Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February was designed to ensure Moscow’s political control over its democratizing neighbor and to undermine NATO and the European Union. It was clear from the first weeks of the campaign that the result was exactly the opposite: The extraordinary Russian offensive served as a necessary wakeup call for the United States and the West to prepare for the ugly necessities of this new era of great-power competition. The conflict illustrates that, while the United States has for years attempted to pivot away from its decades-long focus on irregular wars in the Middle East and South Asia, it has done far too little to prepare for the challenges posed by Putin’s eight-year war on Ukraine and by a decade of Chinese “wolf warrior diplomacy.”
Ukraine’s heroic resistance against Russia’s invasion has provided the West an invaluable opportunity to rectify this failure. As Ukrainian forces blunted the initial advances of Russian forces, the United States and Europe began to recognize the urgency to act. NATO and the EU took strong steps to help Ukraine thwart Kremlin aggression, to punish Moscow with sanctions, to enhance defense spending and build up their military defenses near Russian borders, and to set the stage to strengthen NATO by adding Finland and Sweden as new members. For the first time in decades, they began to comprehend that the Alliance does not have years to study and debate a new strategy, but must move now to implement changes that will ensure the safety and security of every member. The geopolitical realignment and strategic direction that have emerged are important and well-understood.
Less well-understood are the implications of the war in Ukraine for Western force posture and preparations for fighting a future “great-power war.” Certainly, Moscow’s major invasion of Ukraine is the first open war of this era. And like the Spanish Civil War, it may prove to be a testing ground of operations and tactics for conflicts to come. What have the United States and its allies learned from the fighting thus far?
It is not Russian forces who are forging new ways of fighting that will shape the future of warfare. Russia has failed to deliver the anticipated “multi-domain” operations integrating air, land, sea, space, and cyber operations that U.S. defense strategy had until recent years regarded as the “pacing threat” for U.S. military modernization. Russia has even failed to perform basic forms of combined arms warfare such as leveraging dismounted infantry to support tank units. Russia’s vast overmatch in artillery and armor has thus failed to provide a decisive advantage when employed ineffectively by incompetent military leadership within a poorly designed campaign.
But the sheer rate of munitions being utilized by both sides is staggering and points to a critical gap in U.S. and allied readiness for future great-power conflict. Russian forces have fallen back on World War I-style mass artillery barrages and trench warfare, coupled with missile bombardments on Ukrainian cities and infrastructure. During a fierce period of fighting last summer, the New York Times reports, the Russians were firing 40,000 to 50,000 rounds a day. The United States and NATO are providing substantial amounts of weapons and ammunition to Ukraine but are struggling with scale. The United States produces only 15,000 artillery rounds a month while Ukraine at that time was using as many as 7,000 per day, according to the New York Times.
Defense Industry Readiness
The Biden administration and other governments are learning the hard way that their defense industries are not ready to provide the arms needed in Ukraine at the speed required. This makes it harder for Ukraine to defend its position adequately when Russian forces are massed – as they were in Donbas in the spring — and now to continue its counter-offensives; the gap also creates increasing risk for the United States and its allies in other theaters where existing backlogs of weapons deliveries are protracting further.
Closing this capacity gap is critical to America’s ability to prevent large-scale future conflict – by denying potential adversaries advantages that might entice them to escalate – or to fight and win if deterrence fails. The current shortage of matériel is not unique to the circumstances in Ukraine. The United States already has a years-long backlog of orders from allies for U.S. patriot missile systems due to limitations on raw materials and industrial capacity to produce. The speed of the war in Ukraine demonstrates the United States needs larger stockpiles in order to pivot rapidly. It also indicates the value of accelerating U.S. production timelines to equip U.S. allies with systems interoperable with its own before the next conflict starts.
U.S. adversaries are learning similar lessons. Putin is racing to generate new industrial capacity to replenish Russian missile stockpiles. But Western sanctions and especially export controls are hindering his efforts, and he is reduced to procuring ballistic missiles and drones from Iran and artillery shells and possibly rockets from North Korea. China’s Xi Jinping will also learn from Ukraine as he prepares for a possible military operation to seize Taiwan.
Ukraine’s savvy employment of older weapons systems demonstrates what can be achieved with relatively small contributions of defense aid. Ukraine has used a limited number of U.S.-provided high mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS) to cripple Russian operations by eliminating Russian supply depots, degrading Russian capabilities behind front lines, and disrupting Russian supply lines. HIMARS are decades-old military technology. Their limited introduction to the Ukrainian battlefield has helped arrest Russia’s momentum and create an opportunity for Ukraine to go on the counter-offensive. Ukraine’s innovative use of HIMARS has provided lessons to the U.S. military as well, and make the weapons an attractive acquisition for other nations.
To its credit, as the New York Times, Reuters, and other news media have reported, the Defense Department has been in talks with U.S. defense industries about ramping up production and has made some progress. HIMARS production lines have increased after being dormant for many years. Moscow’s devastating attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure underscores the need for faster production of Patriot air defense systems, which some U.S. allies have long been waiting for. These attacks suggest a need for air defense not just to protect military assets, but also to shield critical civilian services.
A Need for Strong White House Leadership
However, more urgency is necessary. The sides seem to have been split, as defense contractors have sought guarantees for multi-year orders that the administration has been reluctant to provide. And given the vital need to keep the munitions flowing to Ukraine and to augment arms supplies of NATO allies, strong leadership from the White House is needed to reach a deal. The United States is also incurring greater risk in other theaters, including in Taiwan, where the backlog of delayed U.S. weapons deliveries is reportedly more than $18 billion at a time when deterring China requires making the prospect of an attack on Taiwan so risky that Xi Jinping chooses not to launch an invasion. Closing the U.S. production gap quickly is thus of urgent strategic importance globally.
Ukraine’s effective and innovative integration of technologies on the battlefield will further shape the future of conflict. The far outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian forces are winning in part because they are adapting faster and more effectively than Russian forces. This includes the tactical adaptation that eludes Russia’s cumbersome and poorly led army, with Ukrainian tactical leaders exploiting short windows of opportunity to devastating effect. But Ukrainian forces have also demonstrated a striking degree of innovation on the battlefield. For example, Ukraine’s use of fast boats and missiles to take out the Russian Black Sea fleet ships in harbor was a signature success that will contain many lessons for current and future conflict.
Of course, American policy should aim to make this the first and only war of the era of great-power competition. The way to do that is to provide Ukraine the means to win this war. The support that the United States and its allies and partners have provided has enabled Ukraine to stop the Russian offensive and take back more than 50 percent of the territory Moscow has seized since February. However, Putin maintains control over economically vital terrain without which the Ukrainian state remains crippled. The United States and its allies need to send Ukraine the more advanced weapons systems – such as missiles and artillery with a longer range up to 300 kilometers (185 miles) and modern tanks — in order to dislodge Russian forces and reach a conclusion to this conflict soon.
By acting now to surge support to Ukraine and rectify vulnerabilities in the U.S. industrial base, the United States would do more than achieve a victory in Ukraine. It would deliver a decisive blow to Putin’s aggressive foreign policy and send a strong cautionary note to Beijing. Perhaps most importantly, it would strengthen the network of alliances and partners that is essential to averting the next large-scale conflict.