Ukraine’s partners, led by the United States and spread over the globe from Europe to South Asia and beyond, have increasingly responded to Russia’s full-scale invasion of February 2022 with a dizzying array of financial, humanitarian, and military assistance. Rightly focused on providing the support Ukraine requires for ongoing and near-future combat operations, the U.S. and Ukraine’s other partners have already delivered tens of billions of dollars in assistance. The tens of billions of dollars of military and other assistance that the U.S. and others have pledged but have not yet delivered is of at least equal importance in terms of signaling by a large coalition of countries to Kyiv, Moscow, and third parties a long-term commitment to helping Ukraine defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Such a long-term commitment appears to be critical, given general expectations that the war in Ukraine may last for a long while (or for a while longer; the war in Ukraine is already in its ninth year). Expectations of a long(er) war raise a plethora of challenges, including tension between ensuring Ukraine has the military capabilities and capacity needed now for combat operations and ensuring it can continue to generate combat power in the mid- and long-term as the war grinds on. Unfortunately, the way in which the U.S. and Ukraine’s other partners have provided military assistance over the last year — that is, by delivering a wide range of equipment, ammunition, and training — significantly undermines the longer-term objective of developing a sustainable system via which Ukraine can generate combat power in the coming years to overcome Russian aggression.
The challenge of a mixed inventory: The example of Lebanon
The saying goes that beggars can’t be choosers. As with military support to Ukraine from dozens of countries, military assistance programs elsewhere have generated paradigms in which the provision of equipment has increased the challenge the recipients face in maintaining, sustaining, supporting, and deploying combat power. Simply stated, logistical support — “the lifeblood of military power” — becomes exponentially more difficult as a military acquires often non-interoperable platforms and systems from different countries. Like Ukraine, Lebanon has both been the recipient of military equipment from numerous countries and depended heavily on the U.S. for support. The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) has a mixed inventory of, for example: older-model American, French, and Russian tanks; American, French, and Czech armored personnel carriers and infantry vehicles; American, British, French, and Russian wheeled armored vehicles; American and Russian artillery; and American and French helicopters. This hodgepodge of equipment pervades the LAF; for almost every type of equipment — radios, light and heavy weapons, mortars, night vision devices, etc. — the LAF has multiple systems from multiple countries. Logistically supporting this mixed inventory represents a substantial challenge, as the LAF has had to establish and maintain a logistics support process for each platform and each donor country.
The LAF’s Bradley Fighting Vehicle program provides an informative and relevant example of the challenge a military faces in integrating a new platform-based capability into its inventory, particularly as the U.S. has pledged to deliver more than 100 Bradleys to Ukraine (with the first shipment of 60 vehicles en route to Ukraine as of the end of January 2023). The Bradley is a complex platform, comprising around 60 integrated systems, including weapons, power generation, electrical, night vision, navigation, transmission, braking, sight units, turret systems, communications, and many, many more, each with its own multiple sub-systems and unique parts (see here, here, here, and here for details). As the LAF integrated Bradleys into its inventory, it had to develop a process for maintenance, which required training user- and higher-level maintenance personnel; a process for ordering, stockpiling at various locations, and distributing spare parts, which required the establishment of new warehousing areas and personnel; and a process for ammunition forecasting, acquisition, storage, stockpile management, and distribution, among many others. While the LAF could leverage its already existing relationship with the U.S. military to address many of these issues, establishing such a logistical support process still posed a major challenge.
Consider, for example, that for its 60 or so systems, the Bradley has perhaps (an educated guess) 200,000 individual parts, making it substantially more complex than the average automobile (around 30,000) and less complex than a Boeing 747 (around 6,000,000), and perhaps 15,000 unique parts (compared to around 1,800 for the average car). The LAF, through its partnership with the U.S., has a process through which it can order Bradley spare parts essentially directly from the U.S. military, simplifying what would otherwise be a much more difficult process. Yet the LAF still has had to establish new processes for all the other requirements described above, on top of the myriad other such processes required to support logistics for the LAF’s mixed inventory of vehicles and equipment from a wide range of countries. A rough estimate suggests the LAF requires a supply chain process for managing somewhere in the range of perhaps half a million unique spare parts, mainly for U.S, Russian, and French equipment, little of which is interoperable or interchangeable, and to a lesser extent for equipment from other donor states. It is not difficult, then, to understand why the LAF may struggle to maintain high levels of operational readiness for any one platform or piece of equipment, much less at overall unit levels, even when just considering the difficulty of managing spare parts.
