The news out of Ukraine paints a sobering, though hardly hopeless, picture of the country’s counteroffensive against dug-in Russian forces. The Washington Post warns that Ukraine is “running out of options to retake significant territory.” At the same time, The New York Times reports that while progress is slow, Ukrainian soldiers and commanders “say they are in better shape now than six or 12 months ago.” Meanwhile, debate continues over the Biden administration’s reluctance to provide Kyiv with certain advanced weaponry. I had a text exchange about this with a source who has had a decades-long career in the U.S. military and the intelligence community, serving both in and out of government. The source requested anonymity to speak freely. The following Q&A has been edited for clarity.
Q: Here’s my main question: Would the weaponry that the Ukrainian government says it needs and isn’t getting from the West/Biden administration be of much use right now, given that what seems to be stopping the Ukrainian military from cutting off Russia’s land bridge is that the Russians have seeded so many land mines? I know that long-range artillery could hit Russian command and control and supply lines, but that’s not the big problem for the Ukrainians right now, is it?
A: There are two big problems, and they reinforce each other. One is the massive deployment of antitank mines. By the millions, it appears (and there are likely anti-personnel land mines seeded among them—designed to slow mine clearing of the antitank mines). The second is the lack of air superiority (apparently by either side). So, if the U.S. military were in a similar situation, we would gain air superiority first achieved by long-range artillery and air-to-ground attack on the Russian “IADS” [Integrated Air Defense System]. So, you can imagine a role for HIMARs [High Mobility Artillery Rocket Launchers] and F-15 and F-16s using HARM air-to-surface missiles.
Once we established air superiority, I guarantee we would roll out those 70-year-old B-52s and carpet bomb those minefields. Think Rolling Thunder in Vietnam. That bombardment would trigger massive sympathetic detonations (as it is called) among the antitank mines. The more bombs they dropped and the more densely packed the mines, the easier it would be.
Q: Got it. But in what universe would the Ukrainians have B-52 bombers?
A: Yes, I know the Ukrainians won’t have B-52s. This just illustrates that it is a really difficult problem, and we may be the only military in the world with that type of capability.
Q: Is there no other technology or weaponry the United States or its allies could provide Ukraine that would help?
A: I don’t know of another way to trigger those mines. An expert should be queried as to whether MLRSs [Multiple Launch Rocket Systems] could do the trick. I am not sure. They dispel cluster bombs. Those are intended to kill people, not antitank mines. Not sure if it would work. I don’t think they have enough conventional artillery shells to clear them.
Q: If new weaponry can’t solve the problem, is there something Ukrainian forces can do to get through the land mines?
A: If you read the clips carefully, there is a thinly veiled U.S. critique of Ukrainian tactics. U.S. doctrine favors a concentration of forces and attacking with overwhelming force and conviction on a single axis or two. Ukrainians, on the other hand, seem to be widely dispersing their forces, probing across broad fronts, thus exacerbating their mine problem.
The one thing that has caught my eye is the multiple reports that the Ukrainians are getting creamed by low-flying Russian attack helicopters. That makes no sense to me as they are highly vulnerable to Stinger missiles, and those are easily deployed right into the front lines of the Ukrainian attacking forces. So not sure what is going on there.
Q: I am both open to the idea that the Biden administration has been foolish not to provide certain kinds of weaponry but also sympathetic to its fears about provoking Russia. But all of that is beside the point if the problem with the offensive is that nothing we could give them would help them with the main problem, the mines.
A: The F-16s would help obtain air superiority, but it is a daunting task. Recall that before the first gulf war, the ground attack was preceded by weeks of attacks on the Iraqi IADS. It is a slow process, and the Russian air defenses are far superior.
I no longer have any fears of antagonizing the Russians for a couple of reasons. First, we have already crossed multiple red lines of theirs with no reaction. Second, they have their hands more than full with the Ukrainians. Attacking NATO would be lunacy for them.
The Ukrainians’ best bet is to mass their forces, bite the bullet, and hit a couple of points with everything they have. Yes, the casualties would be steep in the short run, but it is likely the only way to break through and prevail. The dispersion of forces and probing is the worst of all worlds. They will never clear the minefields, and it is taking a lot of time.