The Latest Aid Package to Ukraine Is a Major Escalation of Support

U.S. aid packages to Ukraine have become routine—four in the last three months—but the recently announced $800 million package is different. It expands support by including major crew-operated weapons and, for the first time, major U.S. weapons. The latter requires Ukrainians to be trained by U.S. troops. The package acknowledges the provision of Soviet-era weapons and, by what it does not include, implies that supplies of Javelins and Stingers may be getting low. The inclusion of items that will take weeks to deliver indicates that the United States now expects a long war. Finally, the U.S. record of providing about $52 million a day of military support means that the next aid package will be announced in late April and may involve another escalation.

Let's start with the biggest change: the provision of major U.S. weapons. Until now, the United States has provided self-contained munitions like Javelins and Stingers. This package includes two major crew-operated weapons: 18 howitzers and 200 M113 armored personnel carriers (APCs).

The APCs are large, tracked vehicles, essentially battlefield taxis, designed to protect troops as they maneuver. Troops exit the vehicle to fight. APCs are not tanks―the armor is relatively thin and they generally have only a machine gun for firepower―but they improve the infantry's mobility. They will allow the Ukrainians to conduct mobile operations in the open spaces of the east. This is a change from previous operations, which were primarily defensive, seeking to stop Russian advances from fixed positions.

The large number of APCs being provided means that it will take weeks or even months to get them all to the Ukrainians. Even if the vehicles come out of stocks already in Europe, they will require some servicing before they are ready for shipping. Some vehicles will likely require extensive work. Pushing that many vehicles through maintenance takes time.

The howitzers attack enemy forces at long ranges up to 20 miles. They fire 155-millimeter shells, approximately 6 inches in diameter, a NATO standard but new to the Ukrainian military, which uses the Soviet standard of 152 millimeters. The artillery will be needed for the longer-range combat that is likely to occur in the open spaces of the east. Previously, combat was mainly in urban areas where it was hard to find and attack targets without endangering civilians. The package provides only 18 howitzers, but the United States has large numbers and could easily increase that number. These systems are towed by a truck, which makes them easier to operate. There is no mechanized element requiring special parts and maintenance training. Ukrainians can use their own trucks with their own maintenance personnel and supply chains.

An advantage of the 155-millimeter is that it can fire a wider variety of projectiles than the Soviet-era 152-millimeter―high explosive, smoke, illumination, extended range, and cargo―and has more fuse types: point detonating, delay, and airburst. Of particular interest is the Excalibur, a guided munition that the United States used extensively in its Middle East wars. Although not explicitly included in this package, Excalibur could become available in the future. Excalibur would be a game changer because of its ability to hit targets precisely on the battlefield, a capability Ukrainians currently lack, and the Russians don't seem to be using.

U.S. inventory levels for howitzers and APCs are not an issue. The U.S. Army is replacing the APCs with the Armored Multipurpose Vehicle, allowing the older M113s to be spared. The current U.S. 155-millimeter towed howitzer, the M777, is still in production, so transferred articles can be replaced with new production.

Neither the howitzers (even with Ukrainian trucks) nor the APCs can be operated and maintained without specialized training and logistics. Thus, they are unlike the previously provided Javelins and Stingers. The Pentagon has stated that Ukrainian service members will soon start receiving the necessary training to operate and maintain these systems. However, this is “training for the trainers,” so these Ukrainian service members must return home and train the actual crews. That process will take weeks.

The training is likely happening mostly in the United States because the European countries are nervous about a possible Russian reaction if they set up training establishments near the combat theater. It is also faster to use the existing training facilities than to set up new ones.

The fact that the United States is providing capabilities that will require weeks to be fully effective indicates a change in thinking. Whereas the earlier aid packages focused on items that could be used immediately, this package envisions a war going on for a long time and having an offensive phase for the Ukrainians.

The package explicitly acknowledges what has been known for a while―that the United States and NATO are providing Ukraine with Soviet-era equipment acquired from Eastern European NATO allies. This package has 11 Mi-17 helicopters, but many reports indicate that S-300 air defense systems and T-72 tanks have also been provided. It is likely that the much-discussed Polish MiG-29 fighters will also show up in Ukraine, having been transferred quietly.

Two items are interesting because they provide Ukrainians with capabilities before the U.S. military. The Switchblade “kamikaze” drone, which was in the previous aid package, provides a lightweight anti-tank capability with relatively long range and the ability to loiter―that is, fly around looking for targets.

The unmanned coastal defense vessels may be for surveillance―seeing where Russian ships are located so anti-ship missiles that Ukraine already possesses can target them―or could be turned into maritime kamikaze drones. This new capability could drive the Russian navy away from Ukraine's shores, hampering Russia's resupply of ground forces and relieving the western parts of Ukraine from the threat of an amphibious attack.

Because these new technologies are not widely available to the U.S. forces, this represents, in effect, a combat experiment. Ukrainians will learn how to use the new systems and pass that knowledge back to the U.S. military.

The provision of protective equipment against nuclear and chemical attack reflects concerns about Russian threats with these weapons. These will protect military personnel, but, unfortunately, civilians will remain highly vulnerable.

The press release language about the M18A1 Claymore anti-personnel munitions being “configured to be consistent with the Ottawa Convention” shows a sensitivity to the use of landmines. Claymores can be configured as “booby traps” that are detonated by personnel hitting a tripwire, or by command, whereby an operator hits a switch when enemy personnel are in range. The package intends the latter employment because it is consistent with international agreements on landmines (which neither the United States nor Russia have signed). However, it is easy to reconfigure Claymores as booby traps.

Interestingly, there are only 500 Javelins, likely indicating that the inventory is getting low. A CSIS analysis estimated that the United States had provided Ukraine with about a third of the U.S. inventory and that further transfers might reduce the ability to support U.S. war plans. Instead, the United States is providing large numbers of other, less capable anti-tank weapons. The lack of Stinger anti-air missiles in the package similarly indicates an inventory shortage.

The other items in the package have been there before: body armor, optics, medical supplies, ammunition, and explosives. Militaries need a continuous flow of these relatively mundane items to replace stockpiles and losses. Without them, operations become progressively less effective, and casualties increase.

The size of the package and its closeness to the previous package indicate that military aid has become routine. The United States has provided $2.6 billion since the beginning of the conflict on February 24, which comes out to $52 million a day. Spending at that rate implies that the $800 million package will last about two weeks, so the announcement of another aid package is expected around April 27.

There is much pressure to do even more as the war settles into a long grind. The next step might involve extensive training of Ukrainian troops and the deployment of Western support personnel, perhaps contractors, to Ukraine to provide technical skills.

The DOD press statement listed the capabilities being provided as follows:

  • “18 155mm Howitzers and 40,000 artillery rounds;
  • Ten AN/TPQ-36 counter-artillery radars;
  • Two AN/MPQ-64 Sentinel air surveillance radars;
  • 300 Switchblade Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems;
  • 500 Javelin missiles and thousands of other anti-armor systems;
  • 200 M113 Armored Personnel Carriers;
  • 100 Armored High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles;
  • 11 Mi-17 helicopters;
  • Unmanned Coastal Defense Vessels;
  • Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear protective equipment;
  • Medical equipment;
  • 30,000 sets of body armor and helmets;
  • Over 2,000 optics and laser rangefinders;
  • C-4 explosives and demolition equipment for obstacle clearing; and
  • M18A1 Claymore anti-personnel munitions “configured to be consistent with the Ottawa Convention.”

Mark F. Cancian is a senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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