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By Kris Osborn - President, Center for Military Modernization

(Washington, D.C.) President Biden and the Pentagon have now authorized the single largest weapons support package for Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict, pledging as much as $1 billion in rockets, ammunition, anti-tank weapons, surface to air missiles and armored vehicles.

The initiative, announced Aug. 9th at the Pentagon by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl, lends additional evidence to recent comments from the Pentagon and US allies that supporters of Ukraine are preparing for long-term support against the Russian invasion. Another key indication or signal this aid package suggests is that the Ukrainians continue to have very substantial success using weapons and technology provided by the US, NATO and other allied countries.

Kahl detailed a host of various items to include “additional ammunition for High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, 75,000 rounds of 155mm artillery ammunition, 20 120mm mortar systems and 20,000 rounds of associated mortar ammunition, munitions for national advanced surface-to-air missile systems, or NASAMS, 1,000 Javelin systems and hundreds of AT-4 anti-armor systems and 50 armored medical treatment vehicles.” Kahl went on to explain that the materials also included large amounts of smaller, high-value items such as medical supplies such as bandages and first aid kits as well as lethal small weapons such as C-4 explosives.

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The Western support announced by Kahl is entirely aligned with the collective sense of resolve expressed at the recent Ukraine Defense Contact Group of more than 50-countries supporting Ukraine’s defense against invasion. The sentiment expressed at this most recent meeting by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and multiple NATO leaders was firm in its resolve to prepare the international community for an ongoing, longer-term strategy in support of Ukraine.

Key NATO allies such as Germany, the UK and others have been adding critical support since the earliest days of the war, and Kahl explained that both Britain and Germany have supplied three M270 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems.

As for the US, more GPS-guided, precision Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems able to fire 70km are on the way.

“We provided a tremendous number of in the last PDA package and we are now on a rhythm of shipping it so that things are arriving on a steady cadence. So I think you can expect that in the next PDA package there will be the next increment of GMLRS,” Kahl said.

These land rockets continue to exact an enormous toll upon vital Russian assets such as command and control centers, troop concentrations and critical systems such as mobile launchers capable of firing missiles into civilian areas in Ukraine.

The size of the aid package, coupled with an ongoing multi-national collective resolve to sustain support to Ukraine seem to indicate that the international will to offer “long-term” support to Ukraine remains strong. This is perhaps in large measure due to the success of the weapons thus far, which Pentagon officials say continues to be used to great effect by Ukrainian defenders. Ukraine’s ability to employ offensive and defensive tactics with dispersed, maneuvering units armed with anti-armor weapons has shined light upon the growing extent to which precision-munitions, networking and ambush-style “hit-and-run” kinds of disaggregated formations can succeed against a heavier mechanized force. The range, precision and lethality of modern anti-armor weapons, and how they are being tactically employed by the Ukrainians, indicates that newer technologies are reshaping maneuver formations and informing concepts of operation for future warfare. 

For instance, in Force Design 2030, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger specifically cited Ukraine's success as one of several reasons why the Corps can increase its mobility, range, deployability and lethality with a fast, high-tech, expeditionary force armed with long-range, yet highly lethal anti-armor weapons. Berger cited Ukraine in the context of explaining why the Corps was divesting all of its Abrams tanks and shifting toward a more agile, dispersed, multi-domain fighting force using more drones, long-range anti-armor weapons and a new generation of networking technology.

Faltering Russian Morale

“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog,” was how former CIA Director John McGlaughlin referred to Ukraine’s successes in repelling Russian invaders in an interview with CNN during the early days of the war.

At the time, there were clear, if surprising, reports of Russian failures, tactical missteps, logistical complication, supply problems and a clear “inability” to successfully close in on Kyiv. While there are many reasons why this somewhat unanticipated measure of Ukrainian success captured the world’s imagination, such as Ukraine’s tactical success ambushing advancing Russian troops with anti-armor weapons, one clear reality was also simply that the invading Russians lacked the “will” to fight. This would make sense, as many of them were reportedly told they were on a training mission, yet the Russian morale problems were even larger than some expected. There were numerous anecdotal reports that Russian soldiers lacked food, supplies and any kind of coherent command and control. Also, just what exactly would Russian soldiers want to fight for?

