Murphy's Law: Scrounging For Weapons


March 9, 2023: The war in Ukraine continues to be a series of battles with different types of weapons where quantity often counts as much as quality and who has the most ammunition. For the last few months, the Ukrainians have been killing lots of Russians who seek to regain enough lost territory to claim a victory. That Russians strategy has failed so far. The Russians don’t have the ability to carry out a large-scale offensive and rely on smaller battles where large numbers of poorly trained and led Russian troops seek to overwhelm smaller numbers of Ukrainian soldiers. Both sides suffer losses, especially from artillery fire. Satellite photos show numerous dead Russians but few of the dead Ukrainian defenders. Defenders have the advantage and the Ukrainians made the most of that to inflict heavy losses on the Russians while suffering fewer losses and falling back slowly.

This is small-scale attrition warfare where the better trained and led Ukrainians are able to keep most of their forces out of combat so they can prepare for a larger scale offensive using Western tanks and longer range guided missiles, bridge building units and mine-clearing troops to overwhelm Russians defenders on a large scale and take back the 17 percent of Ukraine still occupied by Russia. This large-scale offensive warfare is something Russia has never been able to carry out in Ukraine. In late 2022 the Ukrainians carried out two of these operations. The first one started at the end of August 2022 in the northeast (Kharkiv province). By September the Russians were gone because they were taken by surprise and suffered major losses in terms of troops, equipment and territory. In November Russia lost Kherson City in the south, along with half of Kherson province. After these two Ukrainian victories, Russia has only been able to launch small scale attacks.

Since December the Ukrainians have been organizing offensive forces for another major advance. The Ukrainians will not reveal where this offensive force will be used and that uncertainty makes it difficult for Russia to develop an effective defensive strategy.

Another important factor is the length of the front line in Ukraine. It is enormous at about 2,500 kilometers long and only a relatively small number of Russian and Ukrainian troops are available to monitor, much less defend, the entire front. Russian forces in Ukraine are insufficient to man a World War I style front line defense with continuous trench lines. During World War I, the front line in east (Russia) was straighter (about 1,300 kilometers) and manned by millions of troops. This is ten times the number seen in 2022 Ukraine. Even then there were portions of the World War I east front that were patrolled but not manned by troops in trenches. World War I also saw the first use of aircraft on a large scale to maintain a better idea of who was where on the ground. Observer reports were augmented by aerial photographs. In 2022 Ukraine has an advantage in terms of aerial surveillance because of NATO assistance (satellite observation and some special aircraft),. Because of NATO assistance Russia has not been able to obtain air superiority over Ukraine. Both sides can carry out airstrikes but must beware of air defenses on the ground and in the air.

The NATO nations supporting Ukraine did not anticipate this kind of war with Russia and lacked enough of some types of weapons the Ukrainians needed. Anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems are the best example. NATO countries had lots of Stinger (and other similar models) portable anti-aircraft missiles that can be carried by troops but have limited range and capabilities. NATO expected to have air superiority against a possible Soviet invasion of Western Europe, mainly due to large and very effective American air forces. Ukraine needed longer range air-defense systems as well as some BMD (ballistic missile defense) systems to deal with the Russian use of cruise and ballistic missiles launched from inside Russia. NATO nations discovered that they didn’t have many of these weapons because of the expected air superiority in a major war. NATO had some BMD systems, but not enough to supply the Ukrainian need to deal with cruise missiles and the occasional Russian effort to achieve temporary air superiority.

Another unexpected (by NATO nations) shortage is artillery ammunition. This has been a common problem since World War II because actual combat requires more artillery ammo than NATO nations can afford to stockpile. The problem is that artillery munitions have a relatively short shelf life. After 15-20 years the chemical components degrade to the point where the ammo is unreliable and must be safely disposed of. Having the peacetime forces firing all this ammo each year for training purposes wears out the artillery weapons. In practice, most nations maintain insufficient stockpiles of artillery ammo and do not maintain manufacturing facilities to produce a lot more of it quickly if there is a war. That sort of thing is expensive and no nation can afford to do it. The many nations of the NATO alliance sent Ukraine almost all the artillery ammunition they had, along with artillery to use it. This gave the Ukrainians an advantage against the Russians, who were not expecting a long war and encountered shortages of artillery ammo before Ukraine did. After a year of fighting, both sides have to limit their artillery use because it will take years for ammo stockpiles to be rebuilt.

Russia lacks the manufacturing resources of the NATO alliance and is not able to keep up with the large assortment and quantity of weapons NATO sends Ukraine. The Ukrainians are gradually receiving new weapons and equipment so they can expel the Russians and end the war. There are delays caused by local politics in the NATO nations supplying the weapons and munitions. The United States has always supplied most of the weapons and supporting services like air power and air transport as well as naval forces.

The Ukraine War is the first time NATO has had to supply a battle against a major force, in this case the post-Soviet Russians. For decades the Soviet threat was very real, with dozens of Russian divisions stationed in East Germany and further back in Ukraine (then a part of the Soviet Union). This attack force contained thousands of tanks and even more artillery, backed up by a large air force. When the Soviet Union went bankrupt and dissolved in 1991, all those Soviet divisions withdrew to Russia where most were disbanded. Most of the tanks and other armored vehicles as well as artillery stockpiles of ammunition were abandoned. Since Ukraine was a major staging area for the second wave of the planned Soviet offensive, Ukraine inherited those stockpiles in 1991 when they became an independent nation. Ukraine also inherited some Soviet nuclear weapons, which they agreed to surrender in return for Russian assurances that they would never attack Ukraine. Russia broke that promise, but the surrendered nuclear weapons were disassembled and the nuclear material used for nuclear power plant fuel. Russia agreed to do the same with many of their nuclear weapons. The Americans paid for most of the nuclear weapon disassembly and Russia received a lot of the nuclear material that had been converted into nuclear power plant fuel.

When Russia attacked in 2014 and invaded in 2022, Ukraine still had a lot of those Soviet era tanks (which they had upgraded) and artillery. Ukraine and Russia were often using the same weapons against each other. Ukraine was able to obtain more and more modern Western weapons that the Russian were unable to match. The Soviet era defense manufacturers largely disappeared in the 1990s because Russia could not afford to keep them going. Russia has developed and built some new weapons but these are not as effective or numerous as what NATO sends Ukraine.

Another problem is that, while the East European nations that joined NATO after the Soviet Union collapsed have recent experience with Russian aggression and unreliability, the original NATO members in West Europe and North America do not, This gives opposition politicians in these countries an opportunity to criticize aid to Ukraine as excessive and more than the donor countries can afford.

This explains why Ukraine hasn’t pushed the Russians out of Ukraine by now with the assistance of NATO weapons and munitions. Ukraine knew what they needed and the nearby NATO members agreed with them. But the older and larger NATO members farther way did not, which takes time to deal with and prolongs the fighting in Ukraine. What could have been a relatively quick victory has turned into a slog because of the constant need to plead and scrounge for the needed weapons for Ukraine.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close