What the Ukrainian Armed Forces Need to Do to Win
Our instructors were training a Ukrainian national guard unit near the Moldovan border. When we arrived at the range, a Ukrainian unit was already on the range throwing hand grenades in an open field less than 200 meters from us, then just dropping to the ground and watching them explode without any cover. These soldiers then proceeded to conduct machine gun training, shooting from positions from the left range berm across the range (not against the backstop). Our instructors were conducting round-robin training about 150 meters behind the range, and the rounds were whistling over our heads. When we approached the person in charge, he said not to worry; he was a Ukrainian marine who had survived Mariupol, and the range was to NATO standards. The bravery and elan of the Ukrainian Armed Forces are not in question, but this example is a small indicator of the issues plaguing the training of the Ukrainian Armed Forces — the lack of an ingrained understanding on how to conduct uniform, consistent training.
Based on our nine months of training with all services of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, to include the Ground Forces (Army), Border Guard Service, National Guard, Naval Infantry (Marines), Special Operations Forces, and Territorial Defense Forces, we have observed a series of common trends: lack of mission command, effective training, and combined arms operations; ad hoc logistics and maintenance; and improper use of special operations forces. These trends have undermined Ukraine’s resistance and could hinder the success of the ongoing offensive.
How can Ukraine change the formula in their favor? The answer is uniform combined arms training focusing on mission command from the brigade level down, which the Ukrainian Armed Forces can achieve through a repeatable thirty-day “train the trainer” program. This instruction could be carried out by Western contracted military instructors, working with Ukrainian military veterans in Ukraine. This training will enable them to conduct combined arms operations and capitalize on the advantages the influx of advanced Western military equipment provides, and hopefully to enable Ukraine to overcome Russia’s manpower advantages.
Lack of Mission Command
In our experience, across many units and staffs, the Ukrainian Armed Forces do not promote personal initiative and foster mutual trust or mission command. As Michael Kofman and Rob Lee recently discussed on the Russia Contingency podcast, elements of the Ukrainian Armed Forces have an old Soviet mentality that holds most decision-making at more senior levels. Amongst military leaders at the brigade level and below, our impression is that junior officers fear making mistakes. During our training sessions with field grade officers, we are often asked what the punishment is for failure during missions or making bad decisions. We are also repeatedly asked at each step of planning or operations, “Who is allowed to make this decision?” They are surprised that U.S. battalion battle captains (staff officers who oversee ongoing battalion operations) have the authority to make decisions or give orders on behalf of the battalion commander.
During training exercises, we have repeatedly observed that the Ukrainian military’s planning process requires separate orders for each phase of the operation. For example, a battalion in the defense cannot conduct a counterattack even if they are attacked. They do not have potential stand-by missions such as “be prepared to counterattack” that are planned in advance to exploit unexpected opportunities. They must await orders. Of course, the Ukrainian military’s planning process is based on local doctrine, and in actual combat, it depends upon the commander. However, what we have observed is that there are serious changes happening throughout the Ukrainian military’s officer corps. The younger officers realize that they must get rid of the old mentality but continue to face resistance from older officers wedded to Soviet doctrine and centralized planning. Michael Kofman and Rob Lee made similar observations after their most recent research trip to the country.
Having trained every component of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, we have continually seen a lack of an experienced noncommissioned officer corps. It is common to see field grade officers running around during training counting personnel and coordinating for meals. In the United States, it takes years to develop just a junior noncommissioned officer. Senior noncommissioned officers at the platoon level have at least ten years of experience. In the U.S. military, lieutenants lead platoons, but it is the job of the platoon sergeant to train them, as discussed in Defense News. In Ukraine, it is the job of a platoon commander straight out of their service academy to lead and train their platoon. Without effective noncommissioned officers, mission command at the company level and below is almost impossible to do, and they are directly responsible for the care, mentoring, and training of soldiers.
Lack of Effective Training
The Ukrainian Armed Forces’ current training philosophy is based on the old Soviet model. Large-scale battalion-level training is orchestrated and choreographed. During several exercises, we witnessed company commanders overseeing the exercise from afar and only occasionally interjecting. They were acting more as observers than direct participants. This philosophy is changing and, as noted in the Russia Contingency, appears to be generational. Younger officers are more open to Western military–style leadership, while older officers have clung to Soviet doctrine. Despite these tendencies, we have yet to see any true combined arms training involving infantry, artillery, and armor working together. Synchronizing all these different elements to achieve maximum military effect, avoid fratricide, and confuse the enemy’s takes repeated training at all levels of command, which allows leaders to make mistakes and work through processes.
