Is Ukraine Running Out Of Weapons?

 

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.

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Ukraine Update: Who’s Winning In Ukraine?

 

w/e 4th November 2022

As winter fast approaches and land operations in the Ukraine war stall in the autumn rains and mud, it is perhaps timely to review where we are after just over eight months of conflict. We appear to be at a natural pause in proceedings with little change in the front lines, although combat continues with marked ferocity in places.

From the Russian point of view things aren’t looking too good. After early reverses in Kyiv and Kharkiv they’re now increasingly under pressure from Ukrainian forces in the Donbas and Kherson. In the east Ukraine looks like it will continue making ground and recapturing settlements lost only a few months ago to the Russians. In the south, around Kherson city itself, Putin looks in danger of having his forces cut off and isolated.

The scale of Russian losses to date is jaw-dropping. Although it is always difficult to obtain independently verified figures, there seems to be a general consensus across all observers that they have lost, since the start of the conflict on February 24th, over 2,500 tanks, in excess of 5,000 other armoured fighting vehicles, approximately 270 aircraft and 243 helicopters, and somewhere in the region of 70,000 personnel killed, wounded and missing.

This is an enormous casualty bill by anyone’s reckoning, and probably unsustainable for very much longer at the current rate. No doubt the casualties suffered by Ukraine are equally appalling in proportion, but figures here are much harder to come by and closely guarded, for obvious reasons. No point in encouraging the enemy.

The very real question now is, though, whether Russia is losing momentum through running out of weapons and personnel. There are signs, for example, that their stock of long range, precision guided missiles and rockets is running low. Much of this may be attributable to western sanctions, as much of the technology required for such weapons was previously sourced from outside Russia.

But the main reason would seem to be that they have expended much of their armoury and industry has not yet geared up to replace what has been used. We have seen surface-to-air missiles used against ground targets, for example, which is hardly the most economic use of such expensive items.

All of which might explain why Russia is now sourcing attack drones, the infamous Shahed-136 and its cousins, from Iran. They may have received as many as 2,000 of these to date, if not more, and they have been launched as we have seen in mass swarm attacks against Ukrainian civilian critical infrastructure. Rumour has it that Iranian ballistic missiles with a 700 kilometre range, sufficient to cover the whole of Ukraine from Russian home territory, may be on their way too.

It’s a similar story with personnel. After Russia’s regular troops were “used up” in the initial stages of the war, Putin issued a decree calling up 300,000 reservists to fill the gaps and bolster the front lines. Despite the fact that many of these troops allegedly arrived in theatre with minimal training and in some cases without useable weapons, the call up has been deemed a success and the draft has come to an end. We’ll see how good these reinforcements are in due course I suspect.

In addition, Russia has made much use of the Wagner Group, a “paramilitary organisation” which is to all intents and purposes Putin’s private army run for him by one of his chums. They too have taken a bit of a pasting at the hands of the Ukrainians and are not in as fine shape as they once might have been.

And now we hear that Russia is attempting to recruits former Afghan special forces commandos, in exile from their own country, and offering inducements like passports and accommodation for them and their families in return for lending a hand against the Ukrainians. No doubt Putin takes great joy from the fact that many of these were trained by the Americans as part of the now basically defunct Afghan National Army, but such a move shows the Russians are indeed desperate.

So, against this background, what are the scores on the doors? Well, as I have said before, Ukraine will win if it doesn’t lose, and Russia will lose if it doesn’t win. Much depends on whether the Russians have the wherewithal to sustain their operations into next year, and whether the west is true to its word and continues to support Ukraine to the end.

I think we’ll get closer to the answer to this conundrum in 2023.

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Russian Nuclear Drills

w/e 4th November 2022

As the war in Ukraine grinds on relentlessly with no end in sight, what are we to make of the nuclear drills which Russia has just carried out on her own territory? Is this yet another sign that Putin is threatening nuclear retaliation for lack of success on the battlefield?

The short answer is no. These drills are in reality annual exercises in which Russia practises its strategic nuclear forces, and the link with the Ukraine conflict is tenuous at best. In fact, the USA was forewarned of the launching of ballistic missiles and air-launched ordnances under the terms of the New Start treaty. The Russians complied with the current arms control obligations.

In other developments, Russia has also threatened to shoot down western-owned commercial and military satellites if they continue, as they allege, to provide critical information and intelligence to Ukraine to assist their war effort.