The Pentagon says that now, months into the war, Russian morale is still a problem and may at least in part explain why Russian progress in Eastern Ukraine has been marginal.

“Ukrainian morale and will to fight is unquestioned and much higher, I think, than the average morale and will to fight on the Russian side. So I think that gives the Ukrainians a significant advantage. After all, more than 40 million Ukrainians are fighting -- the stakes are existential for them. They are fighting for the survival of their country,” Colin Kahl, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, told reporters Aug 8th, according to a Pentagon transcript.

Kahl added clear specifics pointing to this ongoing Russian morale problem, saying the Russians have had as many as 4,000 armored vehicles destroyed and “probably taken 70 or 80,000 casualties in less than six months.”

“Now, that is a combination of killed in action and wounded in action, and that number might be a little lower, a little higher, but I think that's kind of in the ballpark, which is pretty remarkable considering that the Russians have achieved none of Vladimir Putin's objectives at the beginning of the war,” Kahl said.

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Ukraine’s will to fight and successful employment of decisive war tactics have also immeasurably contributed to this. Ukraine made great use of its anti-armor weapons, decentralized command and control and staged highly-lethal, surprise hit-and-run-attacks on advancing Russian armored vehicles using anti-armor weapons such as the Javelin and AT-4.

“The Russians have probably lost 3- or 4,000 armored vehicles in Ukraine, which is a lot. Now, a lot of that is because of the anti armor systems like Javelin, like the AT-4s, which are in this package, but also, frankly, because of the creativity and ingenuity in the way the Ukrainians have used those systems, especially early, in the early phase of the conflict when the Russians were stymied in the thrust towards Kyiv,” Kahl said.

Do some Russian troops simply oppose the invasion? Are they being threatened and forced into fighting? Some anecdotal reports have suggested this possibility, and there is also the chance that some Russian conscripts simply do not want to kill Ukrainians.

Famous French Philosopher Jean Jaques Rousseau spoke at great length about what he called “natural pity,” a human characteristic borne of a deeply innate, instinctive altruistic tendency. Rousseau, in his discussion of what he called man’s fundamental disposition in a “state of nature,” used the term “noble savage” to describe this inclination woven into the essence of man. Rousseau's “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality” even extended this concept of natural “man” as an altruistic “noble savage” to include animals, saying many living creatures exhibit instinctive “natural pity.”

All of this discussion takes place within the broader context of Rousseau’s discussion of human nature as it pertains to conceiving of an optimal civil society consistent with man’s nature. Rousseau’s point, famous now for centuries, is also discussed within the conceptual framework that man is of course “self-interested,” yet also capable of exhibiting this organic “altruistic” sensibility.

Could this sentiment be emerging within some Russian soldiers aware that their actions are killing children? That is certainly the hope of many, yet there are definitely zealots and true believers among the ranks of the Russian military as well.

This support for the invasion may be being heavily influenced by a large-scale propaganda effort within Russia to distort the truth about events in Ukraine and marshal support for the Russian military invasion among the greater population. Multiple media reports on CNN show a “Z” symbol as indicative of support for the Russian invasion.

Media reports also say the free flow of information within Russia continues to be massively curtailed as the country’s government seeks to present a distorted picture of what is happening in Ukraine. This is part of why there is likely a large scale effort among many to get volumes of accurate information about Ukraine into Russia. 

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US Provided GMLRS Destroying Russian Advance

Ukrainian use of precision-guided, land-fired rockets able to travel as far as 70km appears to be a key reason why Russia is making little to no progress in the Eastern part of the country.

