Ukraine is in a bloody slugfest with Russia. It wasn’t supposed to become an ugly war of attrition—when Russian forces invaded last year, almost nobody expected Ukraine to hold out so long, much less hold its own. In less than two years, Western governments have provided over $80 billion of military aid to Ukraine. Along with training, that material support aimed to build a modern Ukrainian force that could conduct dynamic combined arms maneuver, which requires the close coordination of armor, infantry, artillery, and airpower.
But some of the Western military training is not working. The US military, in particular, as the leading provider of support to Ukrainian forces, is repeating the mistakes of Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead of adapting training methods and objectives to the battlefield realities in Ukraine, the US bureaucracy acts as though the Ukrainians are fighting an American-style conventional war.
There is growing acknowledgement that this training is inadequate. Our observations, including at training facilities in Europe and on the ground in Ukraine’s combat zones as part of a US Department of Defense-funded Minerva research project, point to a more basic flaw: NATO and particularly US trainers tend to train Ukrainian soldiers to fight like American soldiers. The Ukrainian soldiers we interviewed find value in US training and combat drills but are frustrated by US military doctrine and training assumptions biased toward maneuver. Ukraine’s armed forces fight in a context of Russian (and now Ukrainian) continuous defense in depth that is beyond the experience of most US trainers.
Retooling the Training of Ukrainians: Listening and Flexibility
An experienced British Army officer contrasted the American approach with his own: “Our training courses are more effective because we started listening and collaborating with the Ukrainians. . . . They’ve forced us to update our own doctrine, training, and manuals on how to fight a modern war.” The British officer accepted the fact that most Ukrainian soldiers he trains have extensive experience in trench warfare and have faced artillery and armor without the protection of air superiority—battlefield experience that not a single US soldier has today. Such listening and flexibility by British military personnel is not new. Our past fieldwork and interviews across Africa have shown that most infantry prefer to be trained by the British because they listen to their concerns and are flexible in teaching drills and military exercises that simulate the army they have, instead of forcing them to emulate a British template.
Observing Ukrainian soldiers, both at US and NATO training sites and near the front lines in Ukraine, it’s becoming apparent that US training programs are often ineffective. Many American training programs teach the Ukrainians how to fight in the most advanced styles of combined arms warfare. This way of fighting is about concentrating firepower at decisive points on the battlefield to execute a series of dynamic thrusts against enemy positions and create a turbulent and deteriorating situation with which the enemy cannot cope.
Current training approaches teach useful skills and outline sound tactics and maneuvers for battlefield success. But the Ukrainian troops often tell us time is wasted with absurdly long PowerPoint presentations containing useless information. They don’t want training for an ideal military situation. Ukrainians need advice and skills specific to their own military limits (e.g., lack of airpower) and the realities of their battlefield context (e.g., proliferation of drones, jamming, etc.). Russian forces have constructed 800 kilometers of defensive lines with an “insane” amount of mining of up to “5 mines per square meter,” which per a RUSI report “included the laying of two anti-tank mines together—one atop the other—compensating for reduced density by ensuring that vehicles are immobilised by single mine-strikes.” This has impeded the ability of the Ukrainians to rapidly advance because of demining operations under fire, leading to an average daily advance of ninety meters.
Frustration abounds—as one Ukrainian general asked us in an interview, “How do you expect us to conduct a successful counteroffensive when your [US] military does not have the doctrine or experience for what our army is facing?” An elastic defensive posture enables Russian forces to absorb Ukrainian advances that break through initial lines. Moreover, our observations along the contact line point to the difficulty of massing forces for maneuver. Heavy artillery coupled with drone-assisted intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance requires dispersal of forces on both sides but does not destroy defensive lines. That ground-level deadlock, combined with mobile air defenses that deny ground force significant air support, drives Ukrainians to adapt to decentralized decision processes down to the platoon level. Advances in electronic warfare make communication even at that level more challenging. Higher-level combined arms maneuver in this environment would depend on tactical and technological innovation.