One critical challenge is in how the Ukrainian military trains and how the training centers for soldiers are set up. In the armed forces, each service has its own training centers, staff, academies, and training regimes. Rarely do they exchange instructors or, for example, have national guard units train at an army center. We asked our Ukrainian counterparts directly if we could bring some Territorial Defense Forces soldiers to train on a national guard base. We were told that was not possible because they were not national guard. This system is extremely inefficient. It wastes resources and also results in wildly varying degrees of competence across services and units. The services in Ukraine’s armed forces are also not conducting planning and training from the same doctrine or tactics, techniques, and procedures. As a result, when Ukraine’s services do conduct operations together, misunderstandings, distrust, and miscommunications are very common.
As noted in these virtual pages, there are several volunteer organizations training the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Most of this training’s focus is on basic soldier skills at the company or platoon level. The training is disjointed and haphazard, and the quality of instruction varies. NATO is training select units and soldiers outside of Ukraine. While this training can be effective and necessary for certain specialty skills, such as tank crews and HIMARS teams, it takes units and soldiers away from the front line for weeks, if not months, at a time. Commanders cannot afford to lose units and soldiers for extended periods. According to our field research, there is evidence of this immediate need because most of the units we train go to the front the day after we finish a training session. We also believe that the training efforts outside of Ukraine are not consistent and do not use common programs of instruction. Furthermore, these foreign training efforts adhere to the host country’s doctrine. While they do attempt to incorporate the realities in Ukraine, many of them do not fully adapt their training regimes to the way the Ukrainians fight, especially with the Ukrainian doctrinal and legal restraints on operations.
Lack of Combined Arms Operations
A critical challenge for the Ukrainian Armed Forces is they do not consistently conduct combined arms operations. The lack of combining synchronized operations results in greater losses of life and equipment as well as failed operations. Based on our discussions with Ukrainian company commanders and our own trainers who fought with the Ukrainian Armed Forces, tanks are used more as mobile artillery and not in combined operations with infantry where the armor goes into action just ahead of the infantry. We have seen firsthand the shot-out barrels of tanks (and artillery) from constantly being fired at max range or overused without maintenance or replacement. Michael Kofman has made similar observations. The armor/infantry relationship is supposed to be symbiotic, but it is not. The result is that infantry will conduct frontal assaults or operate in urban areas without the protection and firepower of tanks. Also, artillery fires are not synchronized with maneuver. Most units do not talk directly to supporting artillery, so there is a delay in call for fire missions. We have been told that units will use runners to send fire missions to artillery batteries because of issues with communications.
Most of the military’s operations are not phased and are sequential. Fires and maneuver, for example, are planned separately from infantry units — and infantry units plan separately from supporting artillery. This mentality also carries over to adjacent unit coordination, which is either nonexistent or rare and causes high rates of fratricide. Unit commanders have concerns about collaborators and thus are hesitant to pass on critical information that can be used against them to sister units.
These issues are compounded by unreliable communications between units and with senior leadership. The Ukrainian Armed Forces have a hodgepodge of radios that are vulnerable to jamming. Further, battalion missions are mainly independent company operations that do not focus on a main effort coupled with supporting efforts. The armed forces do not combine effects, so operations are piecemeal and disjointed. The separate missions are not supporting each other, nor are the missions of lower level units “nested” under a higher level mission. Sustainment is not synchronized with operations, either.
Ad Hoc Logistics and Maintenance
Western aid has been critical for Ukraine’s defense. However, the variety of equipment Ukraine now uses has led to significant logistics and maintenance challenges. In our experience, the Ukrainian military cannibalizes new equipment arriving in Ukraine to service equipment deployed in the field. As a result, front-line units only receive a small percentage of what is sent to the country. For example, a .50 caliber machine gun arrives in Ukraine with extra barrels, parts, manuals, and accessories, but by the time it gets to Donbas, all that remains is the gun.
As others have written, Ukrainian forces have leaned on YouTube videos to learn how to use new and unfamiliar equipment. Also, the mentality of supply distribution in Ukraine is to husband resources. Most battalion supply officers are appointed and not school trained. They might have an assistant and some vehicles, but everything is based on personal initiative. Maintenance is based on cannibalization, horse trading between units, and battlefield recovery. There is not a steady stream of repair parts or a system of maintenance at the unit, battalion, brigade, and depot levels. The skill of maintainers is based more on personal aptitude and less on school-trained mechanics. All the services have maintenance courses, but that does not translate into a ready pool of mechanics.
