The Alphen Group Geopolitics, Strategy and Innovation


How to Win in Ukraine

By R.D. Hooker, Jr.

a shorter version of this article first appeared in The Atlantic Council’s Ukraine Alert on August 22nd, 2022

So far in the conflict in Ukraine, the Ukrainian armed forces have conducted a stout and stirring defense, inflicting heavy casualties on Russian units and contesting every foot of ground.  Against long odds, Ukraine managed to defend the capital, Kyiv, as well as its second largest city, Kharkiv, forcing Russia to abandon its goal of a quick takeover of the national territory. Staving off defeat is not, however, the same thing as victory.[1]  Russian forces today control about 20% of Ukrainian territory, including large tracts in the east and south.  What can Ukraine do to “win”?

A first step must be to address the disparity in airpower.  Success in modern, high-intensity warfare is almost impossible without at least parity in the air, and Ukraine began the contest woefully behind the curve, with perhaps flyable 100 jets compared to Russia’s more than 1,500.  Where Russia has been able to generate 100-200 sorties per day, the much smaller Ukrainian air force can manage perhaps 10-20.  Accordingly, Ukraine has been generally unable to provide air support to its ground forces for fear of losing its small inventory of high-performance aircraft (mostly MIG-29 and SU-27 fighters and Su-24 and SU-25 ground attack aircraft). Instead, its approach has been to carefully husband its assets to maintain a “force-in-being,” to be used only selectively.

On the other hand, Ukraine has been outstandingly successful in denying Russia air supremacy with extremely effective air defense and a strategy of “air denial.” Though lacking the most advanced air defense systems, such as the US Patriot or the Russian S-400, its use of older S-300 (high altitude), SA-11 (medium altitude) and SA-8 (short range) systems has been lethal to Russian airpower.  (The US has also provided small numbers of its NASAM short to medium-range air defense system, while Germany has promised to send decommissioned Gepard air defense vehicles, though ammunition shortages have delayed actual use)[2]  Employed in concert with large numbers of US-supplied Stinger shoulder-fired missiles and using “shoot and scoot” tactics for survivability, Ukrainian air defense has downed dozens of Russian fixed and rotary-wing aircraft and largely sidelined Russian airpower. An adequate supply of air defense missiles for Ukrainian systems is essential here, and they must come from outside sources in quantity for  Ukraine  to prevail.

Ukraine has also used drones with devastating effect.  The principal military platforms have been the Turkish “Bayraktar” TB2, which can deliver laser-guided bombs, and the US-supplied “Phoenix Ghost” drone, as well as the “Switchblade,” a “kamikaze” drone with onboard explosives that can be flown into the target.  These are supplemented with thousands of cheaper commercial drones used for artillery spotting and intelligence collection. Russian forces have adapted and the loss rate of Ukrainian drones is high, but low cost and ready availability mean that drones will continue to play an important role.  When linked to nearby artillery units, drones enable quick target acquisition and precise fires, making the most of Ukraine’s limited artillery resources.

Ukrainian innovation and tactical agility have blunted much of Russia’s dominance in the air, but the ability to generate offensive airpower in the form of close air support and air interdiction will go far towards helping Ukraine prevail.  Earlier in the conflict, Poland and other former-Warsaw Pact nations suggested a transfer of Soviet-era jets to Ukraine, an offer blocked by US officials.[3]  If NATO is determined not to provide air cover, it is imperative that this block be removed and that partners be permitted to support the Ukrainian air force with platforms it can employ quickly to support air operations.  Backfilling these transfers with US 4th generation aircraft like the F-16 would also hasten the transition from Soviet-era jets to more interoperable western aircraft in these countries.  Even 50 additional jets, with associated munitions and spare parts, could make a major difference.[4] Without a boost in air support, a Ukrainian victory may still be possible if the strategy of air denial holds up, but it will come at higher costs to the ground forces.

Just as important is artillery, which comes in three forms – tubed, rocket and missile.  Ukraine began the war with substantial but outdated tubed artillery from the Soviet era, complicated by a dearth of ammunition.[5]  With some 2000 artillery pieces to Ukraine’s 500, Russian artillery is far more numerous, modern and powerful, with a daily consumption of artillery rounds some 10 times greater than Ukraine’s.[6] As with air defense, Ukraine has used its limited artillery intelligently, quickly relocating after fire missions to avoid counter-battery fire and relying on drones for precision targeting.  The addition of towed 155mm howitzers from the US and smaller numbers of 155mm self-propelled  systems from Germany, France and other countries has strengthened Ukraine’s tubed artillery holdings considerably, but Russia’s advantage is still strong.[7] 

Here, the US can help with M109A6 155mm self-propelled howitzers, recently replaced by the newer M109A7 model and now in storage in quantity.[8]  The M109A6 is an armored, tracked vehicle, more survivable against counter-battery fire, quicker to displace and with smaller crews.  It is accurate, lethal and rugged – well suited to Ukraine’s terrain and operational environment.  Approximately 320 of these systems would give Ukraine 4 additional artillery brigades (one for each of its 4 regional headquarters), plus an additional battalion in general support for each of Ukraine’s 12 or so division – equivalents, leaving some 10% for training and spares.