Actually, it’s an open secret that much of the success of the Ukrainian armed forces in countering the Russian military invasion is down to precise and timely intelligence from western intelligence-gathering assets, whether it be via satellites, people on the ground (HUMINT), or from the flock of aircraft and other airborne platforms that patrol the borders of Russia and Ukraine.

That the Russians have the wherewithal to shoot down satellites in orbit there is little doubt; they have demonstrated this in tests in the past. However, such experiments have been carried out in a “threat vacuum”, with no enemy attempting to prevent them doing so. Again, no one will be surprised to learn that the Americans already have what they might call euphemistically “space based weapons” (who said directed energy weapons on satellites?), so if Russia did decide to shoot down western orbiting platforms it might not be quite so easy as they might think.

We should also, if only in the interests of balance, point out that NATO too has been carrying out its own nuclear response drills, in the form of Exercise Steadfast Noon, over the past fortnight.  This year it has involved over sixty aircraft from fourteen countries and ended on the 30th October. The NATO press release about it was been quite clear; “it is a routine, recurring training activity and it is not linked to any current world events.”

So, honours even between Russia and NATO I would suggest. Both seem to be carrying out nuclear response drills not related to the war in Ukraine. But, never shy about letting the facts get in the way of some easy propaganda, the Russians haven’t exactly played events with a straight bat.

The reason? They are losing in Ukraine, and any obfuscation and/or seemingly plausible declaration that might help their cause will do. Putin still hopes that he can bully the west into submission and frighten NATO into letting him have a free hand with his expansionist ambitions. I suspect he, his inner cabal, and the Russian people are now realising that this is unlikely to be the case.

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Challenging Times In Cyprus

w/e 4th November 2022

Whilst the eyes of the world are on the continuing war in Ukraine, we sometimes have to remind ourselves that there are other areas of the world where there are continuing conflicts. Much of Africa is blighted by armed struggles, the Middle East is far from settled – think of Syria and Iraq –  and then there’s Cyprus. Whilst this island at the eastern end of the Mediterranean has been peaceful for a while, simmering tensions are never far from the surface.

I was reminded of this when I read that “Turkish-Cypriot authorities could be preparing to evict United Nations peacekeepers from their bases in northern Cyprus, triggering a new political and security crisis on the divided island”.  Why might this be, I wondered?

By way of general background, The United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) mans the buffer zone between Greek Cypriots in the south of the island and the Turkish Cypriots in the north. There is a long history of antipathy between the two ethnic groups, and the multinational UNFICYP was set up in 1964 to monitor simmering tensions there.

The UNFICYP’s mandate is renewed by the UN Security Council every six months with the consent of the internationally recognised government of Cyprus, which is the southern Greek Cypriot one. The next renewal is due in January 2023, but this time the Turkish Cypriots have said it needs their consent as well.

This presents the Security Council with a legal problem because the UN does not recognise the TRNC, self-declared in 1983; it is not a UN member nor is it recognised by the international community. Only Turkey acknowledges its legitimacy.

Whilst it may be lacking in international recognition, however, the TRNC boasts a considerable military presence on the island. It is estimated that as many as 35,000 Turkish troops may be stationed there, many more than the Greek-Cypriot forces have.

Having see both of these militaries close up, albeit in 1989, I can tell you that if push came to shove and they went at each other it would be a pretty one-sided contest. Unless things have changed dramatically in the intervening period, the Turkish army is far more professional and competent than their Greek Cypriot equivalents.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, common sense prevails, and the TRNC sorts out its problem with UNFICYP. As far as the UK is concerned, well, we have two Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs) on the island, retained for strategic purposes when the rest of Cyprus gained its independence in August 1960.

These are at Dhekelia and Akrotiri. The latter comprises the Episkopi Cantonment and RAF Akrotiri, much used of late for forays over Syria in pursuit of ISIS and other ne’er-do-wells. The Dhekelia SBA features the Ayios Nikolaos listening station run by GCHQ and partly funded by the Americans. I and my squadron had the dubious pleasure of guarding this particular installation against, well, nobody really, but guard it we did.

I still have bad dreams about the time I wasted on Cyprus on UN duty, but perhaps it was all part of a bigger plan. The Brits are still there and likely to be so for some time yet. Whether UFICYP will also be there depends very much on a compromise being reached with the TRNC. We wait with bated breath.

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Defence Newsletter w/e 4th November 2022

 

w/e 4th November 2022

Tank CommanderLt Col Stuart Crawford’s latest book Tank Commander (Hardback) is available for pre-order now

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