The Next Step in U.S. Aid to Ukraine: Operational Contractors

The United States and NATO have recently ramped up their support to Ukraine by providing major weapon systems in addition to the munitions and supplies they have been providing from the beginning of the conflict. These systems―artillery, anti-aircraft weapons, tracked vehicles―will enhance Ukrainian capabilities for the ongoing fight in the east, and, perhaps, for an eventual counteroffensive. However, the maintenance and training demands of these particular systems, which the Ukrainian military has never used before, will overwhelm Ukraine's ability to cope. The next step in U.S. aid should be, and likely will be, to provide battlefield contractors in Ukraine to maintain these systems and train Ukrainians on their use.

There are excellent reasons for providing these new weapon systems. The United States is sending howitzers and armored personnel carriers, France is sending self-propelled howitzers, Canada is sending howitzers, and Germany is sending self-propelled anti-aircraft guns. The United Kingdom and others will likely send their own systems, and there is pressure on the United States to expand the kinds of systems provided to include anti-ship systems and long-range missile systems like HIMARS and MLRS.

These systems provide the firepower, protection, and mobility that Ukrainians need for the next phase of the war and that previous aid packages have lacked. All the new systems are more current than the Soviet-era systems that the Ukrainians currently field. For example, Ukraine’s 122 mm D-30 howitzers are based on a 1950s design, whereas the U.S.-provided M777 howitzers were designed in the 1990s.

Further, the new systems use NATO-standard ammunition rather than Soviet/Russian-standard. For artillery, for example, the NATO standard is the 105 mm and 155 mm, whereas the Soviet/Russian standard is the 122 mm and 152 mm. There's nothing inherently wrong with the Soviet/Russian standard except supply availability. Militaries in active combat expend huge amounts of munitions—as much in a week as they may have expended during a year of peacetime training. The Ukrainians thus need a lot of ammunition in a continuous stream. The bottom line is unless the Ukrainians switch to NATO-standard systems, they will eventually run out of ammunition.

A dozen countries can provide NATO-standard ammunition, which is also available in a wider variety of capabilities. (Significantly, for artillery, precision-guided projectiles like the U.S. Excalibur are available, which could radically transform Ukrainian capabilities on the battlefield.) Conversely, the United States is having an extremely difficult time buying Soviet/Russian-standard ammunition since Russia and China are unavailable as suppliers. Likely, the United States has already emptied the stocks of the Eastern European allies who had quantities of Soviet-era equipment and has approached other countries with Soviet and Russian equipment such as India, Iraq, Egypt, Vietnam, and anyone else willing to sell.

Unfortunately, the current plan of helping the Ukrainian military assimilate these new systems will not work. Even before the conflict, its maintainers struggled to keep equipment in the field. The stated plan for the new systems is that the United States, and presumably other countries, will train Ukrainians on the maintenance and operations of the new systems at locations outside Ukraine.

The first problem with this plan is time. New systems take months or years for units to assimilate. When a U.S. military unit is set to get new equipment, for example, a new artillery piece, the process takes many months. Personnel need to train on how to maintain the new system, even if they already understand the maintenance basics. Operators need to learn how to use the system. Training time for the different skills can take from weeks to months. Certain specialties in tank units can take up to six months, and similarly long training times occur with other kinds of equipment.

The supply system needs to set up inventories down to the unit level. Higher echelon maintenance, like depot maintenance, which rebuilds systems in a factory-like environment, needs to be established with specialized tooling and processes. All this takes time, but Ukraine does not have time; it needs the systems to be ready now.

The second problem is the reported concept of “train the trainers.” Under that approach, a group of personnel get trained and then return to their units to train the actual operators and maintainers. Even in the best of circumstances, it's not a great system since these trainers lack the support of a dedicated schoolhouse and the experience of professional trainers who cover their material year after year. For Ukraine today, this is far from the best of circumstances. In the midst of a conflict, no unit wants to give up its top maintainers and operators to attend a several-week school back in Europe, away from day-to-day combat operations.

The unfortunate result will likely be parking lots full of idle equipment. These new systems are being rushed to Ukraine but will be sidelined waiting for enough trained operators to take them to the field and trained maintainers to repair them once they have broken down. It will be more embarrassing if Russia can capitalize on this by targeting these holding areas.

Even if this train-the-trainer concept works, it will take many months for the trainers to be trained and then for them to return to Ukraine and pass the skills on to the actual operators and maintainers. Equipment will be idle while this process plays out.

The solution is battlefield contractors (or operational contractor support, as the Department of Defense formally refers to the activities). The Department of Defense defines operational contractor support as the “process of planning for and obtaining supplies, services, and construction from commercial sources in support of CCDR [combatant commandant]-directed operations.” Unlike contractors who work on bases or in factories, these contractors go into conflict zones to conduct a wide variety of services from training to maintenance to translation to security. They are attractive in Ukraine for two reasons.

First, they do not contravene President Biden's direction that U.S. service members will not enter Ukraine. That also avoids a red line that Putin has established.

Second, there is a long history of contractors providing this sort of support. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, contractors provided thousands of personnel for training and maintenance. (Note: Armed security contractors received most of the attention, but they were few in number and are not at issue here.) For example, in Iraq in 2013 (the first year data is available), there were roughly 7,500 personnel providing maintenance and training services.

Whenever defense industry provides equipment for foreign customers, it typically sends a contact team to help get the equipment and logistics processes set up. Saudi Arabia, which has acquired large amounts of U.S. military equipment over the years, has had thousands of contractors in country to help maintain and operate the systems.

Many U.S. companies have long experience providing such support. KBR and Amentum (formerly DynCorp International) are probably the best known of the military service providers, but there are many others.

If the United States shies away from direct involvement, then Ukraine could structure this support under its own auspices (with the United States providing funding). Thus, Ukraine could set up its own military services company and hire foreigners to work as technicians. The employees would not be combatants and would likely operate in rear echelons to avoid legal problems. (The status of such service providers is complicated under international law.)

The Russians would undoubtedly complain about “NATO mercenaries” (and not without some justification), but it is unlikely they would take any extreme action. For example, they have not taken action against the “Mozart group” of international combatants fighting for Ukraine. The Russians are hardly in a position to complain too vigorously since they are recruiting Chechens, Syrians, and anyone else who will join their ranks in order to replace their heavy losses.

The use of operational contractors thus has several beneficial aspects. First, it strengthens Ukrainian military capabilities by helping to field well-maintained and expertly operated systems. Second, it avoids the embarrassment and loss of combat power arising from equipment being sidelined because of a lack of operators and maintenance. Finally, it meets the popular demand to do more to help Ukraine without taking the step of putting boots on the ground with all the risks that entails.

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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