OPINION: 1 year into war, what are Ukraine's military capabilities?

With its defense industrial base significantly damaged by Russian airstrikes, Ukraine is mostly dependent on West's military aid

17:13 . 13/03/2023 Pazartesi
File photo

File photo

Russia's attack on Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022 started a war that has so far had a profound impact on global geopolitics and the international system. In the first days following the start of the war, it became evident that Moscow made plans for a quick and decisive victory with the aim of quickly toppling the Ukrainian government. After recovering from the initial shock of the attack, Ukrainian armed forces started executing a swift and determined defensive warfare. The first 72 hours of the war arguably determined the fate of the Russian attack, and therefore the war. Russia has lost more than 80% of the territory it set foot on since the beginning of the war. More than 10,000 armored vehicles, artillery pieces and aircraft have been confirmed as destroyed or captured by Ukrainian forces.

During the first weeks of the war, Ukrainian forces destroyed large numbers of Russian vehicles, effectively disrupting Russian advances and cutting off supply lines. It was during this phase that several weapon systems became prominent: Bayraktar TB2 armed drones, Javelin and NLAW anti-tank weapons, M777 lightweight towed howitzers, and later the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) artillery rocket systems. Ukrainian armed forces have shown remarkable capability in adopting and effectively using NATO-standard weapon systems, a crucial factor in inflicting heavy casualties on Russian army units, which have shown surprising levels of ineptitude in planning, command, control, and coordination.

- Ukrainian army's relations with NATO, Russia before war

The West's support for Ukraine has been in the form of providing weapons, platforms, spare parts, ammunition, sharing intelligence as well as training soldiers. The emergency supply of weapons and training is to reinforce the Ukrainian army against Russia. However, in fact, Ukraine has been in the process of integrating NATO-standard doctrines, training, and equipment into its armed forces since 2014. It was the time when Russia annexed Crimea and an armed conflict erupted in the eastern Donbas region between Ukraine and separatist forces which received heavy and active support from Russia.

After 2014, Ukraine started a transformation process of the armed forces to make them interoperable with NATO forces and achieve NATO-standard training and equipment. Ukraine made major organizational changes within its armed forces and prepared a 10-year procurement plan, with a focus on special operations forces, artillery and missile systems, army aviation, drones, coastal artillery, and air defense systems. The special operations forces were given the top priority in terms of equipment, training, and overall readiness standards. Special training programs were initiated to increase the warfighting capability of small units. The previous organizational and doctrinal structure of the armed forces, which emphasized officers and built upon a strict linear hierarchical command-and-control mechanism, was abandoned.

Before the outbreak of the war, Ukraine's procurement programs mostly focused on acquiring advanced anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, communication equipment, artillery, and guided missiles.

One major modernization move was the procurement of Bayraktar TB2 armed drones starting in 2019. The TB2 would become one of the symbols of Ukrainian resistance, undertaking many crucial roles in artillery coordination, precision strike, and intelligence missions.

- Further arming of Ukraine after war

After the start of the war, the pace of military aid to Ukraine increased significantly, especially by the US and the UK. As of this February, Ukraine has received direct military aid from 35 countries. The largest share of the aid has come from the US, with around $77 billion sent to Ukraine in the form of humanitarian and financial aid, security assistance, weapons, and equipment. The UK, Poland, and the three Baltic states – Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia – are other major suppliers of weapons, equipment, ammunition, and training to Ukraine.

Ukraine's armed forces inventory had consisted of mostly Soviet-era systems and platforms and their upgraded and locally manufactured versions until 2022. One year into the war, Ukraine has taken delivery of many different types of NATO-standard vehicles, weapons, and platforms. Several weapon systems stand out as having received more priority. These can be classified as anti-tank weapons, air defense systems, main battle tanks, artillery systems, infantry weapons and equipment, and drones.

As seen in the Javelin example, modern anti-tank weapons systems had been one of the crucial elements of Ukrainian resistance. Ukraine so far has received many different types of guided and unguided anti-tank weapons from NATO countries, such as Javelin, MILAN, NLAW, Carl Gustaf, and M72 LAW. Ukraine had already started acquiring large numbers of Stinger man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) from NATO countries before the war and reinforced its MANPADS inventory with different types of missiles to increase its air defense capabilities. To establish protection against increased Russian cruise missile and kamikaze drone attacks, the US, Germany, France, and Italy have pledged to provide NASAMS, Patriot, and SAMP/T advanced air defense systems. These systems supported by air defense early warning and other intelligence systems may give Ukraine much better protection against Russian airstrikes. The large number of lightweight anti-tank missiles and MANPADS enabled Ukraine to have small unit tactics and execute hit-and-run and ambush-style attacks on Russian columns.

Artillery systems, especially the M777 lightweight howitzer and HIMARS artillery rocket systems, had been the centerpieces of the modernization of Ukrainian strike capabilities. These artillery systems with their high precision proved to be elemental in crippling Russian logistic support during the summer and autumn of 2022. They significantly decreased Russian warfighting capabilities in the frontline, especially on the south and east fronts.

One recent significant topic of military aid to Ukraine has been the supply of main battle tanks. Several countries, especially Poland and the UK have supported the delivery of advanced main battle tanks to Ukraine to counter the expected Russian offensive. As a result of intense diplomatic efforts, several NATO members agreed to provide the German-built Leopard 2 main battle tank. The US is also going to provide the M1A2 Abrams and the UK will give the Challenger 2. These three tanks form the backbone of NATO tank fleets and with their advanced fire control and targeting systems, they are superior to almost all tank types of the Russian army.

During the first year of the war, both sides suffered severe losses in terms of personnel and equipment. Russia, at least on paper, is able to substitute large portions of these losses and mobilize more reserve soldiers and equipment. Ukraine, on the other hand, has a limited number of soldiers and an even more limited inventory of weapons. With its defense industrial base significantly damaged by Russian airstrikes, Ukraine is mostly dependent on Western military aid.

The types of weapons supplied to Ukraine have changed in the past months, with more sophisticated systems such as modern main battle tanks, medium and long-range air defense systems, and guided missiles. These weapons, when used by properly trained personnel and in a coordinated manner, can inflict further damage on Russian forces in the region and sever its capability to conduct a large-scale offensive. Regaining full control of the Donbas region or Crimea, however, seems to be difficult with the current capabilities of the Ukrainian army.

By Arda Mevlutoglu- The author is working on defense and aerospace technologies, industrial policies, and national security. He has articles published in magazines such as Air International, Air Forces Monthly, Aviation News, Defense and Aviation, Marine amp; Commerce, and Savunma Sanayi Müstesarligi Savunma Gundemi.

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