This attitude toward maintenance translates into how armor, mechanized vehicles, and artillery are used in combat. Units protect these assets and use tanks more as artillery than in combined arms operations with infantry. Mechanized vehicles will transport soldiers to the front but many times will pull back when they come under fire. We have also seen the barrels of the 155mm howitzers provided by Western countries shot out due to being used at max range (using max powder charges) to keep them out of range of counterbattery fires. With the upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive, effective use of these assets will be key to success, and during offensive operations, the attacker usually loses more tanks, vehicles, and artillery than the defender. It will require a change in mentality.
This lack of coordinated maintenance and logistics also translates into medical care. Medical evacuation and care are haphazard. Experienced Ukrainian combat medics have repeatedly stated that many of the evacuees would have survived it they had reached definitive care in a timely manner. The Ukrainian Armed Forces can solve this issue with a systematic logistics process.
Improperly Used Special Operations Forces
Ukrainian Special Operations Forces (SOF) vary in their abilities, training, and specialties. Unfortunately, many are employed like conventional infantry. This negates the skills that make these units specialized. Due to the high-intensity combat operations and the ongoing Russian counteroffensive, special operations force units are often put in the trenches and not assigned traditional special operations force–type missions of raids, reconnaissance, and ambushes. These piecemeal efforts result in high casualty rates and a lack of special operations force missions involving surprise or stealth that can support and shape battalion and brigade conventional force operations. Traditionally, these types of soldiers receive more training and have less firepower than a conventional unit, so you are wasting a valuable asset that takes time to reconstitute. Ukraine special forces units comprised of international volunteers shop around their services to conventional unit commanders without a mission being tied to a strategic or operational goal. One example of a mission was a conventional brigade commander who had reported to his command that he had occupied a village taken from the Russians. When he realized that the information he had was mistaken and they had stopped short, he asked the international special operations forces unit to go into the occupied village and take a picture of a Ukrainian flag placed on top of a building in the center of the village. Special operations force units are quickly depleted, and replacements lack the training and experience to conduct true special operations force missions.
How to Fix These Problems?
The solutions to these challenges require a reallocation of resources and a change of mentality. This is, arguably, tougher than allocating more resources and spending more money. We recommend a centrally planned, executed at the lower level, synchronized training program focusing on a twenty- to thirty-day training regime for each brigade. This approach is known as a “train the trainer program” and is designed to create a cadre of trainers who then can continue to train new Ukrainian officers that are cycled through the program. The program of instruction should have enough flexibility to make adjustments based on changes on the battlefield and nuances between units. It is critical that this training take place inside Ukraine, using local and foreign instructors for Western and Soviet-origin equipment.
The basic unit of the Ukrainian Armed Forces is the light infantry battalion. A program of instruction focused on this formation should serve as the basis for all training and be organized in a series of ten-day training courses, followed by an eight-day culminating exercise. Honing in on the basics of soldiering and planning at the battalion level will lead to success on the battlefield and alleviate casualties. This instruction would involve a ten-day individual soldier training for privates and noncommissioned officers and a ten-day company/platoon commander course. The first course would focus on basic soldiering and light infantry tactics, while noncommissioned officers would focus on leadership and logistics. At the battalion level, the course will focus on company offensive and defensive operations in both rural and urban terrain. The third ten-day course would be a planning course for brigade/battalion and staff operations. This course will focus on the basic offensive and defensive operations of a battalion, staff functions and operations, and a twelve- to twenty-four-hour planning cycle.
The planning process should be a scaled-down version of the U.S./NATO military decision-making process. Most operations in Ukraine are planned with less than twenty-four hours or even just a few hours. Ukraine’s doctrine and rules and regulations also require the commander to approve every step of a mission, so a process adapted to Ukraine is necessary. The exercises will include planning for urban operations. Combined arms operations including the integration of fires, engineers, drones, and armor will be included. The course would also develop a communications architecture across the brigade and battalion level. Furthermore, this training should focus on integrating logistics planning into all phases of the operation as well as the training of logisticians from internal assets. Establishing a separate supply and logistics platoon for each battalion that includes dedicated medical evacuation will be critical.