Ukraine rapidly expanding and diversifying inventory
Ukraine faces a very similar challenge, but on a much larger scale and while in continuous high-intensity full-spectrum combat. Prior to Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the Ukrainian military relied mostly on Soviet-era platforms, and has only recently started to diversify its inventory. Should the U.S. and Ukraine’s other partners actually deliver all of the equipment so far pledged, the diversification of the Ukrainian military inventory will intensify considerably, as the number of different systems so far pledged is extensive, and growing. This includes at least: 40 different tracked armored personnel carriers or infantry fighting vehicles; 11 different main battle tanks; 21 different wheeled combat vehicles; 50 different types of artillery, rocket, and mortar systems; 32 different unmanned aerial vehicle systems; 19 different anti-tank weapons; 7 different helicopters; 28 different air defense systems; and 18 different missiles. Additionally, Ukraine’s partners have delivered and/or pledged a wide array of aircraft, mines, boats, radars, grenades, bridge-layers, and night vision devices, among other equipment.
As discussed above, the U.S. pledge to provide Ukraine Bradleys adds a complex system to the Ukrainian military. Prior to the war, Ukraine already had several different tracked armored vehicles, mostly BMPs (BMP-1s, BMP-2s, and BMP-3s). Some of the tracked armored vehicles delivered and/or pledged to Ukraine are less complex than a Bradley, such as the U.S.-origin M113 armored personnel carrier; Ukraine should have a relatively easy time integrating the more than 1,500 M113s it is set to receive. But even M113s have a set of unique spare parts and require robust maintenance, and many of Ukraine’s partners have pledged or delivered systems at least as advanced as the Bradley. For example, Sweden has pledged to deliver CV90s and Germany has pledged to deliver Wiesel 2s. The same approach has occurred for main battle tanks; so far Ukraine’s partners have pledged to provide Leopard 1s, Leopard 2s (at least four different variants), T-72s (at least five different variants), AMX-10RCs, PT-91 Twardys, M-55Ss, Challengers, Abrams, M-84s, T-55s, and STRV-122s. While prior to the war Ukraine had T-55s and T-72s in its inventory and thus should have a relatively easy time integrating additional tanks of these models, the others include some of the best main battle tanks in the world. The U.S. M1 Abrams tank, for example, is often considered the world’s best, and the U.K. Challengers and the German Leopard 2A6s Ukraine is set to receive are also top-tier main battle tanks. This pattern repeats itself for artillery, rockets, mortars, wheeled vehicles, air defense systems, and the other categories of equipment discussed above. Thus far, Ukraine’s partners have pledged more than 250 different systems, ranging from simple pistols to advanced fighter and reconnaissance jets (and even a simple pistol has numerous unique parts for which spares are required). A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that should all of these systems eventually be delivered, Ukraine will have a need for perhaps a million spare parts to support this diverse inventory, as well as for the trained personnel necessary to maintain each of these systems. As with the LAF example above, Ukraine will also need processes for ordering, stockpiling at various locations, and distributing spare parts and a process for ammunition forecasting, acquisition, storage, stockpile management, and distribution, among many others.
Logistical support processes
There are some indications that such processes are being developed. Poland, for example, has committed to establishing a maintenance hub for the Leopard tanks Ukraine is set to receive, and the U.S. at the highest levels has recognized the need to help Ukraine with maintenance. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently explained, if Ukraine’s partners provide equipment that “falls apart in a week because they can’t maintain it, it’s not going to do you a lot of good.” The U.S. has also established a maintenance-support-by-telephone capability to assist Ukraine, and private citizens are developing ways to help Ukraine maintain its soon-to-be expanded inventory. Much more focus on the logistics aspects of generating and sustaining combat power is necessary to ensure that Ukraine can maintain and thus employ as far forward on the battlefield as possible the hundreds of systems it is receiving. While the idea of a Polish hub for Leopard tank maintenance and U.S. telephone support are good first steps, a hub in Poland is at least half-a-day away from the front lines (and spare parts for Leopards are at critically low levels) and support-by-phone seems an inadequate replacement for the sort of organic maintenance teams that support U.S. and NATO combat units. The proposed Leopard maintenance hub in Poland also raises a bigger question: who is going to maintain the hundreds of other systems delivered or pledged to Ukraine, and where is this maintenance going to occur?
