Zelensky’s 1 Percent Solution for Tanks and Aircraft: A Bold but Unfortunately Unworkable Idea

In his address to NATO, Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelensky begged Europe for "One percent of all your planes. One percent of all your tanks." It was an innovative proposal that seemed modest in its demands, yet potentially far-reaching in strengthening Ukraine's ability to resist. However, the long times―months or years―required to set up training programs, maintenance facilities, and supply pipelines for this equipment make such an approach unworkable as a mechanism for affecting the outcome of the current conflict. For this reason, the United States, NATO, and other countries have provided equipment that is either easy to learn how to use―anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, for example―or that already exists in the Ukrainian arsenal.

The 1 percent solution. The idea first appeared in Zelensky's virtual address to NATO leaders on March 24: "You can give us 1 percent of all your planes. One percent of all your tanks. One percent! You have thousands of fighter jets, but we have not been given one yet . . . we turned [to you] for tanks so that we can unblock our cities . . . you have at least 20,000 tanks . . . but we do not have a clear answer yet." He made the plea again a few days later in a public statement and will likely continue to do so.

The idea appears attractive because many in the West and worldwide want to do more to relieve Ukrainian suffering and punish the Russians for their aggression. One percent of NATO's vast inventory of weapons seems like a small price to pay to provide such support.

Logistics: the perennial constraint. NATO does, indeed, have thousands of tanks and aircraft, many of which it could give to Ukraine and replace with more modern versions, which the now-increased defense budgets could afford. The problem is logistics, a perennial constraint on both military operations (as the Russians have found out) and policy initiatives. Major weapon systems like aircraft and tanks need training programs, maintenance facilities, and supply pipelines to be viable. These take years to set up and operate properly.

For example, an M-1 tank, the type now in the U.S. inventory, has four initial entry jobs (called military occupational specialties) with training times ranging from 13 weeks to 34 weeks.

  • 19K Abrams Crewman, training time of 22 weeks

  • 91A Abrams Tank System Maintainer, training time of 24 weeks

  • 91G Fire Control System Repairer, training time of 34 weeks

  • 91H Track Vehicle Repairer, training time of 13 weeks

There is an associated supervisor specialty for both maintenance and operations, each requiring years of experience.

These training times assume that the requisite schools already exist. Establishing them takes months or years. Instead, Ukraine might send its personnel to U.S. or NATO schools, but there is some risk of Russian retaliation. Ukraine might be able to save some training time by selecting troops who already have the basic skills learned on the Russian tanks that Ukraine currently operates. Nevertheless, the training pipeline would take months, likely over a year, to produce enough trained personnel to operate a significant inventory of the new equipment.

Modern military equipment also requires a vast maintenance operation to keep the systems running. The U.S. military divides maintenance into three levels: organizational, intermediate, and depot. The organizational maintenance would be done by crews in their own motor pools. Intermediate-level maintenance would be done by specialized facilities on a base. The equivalent for a personal vehicle would be the neighborhood maintenance garage.

Depots are specialized industrial facilities to completely rebuild equipment periodically over its lifetime to prevent the widespread wearing out of parts and to provide the latest upgrades. For US M-1 tanks, this facility is at the Aniston Army Depot in Alabama. That sprawling industrial facility disassembles M-1 tanks and rebuilds them with new parts.

Finally, a supply pipeline is required to provide these maintenance activities with parts so they can replace what is damaged or worn out. An M-1 tank has thousands of individual components. Each of the dozen or so organizational and intermediate-level maintenance organizations would need to stock a few hundred parts while the single depot would need to stock them all.

Contractors: the unavailable solution. In other situations, the United States provides contractor support to maintain systems until the host country can do so on its own. The United States did that in Iraq and Afghanistan. Other countries, like Saudi Arabia, use U.S. contractor support extensively. U.S. companies have extensive experience providing such support. However, using contractors would present severe challenges in the current circumstances. Having the U.S. defense industry maintain Ukrainian equipment during a war would be provocative and expose U.S. citizens to attack.

Logistics drive NATO's policy. These formidable logistical obstacles have driven NATO to its current policy of providing systems that are either easy to use or that the Ukrainians already operate. Anti-tank and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons are examples of easy-to-use systems. It takes only a few days to train troops on the basics of using an anti-tank weapon like Javelin or NLOS or shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons like Stinger (although it takes several weeks to fully train personnel on all the intricacies of the systems and the tactics for employment). A variety of other systems fall into this category, like night vision goggles and some communications equipment.

The Ukrainians could also receive systems that they already have in their inventory. These are typically older Soviet systems that some of the eastern NATO allies still have in their inventories and would like to swap out for more modern NATO systems. There was, for example, extensive discussion of providing Polish MiG-29s, which the Ukrainians already operate. NATO is also apparently looking for S-300s, a medium-range anti-aircraft system that Ukrainians use. In theory, NATO could provide systems like T-72 tanks, which are available on the world market, and potentially other equipment as well.

NATO and the United States are also, apparently, thinking about providing anti-ship missiles to help Ukraine deal with the Russian Black Sea fleet, which is threatening its southern coast. This is tricky. The missiles come in self-contained canisters, but the launch platform, likely a truck of some sort, and the sensors for spotting a target need specialized training and maintenance.

The realities of modern military equipment have thus driven NATO and the United States to their current policies. They might provide a few additional capabilities, but the options are limited. In the long term, after the conflict, there will be opportunities to expand the kind of systems being provided, but that is a future policy discussion.

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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