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How Britain can better support Ukraine to fight a war of attrition

The Ukrainian counter-offensive has now well and truly drawn to a close, with the much hoped for breakthrough of Russian lines failing to materialise. Talk of  manoeuvre warfare has been replaced, both in Kyiv and across NATO capitals, with talk of the need to prepare for a prolonged war of attrition. Russia has many advantages in such a fight, including a much larger population (albeit one it struggles to mobilise), deep stocks of weapons (albeit with many in poor condition), and a large military-industrial complex (albeit partially hampered by sanctions). This begs the question of how Britain can best support Ukraine to fight and win what is now a war of attrition. 

The state of the war of attrition

Despite having been on the offensive, against heavily prepared defences and without air support, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have inflicted greater losses on the Russians than they themselves have sustained. This is in stark contrast to all that military logic suggests should be the case – and is testament to the ability of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The reasons behind a failed breakthrough are complex and will likely not be fully understood for some time, but the answers lie in a combination of: Ukraine not being provided with enough of the right material (e.g., receiving ATACMs before the offensive could have eliminated the Russian helicopter threat that blunted the initial Ukrainian pushes); weaknesses in Ukrainian planning and execution (e.g., struggling to coordinate and synchronise large-scale attacks); and the successful Russian strategy (e.g., well constructed layered defences which the Russians, despite the losses it caused them, would launch immediate counter-attacks to recover when pushed back).

 According to Oryx, which tracks visually confirmed losses of equipment, from early June (when the counter-offensive began) to today key Ukrainian fighting equipment losses (see: Graph 1) have increased by 983 and Russian losses by 2,194. From the beginning of the counter-offensive to now the Ukrainians have lost on average 109 pieces of fighting equipment every three weeks – three week periods being used to ensure regularity  in the number of days between the periods compared – to the Russian average of 244.

Graph 1: Losses in Ukrainian and Russian fighting equipment* in three-week periods from the beginning of the summer Ukrainian counter-offensive (first period is from 06/06/2023-27/06/2023)

*data captures destroyed, lost, damaged, or abandoned: tanks; armoured fighting vehicles; infantry fighting vehicles; armoured personnel carriers; mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles; infantry mobility vehicles; artillery (towed, self-propelled and rocket); surface-to-air systems; aircraft; and helicopters.

Clearly, although the counter-offensive failed to achieve a breakthrough, Russian forces have taken significant losses, and these have remained high as Russia has now switched to launching its own limited offensive in a bid to take the town of Avdiivka. But Ukrainian losses, despite being lower, have also been significant. For example, of the approximately 100 modern tanks (Leopard 2s/Challenger 2s) delivered, 28 have been lost so far. This is not to say that tanks (and other vehicles that have been sent) are too vulnerable to be useful in this conflict. Quite the opposite. All equipment in high-intensity conflict will suffer losses; thousands of tanks were destroyed in the Second World War and no one questions their utility. One major issue now is that, since the wave of announcements in early 2023, there has been very little further aid in terms of additional heavy fighting equipment.

What matters moving forward is ensuring two things:

  1. Ukraine is supplied with a steady flow of equipment which ensures they can maintain a level of combat intensity that the Russians, over time, cannot; 
  2. Ukraine is supplied with equipment which ensures military personnel are given improved protection to keep casualties to a minimum – limits to the number of military personnel being one of the key long-term problems which Ukraine faces.

How can Britain best support these goals

Perhaps the single most important factor is the supply of artillery ammunition. But this problem is well known, and the solutions (although not easy) are relatively straightforward: spending money to increase production capacity. This has happened, albeit not yet at a pace that can properly satisfy the Ukrainians’ needs.

So beyond the issue of ammunition and assuming that increased British defence investment is not forthcoming, what can Britain do? Bolder action is needed. Concerns over Russian reactions, stocks in NATO running low, and what the Ukrainians will be able to work with have been the primary hurdles in more ambitious aid. None are an acceptable excuse. 

