Ukraine has received tens of billions of dollars in weapons and military aid since Russia’s invasion, in one of the largest military supply efforts ever mounted. The U.S. has led the way, with roughly $135 million a day in aid, and more than 30 other countries have sent military hardware as well. But as Ukrainian forces steadily lose ground — and soldiers — in the eastern Donbas region, officials in Kyiv say they need much more.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told a German newspaper this week that he knows his demands for aid sound like a “never-ending loop,” but went on to add a fresh plea. “We need modern weapons,” he said. “We need support to survive and win. And the less willing our partners are to help us with arms, the longer this war will last and the more people will die.”
Specifically, Ukraine asked for 1,000 howitzer cannons, 500 tanks and 1,000 drones, among other systems, ahead of a meeting of defense ministers from 50 countries to discuss the war.
This week, President Joe Biden announced an additional $1 billion package, including precision munitions, 18 additional howitzers on top of more than 100 already committed, 36,000s round of artillery ammunition and $650 million in funds to allow Ukraine to buy coastal defense systems, radios and night vision goggles.
But will all this weaponry turn the tide on the battlefield? And does Ukraine even have the capability to use it all? To explore those questions, Grid spoke with military logistics expert Mark Cancian. A retired Marine Corps colonel, who served in the Vietnam War, Desert Storm and the Iraq War, Cancian worked more recently on military supply and procurement issues at the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Office of Management and Budget. He is currently a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: We’re hearing increasingly dire statements from Ukrainian officials saying that they don’t have the weapons systems and ammunition they need to effectively fight Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. Is the issue that Western countries aren’t sending them what they need or that the logistics of getting it to them are just so formidable?
Mark Cancian: I’m quite sure it’s the latter. The problem is the ability of the Ukrainians to absorb all of this equipment that the U.S. and others are sending. Each system requires training for operations and particularly for maintenance. Then there’s the establishment of a logistics pipeline for when you have spare parts arriving. When the U.S. does this with one of its own units — if it converts, say, a cannon artillery battery to a missile battery — that’s a process that goes on for several months as people get trained on the new systems, and the supplies are put in place. The Ukrainians are trying to do this in weeks. So the fact that we’re not sending them more stuff doesn’t indicate that we’re starving them. It indicates that they just can’t absorb it.
I completely understand the pleas for more equipment. They say they want 500 tanks. I get it. But tanks and airplanes are phenomenally complex. If we ship them 500 tanks, which we could do, they would just sit and rust in parking lots until they had the systems to operate them.
This is the classic NATO problem: Every country is sending some piece of equipment that’s different. The French send their artillery system, which is a perfectly fine system. Then the U.S. sends its system, which is different. Now the Ukrainians have to train on two different systems and set up two different supply chains for parts. Then as soon as they figure that out, the Germans send their system and on and on. So we’re making this worse.
The one good thing is ammunition, which is standardized. All NATO artillery fires 155-millimeter ammunition, and it’s interchangeable. So the Ukrainians could fire German artillery on any NATO system or South Korean for that matter.
G: So how come the Ukrainians are short on ammunition as well?
MC: [For artillery ammunition] there’s NATO standard and Soviet standard. The Soviet-standard artillery, which Ukrainians have a lot of, is a huge problem. As you’ve probably been reading, armies shoot a lot of artillery ammunition. It’s the nature of war, particularly when you have relatively stable front lines.
But where can you get Soviet-standard ammunition if you can’t get it from Russia, and you can’t get it from China, which uses the same calibers? The U.S. has now literally bought the world’s supply of Soviet-standard artillery ammunition. I think we’ve been to every country in the world saying, “Sell us your ammunition.” I mean everywhere. There just isn’t very much of it out there.
So that’s one of the reasons that they’re now moving to NATO-standard, because there are a dozen countries that produce NATO-standard ammunition — the South Koreans, the U.S., the French, the Brits, the Germans. So, the supplies are basically unlimited, but there’s a process to physically get it to the front.
G: What’s the learning curve for, say, an artillery officer who is trained on Soviet equipment to then operate at NATO system? How hard is it to make that switch?
MC: The operators, I think, could do it in a couple of weeks probably. They aren’t that different. Though learning to use the guided projectiles is a little complicated.
