“There are no such funds in the budget,” Plakhuta said.
The key value of U.S. military aid to Ukraine, therefore, is to help fill the blank spots in the country’s military-industrial self-sufficiency. Particularly, when it comes to high-tech weapons systems and air defense systems.
“American technical assistance is extremely important for Ukraine,” Plakhuta told The Daily Signal. “But it needs to be expanded. Ukraine needs air defense systems, combat aircraft, and ships.”
In the long run, Ukraine’s military is poised to be a counterbalance against a more aggressive Russian in Eastern Europe. Recent U.S. military aid to Ukraine reflects the broader buildup of Ukraine’s military beyond the immediate war needs in the Donbas.
In September, the U.S. Coast Guard handed over two decommissioned 110-foot armed cutters to Ukraine. And in October 2018, U.S. Air Forces in Europe sponsored an air combat exercise in Ukraine called Clear Sky 2018—Ukraine’s largest air combat exercise in the post-Soviet era.
“This is not necessarily only about advanced weapons, U.S. aid also helps us take a shortcut and get weapons that we needed yesterday,” Ponomarenko said.
Singling out the U.S. Coast Guard cutters slated for Ukraine, Ponomarenko added: “It would take many years and resources to produce such vessels, but we need warships right here and now to deter Russia in the sea.”
The U.S. has also helped stand up a Ukrainian special operations training program, and assisted Ukraine in the realm of cybersecurity and electronic warfare.
Ukroboronprom, Ukraine’s national military industrial conglomerate, produces a wide gamut of weapons systems for the country’s armed forces, including armored personnel carriers, anti-aircraft systems, and fighter aircraft upgrades.
In 2018, Ukroboronprom supplied 2,500 “state of the art high-precision missile systems” to the Ukrainian military. Those missiles include the Stuhna-P and the Corsar guided anti-tank missiles.
Last year, Ukraine developed a high-precision, 152 mm artillery projectile called “Kvitnyk,” which has a stated accuracy of “several centimeters” at a distance of 20 kilometers, about 12.4 miles. Ukraine has also developed a modernized multiple-launch rocket system, a new counter-battery radar system, and an advanced targeting sensor for use on helicopters or unmanned aerial vehicles.
Ukraine recently announced the development of a new arsenal of intermediate-range missiles, such as the Vilkha and Neptune systems, capable of striking deep into Russia from launch sites within Ukrainian territory.
The move follows the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty’s breakdown in March, after claims from Washington that Moscow had been developing and deploying missiles in violation of the pact’s limits for years.
As a post-Soviet country, Ukraine had been bound by the so-called INF treaty’s restrictions. Now, with the pact’s demise, Ukraine has launched a crash-course intermediate-range missile development program.
“These high-precision weapons can dramatically increase the combat capabilities of the armed forces of Ukraine and ensure the destruction of enemy targets at a large distance,” Ukroboronprom said in a statement posted to its website.
However, many of the new big-ticket military items being produced by Ukraine’s military-industrial sector are not applicable for the war in the Donbas due to the Minsk II cease-fire’s rules.
However, Ukraine’s current, ongoing military-industrial buildup reflects the country’s long-term ambition to create a modern, high-tech military with one paramount objective in mind—to defend the country against a conventional Russian invasion.
“Over the last few years, we indeed started manufacturing some really sophisticated high-precision weaponry,” Ponomarenko, the Kyiv Post defense reporter, told The Daily Signal. “This is a key to deterring Russia in Donbas and also holding it back from an all-out invasion. Intellect and quality beats the sheer power of quantity.”
To that end, U.S. weapons and technology are important. So, too, is the U.S. Army’s military training program for Ukrainian forces at a base in western Ukraine.
“U.S. military personnel’s training of our soldiers and officers … is priceless, too. It simply educates a new generation of Western-minded officers not corrupted by worm-eaten, old Soviet practices that brought us to the brink of disaster in 2014,” said Ponomarenko.
Ongoing since 2015, the U.S.-led training operation has helped Ukraine’s military ditch its strict, top-down chain of command culture—a carryover from the Soviet military, in which front-line soldiers are hamstrung by the need to receive direct orders from commanders to take action.
Rather, the Ukrainians are adopting the American chain of command model, in which combat troops are more empowered to make their own autonomous decisions in combat based upon a commander’s pre-stated intent.
Today, Ukraine’s combat forces are more nimble and able to react to battlefield realities without relying on play-by-play micromanagement from commanders safely ensconced behind the front lines.
