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The war in Ukraine has entered a new intense phase that looks more and more like a large-scale war of attrition, grinding both the Russian and the Ukrainian armed forces in the process. Ukraine’s determined resistance has blunted the Russian advance but has not been able to prevent Russia from slowly gaining ground in the East and South, notwithstanding the high price paid.
The long frontline requires a lot of Ukrainian troops and especially equipment to hold it. Russia has vast post-Soviet munitions stocks, and until the Ukrainian military can destroy Putin’s long-range artillery and missile launchers this will remain an uneven fight. Congress and the Biden administration have clearly recognized that without continued Western military aid Ukraine will likely lose – the $40 billion aid package from the US has been a real morale booster for the Ukrainian people. But how long it will take to get additional weapons from the United States to Ukraine remains a key factor, putting even more burden on NATO’s European allies whose proximity to the front shortens the logistics chain. Much will also depend on how quickly Ukrainians can be trained up on this new equipment, especially on the more complex systems.
In this war, Ukraine is in a race against time. Western weapons deliveries have been at times slowed down at the decision point by governments debating whether this or that platform requested by Kyiv should be approved for delivery. More than anything else, Ukraine needs long-range artillery and missiles to ensure that its counter-battery fires can reach Russian artillery positions and missile launchers.
In order to meet this need, the United States has transferred 126 of its 155mm artillery systems along with some 260,000 rounds, with more forthcoming. The latest US aid package includes eighteen 155mm howitzers with 36,000 rounds of 155 mm ammunition, plus eighteen tactical vehicles to tow the howitzers. Washington has also recently agreed to send Ukraine four HIMARS artillery rocket systems and ammunition, with more systems likely to follow.
Canada has announced that it will send additional 20,000 rounds of 155mm ammunition together with replacement barrels for the four M777 howitzers it supplied to Ukraine in the spring, and Slovakia has contracted to send eight self-propelled 155mm Zuzana 2 howitzers.
France has provided Ukraine with twelve 155mm Caesar howitzers and promised to send more.
Poland has already sent 18 of its excellent 155mm Krab self-propelled tracked howitzers, with a Polish-Ukrainian deal already signed to provide at least 50 more.
These weapons are beginning to shift the balance on the battlefield, but the numbers are still not enough to turn the tide decisively. Most importantly some of the systems are not likely to become fully operational before the end of June – or later – considering the requisite training of Ukrainian personnel.
The most important bottleneck, however, is ammunition. After the Cold War, the majority of NATO allies did not prioritize stockpiling, while today the rate at which artillery rounds, missiles and even small caliber ammunition have been expended in this war raises the question of whether the West, especially Europe, can surge production to sustain the effort in Ukraine and to replenish NATO’s stocks. Ukraine continues to plead for thousands of artillery rounds and missiles to even the odds on the battlefield.
Furthermore, Ukraine needs airpower to augment its residual air force that, although it continues to fly, is nonetheless no match for the air power Russia has deployed. There are not enough remaining MiG-29 spare parts in NATO stocks to keep the Ukrainian air force in the game for much longer. This means that the country needs to transition as soon as possible to Western aircraft, and Western weapons in general, as not only the supply of post-Soviet equipment, is shrinking, but most importantly so are post-Soviet ammunition stocks.
Not all is bleak, however, even if some of the data about Russian losses in Ukraine provided by Kyiv may be exaggerated. Russian battlefield losses have been heavy, and there are no indicators that they will be less severe as the war grinds on. Furthermore, the war has exposed the lie about the allegedly formidable Russian armed forces, including their newest equipment. None seem to have the technological sophistication claimed by the Russians, and reportedly even their vaunted T-90M tank could not withstand a Javelin hit.
In short, it turns out that Russia’s claims about the supposed excellence of its new weapon systems have been at the very least exaggerated, and in some cases sheer propaganda. It is also increasingly apparent that the Russian side is struggling to sustain the current level of artillery and missile bombardment. Moscow has been forced to reach into the older Soviet-era weapons stocks, and it is scrounging for personnel from units deep in the Russian Federation, clearly desperate not to have to declare a general mobilization that could result in political instability at home.
The military doctrine of the Soviet Union stipulated that quantity had a quality of its own. Today Moscow seems to subscribe to this approach yet again as it tries to overwhelm the Ukrainian military with the sheer numbers of long-range guns and missiles that it has deployed against it. Ukraine can offset the Russian numerical advantage through better training and motivation of its soldiers and, most importantly, the superior performance of Western weapons. But unless Kyiv gets its hands on a lot of modern weaponry, this war is going to remain a war of numbers, i.e., how many soldiers and pieces of equipment each side can bring to bear.
Ukraine needs a large volume of Western weapons, especially more of our advanced long-range artillery and missile systems to outgun the Russians and offset their numerical superiority. And it needs to receive those systems now.
A 1945 Contributing Editor, Andrew A. Michta is Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch, Germany. He is also former a Professor of National Security Affairs at USNWC and a former Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis in DC. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.