Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his NATO counterparts are meeting in Germany this week to discuss what may be their most important contribution to Ukraine’s defense against the Russian invasion: the large-scale and growing effort to deliver military hardware to Ukraine.
The U.S. alone has committed more than $2.6 billion in military aid to Ukraine since the war began and pledged an additional $800 million last week. Other NATO countries have committed billions as well. But the Ukrainian government says it needs more — both in terms of volume and the sophistication of the weaponry — to push back against the Russian onslaught. And as the conflict shifts from urban warfare around Kyiv to more traditional tank and artillery battles in the country’s east, Ukraine’s military needs are changing.
To discuss what weapons Ukraine really needs to win the war, the challenges in getting them there and what the war is teaching us about which weapons are actually effective on a 21st-century battlefield, Grid spoke with David Johnson, a principal researcher at the Rand Corporation. A retired U.S. Army colonel, Johnson created and led the Chief of Staff of the Army Strategic Studies Group for Gen. Raymond Odierno from 2012 to 2014.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: The war in Ukraine has entered a new phase. It’s being fought now primarily in a smaller geographic area in the east of the country, on less urbanized terrain. How does that change Ukraine’s needs in terms of weaponry?
David Johnson: What we’re seeing is that this is a war of artillery. That’s partly because the Russians have not been able to maneuver effectively and partly because even though the terrain in the east is open “tank country,” that also means it is very open for observation and [artillery] fires. Since the initial Russian invasion in that area years ago, it’s been dug with trenches because of the artillery they were receiving. That hasn’t changed.
There was a report out of [the U.K.’s Royal United Services Institute last week], which showed that while anti-tank weapons have slowed the Russians down, what’s really killing them is the artillery. So I think the fact that we’re seeing more artillery platforms and more munitions is a really good thing. I think we still have to worry about the air defense challenge the Russians pose. There was an announcement [Tuesday] that the Germans are going to give some number of its Gepard “Cheetah” anti-aircraft gun systems to the Ukrainians, which is a big step in a couple of ways. One is that it’s a very capable system. It’s common sense for shooting down Russian helicopters. And two, it’s that the Germans are actually giving offensive weapons systems to somebody.
G: What do you think the biggest need is for the Ukrainian military right now? What are they still not getting enough of?
DJ: My sense is the artillery systems are what really will make a difference. The Russian army has been called an artillery army with tanks. There’s this old adage that artillery conquers, and infantry occupies. And if you look at Russian tables of organization, they have a lot of artillery down in the lower echelons, more so than most armies do. They’ve always had this tendency for fire. With them demonstrating an inability to execute maneuvers effectively, they’re going to rely on artillery even more.
G: Austin got a lot of attention yesterday for saying the U.S. goal is not just to help the Ukrainians but to degrade and weaken the Russian military for the future. What did you make of that?
DJ: What he means by “degrading” is that the Russians are losing in Ukraine, coupled with the fact that they’re going to have a much more difficult time replacing it because of the sanctions. A lot of what everybody in the world makes now is so reliant on components that are not from that area, microchips and everything else. So his view is that the more the Russians lose, the harder it’s going to be for them to really replace it. And the less they have available, the less capable they’ll be in the future.
G: What are the logistics challenges of a supply effort of this size? How hard is it to get these weapons into the hands of people who can actually use them?
DJ: I think people just forget as they watch TV and see the maps of Ukraine, that little map is the size of Texas. It’s not like Monaco or Luxembourg or something. It’s a big place. The last time someone invaded Ukraine was the Nazis with Operation Barbarossa. It took from June to September to get to Kyiv and take it, and they had 3.8 million combatants.
The question of logistics comes down to two things. One, distance. Two, will it be interdicted by the Russians on the way in? It was reported yesterday that they hit a rail line and a couple of a couple of rail heads, hoping to disrupt that. But my sense right now is that the stuff’s flowing pretty well. I think some stuff is going in by air, but most of it’s probably coming in on trucks and then loaded onto rail. That’s a very efficient way to move stuff. The supply chain appears to be in place, it seems to have a fairly high tempo, and thus far it does not seem to have suffered serious direct disruption.
G: I know you wrote something on the utility of tanks recently. Given how effectively it seems that the Ukrainian anti-tank missiles and drones have been at destroying Russia’s tanks, at least in the first phase of the war, do you think they are still useful for modern militaries?
