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Ukraine: Offensive versus defensive weapons

Yesterday (Ukraine: To win or not to win) I wrote that the Biden administration and the Zalensky administration in Ukraine had different objectives / goals in the conflict with Russia.  The prime Biden administration goal was escalation avoidance and a negotiated solution where Ukraine gave up some territory.  Ukraine’s objective, following tactical success against the Russians around Kyiv and in most urban areas assaulted by the Russians, is winning back all of its lost terrain.  In that article I mentioned the anti-ship missiles that the Brits had provided Ukraine and suggested that these reflected a possible split in NATO over objectives.  This begs the question of offensive versus defensive weapons.  Do the weapons supplied suggest an objective to be sought by the use of those weapons?

A short story.  In 1970, while a graduate student at UCLA, my faculty advisor gave me academic credit for writing a paper under the auspices of the RAND Corporation, where he was an adjunct contributor.  I was allowed to do this paper because I had a security clearance at the time.  The question was what type of weapons the US should provide Israel after the 1967 war?   The Israelis were seeking additional F-4 fighters.  In my short 10 page or so paper I concluded that it would be much more stabilizing if the US would provide M 109 155 howitzers rather than the jets.  The howitzers only had an 18-kilometer range and were critical for defense but could not conduct deep offensive operations, except in the case of artillery raids and other unique tactical maneuvers.  Conversely, the fighters could range over most of the critical parts of the middle-east and conduct offensive attacks.  To add stability to the region I supported the howitzers over the fighters.  This was the first time I ever thought about offensive versus defensive weapons.

As a ground maneuver force commander I considered all of my weapons systems as suited for either offensive or defensive operations.  The Russians have a formula that they apply for determining whether they have sufficient combat power for an operation.  It is called correlation of forces.  Different types of weapons systems against different types of foes provide, when cumulated and compared, a ratio that the Russians use to determine whether more forces are needed.  For example, for a main attack they needed a numerical superiority of 8:1. In the US we were taught that an attacking force should have an advantage of about 3:1.  In short, the advantage went to the defender in terms of the amount of forces required.  The defender has the advantage of prepared positions, mine fields and other obstacles, etc. 

However, in the defense there are opportunities for offensive operations to exploit observed weaknesses in the enemy’s deployments.  Such limited objective raids or other forms of attack can disrupt his formations and his time tables and buy time for other exploitations or to strengthen the defenses.  One would hope that it this form of attacks that the Ukrainians have in mind so as to defeat small parts of the Russian force, one small piece at a time.  They have already sunk a Russian cruiser (the Muskov) in the port of Mariupol with an anti-ship missile.  Does denying the Russians the use of the port weaken the Russian’s supply lines?

The Ukrainians have what military tacticians would call interior lines. Interior lines is a strategy of warfare that is based on the concept that lines of movement, communication, and supply within an area are shorter than those on the outside. Using the strategy of interior lines, a surrounded force can more easily supply, communicate, and move its forces around, and can mount a series of surprise attacks on the forces encircling it. If the Ukrainians can use their movement advantages to mass their forces for attacks to attrit and divide the Russian forces they may be able to “win” by making it so that the Russians cannot achieve any opportunities to inflict serious damage on the Ukrainian forces. 

Large World War II types of tank battles as envisaged in yesterday’s paper by Ukrainian sources are most likely not to the Ukrainians advantage until the Russians have been greatly attrited, if at all. No matter what form of operations the Ukrainians choose to engage in they will need armored vehicles—tanks and personnel carriers.  Attack helicopters would be a definite plus if they have trained pilots. 

Clausewitz argues that the superiority of the defense may leave both sides with no incentive to attack and thus ‘tame the elementary impetuosity of war.’ However, he also argues that it is the offensive force which can win.  This is the exact position that the Ukrainians find themselves in.  They need to avoid massing their forces to avoid the massive fire power advantage that the Russians have and choose their offensive opportunities.

The recent addition of helicopters to the US provided equipment may not be an indicator of a change in the US posture.  The news also showed a battalion of M109 howitzers (18 tubes and associated command and control and supply vehicles) on trains reportedly headed for Ukraine.  These weapons are no more offensive than defensive, as noted earlier.  But could indicate a slight modification of the US objective.  Time will tell.

An addition by a NATO member of offensive capable fighter aircraft could be a definitive indicator of a change in NATO’s goals and objectives.


  1. Col Mike Reavey, USAF, ret says:

    Good stuff Bruce – still would like some Mercs flying Warthogs resurrected from the DMAFB boneyard.


  2. […] negotiated settlement with some form of appeasement of Russia.  Subsequently, I wrote about a movement within NATO and later the US away from purely defensive weapons towards offensive or more multi-purposed […]


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