Such considerations are, of course, of secondary importance in the current paradigm in which Ukraine’s partners are focused on providing what Kyiv needs now to stay in the fight. But such a myopic perspective carries the risk that Ukraine will be able to generate combat power based on provided platforms for only a short period of time, after which due to lack of maintenance capabilities platforms fall apart, in Secretary Blinken’s parlance, or are otherwise consumed or destroyed in the grinding war-of-attrition. While defense contractors hoping for huge payouts might wish to see such a paradigm prevail, it seems unlikely that, for example, the U.S. — including Congress and the American taxpayer — would be pleased to see too many $13 million Abrams tanks destroyed or abandoned on the battlefield due to lack of maintenance, and Ukraine’s other partners likely share this view about the equipment they are providing.
A more rational approach to military assistance to Ukraine
The current paradigm for supporting Ukraine with military assistance significantly undermines the longer-term objective of developing a sustainable system via which Ukraine can generate combat power to overcome Russian aggression. As such, Ukraine’s partners should start to transition to a focus on longer-term requirements, which will likely require shifting perspectives in three main ways.
First, the U.S. and Ukraine’s other partners should consider equipment delivered already or pledged-to-be-delivered in the near- to mid-term, within the next year, only as sunk costs to help Ukraine stay in the fight. This will both help prepare Ukraine’s partners for the combat abandonment or destruction of donated platforms that seems likely and set the stage for a more comprehensive approach to arming Ukraine.
Second, Ukraine, in close coordination with its partners, should select just two primary systems for each of its capability needs. Until now, Ukraine’s partners have been focused on the near-term task, but a year into this current phase of the war, the time is ripe to transition efforts to longer-term objectives. The various types of tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, air defense systems, and other equipment so far provided have been in response to replenishing Ukraine’s combat losses. In some cases, pledged donations appear to have been made in order to ensure burden- and risk-sharing among Ukraine’s partners, as in the case of the U.S. decision to provide Abrams tanks. While selecting one primary system for each of its capability needs would go a long way towards simplifying Ukraine’s logistical support issues, selecting two systems for each need will buy down the risk that the country or countries providing the system become unwilling or unable to do so, for political or pragmatic reasons, such as the lack of Leopard spare parts discussed above. In most cases, Ukraine should opt for systems that balance capability with the logistics support a platform demands. For example, the M1 Abrams tank may be the best tank in the world, but it requires world-class logistics support, and as such may not be the best or even a logical choice for Ukraine.
Thirdly, some of Ukraine’s partners, including the U.S., should adjust their laws and policies for assistance to Ukraine so that funding can be channeled to support Ukraine’s acquisition of its selected systems for each capability, rather than being restricted to funding the provision of national systems. This particularly applies to the U.S. As Ukraine’s primary donor, the U.S. should expand its flexibility to fund other countries to provide capabilities to Ukraine. Considering that Ukraine should select systems balanced between capability and required logistics support, it is highly likely that it might select non-U.S. systems, given that American products are generally top-tier and require extensive support. With such expanded flexibility, the U.S. can continue large-scale support to Ukraine while strengthening the coalition supporting Ukraine by channeling funding to partner countries’ defense industries. This may create an outcry from home country defense industries and their legislative and other political supporters, but the U.S. and Ukraine’s other partners are not helping Ukraine defend itself primarily so that home country defense contractors can get rich(er).
The current paradigm of arming Ukraine is both unsustainable and undermines the longer-term objective of ensuring Ukraine can generate the combat power necessary to emerge victorious. Ukraine’s partners should start the transition to a focus on the longer-term objective as soon as possible.
Jeff Jager, a retired U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer (FAO), served multiple FAO tours on the USEUCOM-USCENTCOM seam, including as an attaché in Cyprus, a U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Liaison Officer in Turkey, and a Foreign Military Sales Officer and ODC Chief in Lebanon. He also served as a military advisor at the Department of State. He is currently a Ph.D. student in Salve Regina University’s international relations program.
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