U.S. Army Paladin M109A6 155mm self-propelled howitzer (Photo U.S. DoD)

The real artillery game changer is the multiple launch rocket system, in both the wheeled (M142 HIMARS) and tracked (M270 MLRS) variants.  Both are long ranged, precise, mobile and very destructive. Small numbers have been provided to date and they have rendered excellent service.[9]  While Ukraine does field older rocket artillery systems like the  BM-21 Grad and BM-30 Smerch, HIMARS and MLRS are far superior in range and precision.  As a matter of policy, the Biden administration has withheld longer ranged ATACMS ammunition that can strike targets up to 300 miles away.[10]  To level the playing field and transition to the offense with some hope of success, Ukraine probably needs some 50 or so HIMARS or MLRS systems, and it needs the ATACMS round.[11]  These capabilities will enable Ukrainian forces to strike high value, deep targets like command posts, airfields, logistics hubs, air defense complexes, and ballistic missile launchers.  Given the mismatch in airpower, long range rocket artillery has the potential to turn the tide and put Ukraine on a path towards ultimate success. Without it, victory will be elusive.

M142 HIMARS Department of Defense
M270 MLRS Military Today

Stronger airpower and more modern rocket artillery will greatly improve the odds, but Ukraine’s tank forces must also be strengthened.  When the war began Ukraine’s standard tank was the T-64B, an older Soviet-era design, underpowered and lacking the most modern explosive reactive armor, thermal sights and modern ammunition.[12] While Ukraine has inflicted heavy losses on Russian armor (often using hand-held antitank weapons), its own tank force has been depleted and offensive breakthroughs with tank-heavy forces have not been possible. Poland has committed to providing 240 PT-91 main battle tanks, along with small numbers of Czech T-72s.[13] To equip the Ukrainian army for offensive operations in 2023, the US should consider providing a similar number of M1A1 tanks from its large reserve stocks.  Though not the very latest model, the M1A1 is more than a match for most Russian tanks and available in large numbers.[14]

M1A1 Abrams main battle tank  Photo US Army

More modern weapon systems for Ukraine are badly needed, but reorganizing Ukrainian ground forces is just as important.  Ukraine began the war with some 38 maneuver (infantry and tank) brigades and 9 artillery brigades, organized on the Russian model.[15]  Unlike western armies, Ukraine does not use the division and corps structures common to NATO, relying instead on regional commands.[16]  These lack true battle staffs that can provide enablers, resource lower level commands and integrate airspace, deep fires, logistics, intelligence and operational level command and control.  This organization suffers from span-of-control problems and prevents Ukraine from conducting large-scale operational maneuver, especially for offensive operations.  A better approach is to convert the operational commands into true corps headquarters with trained battlestaffs, and to introduce the division as an intermediate echelon of command.  Both should include “enablers” or support formations (artillery, air defense, aviation, engineer, signal, logistics, intelligence, medical, and reconnaissance units) that are crucial to success in combined arms warfare.[17]  Standing up these structures in wartime will be challenging and will take time, but could be possible by the latter part of 2023 with the right support.

This move would result in the creation of 4 regionally-oriented corps, each with anywhere from 2-3 division-equivalents (including territorial defense forces) based on the terrain and threat.  To transition to the offense and counter-attack, Ukraine also requires a 5th corps composed of at least three tank and mechanized divisions – an “armored fist” led by its most accomplished and successful commanders to conduct decisive operations to drive the Russian army from Ukrainian territory.  To coordinate these corps, Ukraine should establish a field army headquarters, to be led by the Commander, Ukrainian Ground Forces.  Many of the building blocks of these formations already exist in current force structure and standing headquarters, which need only to be converted or augmented for battlefield use.

