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Kyiv Looks to Sharpen its Spear With Advanced Western Arms

Ukraine is set to receive a large influx of advanced weapon systems from the United States and its Western allies in the coming months and throughout the rest of 2023.

In recent days, Western-built heavy main battle tanks (MBT) – specifically the M1 Abrams, Leopard 2, and Challenger 2 – headline the support in Ukraine’s pipeline. However, there is much more at play in that the current tranche of security assistance than big-ticket equipment in itself.

Rather, it appears that the U.S. – and the West at large – is now helping Ukraine rebuild parts of its military through integrated packages, at least on land. Indeed, in December 2022, the U.S. specifically announced that it will impart combined arms training to Ukraine’s land forces. This started earlier in January.

Now, the equipment side of Ukraine’s combined arms evolution is starting to take shape, albeit on paper for the time being. For example, in addition to committing 30 M1 Abrams MBTs, the U.S. is also allocating armoured vehicles, munitions, small arms, and specialized equipment valued at over $3 billion U.S.

This new package contains 50 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles (IFV) with 500 TOW anti-tank missiles, 100 M113 armoured personnel carriers (APC), 55 mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAP), and 138 high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles (HMMWV), and 18 155 mm-caliber self-propelled howitzers (SPH). When viewed in light of Biden’s announcement to send 30 M1s, it is evident that Ukraine will build integrated forces on land using this U.S-supplied equipment.

The ‘combined arms’ element will factor in once Ukraine’s recapitalized tank inventory pairs with not only its IFV and APC units, but its guided artillery element too. In terms of the latter, Ukraine has already built capability centered on the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) which, moving forward, would be supplemented further by 155 mm-caliber SPHs (comprising of various M109A/L variants). Prior to this, Ukraine also inducted M-777 lightweight 155 mm-caliber towed howitzers.

However, all this is only American side of the West’s assistance package. Germany seems to be on board with improving Ukraine’s capabilities on land. Not only is Berlin is preparing to transfer 14 Leopard 2s, but it seems to be coordinating with other Leopard 2 users to rapidly raise two battalions of the tank. Within the German Armed Forces, a battalion consists of 44 tanks. Thus far, Germany – alongside Poland as well as Canada – have allocated 32 Leopard 2s for Ukraine. Similar to Washington’s package, the German arms supply also consists of SPHs (i.e., PzH-2000 and AHS Krab).

Finally – and arguably a key driver of the supply surge – the United Kingdom is also working to supply the Ukrainians with a combined arms element. This package centers on 14 Challenger 2 heavy MBTs and 30 AS-90 SPHs. It is possible that the U.K. will expand this package further and, in turn, aim to match Germany and the U.S. in terms of numbers. Thus (and this is a rough approximation), Ukraine could have upwards of six battalions consisting of advanced Western tanks in the coming months.

However, according to Ukraine’s ambassador to France, the West has apparently committed upwards of 300 heavy MBTs to Ukraine. If this is an accurate assessment, then Ukraine would basically be on track to having one of Europe’s largest heavy MBT forces (outside of NATO’s top powers).

This would be significant, not just in terms of the capability gains for Ukraine, but the organizational shifts it would require within the military to sustain such a force. Basically, modern tanks are complete weapon systems that require specific infrastructure to operate and maintain, robust training, and, possibly, shifts in Ukraine’s operational doctrine. If Ukraine emerges from this war, its military would not only be different from its pre-war form in terms of equipment, but in deeper ways too, like training and doctrine.

Overall, the West is not only sending equipment to Ukraine, but its guiding Ukraine to rebuild its military along Western lines. In fact, the West knows the risks involved with sending its advanced tanks to Ukraine (e.g., capture by the Russians), so this is not a capricious move. Rather, the U.S. and its allies likely want to be in Ukraine for the long-term – and seeing Ukraine emerge from this war is the first step.

In Quwa’s estimation, the release of Western-built heavy MBTs and flagship air defence systems (like the Patriot) indicate that strategic Western defence assets, like aircraft, are on the roadmap.

For example, while Ukraine is certainly building the infantry, armour, and artillery aspects of its combined arms doctrine, it still wants a new multirole fighter aircraft to supplement its older Soviet-era MiGs and Sukhois. In fact, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) reportedly revealed that it has already “determined” the aircraft and training requirement it needs – suggesting that a fighter release could be on the horizon.

Yes, Kyiv has repeatedly emphasized its call for fighter aircraft. In fact, Ukraine has openly requested for several F-16 squadrons. Through the MIM-104 Patriot, heavy MBTs, and other equipment, the U.S. as well as its Western allies are already sending sophisticated equipment to Ukraine. If the West wanted to stop any chance of their technology getting into Russian hands, then the situation is well past that point.

Now, by sending the high-tech land-based equipment to Ukraine, the West have already put themselves at risk of losing their equipment to Russia. The only to ‘prevent’ such a risk from materializing is to ensure Ukraine is well-equipped enough to win against Russia.

Overall, the issue for Washington, Berlin, and others is not so much the question of giving the technology to Kyiv. Rather, the West’s concern is the question of escalation vis-à-vis Russia. How would Moscow view the transfer of such equipment? For Russia, is this the “red line?”

In the early stages of the war, the sense was that Russia would view certain equipment – such as tanks or fighter aircraft – as “offensive.” It was not the equipment in itself, but the notion that by transferring such arms to Ukraine, the Western power who had done it had basically entered the conflict directly.

However, those who want to support Ukraine are driving an alternative narrative: Whatever equipment Kyiv uses within Ukrainian soil is, by default, defensive. Not only that, but the Ukrainian government has also been warning of Russia intensifying its campaign, especially in the warmer months of spring.

Hence, for Kyiv, the advanced equipment must arrive relatively soon so as to give Ukraine its best chance to push the Russians back. Obviously, a credible airpower element could enable Ukraine to severely limit Russia’s offensive ability, especially at long-range and over interior Ukraine.

Nonetheless, the prospect of flagship Western arms designed during the Cold War being used to confront the Russians is still a heavy and significant prospect for the decision-makers, especially in NATO. Ironically, America’s goal to disarm the former Soviet Republics (especially Ukraine) was, in great part, to prevent a scenario involving the use of Leopard 2s and F-16s against the Russians, especially in Europe. But that very scenario could happen, and in Ukraine – i.e., a former Eastern bloc country – no less.

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