How to arm Ukraine: The case for tanks, air and missile defense
On a recent trip to Ukraine, sponsored by the Polish think tank PISM, a group of scholars whom I was privileged to join saw remarkable progress in the recent war effort by brave Ukrainians. Kyiv is bustling; its northern suburb of Bucha, where Russian atrocities took place last winter, is recovering; and President Volodymyr Zelensky and his leadership team display a calm resolve and clear sense of moral and political purpose. Recent successful counteroffensives in the Northeast in particular have reclaimed some 10 percent of the land lost to Vladimir Putin since Russia’s invasion began on Feb. 24; Ukraine is wielding weapons and employing tactics that augur well for future efforts to liberate lost territory as well.
However, we would be wrong to take further progress for granted. Already, Russia is reportedly employing new Iran-sourced drones with considerable effect against some Ukrainian fighting positions. Putin has called up reservists — of admittedly questionable combat readiness — who can help strengthen Russian positions on many of the front lines. And the localized progress by Ukrainian forces in recent weeks has depended on specific geographic features — some Russian forces being sandwiched between rivers, for example, which made it possible to deny them resupply for a period before launching a counterattack. In other cases, successful Ukrainian ruses fooled Russian troops about the intended locations of Ukrainian assaults. That smart approach will not always work. It is far from clear where the next phase of this battle will go — and with winter looming in north-central Europe, the opportunity for significant additional counteroffensives this year is waning.
It is in this context that Western leaders must now decide on next steps for arming and otherwise helping Ukrainian military forces. Whether one thinks in military terms about battlefield balances and dynamics, or in strategic terms about pressuring Putin into a peace process where he will acknowledge and restore full Ukrainian sovereignty, three lines of effort are essential.
First, Ukraine needs further military preparations to create the reality and the widespread impression that, come spring 2023, it will be better prepared than Russia for future combat (it also might seek localized successes over the winter, despite the difficulty of doing so, to sustain momentum, but that will be a tough task). Second, we must collectively continue to prop up Ukraine’s economy with major Western assistance, and even accelerate the process of reconstruction that our group witnessed in Bucha and environs. Finally, Europe must show Putin it can beat him in the energy game by surviving the winter with reduced natural gas supplies from Russia — and by preparing for a winter of 2023-2024 in which it further reduces its need for any energy supplies from Russia whatsoever.
On the weapons front, U.S. and NATO assistance to date has been impressive, but there is more to do. The $15 billion in U.S. assistance has emphasized small, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons; radars and other support equipment; artillery shells; some tactical transport capability; and, of course, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Support (HIMARS) — the 50-mile range and high precision allow Ukrainian forces to strike Russian positions, including command posts and munitions warehouses, with considerable effectiveness.
However, HIMARS alone will not win the war, even if and when more than the 20 or so now in Ukrainian hands are sent to the front lines. Russian forces are diversifying and hardening their positions as a counter to the deadly strikes. To be sure, that process is imperfect and carries its own costs. But in war, as in physics, each new action produces an inevitable counterreaction. HIMARS will not have the last word in this fight. That is why some in Ukraine are asking for longer-range missile systems, including ATACMS, with the capability to range a couple hundred miles from where they are fired — almost enough range, in theory, to reach Moscow; but more to the point, enough range to interdict Russia’s efforts to resupply its forces, or to attack Russian positions in Crimea.
U.S. officials are right to resist the temptation to send ATACMS — and not simply because Russia is calling any such transfer a “red line” not to cross — with Putin making his recent vague but reprehensible nuclear threat in possible response to the suggestion by some that ATACMS should be provided to Ukraine. First of all, ATACMS can hit only what it can see, and trucks or rail cars on the move are not excellent targets. Second, if and when Ukraine uses such weapons to strike into Russian territory — likely not Moscow, but nonetheless locations within the Federation — Putin will have less reason to avoid attacks against NATO territory and, specifically, any pipelines or arteries for supplying Ukrainian forces that Russia can identify. Escalation is a real possibility. Third, there are other steps the United States can take to buttress Ukraine’s fighting capabilities that are likely to be equally effective and less escalatory.
Two main types of capabilities stand out in importance. First, we should be sending Ukraine more air and missile defense capability so that not only Kyiv but other safe or liberated cities can be protected more effectively from Russian missile and air attacks. Such systems are expensive, and not foolproof, but they are very good — and just as Israel’s Iron Dome has shown over the years, they can give a besieged population a greater sense of hope even when their 100 percent effectiveness cannot be presumed.
Second, as the Pentagon is apparently now considering, Ukraine should receive more tanks and associated support vehicles to complement its existing infantry and artillery strengths and create a more credible counteroffensive capability. It already has some 300 tanks like the T-72 received from Poland and other former Warsaw Pact countries. But it needs more — and better — systems. German, American and Korean tanks are among the best candidates for the role, given their survivability on the modern battlefield and their precision fires. Ukrainian soldiers have proven themselves fast learners, so a decision to provide these top-of-the-line systems to Ukraine in the coming months can likely set them up well for a spring offensive. There must be enough tanks that several sectors can be threatened simultaneously within the country, and defensive as well as offensive positions maintained. That calculus implies the need for perhaps half a dozen mechanized brigades — the basic building block of modern ground warfare — implying a grand total of 500 tanks or thereabouts.
With any luck, this kind of arms transfer policy along with corresponding economic support for Ukraine and further tightening of the economic screws on Moscow can set the stage for more Ukrainian successes by mid-2023 — and then, the realistic beginning of a serious peace process in which Ukraine regains most or all of its lost territory. This kind of integrated strategy represents our best hope for ending this war on acceptable terms in the shortest time possible.
Michael O’Hanlon is the Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy at the Brookings Institution and the author of several books, including “The Art of War in an Age of Peace: U.S. Grand Strategy and Resolute Restraint,” “Defense 101: Understanding the Military of Today and Tomorrow,” and the forthcoming “Military History for the Modern Strategist.” Follow him on Twitter @MichaelEOHanlon.