Allies’ ‘main effort’ for Ukraine shifting from donating weapons to fixing them

“We’re setting up repair facilities in Europe, we’re translating [training and repair] manuals, we have to do much more together so there’s going to be more of a focus on that” by partner nations, the Pentagon’s acquisition and sustainment chief, William LaPlante, said in an interview.

Keeping billions of dollars worth of modern equipment in working order so Kyiv can continue its counteroffensive is one of the primary functions of a 22-nation working group led by the U.S., Poland and the U.K., with LaPlante leading the charge.

The working group, dedicated to sustainment not only for Ukraine, but to restocking U.S. and European defense warehouses, meets regularly as part of the 50-nation Ukraine Defense Contact Group led by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, which had its latest monthly gathering Tuesday to work through what else on Kyiv’s wishlist can be agreed to.

“We have regular conversations” with Ukrainian counterparts, LaPlante said. “What more do they need? Are there more parts we can send? We’re actually tracking what’s called the availability rate of each one of these systems,” in near real-time.

The group has already helped the Ukrainians set up a supply support effort that is tracking over 4,000 supply lines for high-demand spare parts for the international hodgepodge of equipment that has been donated.

The list of equipment sent to Ukraine over the past 17 months is staggering in both how quickly it has arrived as well as its diversity. It ranges from German tanks to American howitzers to Italian air defenses to British, Polish, Canadian, French and Czech vehicles.

And the shipments keep coming. In the Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting that took place this week, the focus was on mine-clearing vehicles and equipment and short-range, mobile air defenses, according to one person familiar with the closed talks who was granted anonymity to discuss their content.

After the meeting, the U.S. announced a new $1.3 billion military aid package for Ukraine which includes over 300 armored vehicles and four National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems for Kyiv, long-term commitments that will come with sustainment packages that will last years.

The multinational petting zoo of modern capabilities and international supply lines would strain any country’s ability to keep up during peacetime, but doing so while fighting a war and relying on the generosity of foreign partners only adds to the complexity.

Readiness rates of equipment have been a major concern for Kyiv since the start of the war. Russia has been able to reach into its deep stockpiles to throw more equipment, and more troops, into the fight at every turn. In contrast, Ukraine is working with equipment that is either decades-old Russian stock or is still relatively new to them, and much of the most serious repair work still needs to be shipped to places such as Poland or Czechia before making the long trip back to Ukraine.

Kyiv has long expressed concern over the availability of many of those donated systems, as some vehicles and weapons pulled from U.S. and allied warehouses have arrived in need of repair.

While the sustainment working group has made strides, the realities of national politics and government bureaucracy also have a say in what moves, and when.

A plan for Berlin and Warsaw to establish a joint repair center in Poland for Ukrainian Leopard 2 tanks fell apart this month amid disagreements over the cost of the work, leaving some damaged tanks to sit unused as they await repair.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius traveled to Poland to try and jumpstart the repair center effort, which was originally slated to begin in May. Berlin has since walked away from the deal, and now it appears the work will be done in Germany and Lithuania at a later date.

The U.K. government has been more successful acting unilaterally, inking a $60 million deal with British defense firm Babcock this month to repair Challenger 2 tanks and other combat vehicles donated to Ukraine. The contract “delivers essential support for Ukraine on the battlefield,” Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said in a statement.

The counteroffensive has proven difficult for Ukraine’s forces as they fight their way through dense minefields to reach well-defended Russian trench lines. Those initial assaults have led to some well-publicized losses of U.S.-made Bradley fighting vehicles and hulking mine-resistant troop carriers, along with some damaged German Leopard tanks.

If repairable, getting those vehicles back to the front is at the top of the agenda.

With the repair infrastructure established over the past year, LaPlante said, teams behind the lines are able to “instantly get that information and then we find the fix, and we get it working.

“And I really want to give the credit to the Ukrainians, they’re the ones doing it,” he added. “But we’re making sure that they have everything that they need. And if the parts have to come from a country halfway around the world, we make sure we get it to them. So the sustainment is actually most of the work going on right now.”

The U.S. has also translated over 700 technical manuals for donated weapons into Ukrainian, and has canvassed defense firms around the globe in order to secure technical data packages for the systems.

The working group is also holding a series of sessions with defense firms from the U.S. and Europe to understand what more they can do to help both in the short and long term, with a particular focus on how to manufacture more artillery munitions, which the Ukrainians are burning through quickly.

When it comes to the cannons themselves, which are wearing out from constant use, the Ukrainians have taken to using 3D printers to make their own spare parts.

“They’ve been just printing them right there in the country,” LaPlante said. “Initially they were printing them by reverse engineering as best they could, and the fact that it didn’t last as long as the original part, they didn’t care because they got it very quickly.”

For Kyiv, speed is at the forefront of their efforts to keep their brand-new vehicles and weapons in the fight.

Speaking after the Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting on Tuesday, Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley warned that the counteroffensive is still in its early stages, and “there’s a lot of fighting left to go.”

Standing beside him in the Pentagon, Austin added that Western partners need to keep flowing weapons and support into Ukraine. “Ukraine is fighting for its life,” he said. “The stakes are high.”

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