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Ukraine needs the capability to attack Russian airfields – former commander US Army Europe

Ukraine attack Russian territory
Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, Commander, U.S. Army in Europe, delivers remarks at the OSCE High-Level Military Doctrine Seminar in Vienna, Austria, Feb. 16, 2016. (USOSCE/Colin Peters)
Ukraine needs the capability to attack Russian airfields – former commander US Army Europe

The West should stop worrying about provoking Russia because Russia just does whatever it wants until it is stopped. Ukraine needs an endless supply of ammunition, not a “magic” number of MLRS, as well as the capability to attack airfields on Russian territory. These are some of the issues former Commanding General of the US Army Europe Ben Hodges talked to Euromaidan Press about in an interview.

Zabrisky: This is a hybrid war and we need to always be aware of security measures related to information warfare. The information space is flooded with all sorts of numbers and analyses. General Hodges, how do we bring clarity to the weapons supply situation without risking security?

Lt. Gen. Hodges: A great question! The Ukrainian General Staff and the government have done an excellent job protecting information. Many are frustrated because they don’t know what the General Staff is planning but the general public is not entitled to know these plans in detail. It’s important to understand that the government is not going to reveal these plans. And, they should not reveal their capabilities or, say, the amount of ammunition, because this is the critical information that the Russians would love to know.

I would say that the same applies to the US and the allies. The [US] President or the White House announce providing a package of $4 billion or a certain amount of ammunition. Once they hand it over to Ukraine you’re not going to hear anybody giving any specific details on that. It’s important that the Russians do not hear about it and this requires more discipline on our part.

There is confusion, however, when government officials give different numbers for the losses. These numbers might range, and the discrepancy could be huge, say “200 killed per day” or “100 killed per day.” (I don’t know those numbers [and can’t verify them.]) When these numbers get out in the open, people are starting to do the math: if that many are killed per day, how long can you do this? To be clear, Ukraine is suffering a lot of casualties because of Russian artillery. Perhaps, there is an intention of releasing numbers like this to motivate us [the West] to help more, to do it faster. There might be reasons that cannot be shared publicly. Still, having different numbers coming out of the president’s office or the government is not helpful because it confuses people.

Zabrisky: We agree and this is why we at Euromaidan Press decided to have a series of interviews with military experts to clarify the situation for the general public. Here is a big picture question: What weapons does Ukraine need to win?

Lt. Gen. Hodges: The capability that Ukraine needs is what is finally beginning to arrive in quantity. This is the capability to destroy Russian artillery and rockets. That’s the most important thing because the Russian artillery rockets are causing the most damage.

We need to help Ukraine destroy and disrupt Russian artillery. When you see howitzers of HIMARS or other systems arriving that’s an important part of the capability. They also need the ammunition and the maintenance that will come with it.

The capability to allow to keep ships away is already on the ground in Ukraine.

I would like to see increasing the capability to destroy the Russian Air Force. The Russian Air Force does not want to go inside Ukraine now. They are terrified of Ukrainian Air Defence so they launch missiles from inside Belarus and inside Russia. I think Ukraine needs the capability to hit the airfields from which those aircraft are flying. The Russians should not be able to just sit safely on the other side of the border launching missiles into apartment buildings and shopping malls.

Zabrisky: What is your opinion on the “do not provoke Russia” narrative, in other words, the opinion that Ukraine should not attack Russian military objects both on Ukrainian or temporarily occupied territories and on Russian Federation territory?

Ukraine needs the capability to hit the airfields from which those aircraft are flying. The Russians should not be able to just sit safely on the other side of the border launching missiles into apartment buildings and shopping malls.

Lt. Gen. Hodges: This was a well-intended but misguided policy or attitude that somehow what we do provokes Russians. The attack which started in 2014 is unprovoked. All of the justifications given by the Kremlin have proven to be false as most people suspected anyway. Those were totally false narratives. So it’s not like they need to be provoked. They are doing things that they want to do until they are stopped. So we should stop limiting what we’re doing out of fear of provocation of the Kremlin because actually none of what we do provokes them.

