Lessons for the U.S. War Machine From Russia's Ukraine Debacle | Opinion

In the 96 days I spent in Ukraine, I reported on the ground from virtually every major city in the country and witnessed the first major war in Europe in over 80 years — and the incredible devastation the Russian war machine wrought.

I come away from that conflict convinced that the United States is unprepared to win the next major fight against a peer enemy.

The war in Ukraine has laid out what is needed to win on today's battlefield in stark terms: sophisticated, precise, and long-range weaponry, as well as the ability to keep soldiers in the field supplied with enough of that weaponry to offset wartime expenditures.

Ukraine pins its hopes on conventional artillery pieces like the United States' M777, as well as American High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and British and American M270 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) to stymy Russia's slow but steady advance in eastern Ukraine. If supplied quickly and in high enough numbers, these long-range weapons could help push the Russians back from gains they've made there.

Selfie in Front of a Destroyed Tank
A man takes a selfie as he stands in front of a destroyed Russian tank in the village of Andriivka, in the Kyiv region of Ukraine, on April 17, 2022. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Ukraine has received modern weaponry from the United States and other NATO allies in massive numbers. By some estimates, the United States has donated a third of its Javelin anti-tank missile stockpiles to Kyiv, to significant effect.

The losses Russia has sustained in this conflict are incredible. Oryx, a group that tracks Russian equipment losses by combing open-source information, marks Russian vehicle attrition at 4,424. However, this number reflects only visually confirmed losses and is, therefore, a conservative estimate. By some estimates however, Russia may have lost up to a quarter of all available vehicles in just over three months of fighting.

Joseph Stalin, the iron-fisted leader that pushed the Red Army toe to toe against Nazi Germany, once supposedly remarked on the USSR's ability to absorb losses and expend men and equipment ad infinitum, saying that "quantity has a quality all its own."

The quote may be apocryphal but underscores the direction that World War II, as well as the current conflict in Europe, is heading: a long war of attrition, the kind of conflict that rewards nations that possess robust production lines to sustain deep reserves of equipment and ammunition. The United States has not fought this kind of war for over 80 years.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a recent address that Russia has launched 2,606 missiles of various types into Ukraine since the beginning of this conflict, which struck targets throughout Europe's second-largest country. This weekend, more than three months into the conflict, a barrage of missiles struck Kyiv and shattered the sense of relative normalcy that had descended on the capital city following Russia's failed assault on the Ukrainian capital and subsequent retreat into Russia and Belarus.

It's unclear how long Russia can maintain this type of barrage. It is desperately trying to source computer chips, the lifeblood of modern weaponry, and replenish expenditures and losses accrued on the battlefield. Thanks to American-led technology sanctions, Russia is in the throes of a computer chip crunch. Moscow's shortage is so severe that it cannibalizes semiconductors from washing machines and dishwashers to keep its war machine moving.

Uralvagonzavod Corporation and Chelyabinsk Tractor Plant — two of Russia's largest military vehicle manufacturers — have curtailed production because of a dearth of high-tech parts from Asia and the West. In positions behind the front line in Ukraine, Russia has pressed old equipment into service, tanks and other vehicles that pre-date the widespread use of computer chips and instead rely on analog components.

Ukraine has also sustained enormous losses in this, the first major conflict of the 21st century. But, buoyed by military and financial aid from the United States and other Western countries, the embattled eastern European democracy fights on.

In my reporting across Ukraine, the most oft-heard plea from the Ukrainian armed forces was for conventional artillery ammunition — but also for Javelin anti-tank missiles and the assortment of Western air defense weaponry Ukraine has pressed into service to destroy Russian warplanes and helicopters.

But the future of war leans into computer chips, not back. Consider the Javelin anti-tank missile. Each Javelin unit contains more than 200 semiconductors, a figure unlikely to decrease when more advanced, long-range weaponry enters service for the Department of Defense soon.

The United States has made good on its promise to be an "arsenal of democracy" and keep the Ukrainians supplied with the world's most effective anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry, but even the U.S. has limits.

After decades of drawn-out campaigns in the Middle East against non-state enemies that lack robust armored forces and aircraft, production lines for sophisticated weaponry like Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles have been neglected, with crucial parts no longer made in the U.S.

Like Russia, the United States is deeply reliant on semiconductors from foreign suppliers — high-end chips manufactured in Taiwan and South Korea — now in tight supply due to production disruptions intensified by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Though the current administration would like to see the passage of the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) for America Act, a bill that would push funding into creating semiconductor foundries on American soil, it will be years before any change will be seen.

If, as some analysts predict, the next major conflict the U.S. faces is with China it would significantly imperil American access to semiconductors in Taiwan and South Korea and could lead to the kinds of cannibalization witnessed in Ukraine with Russian equipment.

It is necessary that the American industrial base be able to quickly replenish these kinds of munitions through secure semiconductor supply chains. If these conditions cannot be met, the next war will be fought and lost much sooner than anyone anticipates.

"I want to make it clear that it is the purpose of the Nation to build now with all possible speed every machine and arsenal and factory that we need to manufacture our defense material," President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in 1940, a year before the American entry into World War II. "We have the men, the skill, the wealth, and above all, the will." In the 21st century, the United States certainly possesses the skills and the wealth to win America's next war. But does it have the will?

Caleb Larson is a multiformat journalist and defense writer based in Berlin. He covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, with a focus on American foreign policy and European security. Follow him on Twitter @calebmlarson

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.