The beginning of the Russia-Ukraine War in February 2022 very quickly revealed the power of quality over quantity. In the face of significant Russian numbers, both in terms of personnel and and materiel, the Armed Forces of Ukraine managed an impressive defense against Russia’s military, defeating it in the north and halting its advance in the east and south. Yet despite the quality of Ukraine’s forces, the picture of quantity vs quality is not as straightforward as it might seem.
Originally buoyed by Ukraine’s success, a growing number of analysts are expressing disappointment in the apparent lack of progress by the Ukrainian counteroffensive. That’s not to say there is no progress, but rather that it is slower than many had hoped for. Here, the Ukrainian military has run smack up against the realities of attacking a well-entrenched enemy without the right tools and with limited resources to do it.
Several factors are adding to the trouble Ukraine is facing. Part of this is a numbers game. Traditional military analysis dictates a general rule that an attacker must have a 3:1 advantage over a defender in an effort to pierce an enemy’s defenses at a given point along a frontline. That ratio can be tough to pull off, as Ukraine must still defend the length of the 600-mile front with Russia in addition to advancing an attack. Numbers are also affecting Ukraine’s artillery ammunition supplies, resulting in rationing that undoubtedly impacts the ability to soften Russian targets before an advance.
This leads to a reckoning about the extent of Russian defenses. Minefields are perhaps the most daunting obstacle to overcome and Ukraine has a distinct lack of mine clearing equipment. Though some countries such as Germany have donated mine clearing equipment like the Minenräumpanzer, a “flail tank” similar to the Sherman Crab of WWII, this equipment is being supplied in numbers that are too small to make a significant difference over a 600-mile front. Any mine clearing equipment deployed in an assault is going to be targeted by Russian forces, requiring significant numbers of vehicles and crews trained in their use. And this has proven the case, as Russian forces have made a point of identifying and destroying mine clearing equipment as a priority. As a result, Ukraine has been hesitant to deploy the limited mine clearing equipment it does possess, especially considering it has received only 15% of the mine clearing equipment it asked for.
To put things in perspective, the D-Day invasion of June 1944 pitted the allies against the dug in Axis defenders of the Normandy beaches, protected by a carpet of mines placed across those beaches. On the Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches of the British and Canadian assault, which together were about 16 miles wide, the British deployed 50 Sherman Crab flail tanks to carve lanes through the minefields. Twelve of those tanks were destroyed, and many others became bogged down or were put out of action (1). Russian fortifications today may not be as extensive as Hitler’s Atlantic wall, but the means available today to remotely deploy mines and effectively target vehicles with guided munitions presents significant challenges the Normandy invaders never had to contend with.
Even with sufficient mine clearing equipment, since such equipment is only capable of clearing paths or lanes through a field rather than providing the blanket destruction of all mines in a field, infantry or vehicles assaulting an objective must follow that path or risk activating mines. This has the effect of potentially funneling soldiers, tanks, and transports into kill zones that allow Russian forces to concentrate their fire. Since they do not have sufficient equipment, Ukrainians have no other choice than to perform mine removal by hand, crawling on the ground and visually identifying mines to be disarmed. If you ask the Americans on Omaha beach how this process went, it was quite costly.
The high-quality modern tanks that Western countries have supplied Ukraine with are also few in numbers, relatively speaking. While Ukraine is getting some Leopard 2A5 and A6 models, these numbers are dwarfed by earlier tanks, including Leopard 1s. None of these tanks are invulnerable to anti-tank guided missiles, minefields, or artillery, and the Leopard 1s, while superior to most Russian tanks on the battlefield, may not be as survivable to their crews as more modern tanks. Plus, as Ukraine has required a large amount of Western supplied anti-tank weaponry, tank on tank engagements are less necessary, and the biggest threats to tanks remain mines, artillery, anti-tank guided missiles, and loitering munitions—not other tanks. These tanks are being damaged or sometimes destroyed, taking them out of the fight either permanently or until repairs can be made. With such limited numbers, the impact on offensive operations is significant.
So why can’t these newly western-trained Ukrainian forces perform as well as we have seen American troops perform? Compared to Ukrainians, Americans, equipped with significant airpower, specialty equipment, and the ability to effectively perform combined arms operations, operate under a different set of principles than the Ukrainian military is able. An American offensive like that seen in Iraq in 2003 is highly dependent on air power that is used to erode the defender’s capability to both resist said air power and to defend against infantry and ground vehicles.
While Ukraine does have aircraft, they are extremely vulnerable to Russian anti-aircraft systems and are thus unable to achieve the altitude necessary to effectively perform close air support or directly engage targets as a result, and it’s unclear how obtaining F-16s will necessarily fix this. Both Russia and Ukraine are facing similar situations which negates the advantages provided by air power and quite literally further entrenches ground forces in a war of attrition. Without the advantage of air supremacy, ground forces have to slog it out to a degree to which Americans have become unaccustomed. In a 2018 incident in Syria in which a small American force was attacked by hundreds of Wagner mercenaries, air power saved the day and prevented harm to any of the Americans on the ground.
The bottom line is that while the U.S. and its allies have donated significant amounts of military equipment to Ukraine, this equipment fails to sufficiently equip a well-trained force of sufficient size that would be capable of carrying out a NATO style assault on Russia’s occupying force. Though equipment isn’t the only thing responsible for a slow counteroffensive at this time, in a defense or assault against Russia, numbers matter.
(1)Delaforce, Patrick. Churchill’s Secret Weapons: The Story of Hobart’s Funnies. 1998. London. P.111.