells. The Brits, for one, have already promised to supply Ukraine with 155mm ammunition. The Soviet-designed gear both Ukraine and Russia currently use are 152mm, and Ukraine is reportedly running low. Shifting to NATO-standard munitions should help.
Lithuania has sent nine of its D-30 howitzers, while Poland sent around 20 2S1 Gvozdika—but they use 122mm shells at a time when the bulk of Ukraine’s current artillery fleet uses 152mm and is likely moving to a 155mm standard. I have no idea how much additional effort it’ll take to supply these, but it certainly complicates logistics. Maybe they can be kept back, say, for Kyiv’s territorial defense forces, allowing the bigger guns (and their supply lines) to move east to the front lines.
Armored Personnel Carriers/Infantry Fighting Vehicles
The Ukrainian offensive around Kherson has stalled because it cannot penetrate a wall of Russia artillery. Unmounted, unprotected infantry are too vulnerable to blast shrapnel. As we’ve seen, the terrain is basically Kansas: wide open fields with few places to take cover. This is where armor comes in. Armored personnel carriers can rush troops forward while protecting them from the shrapnel of exploding artillery. M113s won’t stop anti-tank missiles or Russian tank hits, but they are not designed to do that. They’re designed to offer soft protection.
The U.S. opted to send old M113s rather than more modern M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, which are currently being phased out. Maintenance concerns likely played a role in that decision, but it likely didn’t hurt that half the world fields the M113, once again making it possible for other nations to send their own stock without requiring Ukraine to learn to maintain and support yet another weapons system. Also, the U.S. has around 6,000 of these lying around. As long as Ukraine wants them, we can afford to pass them on.
Other countries are stepping up with their own contributions. The Netherlands promised “heavy equipment,” starting with “armored vehicles.” Given that their tanks are modern German Leopard 2s, and they only have 18 of them, we can safely assume that they’ll be sending one of the many APCs they currently field. I notice they have Bushmasters, which Ukraine just received from Australia. Would be convenient to standardize around those somewhat.
The Brits are sending 120 FV103 Spartans, the Czechs are sending 56 of their BMP-1 variant (which Ukraine already knows how to service), while the Poles are sending an undisclosed number of their own BMP-1 version.
Air defense systems
Eliminate Russia’s ability to fly aircraft over the battlefield, and the situation shifts dramatically. NATO has sent a whole buffet of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft systems, and they have been very effective at curbing Russia’s ability to deploy ground-support planes and helicopters over the battlefield. But they don’t have the altitude range to hit high-flying bombers and missiles. Those kinds of systems have incredibly heavy logistical and operational requirements. As I’ve written before, maintenance training for the U.S. Patriot system is one year, and that’s just for baseline knowledge. NCOs continue that education once new soldiers reach their units.
Thus, Ukraine has been begging Eastern European nations to part with their Soviet-era systems, which they already know how to operate and maintain. The only country to answer that call is Slovakia, which parted with a single battery of its long-range S-300PMU system, including 45 missiles. The United States has temporarily backfilled the donation with an American Patriot system, which will stick around until Slovakia learns how to operate their own. It is critical that Ukraine get more such systems, capable of shooting down incoming missiles, if it intends to seriously rebuild its air force. Ukraine needs to protect its air fields.
Bulgaria has one S-300 battery, Greece has 32 launchers and 175 missiles. And that’s it for long range systems. However, there are more options in the medium-range category, with several friendly nations fielding variants of the Buk air defense system, which Ukraine already operates. While the S-300s have a range of up to 90 kilometers, the Buk can defend out to 30 kilometers and altitudes of 14 kilometers (40,000 feet)—totally adequate for airfield and other critical infrastructure anti-missile defense. Finland has some in storage in “operable condition.” Allies also have the 9K33 Osa system, also used by Ukraine, with a similar range of 30 kilometers, and an altitude of 12 kilometers. The system is operated by Bulgaria, Greece, Poland, and Romania.
Starstreaks are particularly deadly because they don’t home in on heat signatures, so they can’t be fooled by most aircraft countermeasures (mainly, flares to distract the missiles). These will be helpful on the Donbas front lines, where Russian ground-attack aircraft dare to operate, close to friendly airspace.
Multiple Launch Rocket Systems
I’ve seen some people demand the United States give Ukraine American M270 MLRS, to which I say, NO FUCKING WAY. This is my very specific area of expertise. They were a beast to maintain and support. They were constantly broken down in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. I can’t imagine what they might look like 30 years later. There are better alternatives.
Poland has reportedly sent over 100 T-72M(1)s, though the Poles are in no hurry to publicly confirm it. Unlike other nations, Poland seems to want to keep its major weapons transfers quiet, even if leaks are inevitable:
The Czechs have promised 12 more T-72M1s. These are old variants, and Ukraine wants more modern gear. But there is hope that they can be quickly upgraded with modern optics.
Western tanks are problematic for several reasons, mostly dealing with logistics. It’s one thing to have civilian contractors work on aircraft in Ukraine’s west. It’s another to have them on the eastern front lines servicing complex modern battle tanks. American M1 Abrams battle tanks use jet fuel and burn 3 gallons per mile (not a typo). It’s complicated enough getting regular diesel to the front lines.
The good news is that several NATO allies have T-72s currently being phased out: Bulgaria (430), Czech Republic (around 630), and Poland (around 1,000).
While Ukraine hasn’t gotten everything it wants, the spigot is now open, with heavy armor (tanks and armored personnel carriers), aircraft, artillery, MLRS, and air defense systems finally flowing into the country. No one aside from the Germans and the French seem particularly worried about Russia’s reaction, and worrying about it seems quite quaint these days. Russia has watched impotently as NATO has flooded Ukraine with the very weapons that have killed or injured tens of thousands of Z invaders.
And yes, we are all eager for more, and it will never be enough, but the logistics of the operation—already impressive—are dramatically improving, reflected in the quickening pace of new American military assistance packages. Meanwhile, other allies are finally coming online, like Italy, which approved weapons shipments on Monday.
Germany approved $2 billion for Ukraine to “go shopping,” but inexplicably still won’t directly deliver weapons, and France is lagging. But with Biden pushing hard, hopefully they’ll deliver in a bigger way. They certainly seem to understand that they’ll shoulder the bulk of the burden of Ukraine’s reconstruction, but the longer this war lasts, the higher that bill will be. It will save them money in the long run to engage more actively in Ukraine’s defense.
That’s a lot of spare parts, and coincidentally has nothing to do with the fact that Poland had “more than 20” MiG-29s available for transfer (28, to be exact, but not all were supposedly operable).