Thursday, 24 March 2022

A Call For Arms: The Weapons That Ukraine Needs

By Joost Oliemans and Stijn Mitzer
As a conflict that is quickly becoming established as one of the most ferocious and costly wars of the modern era continues to rage in Europe's East, more and more evidence of staggering losses on both sides becomes apparent. [1] Ukrainian cities are being reduced to rubble overnight in bombardments that are brutal both for their intensity and disregard for civilian life, while equipment losses, especially on the Russian side, are astonishing. Amidst this chaos, Ukraine has been the recipient of a steady influx of armament that nevertheless falls far short from being decisive, with some of its most generous (though involuntary) donations so far in fact coming from the Russian Army. [1]
Though free weaponry has been forthcoming from a myriad of sources, some notable deliveries that so far have not materialised showcase the limitations of foreign military aid. Perhaps most poignantly, NATO's internal discord over gifting (Polish) MiG-29 fighter aircraft to bolster the Ukrainian Air Force has become somewhat of a public fiasco. The dissent is understandable however, as nations are weighing the degree of their political resolve and what can realistically be delivered in the face of the most important question of all: What are the weapons that Ukraine needs? 
While the concept of military support, especially against a major adversary such as Russia, will generally conjure images of rows of main battle tanks, advanced air defences and even fighter jets roaring into the scene, most aid has taken the more demure form of infantry weapons and equipment. One very practical reason that this has been the case is the fact that the recipient operates largely ex-Soviet equipment, and is therefore unfamiliar with what many of Ukraine's supporters can offer it. The advantage of infantry weaponry, and in particular those types that are mainly being delivered, is that they require only marginal training to achieve familiarity and to be able to use them effectively. This requirement essentially confines military aid to that equipment that is either easy to use, or that Ukrainian operators already have experience working with. 
Another reason why we are not yet seeing rows of armoured vehicles exchanging ownership at the Ukrainian border is because many politicians abroad are under the impression that such deliveries run the risk of further escalating the conflict, potentially to the point of open warfare between NATO and Russia. Such reasoning fails to take into account the fact that the prevailing narrative in Russian media is already that the Russian Army is essentially fighting a proxy war in Ukraine against its enemies, and that given the current military situation it is unlikely Vladimir Putin will risk escalation over the mere delivery of conventional weaponry. Nevertheless, even if "low-profile" is taken as a condition for armament to be given to Ukraine, there remains plenty of types whose (continued) introduction could be considered a game changer. 

If there's anything that conflicts of the recent past have demonstrated, it's that they have essentially begun to revolve around precision-guided munitions (PGMs), which are vastly more effective both in terms of impact per piece of munition and the potential for forcing fast breakthroughs on the battlefield. The limiting factor has often been the prohibitive cost of such equipment, and that the fact that their high-tech nature has at times precluded widespread introduction. This in fact offers some explanation for Russia's poor performance to date: the amount and quality of PGMs they have deployed appears to be quite low, with long-ranged cruise missiles strikes often hitting off-mark and bomber aircraft forced to fly low sorties to deliver unguided rockets and iron bombs. On the Ukrainian side, though both its existing inventory and newly delivered guided weaponry have proven extremely effective, rates of depletion must be very high and much of the armament in question is only effective out to short ranges. In addition to such armament, then, the Ukrainians require longer ranged weaponry both for air defence and targeted ground strikes. 
The one source currently forthcoming with such armament, Turkey, has plenty of other assets that would be highly suitable. In addition to UCAVs like the Bayraktar TB2, which have already taken on a seminal role thus far, it also exports weapons systems like the TRLG-230, a multiple rocket launcher (MRL) which by virtue of its precision-guided munitions is especially lethal. [2] In combined operations with the TB2, which can strike up to four targets but due to its endurance identify many more, the 230mm TRLG-230 can accurately destroy armament designated by Bayraktar TB2s UCAVs in quick succession out to a range of 70 kilometres. [3] This ability would not only be devastating against Russian land forces, it could even deter naval landings and other operations considering its range and excellent accuracy.

The 230mm TRLG-230 laser guided missile that can strike targets designated by the Bayraktar TB2.

In fact, there's more that can be done to get the most out of Ukraine's already lethal UCAV assets. Although its drones are faring amazingly well given the environment in which they are deployed, in other conflicts of the past their efficacy was multiplied by the use of effective electronic (counter) warfare systems, which dimish the threat from enemy air defences and thereby allow more complete control of the battlefield. Such systems could be among the most low-profile yet high-impact additions to Ukraine's arsenal. 
Conversely, to protect Ukrainian assets on the ground and make sure Russia does not attain aerial superiority, it is in dire need of more potent air defence assets. Although MANPADS (both foreign-delivered and Ukrainian) have been devastatingly effective in the conflict, longer ranged systems would allow defenders more freedom on friendly territory, in effect enabling more effective defence and counter attack. At the present, the only publically known assets Ukraine has received in this area were abandoned by Russia, whose soldiers to date left some twenty air defence systems behind in various battles and retreats. [1] The problem with most foreign additions of air defences is that they would require a Ukrainian crew to train for a long time before attaining proper operating skills, whereas the equipment is needed now. Some have even suggested Turkey should deliver its S-400 SAM system, which aside from this same issue also begs the question why only they are considered responsible for delivering strategic SAMs. [4] Pragmatically, Ukraine would likely benefit most from mobile medium-to-long ranged air defences with which it is already acquainted, such as the 9K33 Osa that could be supplied by Bulgaria, Greece or Poland, the Buk-M1 by Finland, the Tor-M1 from Greece and the S-300PMU(-1) from Bulgaria, Slovakia and Greece. These could be a big help in continuing to deny Russia full control of Ukraine's air space, with both politically and financially low impact for the delivering nations. 

Finland's Buk-M1s (ITO 96s) have been retired from operational service but are kept in operational condition for wartime use.

 In the area of infantry armament, aside from the much publicised anti-tank weapons, MANPADS and small arms (not to mention night vision equipment, which has allowed Ukraine a consistent upper hand in night fighting), loitering munitions and other non-line of sight armament would give it a substantive edge over its adversary. Though the US has recently pledged a batch of the deadly Switchblade 300, much more weaponry in this category is required to drive back Russian forces, which generally lack such weaponry of their own. [5] Unfortunately, one of the biggest producers and operators of such equipment, Israel, is currently unwilling to join its allies in delivering any military support to Ukraine. Other major arms producers like Turkey (STM Kargu), Poland (WB Electronics Warmate) or the US would thus have to pick up this important requirement. 
Since a weapon's efficacy is typically limited by your ability to detect enemy targets, another category that ranks high both in terms of potential impact and feasibility of delivery is reconnaissance drones. Especially those types that can be easily transported, launched and operated by infantry could act as a force multiplier to all other armament delivered to Ukraine, while also aiding its conventional assets such as artillery. 
With the Russian military reeling from the incredibly forceful opposition encountered in its one-time vassal, and Ukrainians feeling more strain than ever from the increasingly desperate attacks on its defences and civilian infrastructure, this is the critical point in time where new deliveries of certain types of weaponry could alter the course of history. As the very meaning of a sovereign nation state is contested in the war that never should have been, and Ukraine appeals to its allies, but one question remains: Which nations will answer the call? 

[1] Attack On Europe: Documenting Equipment Losses During The 2022 Russian Invasion Of Ukraine
[2] Defending Ukraine - Listing Russian Army Equipment Destroyed By Bayraktar TB2s
[5] The latest US weapon heading to Ukraine: A 2-foot long, 5-pound drone designed for one-way missions