Ukraine Doesn’t Need U.S. Contractors
As an aspiring Green Beret in the U.S. Army Special Forces Qualification Course, I was taught how to prepare a program of instruction for an indigenous partner force. I learned to assess which aspects of our partner’s organization and tactics are working and retain them, even if they differ from our own. This was a lesson I only glimpsed as a young infantry lieutenant in Ukraine and later lucidly observed in Afghanistan after having earned my green beret 1 year later.
As a result, I was perplexed to see Erik Kramer and Paul Schneider — both Green Berets with deployments to Afghanistan like me — advocate a training approach for Ukrainian forces that forgets this lesson. In “What the Ukrainian Armed Forces Need to Do to Win,” Kramer and Schneider recommend that Western contractors provide thirty-day training sessions to Ukrainian forces. Kramer and Schneider identified a lack of mission command and combined arms maneuver, ineffective training, ad hoc logistics and maintenance, and poorly employed special operations forces as major factors that “could hinder the success of the ongoing offense” and, indeed, the entire war effort. Taken together, it would seem like the Ukrainian military isn’t getting anything right. Kramer and Schneider’s solution: Western contractors providing thirty-day train-the-trainer sessions with Ukrainian light infantry battalions. This strategy, they boldly claim, will tip the scales in Ukraine’s favor and ensure victory, as “history has shown how a well-trained and properly led military can beat a poorly trained army.”
Not only does this approach ignore lessons from the Special Forces Qualification Course, it also ignores the Ukrainian military’s prophecy-defying accomplishments. Kramer and Schneider make no case for why Western contractors could do better than NATO has in guiding Ukraine’s military modernization, nor does their plan rectify the issues they identified. It is also possible that, as owners of a limited liability company that provides Western military training, they are overly optimistic about the potential impact of their services.
Instead, the U.S. military and NATO partners should continue training Ukrainian forces, as they have since 2015. That assistance ranged from developing a noncommissioned officer corps to teaching mission command, tactics, first aid, and how to counter improvised explosive devices, among many other things. That training paid off in February 2022 and continues to pay dividends today.
Give Ukraine Its Due
The Ukrainian Armed Forces have vastly improved since 2015. As Liam Collins noted last spring, beginning in 2016 Ukraine undertook massive reforms in “command and control, planning, operations, medical and logistics, and professional development of the force.” Speaking to command and control specifically, Collins observed that “Ukrainian military thinking that now allows for junior leaders to make battlefield decisions” contributed immensely to repulsing the Russian advance early in the war. Collins’ assessment is grounded in deep experience advising Ukrainian forces. In fact, in contrast to many, Collins predicted the Ukrainians would not collapse immediately upon being invaded.
U.S. military and NATO trainers contributed to these changes. As a lieutenant with the 173rd Airborne, I was in the first iteration of Operation Fearless Guardian in 2015, where we trained two companies and a battalion staff of the Ukrainian National Guard at Yavoriv Training Area. Training included squad and platoon live fires, medical training, counter–unmanned aerial systems, and troop-leading procedures. Since then, throughput has increased to five battalions trained per year, and the scope of training has expanded. Meanwhile, the 10th Special Forces Group and others helped the Ukrainian military develop their own special operations forces with skills ranging from small-unit tactics to unconventional warfare. Additionally, the British military has trained nearly 20,000 Ukrainian soldiers in everything from logistics to artillery employment.
It is worth pausing here for a moment to remember that Ukraine began to earnestly modernize and improve its forces only nine years ago. The Ukrainian military of today would be unrecognizable to the Ukrainian military of 2014. Meanwhile, some other post-Soviet countries have been working toward Westernization for twice as long and still have a way to go. In this context, their progress is remarkable, and expecting the Ukrainian Armed Forces to already fully resemble a Western military is folly.
Crucially, the efficacy of U.S. and NATO training has been amply demonstrated in Ukraine’s battlefield successes. In the opening salvos, Ukrainian forces saved Kyiv from occupation. Then, last fall, the Ukrainians swept the Russians back, regaining over 6,000 square kilometers in a two-week offensive. At present, Ukrainian forces are making steady, albeit slow, gains as their newest offensive takes shape. Describing a recent Ukrainian thrust, one Russian prisoner of war said the Ukrainians “opened on us with tanks, mortars, artillery,” followed soon after with infantry who dismounted on their objective from MaxxPros. That sounds like combined arms maneuver and well-executed echelonment of fire. This all stands in stark contrast to how events unfolded in 2014 in Crimea and the Donbas.
Though there hasn’t been much reporting on it, the Ukrainian military app GIS Arta, nicknamed the Uber of Artillery, has succeeded on account of a culture that welcomes mission command and innovation. GIS Arta connects target identifiers (drones, reconnaissance elements, and front-line troops) with target destroyers (armed drones, artillery, and mortar teams) to rapidly eliminate Russian forces. Once a target is identified and pushed to all finishing elements within range, any fire support officer or equivalent can immediately elect to fire and destroy. GIS Arta has enabled Ukrainian forces to put rounds on target within 60 seconds of identification.