It’s the maintainers that are the problem. Those courses in the U.S. typically go for months. If you start with someone who already knows how to maintain a howitzer it might be shorter, but if you look at tanks, for example, those courses take four or five months. Tanks are very complicated, but that gives you a sense of the kind of timelines we’re talking about.
A concept that gets talked about a lot is “train the trainers,” which is something that briefs well but is really hard to do in the field. The idea is that you train a group of people who will then go out to the units and train people themselves. But to train someone who really has all the materials to train other people — that’s not a couple of weeks thing. In the U.S., we put them through months of preparation.
G: Right, so, given all these issues, when you look at this new $1 billion aid package that Biden announced this week, which includes new howitzers, coastal defense systems and some other thing — how long will it be until this stuff is actually being used on the battlefield?
MC: It depends. Some of the things we can get out pretty quickly. More 155 howitzers — these are the howitzers we already committed, so there’s already a training pipeline going on. The ammunition will get out there. The vehicles will get out there.
Some other stuff is going to take quite a while. There are two things going on in this whole resupply process. There’s the drawdown and then the USAI — the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative. The drawdown means we take stocks from the U.S., and we ship them to Ukraine. So we take some piece of equipment that we already own that already exists, and we package it up. That’s pretty straightforward because the equipment is right there and there’s money to backfill it.
Then the USAI is basically just a pot of money that the Ukrainians can use to go out and buy stuff. So when they say, “two Harpoon coastal defense systems,” Ukraine has to go out and buy them. So they have to get a contract, and then they have to be manufactured. These things could take months, conceivably, even years. Even when they talk about thousands of secure radios, that just takes a lot of time.
G: We keep seeing these calls to send more sophisticated weapons systems — whether it’s these Harpoon coastal defense systems or HIMARS rocket systems. But is that kind of missing the point if we’re already stretching their ability to absorb these weapons? Won’t more high-tech systems just add to the problem?
MC: Yes, what I think you’re seeing in this package is the U.S. trying to be as helpful as it can without overwhelming the Ukrainians. I understand why the Ukrainians are asking for some of these things, but I don’t think they’re being very realistic about their ability to handle it. And they may be more willing to accept losses and maintenance problems than the U.S. Their attitude may be that if they get some equipment, and it doesn’t work, well that’s life because they’re facing an existential threat.
The problem for the U.S. and NATO in general is that if some photographer goes into Ukraine and takes pictures of fields full of junked NATO equipment because the Ukrainians can’t maintain it, that could undermine the bipartisan consensus for sending more equipment. And so I think the U.S. and NATO may be thinking more long-term.
G: Turning to the Russian side, it seems like for all the logistical problems the Russian military suffered early in this war, getting weapons and ammunition to the front in the Donbas has been much less of a problem for them. Are their supplies just basically inexhaustible?
MC: For one thing, they don’t have this same logistical problem about absorbing new kinds of equipment. But they have been pulling a lot of older equipment out of storage. There are pictures of T-62 tanks [1960s-era Soviet battle tanks], which is extraordinary. They really belong in museums.
So, yes. They are able to replace their losses, but they are going to have to use older systems.
On ammunition, they can produce their own ammunition, and I don’t think the sanctions are going to be a problem for artillery ammunition. They will be for other things, but ammunition is pretty straightforward.
I think the problem is just going to be ramping up production. They’re going to have the same problem that every country going to war has, which is that they expend ammunition at a far, far higher rate than they’re accustomed to. I have no idea how long they can continue to do that. At some point, they’re going to have an inventory problem.
G: Do you think we might be nearing a point in this conflict where supply problems force, if not an operational pause, at least a slowdown in the pace of combat?
MC: The short answer is yes. In a sense, you’re already seeing that because the areas of fighting are now much narrower than they were early on. You have some fighting around Kherson, you have some fighting around Kharkiv and of course, in the Donbas there, but most of the rest of the front is pretty quiet. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Russians decide after they’ve mostly captured Luhansk that they’re going to sort of settle in.
G: Are there lessons we’re learning from this war about how to more effectively support countries like Ukraine in conflicts like this in the future?
MC: I think one lesson I would take out of this is that future war is going to look a lot more like past war than it is the long-range, precision-strike, push-button war that a lot of people expected. I mean, this is looking like World War I with 21st century weapons. And I think you’ll keep seeing that. If one side isn’t able to knock the other one off immediately, you end up with trench lines and artillery duels.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.