Defending your country is hard enough. Managing to defend yourself while shifting from Russian-derived heavy weaponry to an unfamiliar arsenal of Western howitzers, armored vehicles, and NATO-standard ammunition is even harder. To survive, everything from training to supply chains must change—and all while under combat.
That is the task ahead for Ukraine. And it hasn’t been done before.
The logistical challenge is immense. Western ammunition and other military consumables are incompatible with most Russian-designed heavy weapons. So, once the transition to Western weapons—rockets, grenades, artillery, tank guns, mortars, and medium caliber weapons—gets started, Ukraine soldiers will be unable to grab a box of Western ammunition off a truck to use it in a Russian cannon—the sizes are entirely different. But the logistical streams for both the old and new weapon systems will need to continue getting the right supplies to the right places in Ukraine’s fast-moving battlefield.
It just gets tougher from there. The more complex the platform, the harder the transition. Western tanks run on different fuels, operate on different maintenance cycles, and even use different tools in the garage.
It’s a big deal—and tough to pull off successfully even in peacetime.
Right now, Ukraine soldiers making do with “old-stye” Russian munitions and platforms. To keep the fight going, old Warsaw Pact countries, are donating whatever remaining Russian-derived weapons systems, ammunition, or other still-serviceable gear. Anything that might still work with Ukraine’s arsenal of Russian-sourced heavy weaponry is getting dusted-off and sent to the Ukraine frontier.
But these antiques, often stored under dubious conditions, are in finite supply.
In Ukraine, ammunition and other military consumables are running low. The West’s ability to support Russian-sourced equipment is already very limited, and the handful of Eastern European weapons manufacturers that may still make Russian-compliant ammunition and spare parts are probably pushing hard to break production records.
New sources of supply are unlikely. Even though the war has made the production of legacy Russian-caliber ammunition and spare parts a profitable endeavor, it makes little sense to expand production capabilities for Russian-sourced heavy weaponry. Once Ukraine runs out of their hard-pressed fleet of T-64, T-72, and T-80 tanks, that’s the end of Western demand for Russian-caliber tank ammunition. The moment Ukraine fires out the last barrels of their 152mm and 122mm howitzers, that’s pretty much it.
Ukraine has few options. At some point, the West will have no more Russian-sourced weaponry to offer. As the war continues, Ukraine must adopt Western weapon systems, making the transfer in midst a pitched and desperate fight.
Re-Arming Is A Big Challenge:
Over the past decade, as former Communist-aligned countries joined NATO, a lot of work went into understanding how the legacy military forces in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, and other former “Eastern Block” countries would gradually adopt the West’s interoperable weapons.
Those studies need to be dusted off. Back then, NATO realized it is an enormous undertaking to adjust everything in an arsenal—to resolve Army ammunition differences alone, the new NATO members had to swap out or update almost ninety different weapon systems.
Given the effectiveness of Stinger, Javelin and other portable missile systems in Ukraine, wider public may not understand the challenge ahead. In reality, Ukraine’s rapid adoption of an array of NATO-standard anti-tank rockets was something of an anomaly, successful because most Western anti-tank weapons are semi-disposable or “one-and-done” platforms—where the user can fire the anti-tank missile or grenade, throw away the expended missile tube and reach for another one. To get these into battle, Ukraine needed little training, support, or maintenance infrastructure, and the missiles could be thrown into the fight so rapidly that Russia had little time to change tactics.
Ukraine managed the shift well. But it only gets harder.
Western donations of basic infantry weapons have hinted at the more complex mission ahead. While older, Russian-era machine guns may be able to be cleaned with little more than Coca-Cola and a rag, a move to a modern NATO rifle or machine gun means that soldiers must learn different firing profiles and adopt new maintenance practices—all while setting up new ammunition and spare-parts supply chains.
It just keeps getting harder.
The present challenge is for donor states to maximize the time available before Ukraine’s older systems deteriorate, run out of ammunition, or consume some other key consumable. Take artillery—something that Ukraine has employed to good effect on the battlefield. Right now, Ukraine is largely dependent on Russian-derived howitzers and Russian-sized 152mm or 122mm ammunition. If more ammunition is unavailable, once existing ammunition stockpiles run out, Ukraine’s artillery—and all the support networks Ukraine has developed to keep those guns in the fight—will be useless.
To keep fighting, Ukraine’s artillery forces must move to Western-standard 155mm guns and adopt the West’s sophisticated artillery targeting systems. That’s not something that can be done overnight.
The first tentative efforts are under way. The White House announced a transfer of 18 basic 155mm artillery pieces and a hefty 40,000 rounds of 155mm ammunition, as well as AN/TPQ-36 counter-artillery radar systems on April 13, setting the stage for a wholesale refresh of Ukraine’s artillery and targeting infrastructure. Training will start over the next few days. But the real trick will be to build upon this initial capability quickly, so the new guns can appear at the front in large enough numbers to make a real difference right away.
Build A Foundation And Pour In Aid:
In mechanized warfare, trickling a few new capabilities into a fight is a distraction. In World War II, brand-new super-tanks, jets and other fancy gear that got introduced to the battlefield too quickly would break down, get captured, or, by exposing themselves to the opposition, reduce their tactical effectiveness.
Ukraine faces a similar challenge today. Ukraine’s battlefield needs are urgent, but all the new heavy weapons arriving in Ukraine are more effective when introduced to a fight in mass, with sufficient support to fully unlock all the new weapon’s potential. Given the public announcement that the first battery of NATO-ready 155mm cannons is arriving, other smart Western arsenals are busy dusting off their older artillery systems, quietly preparing to get as many NATO-standard howitzers and ammunition as possible into Ukrainian hands over the coming months. The goal is to make Russian forces contend an entirely new artillery force, with new capabilities and deadly tactics.
The West knows that, from previous NATO conversion efforts, complex platforms are going to enter the fight. Beyond howitzers, it is time for the West to determine what other available high-tech tools Ukraine may require and start develop a foundation for them right now. It is slowly happening; the 200 M113 Armored Personnel Carriers, included in the current aid package allows Ukraine a first step towards getting older NATO-standard tanks and armored personnel carriers. The current aid package also allows the West to better understand how contractor support, required to fully leverage certain technical aspects of various military items, might work in the future Ukraine battlefield.
Ukraine’s dire circumstances aside, there is some irony here. As Russia digs in, fighting to keep Ukraine from joining NATO, Ukraine’s military is set to undergo one of the fastest conversions to a NATO-standard arsenal in modern history, transforming, under military assault, into a de-facto NATO member whether Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, likes it or not.
By continuing the war and continuing to fight, Ukraine’s status as a NATO member is inevitable.