The United States and allied countries are racing against the clock to ship arms and other military equipment to Ukraine amid a brutal and renewed Russian attack on the east of the country.
According to officials and experts, the balance between supply chain requirements, arms needs and logistics to actually bring defense aid to Ukraine is paramount to Ukraine’s efforts to hold the Donbass region.
“A steady flow of supplies and munitions, like ammunition, is critical,” said Mark Cancian, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“You know, it’s not very high visibility, it’s not very exciting, but that keeps armies going,” he added.
The Biden administration has sent $3.4 billion in military aid to Ukraine since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, of which about $1.6 billion was provided over the past seven days. The last two packages included new capabilities specifically requested by Ukraine, including 155mm howitzers, armored personnel carriers and deadly drones, including the new Phoenix Ghost Tactical Unmanned Aerial System.
To coordinate this influx of arms into Ukraine, the US military officially established the US European Command Control Center Ukraine in Stuttgart, Germany, in early March, a central agency to handle security and humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians. The center was also responsible for consolidating and synchronizing U.S., allied, and partner aid shipments.
“Eight to ten flights a day go into the theater and not all of those flights are American flights, but most of them are. And every single day, including this day, there were ground movements in Ukraine. So we haven’t seen any slowdown,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Thursday, highlighting the frantic pace of shipments.
The Biden administration tried to streamline the situation this week by appointing a retired three-star general as senior coordinator of security assistance to Ukraine.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Terry Wolff will act as a liaison between US defense contractors, the government and allies and partners to ensure arms and other military equipment are shipped to Ukraine.
But the fact remains that the US does not have a particularly reliable way of tracking what happens to arms shipments once they reach Ukraine, including the entities to which they are going and how they are being used.
The blind spots are related to several factors, including the fog of war and the fact that many of the weapons sent in are smaller, man-portable systems like disposable drones and shoulder-launched missiles. These easily transportable weapons are much more difficult to track compared to larger systems such as tanks, air defense systems or aircraft.
“We are tracking shipments to the border into Ukraine, and when the handover at the border checkpoints with the Ukrainians happens, it’s up to them how they transport that equipment,” a defense official told reporters Thursday.
U.S. defense officials in Stuttgart are working with several Ukrainian liaison officers on the base and those in the country to ensure material sent in reaches the units that can use it and need it most, the official said.
“With every conversation I have, I am reassured that the equipment will get to where it is needed and will be used appropriately,” the defense official added.
Another problem Washington faces is the logistical challenge of providing training for some of these systems.
The Pentagon is already training Ukrainians on howitzers and has recognized that other more advanced systems that Ukrainians do not currently have in their arsenal will require additional training.
As the war unfolds, the US and its allies will have to work harder to ensure they can provide Ukraine with the capabilities it needs.
Cacian noted that Washington and Kyiv appear to be working more closely together than they used to in the war over military capabilities. But allies must also be closely involved as Washington nears the end of its inventory of certain abilities like stingers and javelins.
“It helps to have more sources of supply and there are some areas where the United States is running low and we really need the allies to step up,” he said.
One unknown will be how well Russia can conduct its offensive in eastern Ukraine. So far, a combination of surprise resistance from Ukraine and logistical challenges have plagued Moscow in what it says is a swift war.
pension Navy Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery, who has worked with US European Command to improve US-Ukraine military ties, said Russia’s performance in the recent offensive will play a role in whether Washington is forced to change tactics to bring arms to Kyiv.
“You know, are they trying to remove repetitive logistic routes? Well, if you see that we use the same logistics routes over and over again? Do you understand first what we do? Second, can they target it?” Montgomery said.
“I think there is a risk for our logistic lines. I assume the United States and our allies and partners have developed backup plans,” he added.
Another factor in Washington’s ability to send more arms to Ukraine is whether it has the resources to ensure it can stock up on its own.
President Biden said Thursday that he will submit a request to Congress for additional funding as he nears the end of drawing powers granted to him under the $1.5 trillion government funding bill he signed into law in March became.
Montgomery said he believes the president will be “pushing for an open door” with his pending request.
“It’s not easy to say, additional funds are hard,” he said. “But that’s the right thing.”
Another mystery is whether gun manufacturers can keep up with demand.
James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been a particular critic of the government in shipping arms to Ukraine, saying it is not fast enough, especially as wars mount in the Donbass region will.
“The war in the East is changing, and Ukrainians need much more to win and repel Russian aggression. We have to get creative,” Inhofe tweeted on Friday. “In addition, we need to ensure that the Pentagon is able to place orders with industry to ramp up production as quickly as possible. Let’s go to work.”
On the Pentagon side, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin invited 40 nations to a conference on how to meet Ukraine’s defense needs. About 20 nations have so far accepted invitations to the meeting, which is scheduled for Tuesday in Stuttgart. It is also expected to address Ukraine’s post-war military needs.
The Pentagon also announced on Friday a broad industry information request to offer weapons and systems that can be brought to the front lines.