Thoughts on Ukraine as the Conflict Grinds On

By Nick Jones

iStock illustration

As I sat in my basement Feb. 24 watching live television coverage of Russian tanks roll into Ukraine, I thought the Russia-Ukraine War would be over within a few weeks, at most.

Many of my friends and associates felt the same way too — with the odds heavily favoring a brutal Russian advance across Ukraine. Previous Russian military interventions seemed to reinforce this view. Chechnya in the 2000s, Georgia in 2008, the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region starting in 2014, and Syria since 2015.

There were also some worrisome suspicions. In the years leading up to the 2022 invasion, signs indicated that the Russian military had figured out how to cope with some of the newest battlefield tech.

Reports from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine over the past few years suggested that some unmanned systems might become inoperable in the face of persistent Russian jamming. Indeed, over the past few years there were a few notable instances of the Special Monitoring Mission losing non-American-made autonomous systems to Russian electronic warfare attacks.

As it happened, the armchair consensus about how the beginning of this war would unfold was wrong. Instead, the Ukrainians fought back, and the technology worked.

U.S.-built systems like the Javelin, an anti-tank weapon, and the Stinger, a man-portable air defense system, have proven to be incredibly effective during the initial phases of the war, literally decimating Russian armed forces units across Ukraine. Ukrainian use of unmanned systems also appears to be widespread and effective.

In the information sphere, geospatial intelligence companies like Maxar Technologies and BlackSky provided crystal-clear images of Russian Army positions to the world.

Gum-shoe hobbyists and journalists exploited videos from ubiquitous cameras to give the world near-real-time insights to counter the Kremlin’s disinformation machine. SpaceX even figured out how to provide broadband connectivity to the Ukrainians with Starlink, and then defeated Russian jamming efforts through over-the-air software updates, providing vital communications links to the outside world.

Indeed, the U.S. defense industrial base appears to have provided an edge to the Ukrainians, allowing them, at times, to operate well inside the Kremlin’s decision cycle.

Back home, the conflict has reinforced a few persistent questions for the industrial base. For example, how do we quickly get the right tech, both cutting edge and legacy, into the hands of the people who need it? And how do we ensure that the supply base is ready to surge if required?

Getting tech quickly into the hands of people who need it requires the ability to identify goods and services that meet a need and execute contracts quickly. While this seems straight forward, the weapons systems and commercial capabilities ecosystem within the broader industrial base is vast, and a challenge to fully understand. The technology readiness levels of these capabilities are another layer contributing to the challenge.

The Defense Department’s “Request for Information for Ukraine Security Assistance” takes steps toward furthering the department’s understanding of the competitive landscape of this vast ecosystem. In some cases, it has shown the ability to quickly deliver contracts that have made a difference in the Ukrainian effort, like the procurement of AeroVironment’s Switchblade, a tube-launched loitering munition.

The conflict has also highlighted the importance of maintaining the capacity to surge military production. Surge readiness is a key component of the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual “Vital Signs” survey. In general, industry’s ability to surge production within a short period is limited. More than 90 percent of respondents to last year’s survey said their company could increase production by only zero to 20 percent within 90 days. Last year, 78 percent of survey respondents said the availability of skilled labor was a moderate or significant problem for their ability to surge military production.

The domestic war for talent and the impact of inflation on wages make the ability to surge production even harder.

For two years in a row, approximately 30 percent of the survey respondents said they were the Defense Department’s sole source of a military good or service. Recent policy interventions like increasing the progress payment rate during the pandemic have helped to shore up industry.

Similar interventions to address developing problems, like inflation, may be required to ensure that the full range of capabilities within the defense industrial base are available.

Later this summer, NDIA members will have an opportunity to share how the business environment is impacting their companies through our annual survey. We will send out an email and announce its availability through other platforms. When you receive the email, please take the survey. It helps the NDIA team tell your story. This year, we’ll include questions related to inflation, supply chain and talent management — all key issues that are impacting companies within the defense industry.

I am hopeful the war will end soon, but an end is not yet in sight. I am hopeful too, that there will be a complete and candid engagement with all stakeholders, including the defense industrial base and the government, on the lessons learned from the first 100-plus days of what may be a prolonged conflict.

Nick Jones is director of strategy at NDIA.

Topics: Global Defense Market

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