This is what the Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 leaves in its wake. There were 2 such drones involved in this attack on a Russian armored column north of Kyiv—quite a bargain at just under $2 million a platform (only slightly more than a single Tomahawk cruise missile).
Anti-tank weapons are effective because of Soviet design flaws
The Javelin Close Combat Missile System – Medium (CCMS-M) is a man-portable, medium-range tactical missile system. US aid packages to Ukraine have included over 5,000 Javeline systems to date. (U.S. Army photo)
By contrast, the much-vaunted Javelin and NLAW man-portable anti-tank guided missiles provided to Ukraine in aid packages from the US and its allies, belong to a previous era. They require a man (or two men in the case of the Javelin) to “ambush” armored vehicles within the adversary’s weapons engagement zone. Their high success rate here in Ukraine owes everything to designer defects in Soviet armor.
The Russian BRDMs are made of aluminum alloy, which burns incandescently after contact with a high explosive round. And the manufacturer of the T-72 overlooked one fatal design defect: the tank’s ammunition is stored below the crew spaces without a hardened bulkhead for insulation. Even an RPG-7 round fired from the flank will result in a catastrophic kill more often than not.
Both of these flaws are a result of the corruption and incompetence endemic throughout the Russian Federation military procurement system—and have proven to be a great benefit for the defenders of Ukraine.
Why doesn’t the US produce a blue-collar drone like the TB-2 for export? Well, as all of you are aware, the answers are quite complex. Since July of 2020, there have been no legal restrictions on the export of such a platform. But the US defense industry has no incentive to manufacture a low-cost drone with similar capabilities to the TB-2, and the Defense Department has yet to send a demand signal. Instead, the Turks and the Israelis are allowed to dominate the market—two countries whose national interests do not always overlap neatly with ours.
Where US aid to Ukraine is falling short and why
On a related topic, I have been criticized for my intemperate language in calling out the incoherence of US foreign policy when it comes to Ukraine. I regret using terms that imply that the administration is frightened of Putin and terrified of escalation, but am immensely frustrated that the provision of military aid to Ukraine does not appear to be aligned with battlefield requirements. Instead, we throw money at the problem in the hope that sheer expenditure will bring results. It is a mistake to conflate expenditure and resources with targeted capability. Military aid should be focused on actual requirements—and it is here where US policy breaks down.
The requirement here for long-range precision fires is one example. The US has made no attempt to meet this capability, nor has it fielded logistics drones to meet the Ukrainian military’s requirement to provide penny packet re-supply to units cut off by RF forces. The garrison in Mariupol—the Marines and special operations troops who have fought so tenaciously for the last 2 months—are sending out their last messages of farewell. They are short of ammunition, food, water and medicine. They have some 600 wounded, many of whom are dying of infections unusual for any army in the 21st century. Surrender is absolutely out of the question; no one brings up such a preposterous idea.
It didn’t have to be this way. Helicopters have made it through the Russian ADA defenses, but with every third being shot down, resupply by this means became prohibitively expensive. It would have been a relatively simple task to flood the air with inexpensive decoys, overwhelming Russian air defenses, while a handful of logistics drones delivered vital supplies that would have allowed the garrison to fight on indefinitely. Although such drones are available in the US, no one thought to supply them to the Ukrainian armed forces… and now it is probably too late.
Maximizing US aid to Ukraine requires supervision
Moreover, a policy that simply pushes logistics without any “pull” or supervision to ensure distribution according to prioritization of need simply doesn’t work. A handful of US contractors in-country could have made a world of difference in this regard. Instead, the Territorial Defense Forces in the West are all well equipped while units on the front line go short of everything. Is this corruption? Perhaps—but from what I have seen it’s simply a case of commanders trying to take care of their own, not realizing that there is only a limited amount of US largess to go around.
I am not making these comments simply to vent, nor because I have a partisan agenda. I have considerable experience with planning and executing complex military operations, and want to help. But someone in the administration has to be willing to listen…
Feature image courtesy of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence
May 11, 2022