The list of US security assistance to Ukraine since the start of Russia’s “brutal and unprovoked invasion” is impressive. What is more impressive is that $21.9 billion in US military aid it has been largely dominated by second-tier teams, made up of low-tech or unpopular systems that, in many cases, were on their way to the junkyard.
As Congress prepares to limit the relative largesse of the Biden Administration, it is worth emphasizing that the aid, to date, is neither excessive nor does it threaten US national security.
In fact, US military support for Ukraine has cost less than it Congress is paying to acquire two gerald r ford (CVN 78) nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. In all, taxpayers will put about $26 billion into the USS gerald r ford (CVN 78) and the USS John F. Kennedy (CVN 79). Compared to these troublesome flattops, the $21.9 billion for Ukraine appears to be a much more effective return on investment.
Aid to Ukraine has, in effect, torn apart the Russian military, exposing it as little more than a paper tiger. The war has helped destroy what was once Russia.flourishing arms bazaar, ruining Russian efforts to destabilize strategic regions. Enabling the fight has reinforced Ukraine’s commitment to its nation, critical to advancing society-building and anti-corruption efforts there. Easing Ukraine’s resistance may even end Vladimir Putin’s kleptocratic reign, paving the way for a more just, if not more democratic, society in Russia itself.
The war served as a good testing ground for modern conflict, forcing the US to acknowledge the old “big war” conflict models it had avoided for decades. The war has also bolstered the value of boring old consumable staples, items that the US often ignores in its constant search for the newest, shiniest technology, like the expensive Fordclass aircraft carrier.
In all, the $21.9 billion has been very well spent. If the United States had withheld support and let Russia crush Ukraine, the United States would have spent far more to prevent Russia from bribing the rest of Europe.
Helping Ukraine resist open aggression has already offered a great return on investment. America has been wasted much more for much less strategic benefit. The second Iraq War of 2003 cost the United States more than a trillion dollars. Afghanistan cost another trillion dollars in 2022 dollars. Those two conflicts, which offered little strategic advantage to the US, make the $21 billion in Ukraine security aid seem like chump change.
The American second string team has rarely been used so effectively
While the numbers and equipment rosters are impressive, the United States has not given much that could affect the security of the United States in any substantial way. We have delivered a large amount of old or obsolete Russian equipment, including 45 Russian-built T-72B main battle tanks and 20 Mi-17 helicopters. Much of the equipment shipped to the Ukraine was headed for scrap or to other allies.
For a general audience, armored personnel carriers sound impressive. The fact that the US has given Ukraine some 200 M113 armored personnel carriers sounds like a big deal. But military experts know that the United States stopped building these tracked utility vehicles about 25 years ago and is busy stripping them from US forces.
Another surplus team has gone to the Ukraine. During US counterinsurgency conflicts, the Army acquired many M1117 Armored Security Vehicles, a wheeled armored vehicle, between 1999 and 2014. More appropriate for military police duties than large-scale conflicts, the US has already been reducing the inventory of vehicles, so the 250 shipped to Ukraine will not be lost. To give an idea of where Ukraine stands in terms of donations, the US delivered 200 of these vehicles to Columbia in 2020. More than 700 were produced for the Afghan military and 400 went to the Iraqi armed forces. At least, in the Ukraine, these vehicles directly support American objectives.
Some fancy gifts that sound militarized have focused on mobility. A grant of almost 300-400 “Tactical Vehicles” may impress a general audience, but they are all military trucks built to carry between 2.5 and 5 tons.
US taxpayers gave Ukraine 477 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles. Built for tough counterinsurgency, the US military has been so eager to get rid of heavy, hard-to-maintain vehicles that it has turned them over to police departments across the United States.
The United States also provided some 1,200 “High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicles.” Better known as Humvees, the US is busy replacing this new modern version of the old military jeep with a newer version called the “Joint Light Tactical Vehicle”.
Even the recently popular tube artillery systems – when donated, the future of much of the 142 155 mm and 36 105 mm howitzers, 10 120 mm, 10 82 mm and 10 60 mm mortar systems donated to Ukraine was in doubt. The Marine Corps had aimed to reduce its M777 howitzer batteries from 21 to five, but the importance of artillery on the Ukrainian battlefield may have changed some views.
In air defense, all the attention has been focused on the yet-to-deliver Patriot air defense battery and the eight National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NSAMS). But the bigger story is in the old HAWK missiles that the US supplies. The US has not used HAWK missiles since 2002, and since we make thousands of them, it would be very interesting to know more about how these older missiles perform in the field.
Amid the dross, Ukraine has gotten some “good stuff”
This is not to say that the US has not supplied “good stuff”: complex top-of-the-line weapons, along with always-in-demand consumables. But, while new equipment gets plenty of headlines, truly modern systems are few and far between, dwarfing the array of nearly obsolete American weaponry.
The modern team gets headlines. But then again, those modern front-line systems in Ukraine are very few and far between, reflecting a sour assessment of Ukraine’s strategies, technical capabilities, and training. That is why a modern Patriot air defense system may take time to deploy in Ukraine. In a few years, eight batteries of National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NSAAMS) will arrive. New operators need a lot of training to take full advantage of America’s high-tech equipment.
Supporters of Ukraine, when mobilizing for more and better weapons, point to Ukraine’s rapid exploitation of 38 US-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS. But these frontline assets are very much “fire and forget” platforms and, as export items, their effectiveness depends more on the end user’s prowess in finding, reporting, and targeting the relevant enemy assets.
That’s why the US has placed a lot of emphasis on modern command and control support. Command post vehicles, including more than 80 different radars of various types, jamming equipment, tactical communications systems, SATCOM terminals, and surveillance equipment helped Ukraine close critical capability gaps. And yet, while these tactical tools are in high demand and in many cases considered relatively modern equipment, the US has a lot to offer.
Some relatively “experimental” high-tech equipment has also gone to Ukraine. The United States has fueled 700 kamikaze Switchblade drones, 1,800 Phoenix Ghost unmanned aerial systems, unmanned coastal defense craft, and other interesting trinkets in the war zone. These new high-tech “experiments” cost money, but understanding how these platforms work on a modern battlefield is invaluable to the US.
Use rates of small portable or other relatively modern defensive anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems: 1,600 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, 8,500 Javelin anti-armor missiles, 46,000 other anti-armor systems, as well as 1,500 TOW anti-tank missiles and 13,000 grenade launchers—have probably exceeded the capacity of States United to produce the ammunition. But then again, this largesse has only made a small dent in US supplies: Over the years, the US produced tens of thousands of Stingers and nearly 50,000 Javelins.
Another concern is Ukraine’s consumption of modern artillery shells. But this “revelation”, again, is worth an enormous amount to the US military. For years, only a lone team of logistics and other defense experts cared about the US habit of underfunding munitions production and weapons maintenance.
So far, their concerns have gone unheeded by a military more interested in funding shiny new weapons than revamping the dirty, dirty, and dangerous industrial base dedicated to munitions manufacturing. Finding that the critics were right and identifying this manufacturing shortfall as a major constraint allows the US to do something about it now, when US national security is not directly threatened on the battlefield.
While, in total, the amount of military funds sent to Ukraine seems large, in real terms, much of the military aid sent to Ukraine, outside of munitions, is made up of systems that the Pentagon has already shut down. That’s worth remembering when demagogues try to sow public doubt about US support for Ukraine.