About European Troops in Ukraine, F-16s, and Problems in the Training of Ukrainian Military — Interview with Jahara Matisek, U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel

Jahara Matisek, U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Новина оновлена 08 березня 2024, 11:28
Jahara Matisek, U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel. Фото Collage by Telegraf

Putin is drawing more and more "red" lines, but he has never said anything about the EU-flagged mission in Ukraine.

The U.S. Department of Defense funds the Minerva Research Initiative, and one Minerva team is collecting information and assessing foreign military assistance efforts. Researchers have experience conducting fieldwork interviews in Iraq, Afghanistan, Niger, and Mali. Currently, their attention, among other things, is focused on Ukraine.

Information on certain issues is obtained thanks to previously established contacts with Ukrainian soldiers, previous non-DoD trips to Ukraine, and communication with our military personnel who arrive in Europe for training. "Telegraf" recorded an exclusive interview with one of the researchers of the Minerva program. Jahara Matisek is a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force and a military professor in the national security affairs department at the U.S. Naval War College.

"I’ve been to Ukraine in August of 2021. I was in Kyiv and went all the way down to Odesa, met a lot of people in the Ukrainian military, civil society actors, and politicians. The nice thing is everyone I've met and I've stayed in contact with, is alive. We have a person on our team who is a pure civilian and goes to the Ukrainian front. He uses his own money to travel on his own holiday leave time to Ukraine where he links up with people we know.

The cool thing is we can meet and talk to Ukrainians all across Europe because they're being trained in the UK, Germany, and so on. Just a few weeks ago, we were in the Berlin area visiting all bases where the Ukrainians were being trained under the authority of the European Union Military Assistance Mission in Support of Ukraine," Jahara Matisek explains to "Telegraf".

What problems arise with the training of Ukrainian soldiers, why Western equipment is sometimes delivered to Ukraine in bad condition, and why European troops in Ukraine are becoming a more realistic idea, read below.

"We did not envision this kind of war"

— Before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the world, including the United States, had not faced this type of war. The U.S. had the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan, but these are completely different combat conditions and completely different needs of the army. Do you think that the Western/American approach to the war in Ukraine was initially a little wrong?

— I think it is obviously a very different kind of war that we, from a very American perspective, did not envision would happen because the way we fight is typically not like this.

The first thing in our primary doctrine or approach to warfare is to establish air supremacy. What does it mean to establish air supremacy in any conflict? I want to eliminate all weapons and aircraft that can threaten my ability to operate in the air domain. So that means you go after all air defenses and air bases, and you make sure your adversary is not going to launch any aircraft.

It makes a more permissive environment for us to then send in other aircraft that play more of like support role for the ground forces in the offensive. These are aircraft that are usually slower, and less maneuverable, but can do a lot more damage than the initial frontal air force attack that is usually stealth and more about precision.

So that follow-on force once you establish air superiority is, for example, things like AC-130s, A-10s, F-15s, and F-16s. That initial kick-down-the-door force to establish air supremacy would be stealth bombers and stealth fighters like F-22s and F-35s. That is the American way of fighting.

American gunship AC-130, called the "angel of death"
American gunship AC-130, called the "angel of death"

Was the Western approach to the way of the war in Ukraine initially a little wrong? Yes, 100%. We are trained to fight in a certain way and the term we now use is "large-scale combat operations", which is very much about command and control, having all domain awareness, having access to the entire electromagnetic spectrum. We're highly networked and we're about being highly efficient in delivering precision munitions.

We were watching the war in Ukraine since 2014. And we were watching the smaller conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia that has been unfolding for the last few years as well. But I guess there was never really much of a true introspection from the American perspective on how we fight because we looked at how the Russians and Ukrainians are doing combat and were like, "Well, why are you fighting like that? That's not a good way to do it."

And it is difficult for us from an American and even a NATO perspective to then be like, "Okay, Ukrainian forces, we're going to train you to fight the way we fight and we're going to try and maybe adapt it to your situation." Unfortunately, as you've probably seen in my articles, there isn’t much of an adaptation by Western military advisors. I'm hearing Ukrainian troops complaining about how Western forces are basically still teaching them to fight and do maneuvers as if they're in Iraq and Afghanistan. The biggest difference between the war in Ukraine versus Iraq and Afghanistan is the fact that in the latter case you're dealing with insurgents who don't have all of the high-tech weaponry that Russia has.

