July 24, 2023

We’ve Been on the Front Lines. We Know What Ukraine Needs.

Source: New York Times


Both of us have been the targets of enemy fire. It nearly cost one of us her life. We know a truth every combat veteran learns: For all the planning and consideration that goes into a war, much of it gets thrown out the window the moment the shooting starts. You often learn more about your enemies in the first 24 hours of a conflict than you do from years of studying them.

This has unequivocally been the case in Ukraine. At the outset of the war, Russia had one of the largest militaries in the world, and it was widely assumed Russia would march through Ukraine and take Kyiv in a matter of weeks, if not days. That didn’t happen. The limitations of Russian military hardware, training and discipline became evident quickly — as well as the strength of Ukrainian resolve.

Still, from the earliest days of the conflict, we both saw that military aid from the United States would be critical for Ukraine to win this war. For the past 17 months, we have advised the Biden administration, urging it to continually assess and reassess the shifting realities on the front line to understand what Ukraine needs and then deliver it quickly. We must remain committed to keeping Ukraine supplied with the missiles, artillery shells and other munitions that at this stage in the conflict can be the difference between a commander’s being able to approve an attack or not. And we have to do that while analyzing where new capabilities, like modern fighter jets, can give Ukraine the edge.

War is dynamic. It requires us to look around the next corner. We heard from President Volodymyr Zelensky and met with other Ukrainian officials, and it was clear to us that Ukraine needs not just guns and ammunition but also other, newer capabilities that can decisively alter the direction of the fast-evolving conflict. In the early weeks of the war, Javelin and Stinger missiles were needed to blunt the advantage of Russian armored vehicles and aircraft. Then long-range, mobile artillery to hit Russian positions. After that, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems to strike strategic targets farther behind Russian lines and then main battle tanks to break them.

Not every weapon system can come off a warehouse shelf and quickly be put to use on the battlefield. That is certainly the case with the F-16. We have both flown in combat. It took hundreds of flight hours to learn to fly the aircraft and more to master the range of different missions we’d be asked to carry out, whether that was dropping bombs on a target or conducting combat search and rescue. That’s why we encouraged the Pentagon in March to analyze what it would take to train Ukrainian pilots and maintainers on modern F-16 fighter jets to replace their aging fighters such as MIG-29s and understand their specific uses in the context of this war. Last week the United States reiterated its commitment to supporting its allies to train Ukrainian pilots to fly the American-made F-16 — a great step toward strengthening Ukraine’s capabilities in the long term.

In all of these cases, the United States had to assess not just whether certain weapons would be effective but also how urgent each priority was relative to others, how quickly Ukrainians could be trained to use the weapons and whether the equipment could be sustained over the course of the war. The more complex a system is, the more difficult to keep it working.

The same assessment went into the administration’s decision to provide Ukraine with cluster munitions, or rounds that disperse smaller explosives. While some oppose this decision because of the risks to civilians associated with using cluster munitions, Mr. Zelensky and his military leadership asked for these weapons because they see them as critical to their nation’s survival. Russia has used cluster munitions — with dud rates as high as 40 percent — since the early days of the war, very likely firing tens of millions of small bombs on Ukrainian soil, including in civilian areas. Unlike Russia, Ukraine has promised to deploy the weapons (U.S.-made cluster munitions have significantly lower dud rates) only in self-defense and away from civilians and to document where to facilitate cleanup after the fighting ends.

The cluster weapons that Mr. Zelensky has requested are effective against spread-out targets, like groups of dug-in infantry, artillery batteries and vehicle convoys. Those weapons will help Ukraine carry out a successful counteroffensive and help ensure its military has sufficient munitions to defend itself. Failing to do so, after all, is what would pose the gravest risk to the people who call Ukraine home.

These are the difficult calls that must continue to be made every day until Ukraine prevails. Some will criticize our decisions as too slow; others will say they go too far. What matters is that the United States continue to lead in backing Kyiv — because even as the war grinds on into its second year, the stakes haven’t lowered an inch. The Ukrainians are now several weeks into their counteroffensive, hoping that with the correct tactics, determination and Western hardware, they can retake their country. Vladimir Putin is conscripting his citizens, seemingly banking on the belief that he can outlast the West and conquer Ukraine, then move on to his next objective.

It is vital that he fail. A world with a Ukrainian victory is a safer one. It’s a world in which we can further strengthen the NATO alliance and establish a bulwark against tyrants like Mr. Putin.

The two of us know what it means to sacrifice for our country, but even we have never experienced what it is to fight on your own soil, with your own families and neighborhoods in harm’s way, to defend the ability of your children and their children to inherit a free homeland. Now as much as ever, we must remain steadfast in our belief in the Ukrainian people and undeterred in our work to get them the support they need.

By:  U.S. Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Mark Kelly (D-AZ)