You will remember that back when this started in February, there were debates about whether or not to provide Stinger to Ukrainian forces. There was the fear that it might provoke Russia — what if a Russian helicopter was shot down with a US-made Stinger? How ridiculous does this seem now? We’re way past that.

Russia has actually not reacted in any meaningful way to each step of new equipment, or new capability. They haven’t because they can’t. They don’t have the ability to do anything else.

Of course, there’s a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the US President, the British Prime Minister, or the German Chancellor. They have to be concerned about escalation. Could this get further out of control?

I think we know by now but there’s nothing they were going to do for Ukraine that is a threat to the Russian state. I think that’s important. We should stop wringing our hands about supplying Ukraine with weapons because it might provoke Russia.

Zabrisky: I agree: we are observing a certain evolution of the weapons’ supplies by the western partners. Some specific questions now, starting with Land. How many MLRS does Ukraine need? Is 300 number that Mykhailo Podoliak has provided realistic?

Lt. Gen. Hodges: I’m going to give you the same answer that I would give if we were talking in a secure network in an official position. I don’t talk about numbers of specific weapon systems. I talk about the effect that we want to achieve.

The effect that we want to achieve is to destroy Russian artillery and rockets. You don’t have to do it across the entire front. You focus your effort on the key places that will cause the Russians to crack, to create an opportunity for a counterattack, for example.

There is no magic number. I don’t know where “300 MLRS” came from. That is a significant number.

300 MLRS is a “good number” for Ukraine: Ukrainian military expert on achieving weapons parity with Russia

 I think what is more important is to make sure you have endless amounts of ammunition that can be used to hit the Russian artillery and rockets, as well as the headquarters and the storage on sites for those. I am 100% certain that the actual numbers are being discussed between the Defense Minister, the Chief of Defence of Ukraine, and the Secretary of Defence in person, in the proper venue, and using the proper method so there’s no mistake on what is needed between the countries. So when somebody puts a number out in public like that I think it actually is not helpful.

Zabrisky: General Hodges, you have mentioned ammunition and logistics. You have mentioned that the Russians have an endless amount of Soviet artillery ammunition. I also read that their ammunition is running out, reportedly. Was that ammunition produced in Russia only? It was reported that Bulgaria and other eastern bloc countries produced the ammo that would work for Soviet systems. Is that true? 

Lt. Gen. Hodges: One of the flaws in my analysis is that I do not know how much ammunition Russia still has of conventional artillery and rocket ammunition. They seem to have endless amounts. I don’t know how much they have, I don’t know how much they have started with. The consumption rate — what they’re using now — is huge. They already fire more than we have used in 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Russians have already fired more ammunition than we used in 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan - Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges Click To Tweet

Several days ago they started to get ammunition out of storage from Belarus. I don’t know how much is there. I have to assume that they have enough of that artillery ammunition to keep fighting for the rest of the year. This is why it’s so important that we target the artillery and rocket launchers of the Russian forces, destroy them and also the headquarters that does the planning and the coordination of the fires, and, of course, the distribution network, the trains, or the convoys or whatever brings that ammunition to the front.

When it comes to precision weapons, the big missiles, and rockets that is that they are below 50% of what they had. They have used so many against civilian targets. They don’t have the ability to replace those because they require some components that have to be imported. The sanctions have stopped that so I do think we’re approaching the end of precision weapons that the Russians have.

Zabrisky: Western MLRS are arriving at the frontline. How hard it is to protect them, General Hodges?

Lt. Gen. Hodges: To protect artillery and rocket launchers you have to conceal the location. You can’t just park it in a sunflower field and expect it to survive because the Russians, like Ukrainians, have radar. It detects incoming artillery and it calculates what we call “the point of origin.” Where did it come from? And then, of course, you shoot back at that spot.

That means to protect your own artillery or a rocket launcher after a short amount of time, after firing 2–5 times, you have to move. It requires discipline and training, and it’s no fun but it is about survival. The US artillery unit will move, perhaps, 3–5 times a day depending on how many times they fire. You need to protect the location from drones. You have to be dispersed. You can’t be too close together because when the enemy shoots back if you’re too close together they are able to hit more targets.