The war in Ukraine is turning into a World War I type of conflict, but with lots of modern, updated, and innovative weapons increasingly being fielded on the front that we are describing as a sort of cyberpunk form of warfare because it is blending old fighting styles with new technology. It's turning into a war of attrition. I think we've heard about the Ukrainians killing and destroying Russian soldiers and their equipment around Avdiivka at a ratio of like 13 to one. It’s just insane that the Ukrainians were able to do that. But it also reflects Russian mass. Eventually, Ukrainians had to leave their positions because they didn't have enough ammo to hold off modern-day Zhukov's meat wave attacks due to stalled American military aid packages.

1200 F-16s that would be a game changer

— You’ve mentioned air supremacy. In your opinion, will the F-16 fighter jets be a game changer in this war?

— If instead of 12 Ukraine had 1200 F-16s and a couple thousand pilots to fly them, that would be a game changer, for example. If I remember correctly, by the end of 2024, Ukraine should have at least 40 to 50 fighter jets inside of the country but that's still just not enough to make it a true game changer.

In theory, as the Ukrainians run out of parts to keep MiG-29s and Sukhoi’s flying, the F-16s should provide a little more capability, a very small comparative advantage against the Russians. But we don't know what weapons and sensors are going to be installed on these F-16s because these are things that make the fighter jets an effective platform in the modern battle space.

— How long will it take Ukrainian pilots to be skilled enough to conduct combat operations?

— It is a tough question to answer. But to make the most lethal American fighter pilots as good as they can be at air-to-air combat, air-to-ground combat, flying in formation with a four-ship of F-16s, can take about four to six years. Now, that's the American way of fighting, right? We've seen the news reports about American pilots being impressed with the way Ukrainians have been showing them how they've employed their aircraft and how they would employ an F-16. At this point, it's all about the time value of investing in certain abilities of pilots.

I don't know how the Ukrainians are planning on using F-16s, but I would assume they're going to use them as a missile or a bomb boat, which is loaded up with as many munitions as possible, obviously much more than a MiG-29 or a Sukhoi, and trying to get really high up in altitude and basically lob these weapons as far as possible to interdict Russian supply lines and logistics.

F-16s can be used on the front in a close air support role to basically help the Ukrainians to punch through in certain areas. Now, of course, the problem is F-16s are not stealth jets. So there is a lot more danger to doing this. The thing that is going to increasingly help with fielding F-16s, and maybe this is an intentional Ukrainian strategy, is to get the Russians to stop flying their A-50 AWACS. Having an AWACS is important for understanding the air domain because it facilitates targeting and how to properly attack enemy aircraft and defend your airspace.

Depending on what sensors, radars, and weapons the F-16s get, if it's better or on par with the Russians, then we're looking at a possibility of the Ukrainians actually being able to make a pretty good dent initially. I'm not trying to damper any hopes on how F-16s are going to be employed, but I assume the Ukrainians are going to be very judicious about their use and they're going to look for opportunities to really exploit Russian vulnerabilities.

Are the Ukrainian pilots skilled enough to conduct combat operations? It depends on how you want the pilots to employ the F-16. So if you say that these are the three tasks that we're going to use fighter jets for and that's what NATO countries are training the Ukrainians for, then you can train those pilots to be pretty good. You make them as capable as possible. So yes, they could be quite effective assuming they stick to very few combat tasks with the aircraft.

About the quality of weapons delivered to Ukraine

— A study for the Royal United Services Institute, where you are one of the authors, indicates some technical malfunctions of the military equipment that the West delivered to Ukraine. Why could this happen? Was there not enough control over the condition of the equipment, or something else had an impact?

— Yes, it was a quality control issue, and a lot of that could be attributed to the fact that there just wasn't anybody or any organization essentially held accountable for the quality of weapons, ammo, and other systems that were donated to Ukraine by the U.S. and other NATO contributing countries. A lot of this could have been alleviated by basically having sergeants do a common-sense check before all this stuff was trucked over the border into Ukraine.

