Twisted metal, still smoldering; the eviscerated hull of a vehicle, its top half ripped off—this is what the Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 leaves in its wake. There were two such drones involved in this attack on a Russian armored column north of Kyiv—quite a bargain for the West at just under $2 million a platform.
By contrast, the much-vaunted Javelin and NLAW, both man-portable antitank guided missiles, belong to a previous era. They require an operator (or two, in the case of the Javelin) to ambush armored vehicles within the adversary’s weapons engagement zone. Their high success rate here in Ukraine owes everything to designer defects in Soviet-era armor.
The Russian BRDM armored reconnaissance vehicles are made of aluminum alloy, which burns incandescently after contact with a high-explosive round. And the manufacturer of the T-72 tank overlooked one fatal design defect: the tank’s ammunition is stored below the crew spaces without a hardened bulkhead for insulation. Even a rocket-propelled grenade fired from the flank will result in a catastrophic kill more often than not. Both these flaws are a result, in part, of the corruption and incompetence endemic throughout the Russian military procurement system—and have proven to be a great benefit for the defenders of Ukraine.
Why doesn’t the United States produce a blue-collar drone like the TB-2 for export? The answers are complex. Since July 2020, there have been no legal restrictions on the export of such a platform. But the US defense industry has no incentive to manufacture a low-cost drone with similar capabilities to the TB-2, and the Pentagon has yet to send a demand signal. As a result, Turkish and Israeli firms dominate the market—two countries whose national interests do not always overlap neatly with those of the United States.
While the United States has so far provided the Ukrainians with few drones, it has provided heavier weapons and tens of billions of dollars in aid. But the provision of military aid to Ukraine does not appear to be aligned with battlefield requirements. Instead, the United States is throwing money at the problem in the hope that sheer expenditure will bring results. It is a mistake to conflate expenditure and resources with targeted capability. Military aid should be focused on actual requirements—and it is here where US policy breaks down.
The need for long-range precision fires is one example. The United States has made little attempt to meet this requirement, beyond the much-heralded M777 howitzer, which is in fact obsolete. The M777 is outranged by Russian rocket artillery, which has a proven ability to respond with counterbattery fires within five minutes—less time than it takes a battery of M777s to displace. There has been no serious discussion of providing the Ukrainians with the Multiple Launch Rocket System or long-range strike drones such as the MQ-9 Reaper or even its older cousin the MQ-1 Predator, perhaps because both these platforms cost considerably more than the TB-2—the unit cost of an MQ-9 is over $30 million.
Nor has NATO fielded logistics drones to meet the Ukrainian military’s requirement to resupply units cut off by Russian forces. Cargo drones such as the US K-MAX or the British Maloy T150 could well have prevented the fall of Mariupol’s garrison. Ukrainian helicopters did made it through the gauntlet of Russian air defense systems, but the risk of losing air crews made this method of resupply prohibitively expensive. It would have been a relatively simple task to flood the air with decoys such as cheap commercial drones, like the various models manufactured by DJI, overwhelming Russian air defenses, while a handful of logistics drones delivered vital supplies that would have allowed the garrison to fight on indefinitely.
Moreover, a policy that simply pushes logistics without any “pull” or supervision to ensure distribution according to prioritization of need simply does not work. A handful of US contractors in country could have made a world of difference in this regard—and it is hard to imagine that the deployment of a few personnel tasked with coordinating distribution would constitute a red line triggering World War III. Instead, the Territorial Defense Forces, the Ukrainian reserves in the west of the country, are often well-equipped while units on the front line go short of everything. Is this corruption? Perhaps—but from what I have seen it is simply a case of commanders trying to take care of their own, not realizing that there is only a limited amount of US largesse to go around.
The United States needs to reassess the equipment it plans to provide under its recently announced $37.4 billion aid package. The proposed package includes towed howitzers, Soviet-era helicopters, armored personnel carriers, and surveillance drones. This equipment is intended simply to replace Ukrainian losses but will make relatively little difference on the battlefield. It is as though Washington is deliberately avoiding giving Ukraine a qualitative military edge over Russia by providing its military what it really needs: squadrons of strike and logistics drones (along with counterdrone systems), battalions of rocket artillery with counterbattery radar, and anti–air defense systems.
