Why U.S. War Tactics Are Failing in Ukraine

New NATO tactics quickly drilled into Ukrainian troops are failing because Ukraine doesn’t dominate the skies, analysts have said, as Kyiv’s troops appear to be revisiting familiar doctrine to press through dug-in Russian defenses.

Ukrainian troops, now more than two months into their summer counteroffensive, have incorporated NATO fighting style into their armed forces along with Western equipment, like U.S.-provided tanks and armored vehicles.

But on Wednesday, a report in The New York Times suggested NATO training may not have been as successful as hoped.

“Ukraine’s army has for now set aside U.S. fighting methods and reverted to tactics it knows best,” the Times wrote.

U.S. personnel demonstrate urban warfare techniques as Ukrainian soldiers look on during bilateral military exercises near Yavorov, Ukraine, on September 16, 2014. New NATO tactics quickly drilled into Ukrainian troops are failing Kyiv’s fighters because Ukraine doesn’t dominate the skies, retired British Army Colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon told Newsweek.SEAN GALLUP/GETTY IMAGES

There is one main reason for that, experts have told Newsweek. NATO countries prize combined arms, or all components of the military working together. For Ukrainian forces to succeed with Western and NATO tactics, they need air superiority—which they do not have.

“For the Western approach to work effectively, you need all elements, and a key element of that is airpower,” according to retired British Army Colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, who previously commanded U.K. and NATO chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense forces.

Western countries have funnelled tens of billions of dollars into Ukraine in security assistance, but this aid has not included Western fighter jets like the F-16 or NATO-standard attack helicopters. Just hours before the counteroffensive got underway, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told The Wall Street Journal that Russia’s air superiority and Kyiv’s need for air defenses meant “a large number of soldiers will die” in the coming months.

Without Western aircraft to contest Russia’s control of the skies, Ukraine’s troops “are fighting with at least one hand tied behind their back,” de Bretton-Gordon told Newsweek. “That, to me, is the most important piece here.”

The NATO style of fighting, so heavily reliant on controlling the skies, has also only been tested in recent years in arenas where the alliance had air superiority, experts say.

“No living member of NATO armed forces has experienced combat close to what Ukrainians have experienced over the past 18 months,” Davis Ellison, a strategic analyst with the Hague Center for Security Studies (HCSS), told Newsweek.

“The NATO way of land warfare has never been seriously tested against a major state adversary, despite decades of investment and training,” he added.

In cases such as Iraq and the 1991 Gulf War, the “U.S. and Western forces were able to quickly establish massive air superiority,” Paul van Hooft, another analyst from the HCSS, told Newsweek.

Without this, Ukraine’s armed forces have gone through rapid-fire NATO training to slough off Soviet-era doctrine, not too dissimilar to the methods used by Moscow’s forces. Some elements of this long-held doctrine are fundamentally different to how Western forces are now teaching Ukraine to fight, Nick Reynolds, research fellow for land warfare at the U.K.’s Royal United Services Institute defense think tank, told Newsweek.

Not only this, there is a “massive shortage of experienced personnel,” he said, and those gaining experience often have not undergone the extensive tactical training that Western forces do.”

Arguably, the problem was in the assumption that with a few months of training, Ukrainian units could be converted into fighting more the way American forces might fight, leading the assault against a well-prepared Russian defense, rather than helping Ukrainians fight more the best way they know how,” Michael Kofman, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Times.

“It is unsurprising that Ukrainians have given up on some of the Western training as their experience and adaptation under fire trumps Western peacetime concepts,” Ellison agreed. “If anything, we have a lot more to learn from the Ukrainians than they can learn from us.”

In an ideal world, Ukraine’s fighters would have had a year to train and absorb new fighting styles and training, de Bretton-Gordon said.

“Sometimes, when the going gets difficult, you might revert to what what is intuitive to you, rather than what you’ve been taught,” he added.

Analysts have long wondered whether Ukraine’s training would translate into battlefield success. With only small gains in weeks of fighting, Ukraine has faced criticism for the slow pace of advance and there are worries over how Kyiv is faring against Moscow’s dug-in defenses across eastern and southern Ukraine.

“Russia has had time to build up the defenses along their occupied areas and Ukraine is taking the fight to them and it’s going to be a tough fight,” Pentagon Press Secretary, Brigadier General Pat Ryder, told the media on Thursday.

“We’ve been training the Ukrainians since 2014,” Ryder said, adding the U.S. was “confident that they have significant combat capability available to them and that they’re going to employ that at a time and place of their choosing.”



  1. Without Western aircraft to contest Russia’s control of the skies, Ukraine’s troops “are fighting with at least one hand tied behind their back,” de Bretton-Gordon told Newsweek. “That, to me, is the most important piece here.”

    Exactly! It’s time someone with authority accused publicly, the WH of cowardice, it might wake them up before it’s too late.

  2. I know from my acquaintances in the UK that NATO can teach Ukrainian troops only certain skills, but not nearly what is needed to fight this kind of war. To make matters worse, Ukraine’s friends have clamped certain balls and chains on Ukraine’s potential. We already know what they are.

    • The training is probably perfect, if Ukraine was fighting this type of war. Had they been allowed to dominate the airspace, then given long range missiles to destroy all russian logistics, instead the dithering allowed the orcs time to build huge minefields.

      • To make it worse, despite KNOWING about the massive defense systems that the orcs had built, they still forbid the Ukrainians from entering mafia land with their weapons, forcing the AFU to go through them, with all the deplorable consequences.

  3. Air superiority: for at least a year the Ukrainians have been asking for long range air-to-air fires to take out putinaZi attack helis and other aircraft.
    They can be retrofitted to Ukraine’s SU’s and MiG’s.
    So why the fuck didn’t they get them?
    As Zel says, his men are dying needlessly in this counteroffensive because they have not been supplied with what they requested.
    Shameful and needlessly tragic.

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