DJ: Every time there’s a war where a tank gets lost, people say it’s the end of the tank. The tank has become a symbol of Blitzkrieg warfare from the 20th century, and for a lot of people, that represents industrialized thinking rather than information thinking. But the question is, do you still need some form of protected lethal mobility on the battlefield? I think the answer to that is yes. And if it’s not a tank, what is it?
What the Israelis did first and what we’re doing now is putting “active protection” on our vehicles that stops RPGs and anti-tank guided missiles. They’re fairly low-velocity, so the computer can catch them with a radar. They can fire something as it gets close to the tank. And the tank is robust enough that whatever is left of it, it slams into it, doesn’t hurt anything.
The drone problem is more significant, not just because it’s an anti-tank system, but because it’s a sensor platform that can give you pretty much total visibility of everything. If you’ve got enough of them out there, and they’re so small, cheap and ubiquitous, how do you defend against those? There’s ways to spoof them and shoot them down, but you have to have a system that can deal with the large numbers they’re sending up. If drones are swarming, how many times can you do that?
G: Speaking of drones, what do you make of this new “Phoenix Ghost” drone the U.S. Air Force has designed specifically for Ukraine?
DJ: It sounds like it’s essentially a souped-up Switchblade. They’re not publishing its specific capabilities, which I agree with, but it’s not like Secret Squirrel stuff. It’s not a wonder weapon the Air Force has been hiding.
G: Got it. For those who don’t know, what’s the advantage of a Switchblade — which as I understand it is a suicide drone that crashes into the target itself — versus the kind of armed drones that fire missiles, which Americans may be more familiar with from the war on terrorism?
DJ: The thing about the Switchblade or Phoenix Ghost or whatever is they have longer loitering capabilities. And they also have a sensor package that’s more sophisticated in targeting exactly what they want to go after. It’s a precision-launched weapon. It’s like a guided bomb. It’s extremely capable of finding and hitting a target accurately. With a drone, if you’re flying it on a joystick, you’ve got to fly the drone there and then launch the missile and make sure it’s on target. It’s just a little more complicated.
G: Back to the logistics questions: One interesting thing we’re seeing now is the U.S. offering to “backfill” the Soviet-era weapons that countries in Eastern Europe like Poland and the Czech Republic are sending from their own arsenals to Ukraine with American systems. Does that make sense to you?
DJ: Back when this started, there was this whole debate about sending them MIGs [fighter jets] from Poland. And people were asking, why don’t we just send them F-16s or F-15s or whatever? And I would say this: Imagine I’m on holiday and I want to enjoy the splendors of old Japan in Kyoto. And I go to the Hertz rental station to rent a car, and I get there and the steering wheel’s on the right side and all the instructions are in Japanese.
So, getting Soviet-era equipment, the Ukrainians are familiar with it because they have the same equipment. All the instructions are in Cyrillic. So there may be some changes to the avionics because of NATO standards, but it’s not like stepping into something that’s completely different.
DJ: I actually don’t know what’s happening specifically with the aircraft. I just don’t think it’s that central to what’s going on in Ukraine. They don’t need an air force with pilots with silk scarves shooting down other airplanes. The Ukrainians really need systems that have high-volume capability to attrit Russian forces. And that’s artillery.
[As to helicopters,] I think we’ve seen already in this war that it’s not a good idea to fly anything low and close to ground forces. I don’t know how many times we have to learn this lesson. We’ve learned it with helicopters in Iraq. We saw in Afghanistan. They’re extremely useful over your shoulder, providing support, but when they get out over the front line of troops, everything in the world wants to shoot them down, and there’s a lot of stuff there to do it. [Russian weapons] range from small arms to cannons to [man-portable air-defense systems] to higher-end air defense systems like the S-500 that shoots out to 500 kilometers.
So it’s a really deadly air environment.
G: There’s a story Tuesday that U.S. stockpiles of the Stinger anti-aircraft missiles have shrunk. That makes me wonder, is there some kind of physical limit to the amount of lethal aid the rest of the world can provide Ukraine, or is this stream really just endless?
DJ: We have never really mobilized the industrial base since probably Vietnam. We’ve given it surges every once in a while, like during the Iraq War, and we’ve surged certain components like Hellfire missiles before. But the capacity of much of our base is latent. So, I think there’s an ability to ramp it up to some degree. It’s just a question of money and time, and skilled labor. That capacity is there.
Why save all this stuff because you might have to use it against the Russians? Someone else is already using it against the Russians.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.