Latest Ukraine Package: More Artillery and the Beginnings of a New Navy

The recently announced 13th aid package to Ukraine ($450 million in total) continues to strengthen Ukrainian artillery since artillery has become the dominant combat arm in the recent fighting and provides 18 coastal and riverine patrol boats to start rebuilding the devastated Ukrainian navy. This package builds on the 12th aid package announced just a week ago. However, the patrol boats’ limited capabilities and a lack of conventional munitions for High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) reduce the package’s impact. Also interesting is what is missing: drones, fighter jets, and tanks.

Coastal and Riverine Patrol Boats

The Ukrainian navy was virtually destroyed early in the war, so it is not surprising that the United States would seek to rebuild it. The Ukrainians scuttled their largest warship, the Hetman Sahaidachny, when Russian forces moved on the port of Mykolaiv and threatened to capture it. Several smaller units were destroyed or scuttled when the Russians captured the Ukrainian naval bases at Berdyansk and Mariupol on the Sea of Azov.

Building a navy is no small task, so the United States is starting very modestly. A subsequent DOD announcement elaborated on the boats being provided: “two 35-foot, small-unit riverine craft; six 40-foot maritime combat craft; and ten 34-foot, Dauntless Sea Ark patrol boats.” These vessels are small, more appropriately described as craft, and unsuitable for open water operations, such as in the Black Sea. The Sea Ark, for example, is fast and used by the United States for harbor security. In U.S. military operations, it is armed with a machine gun but no missiles.

Despite much speculation, this package does not include the U.S. Navy’s recently decommissioned Mark VI patrol boats. These 85-foot boats, designed for special forces raids, are much larger than the craft being provided to Ukraine and more heavily armed (with a 25 mm cannon). There had been earlier discussions about providing these to Ukraine. Such a transfer may occur in the future, but the training program would be lengthy.

Bottom line: No one should expect a rebuilt Ukrainian navy to sail into the Black Sea and fight its way into Odessa any time soon.

The lack of ships does not mean that Ukraine is helpless in naval conflict. The 12th aid package provided two Harpoon missiles systems in addition to what NATO allies are providing. These ground-based systems provide the bulk of Ukraine’s maritime capability.

More Artillery Systems

Analyses abound about how combat in the war has evolved into artillery duels and infantry combat, particularly around the city of Severodonetsk. The fighting looks like World War I with massive artillery bombardments and infantry trench lines but with twenty-first-century weapons. A major difference, though, is that the forces involved are much smaller than in World War I, so the density of units along the front line is much lower, making target location more challenging.

The most recent aid package continues to strengthen Ukrainian artillery by providing another four HIMARS and 18 tactical vehicles to tow the M-777 howitzers already provided. This builds on the 12th aid package, which provided 18 howitzers, artillery and rocket ammunition, and tactical vehicles.

HIMARS can fire guided rockets at long range (up to 43 miles). The GPS guidance allows the rockets to land within 10 meters of their aiming point, thus eliminating the need for large numbers of unguided projectiles. Guided munitions are useless, however, without precise target location. Counter-artillery radars provided in previous aid packages, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles from Ukrainian indigenous sources, the Turks (BT-2s), and intelligence from U.S. and other sources will give the precise target location needed to effectively employ guided munitions.

Some commentators and members of Congress have urged more HIMARS be provided. In part, the small numbers provided so far reflect the need to train Ukrainian operators and maintainers. That takes time, so there is no point sending systems before the Ukrainians are ready to operate them.

More fundamentally, however, HIMARS lacks a suitable munition for wide employment. The standard rocket used by HIMARS and its tracked cousin, the Multiple Launch Rocket System, is the M26. The M26 contains hundreds of “dual-purpose improved conventional munitions,” or bomblets that deploy over a wide area. This distribution is highly effective, especially where the target is widely dispersed or not located with certainty. Further, the bomblets are effective against both personnel or vehicles. The United States has stockpiled hundreds of thousands of these rockets.

However, the bomblets have a relatively high dud rate: 2–5 percent. These can endanger civilians who accidentally run across them and are thus considered by many to be antipersonnel mines. As such, they are banned by the Ottawa Convention. The United Nations Convention on Cluster Munitions also restricts cluster munitions. Although the United States has not ratified either document, the Biden administration generally abides by their terms. That means that nearly all the munitions in the U.S. rocket inventory are unusable.

The guided rocket has a unitary warhead (M31), which meets the requirements of the conventions, but that warhead is not available for the unguided rockets. The only other rockets available are a practice round, which has no explosive warhead, and the long-range Army Tactical Cruise Missile System, which the United States will not provide to Ukraine because of the system’s ability to strike deep into the Russian homeland. In effect, the only rocket that HIMARS can fire is the guided version. The guided munitions are enormously useful but available in limited numbers because of their high cost ($168,000 each). Thus, a small number of HIMARS can cover a wide section of the front. There is no point in providing a large number of rocket launchers all competing to fire a limited number of guided rockets.

105 mm Ammunition

The package provides 36,000 rounds of 105 mm artillery ammunition. This is unusual because most of the artillery systems provided to Ukraine have been the larger 155 mm caliber, which has become the NATO standard for nearly all units. The United States has provided 128 M-777s, the French have provided CAESAR howitzers, and other NATO countries have provided additional systems, all of which are 155 mm caliber.

However, the United States and most NATO countries still maintain the lighter 105 mm systems for some light forces, like paratroopers, where the heavier system is too bulky for deployment. The United Kingdom is providing Ukraine with some of its 105 mm howitzers, as is New Zealand. Apparently, the United States is providing the bulk of the ammunition.

What’s Missing: Drones, Fighter Jets, and Tanks

Despite Ukrainian requests in media speculation, there are no drones, fighter jets, or tanks in the package. President Zelensky has been vocal about the need for drones, particularly the U.S. MQ-1B/C Predator/Gray Eagle or MQ-9 Reaper. (Gray Eagle is the U.S. Army’s version of the Air Force’s better-known Predator; the Reaper is an upgrade to the Predator and gradually replacing it in the Air Force inventory.) However, reports indicate that these drones, propeller-driven and slow, are vulnerable in areas where the Russians have established strong ground-based air defenses. Further, they are extremely complex and require extensive training.

President Zelensky and other top officials have long demanded F-16s, which are NATO compatible and more capable than the obsolescent Soviet aircraft that Ukraine’s air force currently flies. Despite claims that Ukrainian Air Force personnel are already familiar with the system, having participated in NATO air exercises, transitioning to an entirely new aircraft type takes years of effort because of the need to train pilots and maintainers and establish a logistics pipeline.

Also missing from the package are tanks. In past packages, the United States and NATO provided Ukraine with T-72 tanks from Eastern European NATO allies. These tanks were compatible with what Ukraine operated prewar and therefore have been easy to incorporate. However, incorporating NATO tanks, such as the U.S. M1 Abrams or the German Leopard tank, would require years of effort. The Spanish have discussed providing some of their stored Leopard tanks but have not formally committed yet.

Looking Ahead

The United States has been announcing an aid package about every two weeks. DOD announced this 13th package on June 23, so look for another announcement around July 7. Reports indicate that this next package will include medium-range air defense systems, a capability not previously provided.

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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