Key point: The Ukrainian fighting forces are now stronger, better armed and better trained.
It is indisputable that the main criterion for evaluating a country’s armed forces is its ability to perform tasks effectively in wartime. Nonetheless, the ability to use the defense budget as efficiently as possible can be an equally important means of evaluation, when each unit of investment can produce the greatest possible net positive effect. This approach is particularly useful for understanding the changes that have taken place in the Ukrainian armed forces since 2014.
Since the start of the confrontation with Russia, Ukraine’s defense spending has increased several times. In 2013, the budget of the Ukrainian armed forces was 15.2 billion hryvnia; in 2017, this figure was 64.4 billion hryvnia. In 2018, Ukraine allocated a record amount of 86.14 billion hryvnia for defense needs. However, such spectacular growth seems less drastic if you present the dynamics of the Ukrainian defense budget in dollar terms. Ukraine spent $ 1.9 billion on defense in 2013, $ 2.35 billion in 2017 and $ 3.02 billion in 2018. In terms of dollars, the military budget has not seen much. significant increase over the past four years.
However, compared to the beginning of 2014, the Ukrainian armed forces have improved considerably. First, the Ukrainian armed forces have grown from 157,000 (including 120,000 military) in 2014 to 250,000 (including 204,000 military) today. At the same time, at the start of the Russian aggression, only six thousand people – one brigade – were fully ready and able to carry out the orders of the political leadership. In 2013, the Ukrainian armed forces did not conduct any training at brigade or regimental level. In 2016, the Ministry of Defense of the White Paper of Ukraine recorded twenty exercises at the brigade level; ground forces conducted twenty-six brigade-level exercises in 2017.
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The situation of the armored forces has also improved. In 2014, a large number of tanks were unusable. Since then, there has been a strong desire to buy new tanks and armored vehicles or to modernize old tanks. The armed forces received a total of 4,142 tanks and armored vehicles in 2014, 3,227 units in 2015 and 530 units in 2016. Today Ukraine has met its needs for tanks and armored vehicles.
The Ukrainian air force has also improved qualitatively. Today, the Air Force has up to seventy-one fully functional fourth generation fighters (Su-27 and MiG-29). The Air Force has also increased the number of flight hours per crew from thirty-six to forty-six hours per year. Between 2014 and 2017, up to sixty fighters and bombers were modernized or repaired. In addition, work is underway to repair the air defense systems. By mid-2017, up to 65% of S-300PS / PT1 systems and 20% of Buk-M1 systems had been repaired. Today the armed forces have twenty-five S-300PS / PT1 system divisions, ten Buk-M1 divisions and one S-300V1 division.
Missile development activities are also worth mentioning. National tests of the Vilha system are scheduled for March 2018. This surface-to-surface missile system was developed on the basis of the Smerch multi-launch rocket system. It will allow the Ukrainian armed forces to conduct precision strikes up to 120 kilometers and replace the obsolete tactical missile complex Tochka-U. Development of the Neptune anti-ship cruise missile is also underway. The first public tests of the missile took place in January of this year. Once the tests are complete, Neptune will be deployed as a coastal missile complex and will eventually be installed on missile boats and fighter jets.
Over the past four years, Ukraine has managed to strengthen its defensive capabilities without drastically increasing its funding. One of the reasons is that the proportions of the defense budget distribution have changed: the share of procurement and modernization of weapons has increased by 10% since 2014. To understand how the allocated funds are spent, one needs to to mention that in 2013 Ukraine spent 10 percent ($ 190 million) of its military budget on the purchase – only got two modernized planes, five different radar systems, a training complex for the pilots, 194 navigation devices and twenty-eight radios! Another reason is the development of an internal audit and control system, as stipulated in the Strategic Defense Bulletin, which helps to use scarce resources efficiently. Overall, the available resources are mobilized more efficiently. Ukraine has made more progress in closing the gaps in combat readiness in four years than in the previous 20 years.
Mykola Bielieskov is Deputy Director of the Institute for World Politics in Kiev, Ukraine. This one first appeared in February 2018.