There are clearly concerns about escalation at play, but there is little logical distinction between a weapon that kills tanks one mile away, as man-portable systems such as the Javelin are capable of doing, or fifty miles away, as only a long-distance strike drone can do with certainty. The difference to the operator, however, is significant. And Washington needs to understand that in any conflict between democracy and autocracy of the sort playing out in Ukraine, US interests are at stake. It needs to embrace the real prospect of Ukrainian victory—and to understand that such an outcome is the only one acceptable, not just for Ukraine but for global perceptions of the rule of law between sovereign nations and of the role that the United States plays in upholding such a thing. A Ukrainian victory will bring with it the opportunity for a massive international reconstruction program, EU membership, a buffer against further Russian aggression, and a totemic watershed for the global rule of law.
A ceasefire or stalemate, by contrast, would leave Ukrainians under Russian occupation, subject to torture, rape, and execution. It would enable the Russians to regroup and rearm. It would allow Putin to claim victory, to posture and reposition for further offensive action. In short, it would be a de facto defeat—sending the world a message about the power of autocracy on the global stage, and a sobering reminder that a partnership with the United States can, in real terms, mean very little indeed.
Andrew Milburn retired from the Marine Corps as a colonel in 2019 after a thirty-one-year career. His last position in uniform was as deputy commander of Special Operations Command Central, and prior to that, commanding officer of the Marine Raider Regiment and Combined Special Operations Task Force – Iraq. Since retiring, he has written a critically acclaimed memoir, When the Tempest Gathers, and articles for The Atlantic, USA Today, Joint Forces Quarterly, and War on the Rocks, in addition to the Military Times. He is on the adjunct faculty of the Joint Special Operations University and teaches classes on leadership, planning, ethics, command and control, mission command, risk, special operations, and irregular warfare at US military schools. He is a cohost of the Irregular Warfare Podcast.
Image credit: Master Sgt. Jeffrey Curtin, DoD
This article is comparing apples to oranges to airplanes, and ignores virtually every consideration in weapon systems but firing range.
Once in a great while, a MWI article rings true at every level, with every word. This is one of those few articles, and I thank Colonel Milburn for submitting it. Yet there are some ways to simplify a work even as direct and concise as this.
First, there’s an overarching reason the US defense industry isn’t producing low-cost, effective weapon systems, and the DoD isn’t demanding them: corruption. The DoD is colluding with industry to produce massively expensive systems, preferably ones that don’t work, can’t be maintained, and require sooner-than-expected replacement – for more hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars. The F-35 and LCS come to mind as examples. The Army wants a piece of the inaction, of course, with the OMFV; the latest in a series of failed programs over wasted decades. I dare anyone to read the RFP for the OMFV and NOT think it was totally plagiarized from the F-35 program, and NOT imagine a similar outcome.
Also, why is it that we don’t have exactly and precisely the weapon systems needed to fight the Russians, in quantity and ready to ship? Have we not been preparing for that kind of adversary for years and years, depending on how one counts the years wasted in the Iraq and Afghanistan misadventures? If we don’t have such weapon systems, why not? Who will be held accountable for hundreds of billions wasted every year, without procuring such weapons? Imagine US forces fighting the Russians next month, may God forbid. The Army would take along mostly the same wrong weapons we’re shipping to the Ukraine now, with only low numbers of the correct ones.
An aside: range matters, for the reasons stated in the article. Destroying tanks, even defective ones, within the range of their weapons is lunacy. Modern weapons make such engagements completely unnecessary. And anyone who doesn’t respect Russian counterbattery fire needs to read up on the subject.
The current conflict in the Ukraine should provide another wake-up call to the DoD, after the one that was missed with the Nagorno-Karabakh war. The result should be a refocus on simple, effective weapon systems which work. And the DoD should renounce the Third-Reich style of hyper-expensive, impractical wonder weapons that are too expensive to buy in quantity, too complex to remain in service, and are ultimately useless.
Excellent analysis. We should be buying every Bayraktar drone coming off the Turkish assembly line for Ukraine.
"There are clearly concerns about escalation at play, but there is little logical distinction between a weapon that kills tanks one mile away, as man-portable systems such as the Javelin are capable of doing, or fifty miles away, as only a long-distance strike drone can do with certainty."
And if that long-distance strike kills Russians inside Russia? In the finest American military tradition, this author's myopic focus on the tactical battlefield ignores critical political and strategic dynamics.
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The Russians sure don't care. Only the Americans do. This mentality is flawed and defeatist. The Ukrainians have already struck Russians on Russian soil using average equipment. You want to fight fire with sticks
I think that the US DoD is stung by the capture of the arms and vehicles in Afghanistan after the fall of the Afghan National Army (ANA). In Afghanistan, the US also didn't give the ANA the best arms to win the war because the ANA can't operate and maintain complex weapons, and the corruption was such that DoD didn't trust the ANA with weapons that can become IEDs or VBIEDs or Green-on-Blue fire.