Prior to the arrival of these GPS-Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, able to hit enemy targets with great precision at more than twice the range of most conventional artillery, Ukrainians appeared unable to stop or even slow down longer-range Russian missile and rocket attacks into civilian areas of Ukraine. Conventional artillery such as 155mm rounds fired from one of the many M777 Howitzers sent to Ukraine can travel roughly 30km, making it difficult for Ukrainians to attack Russian launch sites from safer stand-off distances or possible hit fire bases, supply areas and mobile launchers on the Russian side of the border.

Now, with the arrival of GMLRS, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) have been devastating Russian ammunition storage sites, weapons facilities, troop concentrations, supply lines and launchers.

“This (GMLRS) is a 200 pound warhead. It's kind of the equivalent of an airstrike, frankly, a precision guided airstrike. These are GPS guided munitions, they've been very effective in hitting things that previously the Ukrainians had difficulty hitting reliably. So command and control nodes, sustainment and logistics hubs, key radar systems and other things,” Colin Kahl, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, told reporters Aug 8 at the Pentagon, according to a transcript.

One reason why this is so critical is due to the lack of air superiority. Should Ukraine have any kind of air superiority, which thus far it does not, there is no way to achieve this kind of large “bomb” like effect described by Kahl without substantial land-fired rockets.

Yet another impactful element of this is that an ability to reign down fires from greater distances with precision can cripple an enemy’s freedom of maneuver, meaning Russian efforts to resupply forces or move into attack formations are much more vulnerable to attack.

Kahl explained that GMLRS precision-guided rockets have “made it more difficult for the Russians to move forces around the battlefield. They've had to move certain aspects back, away from the HIMARS. It's slowed them down; it's made it harder for them to resupply their forces.”

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These weapons have been part of the US Army’s arsenal since 2007 and 2008 when land-fired precision was introduced during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan. GPS-guided bombs were demonstrated from the air as far back as the Gulf-War era, however land-fired precision did not emerging until 2007 when the Army fielded Excalibur, a GPS-guided 155m artillery shell able to pinpoint ground targets to within a meter of accuracy. When air superiority is unclear or contested to any degree, land-fired precision can fill an urgent operational gap. Prior to the arrival of GMLRS, Ukrainian defenders had little to no way to stop the incoming salvo of ground launched Russian rockets and missiles which have been killing Ukrainian children and civilians for months now.

Sanctions Cripple Russian Ability to Replenish Stocks of Precision Weapons

The Russian military is increasingly unable to acquire the technology needed to replenish its stockpile of precision weaponry of crucial importance to their continued advances in Eastern Ukraine.

For months now, there has been reporting that Russia has been running low if not substantially depleted when it comes to its arsenal of precision weaponry. At the same time, the Russian military has also for months been willing to fire extremely dangerous unguided bombs somewhat indiscriminately into civilian areas, killing families, children and non-combatants.

Nevertheless, any kind of sustained offensive against Ukrainian defenses will certainly need precision weaponry to attack defensive positions, command and control locations and troop locations, among other things. Previously, they were reported to be running low due to the sheer amount of munitions, rockets and missiles they have been firing, yet now Pentagon leaders say the sanctions are increasingly impairing their ability to rebuild or replenish its stockpile of precision weapons. Many of these rely upon advanced technology such as GPS signals, Inertial Measurement Units and other kinds of guidance systems.

“An important fact to consider is that in addition to the crippling sanctions that have been put on Russia, there are these export controls that limit certain critical technologies, especially components like microchips that are essential for Russia to recapitalize its PGMs and standoff munitions. So it's not just that their stockpiles have gone down appreciably because of how much that they've expended during the conflict,” Colin Kahl, Undersecretary of Defense Policy, told reporters in an Aug 8 briefing, according to a Pentagon transcript. “It's just going to be a lot harder for them to rebuild the high-end pieces of their military because of the international export controls that the United States has championed, so I think that's important.”

