Training, Weapons, Intel: The US Military's Slow Slide Toward Confrontation with Russia over Ukraine

Airmen and civilians palletize ammunition, weapons and other equipment bound for Ukraine.
In this image provided by the U.S. Air Force, airmen and civilians from the 436th Aerial Port Squadron palletize ammunition, weapons and other equipment bound for Ukraine during a foreign military sales mission at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, on Jan. 21, 2022. (Mauricio Campino/U.S. Air Force via AP)

In early March, defense officials avoided even confirming the first Stinger missiles were being sent to Ukraine amid concerns of escalating the conflict as Russian troops marched toward Kyiv, and defense analysts counted the days until Russian President Vladimir Putin would likely control the government of his next-door neighbor. 

But over the last two months, as Ukraine has made a stand and fought back against the invasion, the aid has ballooned to billions of dollars' worth of helicopters, armored vehicles, newly developed drones and artillery.

Reports this week that U.S. intelligence had helped Ukraine sink a Russian warship and kill Russian generals on the battlefield were the latest signs of what appears to be the Pentagon's slow, steady march to deeper involvement in the European war.

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The Pentagon has now moved to releasing itemized lists of the thousands of weapons, ammunition and hardware now being shipped to allies in Kyiv. It has also announced a new Florida National Guard mission to train Ukrainians on the howitzers and radar systems in Germany, creating a rotating pipeline of skilled troops to fight the Russians.

The use of U.S. intel in the sinking of the ship Moskva by Ukrainian missiles and Russia's stunning loss of about a dozen generals in the war was not publicly acknowledged by the Pentagon, despite reports by multiple news outlets. Still, it was met with an acknowledgment that the military is sharing vital battlefield intelligence with Ukraine.

    "We try to provide them useful and relevant, timely intelligence so that they can better defend themselves," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Friday. "But ultimately, they make the decision about what they're going to do with that information."

    The loss of the Moskva, the flagship of Russia's Black Sea fleet, and the loss of generals have been an international embarrassment for Moscow, if not strategic victories that have shifted momentum to Ukraine.

    The changing U.S. involvement is at least partly due to the changing nature of the war, which began Feb. 24 when Putin invaded Ukraine. Early in the conflict, the Ukrainians were seen as underdogs, but Putin's forces floundered, and the U.S. and the West became bolder in their assistance to Kyiv.

    The war has now shifted to the eastern Donbas, a flat region where artillery will play a key role in the fight as it stretches into its third month. Ukrainian requests for armor and larger weapons have been granted.

    The Pentagon has been authorized to send about $4 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since the start of the war, with the bulk of that coming over the past month. In mid-April, President Joe Biden ordered the first 18 of the M777 howitzers and 40,000 rounds be sent to Ukraine. The announcement detailed 1,400 Stinger and 5,500 Javelin shoulder-fired missiles, as well as 22 other categories of weapons and battlefield supplies, including armored personnel carriers, helicopters, radars and drones.

    Another 72 howitzers and 144,000 rounds, as well as vehicles to tow the cannons, were authorized by Biden on April 21 -- a massive increase from the first tranche. The president is now requesting Congress approve a $33 billion aid package for Ukraine, with $16 billion of that directed to the Pentagon.

    On Friday, the White House announced yet another package of "artillery munitions, radars, and other equipment." The new aid amounted to $100 million, according to Reuters.

    In addition to the massive uptick in weapons headed to Ukraine, the Pentagon announced that U.S. troops would start training the Ukrainians on the equipment. A Florida National Guard unit recently pulled from Ukraine in the lead-up to Russia's invasion had never left the continent and is now heading up that mission, it said last week.

    The 160 Guard troops assigned to the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, known as Florida's "Gator Brigade," are training the Ukrainians on the M777 howitzers and radar systems in Grafenwoehr, Germany, and other sites in Europe that the Pentagon did not disclose. 

    So far, the Guard has trained 150 Ukrainians on the howitzers. Another 15 have completed training on AN/MPQ-64 Sentinel air surveillance radar system, and 60 on the M113 armored personnel carriers, Kirby said Friday. Another 50 are in training on the M113 now, he said.

    The military's involvement in the Ukraine war has "absolutely" increased since the start, said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

    "I see two things going on. One of them is an increased willingness to talk about what we're doing," Cancian said. "If you're an administration being criticized for not doing enough, the inclination is to say more about what you are doing.

    "But there's no question we're doing more over time," he said.

    In the early days of the war, the U.S. was sending Javelins and Stinger missiles that accounted for roughly $50 million per day. By last month, that average was closer to $100 million per day, according to Cancian.

    The Ukrainians had already been training on those weapons, as well as some of the other Soviet-era weapons that the West had supplied to help in its war effort. But the addition of U.S. arms, such as the M777 howitzer and the Sentinel radar system, required training, which required the expertise of the Guard.

    "Each step, you can see both an increase in cost and an increase in the scope of the activity," Cancian said.

    The next step in U.S. involvement is likely to be the addition of defense contractors inside Ukraine to maintain the influx of American weapons systems, which are flooding into Ukraine and may risk being sidelined without proper handling and care, Cancian said.

    Biden has insisted U.S. troops will not enter Ukraine. But the administration could find a workaround by funding Ukrainian maintenance contracts with foreign companies, he said.

    "All the equipment that we're giving to the Ukrainians is just too extensive to be absorbed in the short amount of time that we're giving them," Cancian said. "I think we're just asking too much, frankly, and I think what's going to happen is that, when that becomes apparent, we'll start using contractors in some way."

    -- Travis Tritten can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten. 

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