I would not give the best US military equipment to Ukraine even in a fight against Russia due to the fear of capture, destruction, betrayal, sabotage, and deception. Already the Russians have captured NLAWs, Javelins, Panzerfaust 3s, and maybe even Stingers from the Ukrainians as they overran Ukrainian bases. Imagine the wound to US national pride if M1A2 SEPs were captured, destroyed, or sabotaged. If Ukraine wins the war and secures it entire nation's territory just like before the invasion, THEN sell the best weapons to Ukraine to secure the peace.
The US DoD has always suffered from not having a separate selection of arms to export. We normally export what the actual US Armed Forces has and often that's HMMWVs, M113s, M117 ASVs, MRAPs, decommissioned ships and boats, and lower grade arms, meaning we don't produce M60 tanks, Stingray II light tanks, and attack helicopters for the sole purpose of exporting. Occasionally, nations will get something that isn't in the US armed inventory like the Ambassador III corvette or IDF Arrow and "Iron Dome." Recall that the US isn't even sure that Ukraine can win this war. We gave Ukraine Stinger SHORADS, but not Patriots, THAAD, "Iron Dome," 20mm Phalanx CIWS, or NASAMS. The US DoD wants to keep the "gifted weapons tech" low to moderate and not gift the best weapons tech to Ukraine just yet.
As for NATO nations, some of them are indeed giving the Ukrainians their very best arms such as Starstreak, NLAWs, PZH2000 howitzers, Bushmaster MRAP trucks, etc. But I think most NATO nations are following the US DoD and withholding the very best arms for their own usage and gifting outdated arms such as Polish T-72s. After all, Russia has not committed any T-14 and T-15 "Armata" tanks and IFVs to the fight yet.
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I agree with your assessment. However, I believe the US weapons industry – which used to make scads of unique or in-house designed items specifically for sale on the world market, are unable to meet the demand or need for non DoD items because those industries have downsized, merged and streamlined over the years to specifically meet DoD needs versus the good old days of cranking out Cadillac Gage Armored cars by the boatload to sell around the world. Lockheed is running their Javelin line at full speed, so how would someone propose they design and field a different item as well? Open a new production line? Do people know what kind of cost we are talking when it comes to the modern high tech products? Failure to sell for such an item would spell the end of the company, and no manufacturer is willing to take such a risk, especially when shareholders are involved.
I think that the Colonel makes one glaring error though. The Javelin and NLAW missiles work against modern Russian tanks, too, as all Russian tanks (including the Armata) store their ammo around the turret ring. The ATGMs have worked against all of them within the weapons engagement zone not because of "defects" in armor, but because of defects in doctrine. The Russian conscripts will not get out of their APCs (BMPs) and support the armor under fire…the armor has no infantry screen to keep the ATGMs at bay.
"The adults are back in the room," and I for one am gladdened by "the return to normalcy" in American foreign policy: catastrophic blunders like the War in Vietnam, the War in Afghanistan, and now the War in Ukraine. Only the hardened steel resolve of the brave Ukrainian people is keeping this from being another catastrophic loss for American and the West.
God Bless them, but I have about zero faith in Biden's advisors to give the brave defenders the equipment they need to stop a murdering thug and his minions from rolling over them.
To me, there are two major concerns: Strategic & Monetary.
1) Strategic: it is in our interest that the war go on for a long time, and for Ukraine to win slowly. From a strategic standpoint, the attrition suffered by Ukraine does little to damage us, as long as they eventually win the war. Civilian and military deaths are tragic, but the advantage of having our major foe pinned down, slowly bleeding out men and materiel for an eventual loss…. it is just such an enormous victory for us. Very likely that our leadership wants Ukraine to win by attrition. So, don't give them a decisive way to win quickly. IF Russia loses slowly enough, it will harm their ability to project power on the world for decades, if not permanently.
2) Monetary: this is an opportunity for our politicians to get some pork for their constituencies. US arms production is dispersed throughout the country, so we can reasonably assume that the majority of politicians will receive campaign contributions incentivizing them to sell some high ticket items. The only way to eliminate such behavior is to place term limits on Congressional elections. Anything else is spitting in the wind.
Really it isn't a design flaw with the T-72, T-80 or even the T-90. It was an intentional design choice. Conscript crews made up of sub 5'7" males in the former USSR were plentiful, and they eventually had well over 60,000 MBTs, light tanks and heavy tanks in their arsenal by the time of the decline of the USSR's empire. The T – series MBTs of the "former" Soviet Union have always had their ammunition stored in racks around the turret and the hull. The use of an auto-loading carousel started with the T-64, and has continued with all of the newer designs, including the then less expensive USSR built option to the T-64, the T-72. This has also continued with the T-80 and T-90. The old Soviet era design bureaus knew about ways to improve crew protection, and the use of "wet" ammunition storage, and other critical crew protection choices available as early as 1942, but chose to store their ammunition dry and in the open (and it's very flammable propellant in the front hull of the T-54 (and all of it's successive designs). This was the continued choice all the way through the cold war. They gave these MBTs fairly good frontal armor, but the US, UK and other NATO countries invested in progressively better main armament for their MBTs as well as other technological improvements in both fire control as well as projectile tech. They were able to fire more accurately, faster, and their main gun rounds had better penetration at distance than the tank guns of the USSR tanks. The USSR invested in numbers, producing for Russia itself 60k (combined) T54/T55, 23k T62s, 13k T64s, s5k T72s, and 5k+ T80 and about 2k T90s. Every one of these tanks had vulnerable ammunition storage. The problem is not just the ammunition carousel in the turret, it is all of the other facets of crew protection and crew survivability. What did they car? Again, they had plenty of young conscripts under 5'7" tall. Even when this known weakness was highlighted during the Arab-Israeli wars and the Gulf Wars with most USSR/Russian made tanks blowing their turrets into the sky when hit with either a main gun round or an ATGM or RPG, all the Russian design bureaus did was make some armor changes and they added some reactive armor packages. They never tried to correct the ammunition fire problem in any way, shape or form until they adopted their problematic T-14 Armata.
I lived through Nikita Khrushchev, Putin is a punk compared to him. Cold war Russia cracked and knew they would be turned to glass if they used nukes.
Russia is committing war crimes, starving the world food chain. Time to send in the A-10s and F-16s to end this.
"the much-heralded M777 howitzer, which is in fact obsolete"
But significantly less obsolete than anything the UAF have in their own inventory. And at least the equal of the non-rocket arty that Russia is fielding.
"there is little logical distinction between a weapon that kills tanks one mile away, as man-portable systems such as the Javelin are capable of doing, or fifty miles away, as only a long-distance strike drone can do with certainty."
It's extremely hard to jam a soldier with a javelin.
"A ceasefire or stalemate . . . would enable the Russians to regroup and rearm"
Even an agreed retreat to their own borders would allow that.
"it would be a de facto defeat"
Well, no. Putin's fumbling Army got pushed off of Kiev and has only gained ground at exceptional cost. Putin may be able to claim some partial success, but even that will always appear pyrrhic, at best.
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His is an article that states and assumes conclusions in each paragraph without evidence or thought-out alternatives. Unfortunately, I have the time to respond to just one:
Milburn states: "a relatively simple task to flood the air with decoys such as cheap commercial drones, like the various models manufactured by DJI, overwhelming Russian air defenses, while a handful of logistics drones delivered vital supplies that would have allowed the garrison to fight on indefinitely."
-The flight profile of a DJI would not possibly mimic the flight profile of the (unnamed) re-supply drone he proposes. This would waste even the cheap but wanted DJIs as it would not draw the attention to divert air defenses or the related EW systems employed IVO of Mariupol.
-The operational range of the DJI does not stretch a fraction of the approx. 150km those resupply drones would have had to traverse to reach the defenders of Azovstal. Worse, the group of Ukrainian controllers of those DJIs would be themselves threatened due to the short range of that platform.
– No resupply drone exists in numbers that could have supported the logistics requirements for a garrison of hundreds to fight indefinitely. This statement not only shows an unawareness to the technological side of this solution, but a lack of cognizance concerning the logistical requirement to sustain hundreds of fighters.
I tend to agree with Colonel Millburn given his past experience and training and current role training soldiers in Ukraine regarding the weapon systems that would be most useful to combat the Russians. I wholeheartedly agree with the entirety of the final two paragraphs of the article.
I do believe that in order to prevent the total occupation of Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine, the promises of the Western countries in terms of modern war equipment must be delivered 'NOW' with its military trainers before Ukrainian defenders in that area will be WIPED OUT. These so-called modern war equipment would be actually USELESS if no one will be using for retaliation because the defenders are already DEAD or INCAPACITATED.