The important part of protecting your own systems is doing what we call “survivability moves.” Also, you have to manage your signature, and not just the visual signature but also the electronic signature, radios, and computers, all give off a signature that can be detected by some drones so you have to think about that as well.

Zabrisky: We are transitioning into the next question: Air Force.  Can you comment on the drone situation and radio-electronic warfare? What about the jets? How long does the training of the pilots take?

Bayraktar. TВ-2. Source: Wikimedia

Drones: it is useful for all of us to keep in mind that there is no one weapon that is a silver bullet. There’s nothing that by itself is going to change everything. It has to be employed in a clever way. It’s part of an overall concept of operation.

So even though everybody watched the video of drones in Nagorno-Karabakh hitting tank after tank after tank. When you think about it, every target that they hit was sitting out in the open. It was easy to identify and the Azeris had a concept where drone strikes were part of the overall plan. Because both sides used drones, the natural thing is you begin to come up with defenses. How do you stop a drone? Many drones depend on the GPS for navigation, targeting, and so on.

So the Russians have the ability to block GPS signals in many cases. I don’t know which ones and how much but I have also heard and read that the drones are not as effective as they were because of Russian electronic warfare capability. This means that Ukraine is trying to locate these jamming systems because it wants to destroy them. It’s not just about launching a drone. It is about the surrounding systems that have to be employed. Still, drones could be an effective tool but not by themselves.

As for the Air Force, the Russians made several miscalculations. One of the biggest miscalculations they made was a failure to establish air superiority from the very beginning. For the US Air Force, that would be job number one. You want to achieve freedom from attack so that you have the freedom to attack.

The Russians didn’t even try to establish air superiority. Air superiority means that not only do you have to knock down your adversaries’ aircraft which they have not done. You have to destroy all the airfields. You have to destroy all the air defense systems. The Russians did not have a comprehensive plan for doing that.

I don’t think they have the capability. They have a lot of expensive airplanes but that does not mean they have a good Air Force. This includes pilot training: to be able to take off, fly and land. that’s one thing — but to be a part of the formation, to be part of an offensive operation, to fly into airspace that is contested requires a whole different level of training. It’s very expensive and takes a lot of time. It’s clear that the Russians don’t have that ability. That’s why they don’t even try to fly into Ukraine. They fly mostly inside Russian airspace and in the airspace of Belarus vs coming into Ukraine.

Russians don't have the capability for establishing air superiority; this is why they don’t even try to fly into Ukraine. They fly mostly inside Russian airspace and in the airspace of Belarus - Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges Click To Tweet

Ukraine has good pilots but not enough. They know how to fly already but when they receive new aircraft, they have to be able to fly in a combat environment. That training is required as well.

Zabrisky: The next question is about the sea: anti-ship missiles systems. What does Ukraine need to protect its territory in the Black sea?

Lt. Gen. Hodges: The Russian Navy has a very healthy respect for Ukraine’s ability to sink a ship now. The last two Russian ships were destroyed by Neptune and then Harpoon. These are important capabilities. I don’t think the Russians have any hope of ever getting to Odesa. That’s my view.

I overestimated their ability to do an amphibious operation. I thought that they would be putting Marines and their naval infantry in different places and they haven’t done it. It’s hard. It requires training, practice, and capabilities. Clearly, they have not done that. Which is fortunate, obviously.

Their Navy is in as just as bad condition as the Russian Air Force and the land forces. They have not done training, not they had joint operations where you integrate air, land, and sea. They have not done it. The technology on board their ships is not up to modern standards. Frankly, I don’t discount them but they have not been a significant factor other than launching a missile into towns and cities. The submarine force of the Russian Navy is probably very capable.

Zabrisky: Can you comment on theClose the sky” situation?

Lt. Gen. Hodges: Closing the skies means being able to stop the missiles that are flying into civilian targets. I heard yesterday that the administration is going to provide Ukraine with additional air missile defense systems. That would be helpful. But this is not just about shooting down missiles. It’s about going to the source, to the place where they are coming from, and being able to destroy airfields or other launchers from which these aircraft and missiles are taking off. These have to be targeted as well.

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