Ukrainian complaints remind us of problems we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans are good at training soldiers to be like us, turning them into foreign versions of American soldiers. But in doing so we build “Fabergé egg armies.” For instance, Ukraine’s 47th Mechanized Brigade committed dozens of American-made armored Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and German-produced Leopard tanks to the fight by Mala Tokmachka in early June and promptly lost twenty-five vehicles and tanks. The Ukrainians conducted NATO-styled maneuvers in a battlefield environment where they seized territory, but did not have airpower to defend their newly acquired positions against a flexible Russian defense that quickly enveloped the area.
One Ukrainian soldier posted on social media describing his unit’s frustration while training with American forces in Germany. The US reconnaissance training program ignored their combat experience and trained them on rudimentary US Army standards even though they requested help with integrating DJI Mavic drones and digital maps into their combat operations. This frustration matches observations made by our research team. American security assistance programs often rigidly promote the American way of fighting. Some Western military instructors prefer the status quo instead of updating and streamlining training programs based on Ukrainian feedback about their military conditions. Many of the Ukrainians soldiers we have spoken to increasingly view American assistance as lacking urgency due to a “business as usual” attitude.
How to Ukrainify Security Assistance
It is easy to blame the stalled counteroffensive on Ukraine’s military and political leadership. The reality is more complicated. In an interview with The Economist, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, shared that the conflict is taking on a “positional nature” akin to “the ‘trench war’ of 1914–1918,” necessitating “new and non-trivial approaches to breaking the military parity with the enemy.”
Helping Ukraine achieve an innovative battlefield breakthrough through maneuver means two things. First, the big bureaucracy needs to listen to combat-proven Ukrainian troops. This translates into US and NATO trainers having a dialogue with Ukrainian commanders to create flexible training plans that simulate current battlefield conditions, which encourages innovation. Second, US and NATO trainers must be willing to collaborate with various nongovernmental organizations and volunteers that are providing substantial training and both lethal and nonlethal aid. Most Ukrainian units on the front receive their medical supplies and training from these nongovernmental sources. Additionally, most of the equipment in a range of categories—from combat drones to 4×4 trucks—on the front come from private donors, not the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense.
Training programs must “Ukrainify” by integrating Ukrainian battlefield innovations. For example, Ukrainian troops are integrating modified commercial, off-the-shelf drones to facilitate accurate artillery fires and the clearing of Russian trenches. No US military unit has combat experience like this. American advisors must train Ukrainians to fight with the army they have rather than as a mirror image of themselves. Trainers must prepare them for the war they’re actually fighting, not the war the Pentagon imagines. The war Ukrainians fight at this moment is one in which the proliferation of cheap drones provide localized intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and concentrating forces becomes a battlefield liability for both sides.
A more realistic approach to support for Ukraine’s forces would have a closer match between the type and the tempo of the supply of weapons and actual battlefield conditions. Had the forces of Ukraine’s 47th Mechanized Brigade applied their training on Bradley fighting vehicles and Leopard tanks soon after the fall 2022 counteroffensive, for example, Russian forces would not have had the benefit of an effective defensive posture. Ukrainian forces then could exploit vulnerable seams in Russian lines without being bled and exhausted in the effort to consolidate gains. But by the time they executed these tactics and used these new vehicles, that Russian defensive posture made doing so extremely dangerous.
Based on the mismatch between US and NATO training and the realities they faced, one Ukrainian soldier interviewed said, “Drills should be flexible according to situation on the battlefield. . . . Numerous assumptions should be adopted to typical tasks like assaulting enemy trenches and bunkers in tree lines.” He added that military advisors should provide training on “how to build hasty defense in just-captured enemy positions to defend against enemy counterattack with armor and infantry . . . because war is changing fast. For example, kamikaze drones replaced close range ATGMs [antitank guided missiles].” All of these examples present an opportunity for US and NATO personnel to update and Ukrainify their training plans for a grim twenty-first-century battlefield characterized by trenches, drones, artillery, and dense layers of mines.
