Opinion: The American-made weapons that could change everything
The US and its allies have given the Ukrainians artillery systems, some of them quite advanced, but withheld those with the longest range or, as arms experts have suggested, the greatest sophistication.
In an address to Congress on Wednesday, Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska asked US lawmakers to send air defense systems to her country “in order for rockets not to kill children in their strollers.”
Military observers tell me that Zelensky and his senior generals have expressed their delight in the new systems that are appearing, hoping that their words will encourage a greater willingness of the West to release even more advanced systems that could turn the tide of battle by leaps and bounds.
There is an electronic war that cries out to be fought — drones that need to be jammed or flown to precise targets, long-range artillery with GPS targeting, enemy chatter that needs to be plucked from the skies. Some of these capabilities are increasing as the West gradually introduces new systems to the battlefield and trains Ukrainians to operate them.
Reinforcements and upgrades appear to have begun to stabilize the situation on the ground, but not regain any substantial territory lost across Ukraine’s east by Russia’s offensive.
The situation needs to keep being “reassessed” by the West, and especially by the US, as Ukraine’s cities and their people get crushed by Russian forces who should be held at bay.
There are lots of other reasons — most of them quite reasonable on first blush — that some of these systems are being withheld. Officials at the State and Defense Departments say they don’t want these systems to fall into enemy hands, the fear being, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Regional Security Mira Resnick told me: “They could be seized and then exploited by the Russians or another party that would put our war fighters at risk.”
At the same time, there must be some attention paid to how deeply the transfer of weaponry to Ukraine degrades America’s own strategic stockpiles. Fewer than 3,000 ATACMS rockets are still in US stockpiles and a next generation rocket of this type is not due for another year or more, according to Chris Dougherty, a senior fellow for the Defense Program and co-head of the Gaming Lab at the Center for New American Security in Washington.
“Electronic warfare is central to knocking the Russians off balance,” Dougherty told me. “This is an important distinction. We need to be able to attack their comms and targeting networks.”
The more the strategic landscape shifts in Ukraine, these warfare needs and America’s willingness to adapt mean these formulas remain in a constant state of flux. And the requests of the Ukrainian military are advancing as well. It just seems that the Ukrainians are all too often behind the eight-ball.
Somehow, Ukraine and western responses have been failing to keep up with the pace of horrors that Russia is prepared to inflict, and without any comparable response.
“War is hard. It’s really complex,” said Dougherty. “Everything is interacting with everything else, in really hard-to-predict ways. And the important thing is to use that complexity to your advantage, to make it hard for your opponent,” he told me.
Dougherty and others have focused especially on systems that would force the Russian military out of its comfort zone — breaking up their huge ammunition depots and scattering them, making them far less efficient because of their inability to communicate between them. “When the Russians try to fix one problem they caused themselves, another problem arises,” Dougherty said. “You’re trying to create a thorny knot of dilemmas so every time they try to do something that makes their life better, it actually makes their life worse.”
Mick Ryan, military strategist and retired Australian army major general, has been tracking many of these needs and described them to me as ranging from uniform artillery and armored vehicles, especially the M113 armored personnel carrier, to self-propelled artillery.
Ryan and Dougherty believe that the real needs are more sophisticated systems. “Electronics are becoming central to knocking the Russians off balance,” said Dougherty.
The ability to counteract and interdict any military equipment that involves electronic communication or GPS positioning would be central to any such mission — and without overstepping any national boundaries.
“Counter autonomy systems to destroy Russian and Iranian drones will be vital,” said Ryan. “We need more of these anti-drone systems for Ukraine to degrade the Russian targeting for artillery, as well as deny them use of suicide drones. This is important. The ‘detection to destruction’ time flow is several minutes. We need to change this.”
“It just seems like in the Russian military there are pockets of competence surrounded by oceans of failure,” Dougherty concluded. The US must enable the Ukrainians to stamp out the pockets and leave the oceans.
But Ukraine’s war is fast becoming the West’s, and the sooner the American establishment recognizes the need to unleash the full power of its military ingenuity, the more rapidly Ukraine will be able to bring it to a successful end, without the risk of a single American life.
In that respect, it is unlike Afghanistan or Iraq or Vietnam. Still, Ukraine is becoming the West’s ultimate proxy war.