Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine was a strategic disaster for that aggressor, triggering a flood of security assistance from the United States and other international supporters of Ukraine. In 2022, the United States provided Ukraine over $20 billion in security assistance, a massive increase from the $2.8 billion in military aid from Washington between 2014 and early 2022—and this is on top of $9.9 billion in humanitarian aid and financial assistance of $15.5 billion. European Union institutions and countries provided over $51 billion of military, humanitarian, and financial assistance in 2022. Western political leaders responded with all the major instruments of national power—diplomatic, information, military, economic—to help Ukraine.
Practically every few weeks the administration of President Joe Biden asks US lawmakers to authorize billions in security force assistance (SFA) for Ukraine to fight Russian occupying forces. This overall effort encompassing training, advising, assisting, and equipping (TAAE) has translated into remarkable Ukrainian battlefield victories to reclaim territories in southern and eastern Ukraine. For most of 2022, TAAE was largely cobbled together by staffs at the US embassy in Ukraine, US European Command, the 4th Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB), 18th Airborne Corps, Joint Multinational Training Group–Ukraine (JMTG-U), and other organizations. The November creation of the Security Assistance Group–Ukraine (SAG-U) at Wiesbaden aimed to address this fragmented approach to Ukrainian SFA and streamline US efforts alongside those of NATO allies. Meanwhile, the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative allows the president to circumvent US military stocks by funding the direct industry purchase of armaments, such as the thirty-one brand-new Abrams main battle tanks the White House recently announced would be sent to Ukraine this year.
In December, our DoD Minerva team traveled to Germany to observe and assess current Western SFA efforts to make the Ukrainian armed forces more militarily effective and to understand the trajectory of SAG-U and its implications for this war and future strategic competition. We observed positive effects of recent policy changes but found more needs to be done. American SFA needs to become better aligned and unified to ensure Ukrainian forces can perform as well as it will need to as the conflict transitions from the comparatively static war of attrition that has taken shape during the winter months to one likely characterized by combined arms maneuver as anticipated spring offensives begin.
Unity of Command or Unity of Effort?
The intensity of security assistance to Ukraine is remarkable. Its effect in enabling Ukraine’s defense against Russian aggression has challenged assumptions that widely reported corruption in Ukraine’s political system inevitably undermined Ukraine’s military effectiveness.
Retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling provided insight into why Ukraine has outperformed many prewar expectations when he described how Ukraine’s military professionalized and reformed many of the Soviet-era institutions it inherited. It is clear that Ukraine escaped the “Fabergé Egg” army problem. Unlike what occurred with the infusion of tens of billions of dollars and expensive military equipment to Iraq and Afghanistan, highly motivated Ukrainian forces put massive amounts of assistance to effective use rather than building an outwardly proficient yet hollow military—like a Fabergé egg, very pretty and expensive yet easily broken. Ukraine’s leadership has also demonstrated high levels of political will, which was lacking in Kabul and its armed forces.
The activities of both SAG-U and JMTG-U are predicated on long-term relationship building, which is difficult to measure and quantify, but is crucial in achieving the shared interests of Ukrainian and US leaders. For instance, the US National Guard’s State Partnership Program has maintained a relationship between Ukraine’s military and the California National Guard since 1993. Our team observed how Guard units have been a force enhancer and enabler in understanding personal and professional networks in Ukraine. They helped identify the right Ukrainian officials to work and liaise with to optimize American TAAE.
According to some US military advisors the team met, SAG-U is a good organizational step to consolidate the US-led TAAE effort. But in its current configuration, SAG-U is a temporary tool in a long-term process. While SAG-U has spearheaded equipment deliveries to Ukrainians, it is still finding its footing. Having recently replaced the 18th Airborne Corps, SAG-U is cobbled together with personnel from units across the joint force, many of whom have little or no SFA experience or firsthand knowledge about Ukraine. If the United States is to excel in efforts to help Ukrainian forces outperform their Russian adversaries, improved organizational efforts are needed to ensure that SAG-U aligns with integrated deterrence and is properly manned with the most qualified personnel from the joint force, interagency partners, and allied and partner militaries.
JMTG-U, formed by the US Army in 2015 to train and equip the Ukrainian military alongside advisors from Britain, Canada, Lithuania, and Poland, is a bright spot in American SFA efforts. Originally based in Ukraine, JMTG-U now operates in Germany, providing platform-specific training and, now, collective training for Ukrainian battalion-sized units. Operationally controlled by SAG-U and managed primarily by Army National Guard units, JMTG-U has been instrumental in Ukraine’s battlefield successes, providing critical training on artillery systems and targeting processes that have inflicted a significant toll on the Russian military. Task Force Orion, composed of a New York National Guard brigade combat team, currently runs the program. Many of the task force’s soldiers volunteered for the assignment and have previous experience working with the Ukrainian armed forces on an earlier JMTG-U rotation at the Yavoriv training center in western Ukraine before last February’s Russian invasion. Their knowledge of the Ukraine mission and familiarity with Ukrainian forces has proved essential in making the current incarnation of JMTG-U successful.
While SAG-U and JMTG-U have made important contributions, their efforts sometimes are at loggerheads with other units permanently stationed in the region. Unlike SAG-U and JMTG-U, units based in Europe are not solely focused on strengthening Ukraine’s military. They must attend to their own training and readiness. Tasked with little notice to provide maintenance training or instruction on artillery pieces to the Ukrainians, assistance can come at the expense of these units’ own readiness. More importantly, the hodgepodge of units working on SFA for Ukraine has created confusing command relationships and task organization. Many officers our team met expressed bewilderment at the command arrangements in Europe, lamenting that the United States is “building the plane in flight.” It is critical that US SFA moves beyond this ad hoc approach. The focused articulation of strategic interest on the part of political leadership and the operational intensity of the mission allow these organizations to overcome inefficiencies and friction, at least for now, but a more optimized method of organizing SFA efforts is necessary for it to be sustainable.