Russia’s ‘red-lines’ have included the supply of HIMARS, tanks, long-range missiles, and aircraft; when this equipment has been (eventually) pledged, those red-lines proved meaningless. The argument over NATO stocks running low has also been overblown. Many NATO members declare re-arming their own militaries now takes priority over further aid to Ukraine, but in theory NATO members are rearming primarily to be able to deter (and, in extremis, fight) Russia. The stronger Russia is, the more pressing this need becomes – failing to best enable the Ukrainian Army to defeat and weaken Russia even more than they already have would be a missed opportunity. This is especially true as Russia has now announced a massive spike of £96 billion in defence spending for 2024 and is clearly mobilising itself for a long fight. As for the third hurdle, the Ukrainians have consistently proven their ability to get to grips with new equipment in impressive timeframes whether this has been tanks, air defence systems or fitting modern British Storm Shadow cruise missiles to their old Soviet-era attack aircraft.

What practical steps can the UK now take to support Ukraine’s ability to fight and win a war of attrition?

First, hand over more Challenger 2s: It has been disappointing to see no further Challenger 2s sent since the January announcement, not even to replace the one which has been lost so far. The Challenger 2 is perfect for Ukraine, it is an upgrade of the Challenger 1 designed specifically for fighting Soviet/Russian forces, and is one of the most survivable tanks in the world – only one of the 14 sent to Ukraine has been lost, whereas 27 of the c. 85 Leopard 2s have been lost (7% compared to 32%, although some of the Leopards have been repaired). As of the Ministry of Defence’s last count, there were 227 Challenger 2s in service with more in storage, with plans to spend £1.3bn on upgrading 148 to Challenger 3s. At the very least, those not due for upgrade, and any in storage that can be, should be made operable and gifted to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. These will inflict far more pain on Russia in Ukrainian hands than waiting for upgrades in storage. 

Second, hand over Warrior infantry fighting vehicles: The Warrior fleet has served the British Army well since entering service in 1987 and is beginning to be replaced by the Boxer. The Ministry of Defence plans to retire the Warriors (625 in service) as they are replaced. Although old and worn, the Warrior could still provide the Ukrainians with a useful vehicle with mobility, protection, and close fire support for their infantry to minimise casualties. Training should begin immediately and vehicles transferred at the battalion level every time a battalion has been re-equipped with Boxers. According to the Army’s Future Soldier plan, the first battalion should be re-rolled from Warrior to Boxer during 2024.

Third, spearhead efforts to source aid from beyond Europe: There has been  substantial military aid to Ukraine from NATO members but many are unwilling to commit more for now. There has been some meaningful aid from beyond NATO (e.g., South Korea sending 155mm shells to the United States (US) to enable American shells to be sent to Ukraine) but further possibilities should be explored. This will be no easy task given countries have their own security priorities and many will not want to be perceived to be taking sides. Yet, this should not preclude attempts. 

For example, Australia is due to replace its M1A1 Abrams tanks with M1A2 Abrams; could it be persuaded to send its 59 M1A1s to Ukraine as they get replaced to complement the Abrams already sent by the Americans? In addition, the Jordanians have recently sold 60 Gepard self-propelled artillery guns (a capable and cost-effective counter to drones) to the US to send on to Ukraine. The Jordanians also have somewhere between 300-400 Challenger 1 tanks (given to them by the UK). These are likely in very poor condition in storage, but it should not be beyond the realm of the possible to re-purchase them on the cheap, work them back into operating condition in the UK (easier said than done), and then send them on to Ukraine. Thinking like this will be required to enable increased, and cost-effective, military supplies to Ukraine to keep them in the fight and to keep as many Ukrainians alive as possible.

These measures will not by themselves enable Ukraine to drive Russia out of Ukrainian territory. But they will make a difference, and will show that Britain is capable of bold action and still able to lead from the front.

William Freer is a Research Fellow in National Security at the Council on Geostrategy.

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