The culminating exercise would be an eight-day brigade/battalion/company collective training course that would involve combined arms exercises starting with planning and including companies in the field. These exercises should allow “free play” where there are consequences for each decision and commanders and staff must adjust to each change.
For Ukrainian Special Operations Forces, training focuses on three basic missions: ambush, recon, and raid using a crawl, walk, run method. The focus should be on detailed planning and these three missions. This instruction can be completed in twenty-five days. The first fifteen days should focus on basic infantry tactics, along with medical, engineering, and night operations. The final ten days, in our opinion, should focus on planning and operations.
All training should include recurring follow-on staff assistance visits at the brigade and battalion level to provide refresher training and advice on operations. Also, mobile training and maintenance teams who specialize in systems that require technical skills and maintenance should be located throughout the eastern part of Ukraine. They could provide training and maintenance on armor, armored personnel carriers, anti-tank systems, crew-served weapons, radios, and man-portable air defense systems. Those training and maintenance teams who train individual soldiers and crews would conduct training behind the lines in the brigade headquarters area.
We also recommend a senior mentor program at the general officer level of command located at the general staff and regional command level. The Ukrainian Armed Forces do not have divisions but rather operate in regional commands. The mentorship program could include former senior Western officers to provide advice on planning and mission command.
This program of instruction is ambitious but doable. Our company, the Ukraine Defense Support Group, has taught rapid planning based on a modified version of the military decision-making process to battalions and staffs effectively within five days. It involved one day of theoretical training, a one-day cadre-led walk-through, and three days of student-led planning exercises including mission analysis, course of action development, wargaming, and orders production.
The long-term solution for training includes the consolidation of training courses. Currently, each service has its own system of schools for everything to include armor, medical, and drone operation. This stovepiping of training leads to inefficiencies and inconsistent efforts. The Ukrainian Armed Forces, whether under the Ministry of Defence or Internal Affairs, should designate a specific school/service as a proponent for each specific skill or weapons system. That school will instruct all students whether they are Ground Forces, Border Guard Service, National Guard, Naval Infantry, or Territorial Defense Forces. This change will require a cultural shift and is akin to the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act that required more “jointness” in the U.S. military. Ukraine is in an existential fight for its existence, and interservice rivalry needs be set aside for the sake of the country.
Ukraine has fought mostly a defensive war and will be transitioning to the offense. The ratio of troops in the offense versus the defense can be 3 to 1 (6 to 1 in urban combat). Add in high-intensity urban operations, and that ratio goes up. Ukraine has yet to conduct major offensive operations in a large city or to perform a major river crossing. Both of these operations are very complex and resource- /manpower-intensive, requiring close synchronization of all assets to include infantry, armor, artillery, logistics, and medical to be successful. The Ukrainian Armed Forces have performed admirably but need to refocus their training and operations on combined arms operations and to become adept at operating at night.
Western support to Ukraine has an expiration date that is fast approaching. Also, the will of the Ukrainian people to support high casualty rates is very high but is not infinite. The Russian military has plenty of people and time on their side. The way to change the equation in Ukraine’s favor is through combined arms operations and training. History has repeatedly shown how a well-trained and properly led military can beat a poorly trained army. The challenging part is changing the mentality of senior leaders who have spent decades in the Soviet system to a mission command philosophy that allows for flexibility and initiative with the understanding that it will not result in a disaster or a prison sentence but rather battlefield victory.
Erik Kramer is the director and cofounder of the Ukraine Defense Support Group located in Kyiv, Ukraine, and has been in Ukraine since July 2022 training the Ukrainian Armed Forces at every unit level from squad, platoon, and company basic soldier skills and small unit tactics to battalion/brigade planning and operations. He is a former Army Special Forces officer who retired in 2014 after twenty-six years of commissioned and enlisted service. His final military assignment was at the Pentagon in the office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict. As a Special Forces officer, he served in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Congo, Iraq, and Kosovo at various levels of command from detachment command to battalion level equivalent.
Paul Schneider is the other cofounder of the Ukraine Defense Support Group. He has been in Ukraine for many months and has taught Ukrainian Armed Forces tactical through strategic operations all the way up to the senior instructors of Ukraine’s military academies on the military decision-making process and conventional brigade/battalion operations in large-scale combat operations. Paul is a former U.S. Special Forces commander and has extensive training and combat experience in multiple locations. He retired in 2021 to pursue humanitarian efforts that included the evacuation of hundreds of Afghans and U.S. citizens in the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, Paul volunteered to help with humanitarian efforts in Ukraine.