The war news lately has become one endless civilian massacre after another, so I take solace in focusing on the military side of the story. It’s not that I want to ignore or gloss over war crimes, it’s that it’s deeply triggering to me. Remember, I came to the United States as a war refugee. I’ve lived the life of a child noncombatant in the midst of armed conflict. And my personal experience was nowhere near as horrible as that of many people, either in El Salvador in the late 70s and 80s or in Ukraine today. It’s too much.
Civilians always bear the brunt of war. Always.
The reaction on social media always turns to “we need to give Ukraine everything they request, give them all the weapons!” The sentiment is understandable. We are mostly helpless, sitting on the sidelines of unspeakable horror. And it’s certainly understandable for Ukrainians to ask for it all. They are the ones doing the dying as the rest of the world is paralyzed by Russia’s nuclear weapons.
But each news of fresh massacres changes the equation slightly, erodes constraints. NATO armor and artillery were once off-limits to Ukraine. Today, Czech armor is already in Ukrainian hands, and more is on the way from several countries. Slovakia sent Soviet-era air defenses that logistically fit into Ukraine’s current stock. The U.K. has sent advanced air defense systems, and artillery is on tap. Several countries are sending armored personnel carriers. The U.S. is sending switchblade suicide drones, which truth be told, feels more escalatory than anything, given their ability to strike deep behind Russian lines and their overall nastiness. Those switchblades will soon be the most effective killers on that battlefield.
When the West began its first tentative shipment to Ukraine, Russia threatened retaliation. Before the war, it even made vague nuclear threats if anyone intervened. Today, Russia is rendered mostly mute. The war isn’t over, but it already has been defanged. When Finland first began discussing NATO membership, Putin spokesman’s thundered, “It is obvious that [if] Finland and Sweden join NATO, which is a military organization to begin with, there will be serious military and political consequences.” Yesterday, after news that Finland was moving forward with an application, the Kremlin’s response was sad and pathetic: "We'll have to rebalance the situation. We'll have to make our Western flank more sophisticated in terms of ensuring our security."
As for Ukraine’s new goodies from the West? Russia is essentially mute. And the floodgates have opened. NATO’s Eastern Bloc nations are all moving from Soviet-era equipment to NATO standard gear. Why waste the money to keep old equipment in deep storage? And NATO’s Western flank, including the United States, has entire armies worth of old equipment (like American humvees) being replaced by newer gear. Expect more and more of it to make its way to Ukrainian hands.
Still, that doesn’t mean everything. Mark Hertling, former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe discusses some of those logistical challenges in this thread.
Looking it up, an M1 Abrams tank mechanic goes to school for six months to learn to maintain it. Then, he or she goes to their unit, where they spend several years learning the craft under the watchful eye and guidance of non-commissioned officers with 10 to 20 years of experience. (We previously talked about why noncommissioned officers are so incredibly important.)
The training on those systems is long, and that’s just the baseline! Think of what you learned in college or trade school, and what you learned at your subsequent jobs. Full training is ongoing and takes years to master. And that’s on a $3 million tank! As Hertling puts it, “The T72 is an old Chevy; the M1 is a Ferrari.” One is easy to maintain; the other is a nightmare without proper training and equipment. In fact, the M1 is so complex, that it needs several different kinds of maintenance personnel to keep one running. And as Hertling notes, if you do it wrong, the tank’s engine and transmission can blow.
Let’s look at the Patriot missile defense system, which sure would come in handy in Ukraine.
With launchers and radar (all of which would be a new Russian military priority to destroy) 60 missiles would cost $10 billion, or an initial startup cost of $33 million per missile. And once they’re launched, that’s it. A T-72 costs $500,000 to 1.5 million per copy. An M1 costs $2.5 to 9 million, all depending on how it’s kitted out. Ukraine, in total, has received a little over $2 billion in U.S. military aid.
Financially, Ukraine could outfit entire tank regiments for the cost of a Patriot system. But let’s say, “Give Ukraine anything it wants, regardless the cost!” The world doesn’t work that way, but sure, let’s make that assumption.
A Patriot operator undergoes 20 weeks of training. Once again, that’s just the baseline. Soldiers then go to their units and spend years, if not decades, perfecting their craft. But as always, pressing the button to fire is the relatively easy part. It’s maintaining the equipment that is the real challenge. A Patriot system repairer has a 53-week advanced training. That’s a full year! And I keep repeating this because it’s true—that’s the baseline. That’s just good enough to get placed in a line unit where NCOs with 10 to 20 years of experience continue the training.
It would be literally impossible for Ukraine to operate and maintain this level of complex hardware anytime within the next year, absent a “foreign legion” of experienced Patriot operators and maintainers to run the systems. I’ll assume that’s not a realistic option.
Now imagine the maintenance requirements for aircraft.
I’ve already written about systems in NATO stocks that could immediately be put to use by Ukraine. There is a lot, including over 1,000 T-72 tank variants, artillery systems, armored personnel carriers, and—just as important—fuel and ammo compatible with their existing army. Even planes! Though they are nowhere near the game-changer people think they are.
But Ukraine stopped Russia dead in its tracks and began to roll them back with simple, infantry-borne weapons like anti-tank and anti-air missiles. And all those hundreds of thousands of reserves in western Ukraine? They need helmets, body armor, and vehicles to transport them. I get that body armor is not sexy, but anything that allows more Ukrainians to engage in the field is worth its weight in gold, and is far more efficient use of resources than expensive high-end military gear.
This commercial system from UARM costs $1,260. Outfitting their entire reserves of 300,000, plus their 70,000 territorial defense force (TDF) members, would cost $466 million. Heck, there is a waiting list to join the territorial defense forces. Rounding up to $500 million would provide body armor for another 30,000. More, likely, with volume discounts. The more TDF Ukraine has, the more regular army units are available to go on the offensive.
This stuff isn’t as exciting and sexy as MiG-29s, I get it. But that’s the kind of gear the United States and allies have been sending to Ukraine, allowing it to have the battlefield impact it has had. (The U.S. alone has sent 45,000 sets of body armor and helmets.)
As for going on the offensive, armor, artillery, and Switchblade killer drones are the name of the game, and that’s exactly what’s starting to flood into Ukraine. Will Ukraine ask for more? Of course. Why not? They even asked Germany for submarines, which is laughably absurd. But Ukraine would be in a different place without the flood of Western armaments that have delivered exactly what Ukraine needed to turn the tide of the war.
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