For Ukrainians, therefore, a more Western chain of command, along with better technology, are force multipliers that help offset their numerical inferiority to Russia in terms of weapons and manpower.
“Becoming a smart, next-generation warfare force is our only choice,” Ponomarenko said. “As the increasingly popular proverb here says—a small Soviet army will never defeat a big Soviet army.”
A Vanguard Force
Russia’s war effort against Ukraine—and Ukraine’s defense against it—has been a learning laboratory for U.S. forces as they evolve to face the next generation of military threats from so-called near-peer adversaries such as Russia and China.
Ukrainian troops have years of experience fighting a conventional, trench war, comprising armor and artillery, with no air support, practically no possibility of air medevac, and limited supplies. In short, Ukrainians are used to being on the weak side of the fight against a modern military—and that’s not a familiar place for most U.S. or NATO troops to be.
For Ukrainians, resourcefulness and creativity are equally important as raw firepower or conventional combat skills. Consequently, the battlefield innovations that Ukrainian troops have come up on the fly, while in combat, reflect the sort of forward thinking, flexible mindsets that American commanders and troops need when facing a modern, near-peer adversary such as Russia or China.
Ukrainian IT students have built smartphone apps for remotely targeting their artillery. They’ve jury-rigged commercial, off-the-shelf drones for use in targeting mortars—even dropping grenades. One former artillery officer created a smartphone app for encrypted military communication, called MilChat, to counter the rampant Russian electronic warfare threat in the Donbas.
At the war’s outset in the spring of 2014, secure communication was a major problem for Ukrainian forces due to Russia’s advanced electronic warfare capabilities. To compensate for their lack of encrypted communications, Ukrainian troops would often use ad hoc code words over off-the-shelf walkie-talkies, or even rely on runners to hand-deliver messages. Hard, landline communications were often unreliable, front-line troops related to this correspondent, due to the frequency of shelling, which often cut the wires connecting communication devices between positions.
Ukrainian troops have learned that every type of electronic communication, encrypted or not, can invite enemy fire. Russian electronic warfare units continually sweep the battlefield to develop a baseline measure of an area’s normal background din of electromagnetic signals. So, once combat begins, if there’s anything out of the ordinary, the Russians are able to detect it and shoot at it. As a result, Ukrainian troops have learned to treat the electromagnetic spectrum like the visible one, and to camouflage themselves to resemble their surroundings.
In front-line locations where civilians live, a military radio—encrypted or not— stands out from that typical electromagnetic environment, giving Russian electronic warfare units an easy target.
One NATO officer said that, with the Russian threat in mind, using a military radio was like “shining a flashlight on a dark night.”
So, using a smartphone to communicate, especially with an encrypted app like MilChat, allows the Ukrainians troops to conceal themselves within the ambient electromagnetic background din in the Donbas.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI, a research body that maintains a yearly assessment of the global military arms industry, Ukraine ranked 12th among the world’s top 25 major military arms-exporting nations from 2014 to 2018. China is the top purchaser of Ukrainian military arms, according to SIPRI data.
“Ukraine has been exporting a lot of weaponry for years. The lion’s share was and is excess Soviet equipment. We modernize some old types and produce new ones as well,” said Khara of the Black Sea Institute of Strategic Studies.
Ukraine suspended military sales to Russia in March 2014 in the wake of the Kremlin’s invasion and seizure of Crimea. The following June, as the war in the Donbas escalated, former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko banned cooperation with Russia in the defense sector. Ukraine’s boosted defense trade with China has, to some degree, supplanted its lost defense business with Russia, experts say.
Plakhuta, the defense adviser to Ukraine’s parliament, said that Ukraine’s weapons sales abroad do “not affect the rearmament of the Ukrainian army in any way.”
Rather, profit from arms sales helps Ukraine to fund purchases of military hardware that it cannot build at home.
“We need to import weapons that are not manufactured in Ukraine,” Plakhuta said. “First and foremost are air defense and fighters.”
Since the outset of Russia’s hybrid war in 2014, Ukrainian officials had been soliciting America for lethal weaponry—the Javelin anti-tank missile in particular—as a way both to defend itself from Russian aggression on the battlefields of the Donbas and to deter Moscow from future offensives. Even so, former President Barack Obama never approved the move, ostensibly due to fears of escalating the conflict by sparking a tit-for-tat arms race with Russia.