Iranian-made Shahed drones have caused mass destruction in Ukraine. With their Volkswagen-style engines, they can fly undetected for about 120 kilometers and deliver an explosive power of 40 kilograms. The components to make this drone? A mere estimated $20,000. Yet to shoot them down, Ukrainians are using American-made NASAM missiles that cost about… $400,000 per drone taken down. One can hardly blame the Ukrainians for resorting to using 1960s German Gepard anti-aircraft guns instead.
The lessons of the awful Ukraine war so far are many and varied. But something that has struck most observers is that while the Russians have been outmaneuvered, they have been holding their own against modern Western military equipment by using old tanks and artillery. In particular, American gear, while technologically advanced, is either not always the best choice on the battlefield, prohibitively expensive, or both.
A number of examples ought to be considered.
Which is the “Best” Tank?
The news that Germany and the United States agreed to supply Ukraine with Leopard 2 and M1 Abrams tanks created quite a stir. Both tanks, which are superior to their Russian counterparts, are similar in size and firepower. The American Abrams in particular is known to be battle-proven and virtually indestructible.
Yet there are a few issues with the Abrams tank. For one, an Abrams weighs up to seven tons more than the Leopard, which could easily get stuck in Ukraine’s muddy fields or bring down some of its light bridges. Another issue is that the latest version of the Abrams is optimized to run on jet fuel, which is understandably hard to replenish on the battlefield. Even more problematic, however, is that on-field repairs aren’t always possible for an Abrams. In fact, some logistical considerations make the prospect seem like a living hell. For example, a frontline battalion cannot fix an Abrams with broken optics. Replacing these requires pulling out entire subsystems and shipping them to a depot—potentially hundreds of miles away—while also ordering replacement subsystems. Finally, there is the cost dimension: producing an Abrams can top $10 million per unit, while the latest Leopard 2 costs around $6 million.
All things considered, the German Leopard 2 is a better choice in Ukraine over the American M1 Abrams. In fact, because of existing availability, the Leopard 2s have entered service, mainly via Poland and Canada, months ahead of the Abrams.
Airpower Isn’t Cheap
The United States, along with other NATO members, was initially reluctant to supply Ukraine with F-16 fighter planes; Washington took the view that doing so could escalate the conflict. The F-16 is, after all, a battle-proven jet with fifth-generation stealth technology. It is more than a match for any Russian fighter jet and can carry a vast array of air-to-ground missiles and loitering munitions.
However, the Swedish government has offered Ukraine its Saab JAS 39 Gripen plane. The Gripen (Griffin in English) is a fourth-generation fighter jet that can land on small runways and highways, and has highly effective sensors and electronic jamming equipment. While not battle-proven like the F-16, the Gripen has consistently scored highly in air-to-air war games. The result has been something of a lobbying battle over which jet to procure.
Yet despite Kyiv’s open preference for F-16s, a number of Ukranian pilots concede —in private—skepticism of whether such is the best choice.
Consider the costs. According to industry group Aviatia, the Gripen cost $7,800 per hour to fly, while the F-16 cost $12,000 per hour. Gripen maintenance is also much cheaper: while SAAB (which makes the Gripen) and Lockheed Martin (which produces F-16s) do not advertise the yearly maintenance cost of their fighter jets, practically all commentators agree the F-16 is more expensive. Executiveflyers.com estimates that an F-16’s maintenance comes at about $10 million per year. Yes, the Gripen is more expensive to produce than the F-16, as it sells for $17 million more per plane, but this is due to the existing scale: the F-16 has been produced and exported since the mid-1970s.
There is also a sizeable gap in terms of training. Swedish pilots and maintenance recruits are trained for twelve months to operate the Gripen. The F-16, by comparison, takes at least thirty-six months.