Moreover, hanging over all of the assistance Ukraine has received, since the invasion, have been natural concerns about escalation. Russia is a nuclear-armed power acting within what it defines as its core sphere of interest, and the United States and other Western supporters of Ukraine are challenging Moscow’s assumption that it has the right to do so. Because Russia possesses nuclear weapons, its leaders have the capacity to inflict intolerable pain upon the West. They periodically issue threats, veiled and direct, to do just that if various red lines are crossed. This is what Thomas Schelling called “nuclear diplomacy” in his Cold War classic, Arms and Influence, published in 1966—an effort to harness fear to coerce an opponent to bend to one’s will. Western assistance inevitably operates under this nuclear shadow. This is not a reason to pull back in fear, and instead argues for greater coordination of assistance. Doing so would signal greater Western strength and resolve—and can be more carefully managed to reduce chances of inadvertent escalation.
Institutionalize American and Allied Assistance
The fact that it took almost ten months and $20 billion of security assistance to create a mission dedicated specifically to militarily helping Ukraine is representative of the US military’s fixation on large-scale combat operations (LSCO). Such a LSCO paradox exists because while the US armed forces want to train for conventional warfare against a near-peer adversary, they have been involved more in irregular warfare—which includes missions like SFA—than LSCO over the last century.
There are a number of individual SFA reforms that can be rapidly implemented and, collectively, would improve outcomes. After two decades of disappointing results in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon should deliberately evaluate the ability of specific units and staffs to train foreign forces. The US military already has made progress in institutionalizing advising with the creation of the Army’s SFABs. But often, the job of working with foreign forces falls to regular army units that lack formal SFA experience. In Germany, Ukrainian soldiers frequently receive training from the 2d Cavalry Regiment soldiers on artillery or maintenance operations—not from SFAB advisors—largely because of proximity. But conventional units like these that are permanently stationed in Germany are not directly evaluated on their ability to teach or operate with partner forces. Many individuals we spoke to like helping Ukraine, but also worry that doing so reduces their own readiness. Asking soldiers to work on things outside of the mission-essential tasks fundamental to their unit’s readiness has to happen from time to time, but it is not an ideal situation, and in this case is a problem that can be addressed through support for well-resourced, dedicated training units.
The Way Forward
The United States and Ukraine have much to be proud of in the effort to defeat Russia’s full-scale invasion. SAG-U and JMTG-U are still evolving, but their battlefield impact so far is clear. If SAG-U can get its manning sorted and both organizations can deconflict the task organization in Europe, the United States will be better positioned, along with its NATO allies, to support Ukraine’s spring offensive.
Achieving SFA unity of effort among allies and partners will also be a force enhancer for the Ukrainians. For example, Australia just deployed military advisors to the UK to participate in Operation Interflex (successor to Operation Orbital), bringing to a dozen the number of countries contributing personnel to the British-led training mission of Ukrainian forces. However, a complaint from many Ukrainian troops is a lack of consistency among advisors in the way they advise, train, and teach. US forces utilize the Military Decision-Making Process, the Canadians teach the Operational Planning Process, and the British military instructs its 7 Questions combat estimate method. There would be a tremendous payoff to all Western military advisors in establishing common instructional methods, learning objectives, programs of instruction, and assessment tools to improve consistency and unity of effort.
The United States should also pursue smaller, more impactful goals like integrating SFA into national training centers more formally. After two decades of struggling to build partner forces, the US military must devise more systematic ways to evaluate the ability of units and their staffs to do so.
Finally, analysts and planners should consider the interplay between SFA and geography. When Russia invaded, it did so with simply too few troops to achieve its apparently expansive initial objectives in Texas-sized Ukraine. Moreover, Ukraine’s shared border with multiple NATO members—most notably Poland, a leading contributor of aid since the invasion—enables the delivery of SFA. In a future crisis, a similar effort to deliver assistance to Maryland-sized Taiwan—an island about three hundred miles away from US bases at Okinawa—would involve dramatically different considerations. Thus, as US policymakers fund approximately $10 billion in future security assistance to Taiwan, military advisors and planners will need to adapt to these harsher realities and rethink the organizational structure to training and equipping the Taiwanese military.
Despite the US military’s hard pivot toward LSCO after its expensive, years-long struggle to build up partner forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia’s invasion is a stark reminder that SFA will remain essential to securing US interests. US assistance so far has contributed to Ukraine’s remarkable performance in the face of Russian aggression. But doing so in a more efficient and sustainable manner, and leveraging SFA in pursuit of US strategic objectives elsewhere, requires a deliberate effort to optimize the planning and delivery of US military assistance.
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 eighty articles and essays on strategy, warfare, and security assistance. A 2020 Bronze Star recipient for his time as the director of operations and commander of the 451st Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron, he is a command pilot 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 one 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.
Major Sam Rosenberg (@SamR2508) is a PhD student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, serving as a Goodpaster scholar through the Army’s Advanced Strategic Planning and Policy Program. His dissertation research focuses on US efforts to build partner militaries for large-scale combat. Sam is an active duty Army officer, serving most recently with United States Northern Command on the commander’s initiative’s group and within the strategy and policy directorate. He commissioned in 2006 as an infantry officer and served in a variety of leadership positions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Germany, and Eastern Europe. He holds a bachelor’s degree in American politics from West Point and a master’s degree in national security policy from Georgetown University, where he studied as a Downing Scholar.
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 by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research under award number FA9550-20-1-0277.
Image credit: Sgt. Spencer Rhodes, US National Guard