All of this requires institutional support and infrastructure to recruit, train, equip, field and sustain forces in the field as well as defense industry to manufacture, repair and replace combat systems and to produce the ammunition, spare parts and other classes of supply that are essential.  Foreign assistance has been critical in this regard, but it has come incrementally and on an ad hoc basis, challenging Ukraine to integrate many different types of combat systems, on the fly, in combat.  To assist Ukraine, NATO should provide a “NATO Training Mission-Ukraine,” based in Poland, on a scale similar to the robust training support organizations seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.[18] Led by a US 3 star, with senior-level representation and staffing from the UK, France, Poland and Germany, NTM-U can provide the expertise, technical assistance and “connective tissue” that is badly needed as Ukraine fights for its national existence.[19]

Why should the US and its European allies and partners risk a confrontation with a nuclear-armed Russia in this way?  The clear answer is that a negotiated “peace” in Ukraine will mean nothing of the sort.  Any settlement that leaves Russia in control of occupied territory in exchange for a cessation of hostilities will reward Russian aggression and encourage more.[20] Western leaders can be sure that success in Ukraine, even at high cost, will put NATO Allies like the Baltic States squarely in Putin’s crosshairs.  If anything, US and European reluctance to take the steps outlined above can only reassure Putin that the West fears confrontation and will take pains to avoid it. This is not a recipe for deterring future aggression.

Nor should the West fear Russian rhetoric about the use of nuclear weapons.  Distilled to its  essence, this amounts to the threat of a nuclear exchange if Russia is not allowed to invade and occupy its neighbors. The nuclear deterrence regime that has been in place since the 1950s is surely strong enough to deter such wild adventurism. Here, constant statements from western leaders that “we cannot risk WWIII” only encourage Putin that reckless threats to use nuclear weapons are working.

The outcome of the conflict in Ukraine will have other consequences beyond Europe.  China is watching carefully and will weigh the West’s commitment to its friends and partners carefully as it considers the military conquest of Taiwan – especially after the US and NATO’s precipitate and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. So will Iran and North Korea.  For the most part, Russian aggression in Georgia, Crimea, the Donbas and more broadly in Ukraine has been met with sanctions, rhetoric and a pronounced unwillingness to risk confrontation –  not confidence and firm resolve. We should not fool ourselves here.  Much is at stake.

To enable Ukraine to succeed and win, the US and Europe do not need to introduce ground troops.  Magnificent Ukrainian resistance has badly hurt the Russian military, which is almost totally committed in Ukraine.  An opportunity exists to end further Russian aggression in the European security space for a generation, and perhaps forever.  But victory depends on western and international support that goes well beyond the current level.  We cannot ignore that Ukraine, too, has suffered painful losses in troops and materiel. Ukraine has been consistent and clear about its needs.  Peace in Europe, and perhaps the world, depends on meeting them.


[1]“Victory” can be defined as recovery of the national territory and a decisive defeat of Russian forces such that further Russian aggression is deterred. See the author’s “Ukraine Can Win,” The Atlantic Council, July 20, 2022.

[2] For “National/Norwegian Advanced Surface to Air Missile System,” a short- to medium-rangeair defense system developed by Kongsberg Defence & Aerospace (KDA) and Raytheon.

[3] In February 2022 Ukraine fielded 21 MiG-29 fighters, 28 SU-27 multi-role fighters,  12 SU-24 strike fighters and  13 SU-25 ground attack jets.  Poland has 27 MiG-29 fighters and 32 SU-22 fighter/bombers in its inventory.  Bulgaria has 6 SU-25 ground attack and 14 MiG-29 fighter aircraft.  Slovakia has 11 MiG-29s.  See World Directory of Modern Military Aircraft at https://www.wdmma.org.  See also Humeyra Pamuk, “US rejects Poland’s offer to give it Russian-made fighter jets for Ukraine,” Reuters, March 9, 2022.

[4] Another option is to provide US A-10 ground attack and F-16 fighter aircraft to Ukraine, a move that would require longer lead times to train pilots and develop a logistical and training infrastructure.  At present, the US government  does not support this move. See Everett Pyatt, “Transfer three A-10 aircraft squadrons to Ukraine now,” DefenseOne, March 3, 2022 and Amy MacKinnon, “Ukraine Wants NATO Jets. Biden Says Not Yet,” Foreign Policy, March 22, 2022.

[5] Between 2015 and 2019, some 210,000 tons of artillery ammunition was destroyed by Russian sabotage. Thomas Gibbons Neff et al, “Shortage of Artillery Ammunition Saps Ukrainian Frontline Morale,” New York Times, June 10, 2022.

[6] Ilia Ponomarenko, “Why Ukraine struggles to combat Russia’s artillery superiority,” Kyiv Independent, August 12, 2022. 