This is likely welcome news for Ukrainian defenders, particularly because Russian shortages or problems related to its weapons arsenal are likely to be a massive impediment to offensive combat operations. Without air superiority, which Pentagon experts say is still very much in question, the Russian military will lack the ability to attack Ukrainian defensive positions and fortifications from stand-off distances. With precision-guided rockets and missiles, the Russian military can pinpoint Ukrainian command and control, force positions and even armored vehicles, should they have the needed aerial surveillance and targeting data. An inability to attack these targets from 100-to-200 miles away means attacking Russian forces will need to strike from closer-in, much more vulnerable positions. Also, the Ukrainians have by design dispersed their formations and decentralized command and control, perhaps for the specific purpose of making it difficult for Russian satellites and surveillance assets to identify high-value targets.

These kinds of targets, whether they be small groups of armored vehicles or force formations, would be extremely difficult to hit without precision, and the Ukrainians are likely quite deliberate with efforts to disaggregate and minimize the amount of available, “findable,” or recognizable high-value targets. When it comes to less precise or so-called “dumb” munitions, Kahl was clear that the Pentagon and its allies may not fully know just how much they have in their arsenal.

“As it relates to other types of ammunition, my sense is they have a lot of kind of dumb artillery rounds and other munitions like that. I don't think we have any assessment to suggest they're reaching some inflection point where they're about to run out of that,” Kahl said.

This kind of development lends further evidence to the idea that the US and its Western allies are increasingly becoming more hopeful or optimistic regarding Ukraine’s long-term prospects. As time goes by, the Russian ability to attack with success may decrease in increasingly significant ways. This may be one of many factors contributing to why the coalition of countries supporting Ukraine and of course the US continue to supply large amounts of weaponry, supplies and aid to Ukraine. 

Western Aircraft to Ukraine? 

While the Pentagon continues to massively fast-track weapons and supplies to Ukrainian defenders fighting in the Southern and Eastern parts of the country, US and allied supporters of Ukraine are also increasingly thinking about the long-term effort to “sustain” Ukraine’s war effort.

A key part of this involves support for the Ukraine’s Air Force, in large measure because the Russians have still as of yet been “unable” to achieve air superiority, something which is quite surprising given the massive deficit in air fighters between Russia and Ukraine.

“There is work being done here at the Pentagon and elsewhere out in Europe, at EUCOM and elsewhere, to help work with the Ukrainians to identify their kind of medium to long term requirements. So think of things that aren't measured in days and weeks but measured in months and a handful of years,” Colin Kahl, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, told reporters Aug 8 in a Pentagon media discussion, according to a transcript of his remarks.

Specifically, of great interest was his discussion of the possibility that, in time, there may be an opportunity for the West to send fighter jets to Ukraine.

“There are real questions about what would be most useful in terms of assisting the Ukrainian Air Force and improving its capabilities. It's not inconceivable that down the road, Western aircraft could be part of the mix on that, but the final analysis has not been done. I will say, though, in the near term, we've been doing lots of things to make Ukraine's existing Air Force stay in the air and be more capable,” Kahl said.

For example, Kahl explained that despite the wide-spread focus on the US unwillingness to shepherd through Polish MiG-29s months ago, the Pentagon has continued to take many steps to support Ukraine's Air Force.

“A lot was made about the MiG-29 issue several months ago. Not very much has been noticed about the sheer amount of spare parts and other things that we've done to help them actually put more of their own MiG-29s in the air and keep those that are in the air flying for a longer period of time,” Kahl said.

The Pentagon has also included a large number of anti-radiation missiles that can be fired from Ukrainian aircraft to destroy Russian radars or “jam” their communication systems.

This development would seem to indicate that US and allied supporters of Ukraine are perhaps more inclined to think Ukraine might ultimately prevail in stopping or even destroying Russian advances. Clearly Ukrainian air defenses seem to be having an impact, as well as whatever fighting is going on in the air. Also, if Russia is still unable to achieve air superiority, something which could completely change the tactical situation on the ground, is it even considerable to envision a scenario wherein Ukraine is able to take control of the skies if fortified by large numbers of fighter jets? It seems, given Kahl’s comments, there may be some emerging thinking along these lines, if not at very least a growing consensus that Ukraine may succeed in continuing to shut down Russian air attacks.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President - Center for Military Modernization