Aid to Ukraine: Much More Than Tanks
Although Germany’s angst about tanks dominated the discussion the recent Ukraine Defense Contact Group (UDCG) (ultimately, the Germans agreed), there is much more going on than just tanks. Allies are squeezing more air defense from their limited capabilities, expanding artillery support, building Ukraine’s inventory of armored vehicles, and might have a few surprises hidden away in the bland bureaucratic language. The most important news is that the aid continues at a high level.
The controversy about tanks gives a misplaced sense that the meeting’s success—and Ukraine’s future―hinged on their availability. Such a perception misses a key point: there is no silver bullet that will bring victory. Even if NATO and coalition countries provide tanks, they will not be a game changer. Tank battlefield capabilities will be useful, but numbers will be limited compared to the 800 or so tanks that Ukraine already possesses. Victory will come from the cumulative effect of weapons and munitions provided, training for Ukrainian soldiers and units, and the resilience of the Ukrainian people.
What is essential is that aid has continued at a high level, as evidenced in the recent European and U.S. aid packages. This has become a long war of attrition that requires military support across the board―weapons and munitions of all kinds as well as mundane elements like trucks, medical supplies, and spare parts. Ukraine can win the war without tanks if this level of overall support continues. If it gets tanks, but support is cut substantially, Ukraine will lose because its forces will gradually run out of munitions, mobility, and weapons.
The continuing high level of support is significant because skepticism about aid to Ukraine is increasing not just in the United States but across Europe. Everywhere a peace party is rising in strength, arguing that the war will be long, casualties and destruction will be great, and it is time to end the “forever war” through negotiations. Negotiations would inevitably result in some sort of in-place ceasefire, which would solidify Russia’s occupation. The UDCG meeting’s outcome reflects a rejection of that approach.
More Air Defense
Air and missile attacks against Ukrainian electrical infrastructure have been Russia’s most effective use of airpower. Although these attacks are periodic in spasms of 100 or so missiles and not continuous, they have nevertheless succeeded in shutting down a large part of Ukraine’s electrical grid and imposing hardship on the Ukrainian people. Thus, in the fall, Zelensky and the Ukrainian leadership focused on enhancing air defense.
NATO and the United States have sent some equipment, but there are limits because NATO and the United States had deactivated most of their ground-based air defense capability at the end of the Cold War. The commitment to transferring Patriot air and missile defense systems seemed to solve this problem. However, Patriot has superb but narrow capabilities. For example, it is far too expensive ($4 million per missile) to use against drones or many kinds of cruise missiles.
To enhance Ukraine’s air defenses, the United States and Europe have again squeezed their forces to provide additional systems. These will take a step towards establishing the robust defenses that Ukraine needs though many gaps will remain.
Expanding Artillery Support
Static front lines have put a premium on firepower. Thus, the war has become artillery intensive. The United States has already provided much support here, including 160 155 mm howitzers and a million rounds of 155mm ammunition. NATO allies have provided small amounts of other artillery systems and ammunition. All this support helps in a critical area but will not be enough to fully satisfy the front’s voracious appetite for firepower. New approaches will be needed.
The expectation is that Ukraine will launch an offensive later in the winter or early spring. It has no choice since they must drive the Russians from its territory. Armored vehicles, which were largely absent from earlier packages, are now seen more frequently because of their usefulness in offensive operations
Before the UDCG meeting, several reports suggested that the ground-launched Small Diameter Bomb II (SDB II) might be included in the aid packages. The U.S. announcement does not include SDB II but does have the vague statement, “Additional ammunition for High Mobility Rocket System (HIMARS).” That is likely more guided MLRS rockets since those were provided previously. However, the phasing does not exclude ground-based SDB II. SDB II would be significant because of its longer range (93 miles).
If Ukraine has the ground launched SDB II, evidence will eventually emerge in a world of ubiquitous cellphone cameras. Even if SDB II is not in this aid package, it is worth watching for in case it appears in future packages because it would signal a change in administration policy.
Looking Ahead to the Ukrainian Offensive
Although tanks have received much attention, they will take many months to arrive on the battlefield. They will not be available for the initial phases of the expected Ukrainian counteroffensive. However, many of these other capabilities, particularly artillery, will arrive quickly. Ukrainians will then use them in the forthcoming offensive.
The aid packages are not all good news. The Europeans lag far behind what the United States is providing. While the eastern European countries and the United Kingdom are doing a lot, France, Spain, and Italy are absent entirely from the latest aid packages, and Germany, the wealthiest country in Europe, provides relatively little. Further, much of their equipment will take months to arrive. Some is new production, which will take years. Nevertheless, the overall size of the aid provided and the implied statement of political support is good news for Ukraine.
Mark F. Cancian is a retired Marine colonel and a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.