Finally, there are on-the-ground conditions to consider. As noted recently in The Economist:
Soviet runways were built like floor tiling: panels of concrete blocks with sealant in between. That allows them to withstand the expansion and contraction from extreme heat and cold. It also means that moss, stones and other debris accumulates in between. The Gripen, with smaller air intakes that sit higher up on the fuselage, would cope with this far better than the F-16 [...] Ukraine could resurface some airfields, but that would only invite Russian missiles. And while the F-16 can land on roads in a pinch, its lighter undercarriage is not as well suited to the stresses of short runway…
Yet regardless of which plane is chosen, the war in Ukraine has provided another valuable lesson. Air superiority, so valuable in all twentieth-century wars right up to Desert Storm, may no longer be achieved by manned aircraft alone. Sophisticated surface-to-air missiles make the airspace dangerous. Both Ukraine and Russia have hundreds of S-300 missile batteries. Ukraine has also recently obtained the Patriot battery system. All these systems are battle-tested and very effective against manned aircraft.
As a consequence, the combat duties of fighter aircraft have transformed; jets are now primarily used as short-flight, air-to-ground missile launchers. Dogfights are extremely rare. Downed aircraft by friendly fire is not uncommon—Ukrainians have taken to crudely inpainting the underside of their fighters with the national colors of blue and yellow.
The alternative to manned aircraft is the use of drones. The Ukrainians have been ingeniously making thousands of inexpensive “suicide” drones. Comprised of cheap electronic parts, some made with 3D printers, they only have to last long enough to deliver their deadly cargo. American-made aircraft, including drones, now face additional competition that often delivers far more bang for the buck.
Do You Want to Ride into Combat in a Deathtrap?
Delivering combat infantry to and from the battlefield is a challenge in and of itself, and often requires a specialized vehicle. In Ukraine, there is the choice between the Australian Bushmaster—a smelly, powerful, loud, and heavily armored fighting vehicle—and the American Stryker M1126 Infantry Carrier Vehicle, which is of similar size, and power.
The major difference is that whereas the Bushmaster will stay and fight with infantry, the Stryker will deliver and leave. This is just as well, given that the Stryker is lightly armored and vulnerable to any gun more powerful than a machine gun. It has been described as “a deathtrap.” When used by U.S. forces, it usually enters battle alongside the powerful and well-protected Bradley Fighting Vehicle, a tank in all but name. That may not be an option in Ukraine. The Stryker also suffers from a variety of technical issues, as recounted in Responsible Statecraft: “the armor shielding it was fitted with proved largely ineffective and weighty, mud spattered from its rubber wheels into the engine during deployments caused innumerable maintenance problems, computer command displays inside the vehicle didn’t always work, soldiers in battle gear were being killed in rollover incidents because their seatbelts didn’t fit and (crucially), the bottom or the vehicle was thinly armored.” On top of all this, the Stryker is notoriously difficult and expensive to maintain.
The Bushmaster, in contrast, can sustain itself in the field for three days, has withstood Russian attacks, and costs $1.57 million per unit compared to the Stryker’s $4.9 million per unit. For a cash-strapped, war-time government like Ukraine that requires both effectiveness and low costs, it isn’t hard to see which vehicle is preferable.
Bang for Your Buck
It is worth repeating that all the systems mentioned above are not like-for-like, and offer different capabilities depending on the terrain and fighting conditions. Similarly, all the listed (estimated) unit prices do not take into account bulk-buying discounts (but also, crucially, the often costs of ongoing maintenance). It is also worth recognizing that American equipment often—but not always—utilizes super technology, and the price tag may reflect the expense that went into research and development.
Nevertheless, the Ukrainian conflict delivers a clear warning to U.S. arms suppliers of the need to rationalize and simplify production and maintenance costs, along with system complexity. And this is without factoring in concerns that some arms suppliers are engaging in price gouging.
Ultimately, though a particular platform may be “the best,” that does not mean much if a particular platform isn’t sustainably usable on the battlefield, either because of its complexity, its costs, or because of the particular environment in which it has been deployed. Foreign, non-Western buyers may not—and often do not—have Western budgets, and will be looking for simpler and less expensive, yet as-effective, options. Policymakers in Washington—many of which come from electoral districts that play host to arms suppliers and employ constituents—ought to take note of this.