Foreign support for Ukraine’s armed forces, however, is hostage to political calendars while forces on both sides have adapted to attrition warfare. Ukrainians who gain experience in this environment have a lot to teach their Western trainers, such as how they coordinate infantry, direct and indirect fires, and other joint capabilities to increase range and survivability. Ukrainians we have observed integrate drone-generated data that resists advances in Russian electronic warfare capabilities into a targeting decision process that is much more rapid than most trainers have experienced.
Winter is Coming: 2024 and Beyond
Gaining an edge in the next phase of the war also gives an opportunity for the United States and NATO allies to improve the quality of the Ukrainian military to actualize the vision of General Zaluzhnyi. Per a Ukrainian army officer, the West should place a training “emphasis on officers, because they are those who in fact implement lessons learned on the battlefield. But platoon leaders and company officers are taking heavy casualties, so [there] should be steady system to replace them.” Such attrition means the West needs to scale up the training and development of the Operation Interflex junior leadership development program, which has only produced about 250 combat leaders since 2022.
Such an educational focus on developing the quality of Ukrainian leaders at the lower levels is one nonescalatory and easy way the United States and its allies could make great contributions to the modernization and professionalization of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. For instance, a Ukrainian officer mentioned that “battalion commanders now are former company leaders who survived beginning of full scale invasion, but less then two years is too small period for officer to shift from company level to battalion and higher, so this officers should be trained longer and deeply [sic].” Given that many experts believe the coming winter will create a stalemate, US and NATO forces could provide condensed educational courses on the art and science of war to lower-level Ukrainian officers and noncommissioned officers. It would provide them with the tools and frameworks to apply military planning concepts, such as the military decision-making process, for the army they have so they can adapt their tactics and weapon systems faster than Russian forces.
More importantly, if Ukrainians are saying that Western small-unit tactics lack relevance and effectiveness, we must address this. In order for trainers to deliver Ukrainified material confidently and competently, there must be an organization dedicated to such an endeavor, which requires building personal relationships with the partner force. Unfortunately, the 4th Security Force Assistance Brigade at Ft. Carson has not been tasked with helping Ukrainian forces, even though Europe falls within its area of responsibility. This unit is made up of professionalized advisors focused on improving a partner force in functional ways that special operations forces and conventional units cannot. Such specialized Army advisors provide the perfect mix of agility, expertise, and competence to assess and identify institutional issues within the Ukrainian military, which they could use to integrate into broader Western training efforts. Tasking the 4th Security Force Assistance Brigade with bridging gaps in Western training practices and institutional issues among the Ukrainian forces would be an important step toward enabling the tactical and technological advances Ukraine needs.
The United States poured vast military resources into Afghanistan and Iraq. We made a rookie mistake. We imagined that the American way of war is universal. After two decades of such naïveté, let’s not make the same mistake in Ukraine. It is more productive to assist Ukrainians to fight the war they have, not the war we might want or hope they’ll have at a later time.
Lieutenant Colonel Jahara “FRANKY” Matisek, PhD, (@JaharaMatisek) is a military professor in the National Security Affairs department at the US Naval War College, fellow for the Irregular Warfare Initiative, and US DoD Minerva researcher, having published over ninety articles and essays on strategy, warfare, and security assistance. He is a command pilot with over 3,700 hours of flight time that previously served as a senior fellow for the Homeland Defense Institute and associate professor in the Department of Military and Strategic Studies at the US Air Force Academy.
Dr. William Reno is professor and chair of the Political Science Department at Northwestern University. He has conducted fieldwork and interviews in conflict zones across Africa and the Middle East for over thirty years, having authored three books: Corruption and State Politics in Sierra Leone, Warlord Politics and African States, and Warfare in Independent Africa. Dr. Reno has published over two hundred articles in peer-reviewed journals, policy-relevant periodicals, and edited volumes on civil wars, rebels, and military assistance. Finally, he is the principal investigator for the US DoD Minerva-funded program studying how the United States can improve foreign military training.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, Department of the Air Force, or Department of Defense. This article was supported with Levy Chair funds at the US Naval War College and by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research under award number FA9550-20-1-0277.
Image credit: Sgt. Spencer Rhodes, US Army