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Beyond the Ukrainian Counteroffensive

The West cannot go backward and must go forward.
May 16, 2023
Beyond the Ukrainian Counteroffensive
In an allusion to American fighter jets, one participant's sign reads "We need F-16 - F for future." Several thousand people commemorate the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine at a rally in downtown Frankfurt. The Russian army had invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. (Photo by Boris Roessler/picture alliance via Getty Images)

The Biden administration has so far managed to convince America’s allies to feed Ukraine spoonfuls of weaponry—enough not to lose, but not enough to win. This is a bad habit. Over the past fifty years, Washington has made promises to allies, but then, guided by short-term thinking, done the minimum amount not to lose. Despite bitter experience, we are unwilling to wake up from the Desert Storm dream of short, decisive military engagements leading to easy triumphs. Americans never fully appreciated how much of the American military was committed to the Gulf War, and generals, admirals, and politicians have repeatedly proven unprepared for waging long wars requiring political and economic commitment.

In both Afghanistan and Iraq, our enemies had every reason to think they could ride out the storm. The Taliban reportedly quipped that “Americans have all the watches, but we have all the time.” Vladimir Putin, who, in his Victory Day speech last week framed his war of choice in Ukraine as an existential struggle with the West, is making that same bet—and why not?

Faced with an existential threat to the security, prosperity, and liberty of Europe—the United States’ original strategic priority—the West has parceled out support in penny packets. At every moment from the dogged defense of Kyiv to the liberation of Kharkiv and Kherson, we have eased the pressures on Putin and saved his army from the worst consequences of its follies. Pressed by the Ukrainians to retreat, the Russians have been granted the time and space to reconstitute. Thus the war continues and the cost in blood and destruction rises. If Ukraine hadn’t been forced to wait precious weeks and months for artillery, HIMARS, armored vehicles, and now, thanks to the British, long-range missiles, the war might look very different.

The dilemma that the war now presents to Ukraine’s Western allies calls to mind Abraham Lincoln’s assessment of Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s situation before the battle of Chancellorsville. Hooker was in danger, observed the president, of being caught “like an ox jumped half over a fence, and liable to be torn by dogs in front and rear, without a fair chance to gore one way or kick the other.” In Ukraine, the West cannot go backward and must go forward.

What does this mean in practical terms? While it might not be too late to give the impending Ukrainian counteroffensive some extra help, most of the opportunity to help the Ukrainians retake their land and liberate their people has passed. The modest transfers of modern, Western weaponry granted over the winter have been completed, soldiers trained, plans drawn up, units prepared. There is every reason to believe the counteroffensive will succeed. The question is how much. If the Russian army doesn’t collapse, Ukraine’s counteroffensive may set the conditions for a war-winning victory without achieving it directly—for example, by cutting off the land bridge from Russia to the Crimean Peninsula.

Where would that leave the Biden administration and Kyiv’s supporters in the West? The West needs at last to let confidence rather than caution be its guide.

This suggests a two-part strategy. The first part: Maximize and capitalize on Ukraine’s battlefield momentum by helping Ukraine translate territory into military and political power. In the short term, this means following the British lead and providing Ukraine with long-range strike weapons that would make Crimea untenable for the Russian military (not to mention unpleasant for Russian beachgoers). The problems are that the Biden administration has so far refused to give Ukraine long-range ATACMS missiles for the HIMARS systems it already has, U.S. and NATO stocks of HIMARS and MLRS launchers are running low, and the Russians are getting better at jamming the rockets’ guidance systems.

Since the United States and its allies are at this point logistically unprepared to provide rockets and other munitions from war reserves that are now depleted, one option is to provide them from existing units and absorb the risk that until their new weapons can be manufactured and delivered, those units will be temporarily less ready in case of emergency.

There’s another option, too—one that the Ukrainians have been asking about for months: F-16 jet fighters. Thousands of F-16s have been manufactured since the 1970s, and exported to countries of five continents, from Panama to Chile to Pakistan to Indonesia. Most NATO militaries have begun transitioning to the F-35, making the transfer of these aircraft a bit easier.

Whether missiles, planes, or both, these capabilities need to reach Ukrainian forces in the field beginning in the late fall and early winter. The systematic reduction of Russian positions in Crimea can continue largely unimpeded by the fall “mud season,” and it is vital to maintain whatever momentum the coming counteroffensive creates.

The second part of the strategy is to make sure the Russians and the Ukrainians know that we are in it for the long haul, and that as the war goes on the West and therefore Ukraine will grow stronger. It will be critical to present the Russians with the inevitability of a ground-gaining, heavily equipped, and modernized Ukrainian force—with main battle tanks and modern infantry fighting vehicles as well as artillery and aircraft—come next spring. The Biden administration needs to get the American and European publics through another winter while more energetically making the case for the value of an unmitigated Ukrainian victory. More parochially, in an election year, Biden needs to look like a take-charge winner; Americans do not easily give up on presidents in the middle of a war.

Boldness is required. First, instead of appropriating funding for the war one year at a time, the administration should request, and Congress should provide, enough funding for the next three years in a single multiyear appropriation. Imagine the morale boost in the trenches of Ukrainian positions, as well as the demoralization in Russia.

Next, the Defense Department should pledge, within six months, to have every penny of that three-year funding onto contract with the defense industry, as well as plans to pay for additional training for Ukrainian forces. The Pentagon should set an aggressive timetable, pay extra for early delivery and regard it as a way to jumpstart the reconstruction of the defense industrial base we so desperately need.

Finally, the Defense Department should exploit the opportunity to introduce into American forces and the defense industrial base new and primarily civilian-use technologies and civilian production practices that emphasize constant but incremental bottom-up improvements. The Ukrainians have been masters of innovation, proving expert at closing the gap between fieldcraft and technology. We need some of their secret sauce, and block grants for experimentation would reap tremendous benefits for the U.S. military as well as the Ukrainian armed forces. The State Department should then challenge America’s NATO allies to match the U.S. commitment, dollar for dollar.

When Ukraine wins, America and its European allies win. These investments will be a nightmare to “audit” in a green-eyeshade way, but they will be profitable. What’s more, they will be useful for the defense of Taiwan and other Eastern European nations. And we will have awakened the industrial base, making ourselves more resilient, and our deterrence stronger, in the process.

John G. Ferrari and Giselle Donnelly

John G. Ferrari is a retired U.S. Army major general and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Giselle Donnelly (@donnellygiselle) is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.