[7] To date the US has supplied 126 M777 155mm towed howitzers and 260,000 artillery rounds, along with 12 HIMARS wheeled multiple launch rocket systems. Another 4 are promised.  Germany and the Netherlands have contributed 12 155mm self-propelled Panzerhaubitzen 2000 howitzers.  France has provided 12 155mm self-propelled Caesar howitzers and promised an additional 6.  The UK supplied Ukraine with “several” M270 tracked multiple launch rocket systems (open sources state that Ukraine has up to 12 at present) and has committed to send 20 M109 155mm self-propelled howitzers, 36 105mm towed howitzers and 50,000 rounds of ammunition. Canada has provided 4 M777 howitzers.

[8] “Taiwan to acquire 40 US M109A6 155mm self-propelled howitzers,” Defense News, August 2021 .

[9] As of this writing Ukraine is thought to have 16 HIMARS and 9 MLRS systems.  Joost Oliemans and Stijn Mitzer, “ Answering The Call: Heavy Weaponry Supplied To Ukraine,” Oryx , April 11, 2022. 

[10] ATACMS stands for “Army Tactical Missile System.”

[11] The ATACMS munition has been denied to Ukraine for fear it may be used to strike targets inside Russia, although the Ukrainian government has pledged to observe US restrictions.  Paul McLeary, “Biden resists Ukrainian demands for long-range rocket launchers,” Politico, May 18, 2022.

[12] Ukraine began the war with some 720 T-64 variants, including 100 T-64BM models which do have modern upgrades, including thermal sights, along with 100 T-72 models.  About 600 dated T-64s are in storage. Military Watch, April 18, 2021.  In contrast, Russia began the invasion with some 2800 frontline tanks, virtually all superior to Ukrainian models.

[13] Drew Hinshaw and Natalia Ojewska, “Poland Has Sent More Than 200 Tanks to Ukraine,”  Wall Street Journal, April 29, 2022.  The PT-91 is a locally produced T-72 variant, superior to the T-64 and roughly comparable to Russian T-72B3s now in service.  The US has agreed to sell 250 M1A2SEPv3 tanks, the most modern version, to replace them along with another 130 M1A1 models.  Rojoef Manuel, “Poland Buys 116 Used M1A1 Abrams Tanks From US,” The Defense Post, July 18, 2022. 

[14] The M1A1 is equipped with thermal sights, depleted uranium armor, a powerful 1500hp gas turbine engine, and a lethal, stabilized 120mm main gun that can hit targets accurately on the move out to 4000m.

[15] 1st, 3d, 5th, 14th, and 17th tank brigades, 14th, 15th, 24th , 28th, 30th, 33d, 72d, 53d, 54th, 60th, 62d, 63d, 92d, 93d and 115th mechanized infantry brigades, 10th and 128th mountain assault brigades, 56th, 57th, 58th,  and 59th motorized infantry brigades, 60th infantry brigade, 61st, 68th and 71st jaeger infantry brigades, 36th naval infantry brigade, 25th airborne brigade, 46th, 79th, 80th and 95th air assault brigades, 81st airmobile brigade,  and 4th Rapid Reaction Brigade, 26th, 38th, 40th, 44th, 45th and 55th artillery brigades, 43d heavy artillery brigade, 27th rocket artillery brigade,  and 19th missile brigade.  Not  included are 9 “territorial defense” brigades.  Ukrainian maneuver brigades, like Russian brigades, include not one but 3 artillery battalions (2 tubed and 1 rocket). By comparison, the entire US Army fields 31 active maneuver brigades. See Franklin Holcomb, “The Ukrainian Order of Battle,” Institute for the Study of War, December 2016, “The Military Balance 2022,” International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense at https://en.ukrmilitary.com/p/ukrainian-ground-forces.html.

[16] Styled as “Operational Commands West, North, East and South.”

[17] These are typically battalion-sized at division level and brigade-sized at corps level.

[18] Multinational Support and Training Command-Iraq (“MNSTC-I”) and the Coalition Support and Training Command-Afghanistan (“CSTC-A”) were both large organizations, US-led and staffed by allies and partners, that featured tens of billions in funding.  NTM-Ukraine would be a comparable organization.

[19] It is possible that Russian forces might attempt to target a NATO Training Mission based in Poland, but such a move would surely bring the Alliance into the war in the air and on the ground, as opposed to merely providing equipment and training support. 

[20] “If Putin is not decisively defeated in Ukraine, he will surely go further in his mission to ‘return’ lost Russian lands … Russia’s imperial identity is still very much intact and has become a central pillar of the Putin regime.”  Peter Dickinson, “Putin admits Ukraine is an imperial war to ‘return’ Russian land.”  The Atlantic Council, June 10, 2022.

Previous Article:
Next Article:
%d bloggers like this: