It increasingly appears that the war in Ukraine is grinding into a stalemate. The maps of gains and losses have changed little over the past few weeks; a small gain here, a modest retreat there, but nothing like the large advances and withdrawals experienced by both sides earlier in the conflict.
The weather hasn’t helped much, of course. The autumn rains bring with them the infamous rasputitsa, the Russian word for the seasons of the year when travel on unpaved roads or across country becomes difficult, owing to muddy conditions from rain or melting snow. Even tracked vehicles can get bogged off the relatively few metalled roads, and it tends to bring the mobility of armed forces almost to a standstill.
The other reason for this perceived pause may be that both sides are approaching exhaustion. Not just physical exhaustion, although that will be very real for many of the combatants on both sides, but also resource exhaustion. Much of their inventories of men, weapons, and supplies has been consumed over the past nine months and are in dire need of replenishment.
There are clear indications that the Russians are running short of weaponry. We know that they have been reduced to using expensive anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles against land targets, which is an expensive way of going about their business and brought about by the increasing lack of the appropriate weaponry through consumption of limited stocks.
We also know that Russia has been forced to turn to Iran for its Shahed-136 loitering munitions drones, of which as many as 2,400 may have already been supplied, and also possibly for Iranian-produced ballistic missiles. And now we’re being told that they have also approached North Korea for the supply of artillery ammunition.
As for the situation with the Ukrainians, well, relevant information is much less forthcoming, but I think it’s pretty safe to assume they too have used up a considerable amount of their weaponry and have become increasingly reliant on the generosity of the west to enable them to continue the struggle. We are familiar with successes of the UK’s next generation light anti-tank weapon (NLAW) and the USA’s Javelin anti-tank missiles in Ukrainian hands, and also of the British Starstreak and the American Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.
What do the Ukrainians need now to sustain the fight? Well, more of the same and then some more. The problem here might be, however, that western reserves of some of these systems may be running low. The expenditure of ammunition in the current conflict is way in excess of what western expectations formed in peacetime suggested, and much of the weapons producing industries have been systematically run down since the end of the Cold War. For example, although exact figures are classified, it’s possible that the UK has sent over 50% of its NLAW inventory to Ukraine already.
Being more specific, it seems to me that the west should now be pressing to supply the Ukrainians with the following; for the air war, more and better air defence systems, particularly against the drone and UAV threat.
Most of the successful interceptions against these to date have used munitions that are far more expensive and are available for Ukraine in more limited quantities than the Shahed-136 is likely to be for Russia. In this capacity the German supplied Gepard cannon system has proved a great success and economically viable, so more weapons like this.
I am also at a loss to explain the west’s reluctance to supply Ukraine’s outnumbered and qualitatively inferior air force with suitable aircraft to redress the balance. Here, for example, Sweden’s Saab Gripen C/D appears to be the most suitable candidate in terms of operational requirements. Designed from the outset for ease of maintenance, it is most suitable for the sort of low-level air superiority tactics from dispersed bases in which the Ukrainian Air Force currently operates. An alternative might be the US F-16, combat proven in many operations and fielded by a large number of operators around the world.
On the ground, I am also perplexed by the current aversion to giving Ukraine some of the vast number of main battle tanks, rendered redundant by the end of the Cold War, which are stored in hangars and depots across Europe. Yes, there are compatibility problems with ammunition calibres and training, but the reality is that post-war, when we get there, Ukraine is going to have to adopt western, NATO standard military equipment and dispense with its Russian and Soviet inventory. We might as well start now.
But above all else, Ukraine needs continuing supplies of ammunition and consumables. The number of missiles and artillery shells that have been used so far is huge, and there’s no suggestion that the rate of expenditure will drop off as the war continues. I would suggest that it’s likely to increase as Ukrainian efforts to retake Kherson and then, possibly, the whole of Crimea intensify. The domestic capacity to manufacture such large amounts of ordnance does not currently exist in Ukraine, so it has to rely on the west. But, as previously mentioned, western militaries have invested very little in production since the end of the Cold War. This means that production is now having to ramp up from a very low level and existing inventories are too small to meet Ukraine’s needs.
From the UK point of view, Ukraine’s requirements for continuing the war are being played out against a background of defence spending squeeze by the Westminster government. Something has to give. Let’s just hope it isn’t at the expense of giving Ukraine the wherewithal to continue its fight.
Have you signed up for the Defence Review Podcast? https://open.spotify.com/show/4vHJsYgxfrDyTkKgMpGlqs
Lt Col Stuart Crawford’s latest book Tank Commander (Hardback) is available for pre-order now