To take just one more example, Ukrainian soldiers have quickly mastered the Patriot missile system. The Ukrainians were fully trained on the system within a few weeks. Other Ukrainian units were also trained on Patriot systems in Europe alongside German and Dutch military trainers. Not much later, the Ukrainians reportedly shot down a Kinzhal hypersonic missile using a Patriot battery.
Even if Ukrainian forces weren’t already demonstrating such success, Western contractors would still not be the solution to their problems. Kramer and Schneider argue that the crux of the problem is culture. Senior Ukrainian officers, they say, are steeped in a Soviet-era mindset that precludes mission command, which in turn prevents combined arms maneuver as a tactical approach. If this is the case, thirty-day train-the-trainer rotations focused on light infantry battalions will fix nothing.
First, the target of their program appears to be junior and mid-level leaders in light infantry battalions (though at other points they suggest that whole brigades could rotate through their program). Yet this is the cohort that already embraces mission command, according to the authors’ own observations. How will training them in mission command change anything if senior leaders are still too risk-averse and ossified to try something new? Second, building a strong noncommissioned officer corps — a critical component of mission command and maneuver warfare — takes time and deep investment. Ukrainian units have already been training at the battalion level and below, to include combined arms and force-on-force training. But, to paraphrase an Army Special Operations Forces truth, a robust noncommissioned officer corps can’t be created after a crisis occurs.
Second, ad hoc logistics and maintenance problems cannot be solved in 30 days. Kramer and Schneider write that “maintenance is based on cannibalization, horse trading between units, and battlefield recovery.” This, in turn, determines “how armor, mechanized vehicles, and artillery are used in combat,” where combined arms maneuver is shunned. But this assessment does not consider the context and character of the fight in which the Ukrainians find themselves. Perhaps their approach to maintenance is driven by an effort to evenly spread scarce resources. Or, perhaps these tactics are a rational calculus to protect their high-value assets when there is no guarantee replacements or repair parts will come, especially given uncertain Western support. Maybe instead this approach is a product of the dilapidated equipment Western countries are sending to Ukraine. What’s more, these logistics issues are larger than the battalion or brigade level, and so better training at those levels will not make these issues go away.
Following the withdrawal from Afghanistan, some in the U.S. military appear to have concluded that the lessons from that conflict have no utility in the world of great power competition. Yet there are lessons in the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s recent report that are transferable to Ukraine. Consider lesson two from the report, which deals with timelines. According to the special inspector general, “the U.S. government consistently underestimated the amount of time required to rebuild Afghanistan, and created unrealistic timelines and expectations.” Kramer and Schneider risk making the same mistake when they assert that cultural and organizational problems can be solved with a series of month-long train-the-trainer events.
Finally, it is important to openly address Kramer and Schneider’s conflict of interest. They write that the training Ukraine needs “could be carried out by Western contracted military instructors, working with Ukrainian military veterans.” They are co-founders of Ukraine Defense Support Group, a limited liability company that provides military training and employs “Western and Ukrainian businessmen, [and] Western military veterans.” This background could lead them to overestimate the capability of military contractors to hand Ukraine victory over Russia.
If NATO assistance isn’t cutting it, then there is another proven method for training forces in the midst of war that does not require contractors. Early in the North Africa campaign, the British army was losing terribly to the Nazis, suffering a “string of defeats” from 1941 to 1942. In his paper “Dangerous Changes,” Kendrick Kuo attributes these failures to the British army’s mistaken belief that armored units alone could decisively defeat the enemy. Thankfully, the British learned from their mistakes. Following the battle of Alam el Halfa in late summer 1942, “British forces reorganized and trained for almost two months.” British army leadership identified the errors in their tactics and retrained on the “correct principles” from World War I. Kuo writes that General Montgomery “reorganized and retrained the infantry, armor, and artillery to carry out coordinated set-piece battles that were fit for the Western Front.” In their next engagement, at the Second Battle of El Alamein, the British army overwhelmed Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Seven months later, in May 1943, the Axis forces in Africa were defeated. Over a year into the Ukraine war, the Ukrainians are likely the best positioned to identify their own tactical shortcomings and adapt accordingly, just as the British did in World War II.
At the start of that first rotation of Operation Fearless Guardian back in 2015, some of my Ukrainian partners were skeptical of what we could offer and saw the exercise more as a friendly exchange of experiences. At the end of those two months, they were sold. By 2019, my 10th Special Forces Group colleagues would return from Ukraine and tell me how eagerly the Ukrainians approached training with the U.S. military.
Today, Ukraine is performing admirably in a tough fight for its very survival, far beyond many commentators’ expectations. To get here, the Ukrainian Armed Forces undertook significant reforms and made tremendous strides in modernization. Though it surely is imperfect, the existing training model with NATO ought to continue as it has demonstrated efficacy, even if the Ukrainian Armed Forces don’t fully resemble a Western-style military.
Rudy Weisz is an Army Special Forces officer and General Wayne A. Downing Scholar currently pursuing his master’s degree at The Fletcher School. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army or Department of Defense.