Now, we actually do know that a lot of the equipment from the U.S. side was coming from a depot in Kuwait. And it seems like the unit there that was tasked with keeping all this equipment in tip-top shape and up to readiness standards was not doing their job, right? So again, the question is who was being held accountable for the equipment that was going over the border into Ukraine? It seems like there just wasn't a mechanism for that. And I'm unaware if there is a mechanism for that now, but I really hope so.

The only stopgap measure is drones

— Ukraine has entered the third year of the full-scale war. As you’ve mentioned, it has already become a war of attrition. In your opinion, what key changes should occur in the approach of the West to arming Ukraine? What should be done to ensure that the Ukrainian Armed Forces get the initiative on the battlefield?

— It seems like the only way for the situation to change in favor of the Ukrainians is by being able to field tens of thousands of autonomous AI-enabled drones every week on the frontlines. So I'm talking about ground drones that can basically be used for trench assaults. I'm talking the plethora of things you can do with air drones, underwater drones, and sea drones. From a Western perspective, we're going to have to find a way to help the Ukrainians do this because Ukraine appears unable right now to mobilize the needed forces to make the shift towards attrition against the Russians.

So the only stopgap measure at this point, as President Zelensky tries to mobilize another 500,000 Ukrainians for war, is going to be drones, drones, drones, and once again drones. At that point, it becomes a war of industry as if it's World War II, and obviously Ukraine still needs a major infusion of artillery and other ammo, but a massive amount of drones will tip this war one way or the other. And the question again: is the U.S. and all of Europe willing to help Ukraine outproduce Russia with better drones to basically remove all the occupying Russian troops from Ukrainian soil?

European Union-flagged mission troops in Ukraine

— How should the approach to the training of Ukrainian soldiers change? After all, it is no secret that sometimes training courses were too short and as you said did not take into account the reality that the Ukrainian army faces in the fight against the Russians.

— When we visit bases in England, Germany, and elsewhere, we talk to the U.S. and NATO trainers and advisors. Their main concern is a lack of time to produce the quality Ukrainian troops that they think Ukraine should have. And of course, the problem is Ukraine needs people on the front, right? So you have to juggle the time away of Ukrainian troops in Western Europe bases versus the need for the personnel on the front to stop the Russian meat wave attacks. So a lot of U.S. and NATO trainers usually say, "I wish I had twice or triple the time with these folks so that we can make them as highly effective as possible."

Ukraine needs troops but doesn’t have enough time. It is a really tough situation. But you don't get everything you want in a war, right? The Ukrainian colonels and generals tell us, "This is the most time we can afford to get troops up to the standards that we need for the war." They have to constantly evaluate the risk. These are the sort of risk concern calculations that our American leaders have not had to make since World War II.

— At the same time, discussions regarding the possibility of deployment of NATO troops to Ukraine have intensified in recent weeks. While some countries reject such a possibility, there are also those who call for thinking about such a thing. In your opinion, how realistic is this idea, and is it a bad or good idea?

— You said NATO troops. Let's not say NATO troops. Let's say European Union-flagged mission troops. And I think the framing of this and the narratives actually matter, because we heard the other day that Putin said, "Do not put NATO troops in Ukraine, that'll escalate. I have weapons to target your territories, if you do this", right? Putin is doing more of his imaginary "red" lines. But he has never talked about the EU troops in Ukraine and doesn’t complain about European Union expansion eastward as he does with NATO.

The European countries already have a military mission to train Ukrainians. You could easily extend that mission into going directly to Ukraine and expand the mandate to protect the border along Belarus. You could also put the EU-flagged troops into major cities even as far east as Dnipro, to protect the cities from Russian war crimes like the intentional targeting of civilian population centers and critical infrastructure. Under the guise of an EU-flagged mission, this is very doable and plausible, and it is not escalatory because these troops would only be there to protect the borders from another invasion from the north, and to protect Ukrainian cities.

Ireland, a non-NATO country, is also contributing to the European Union training mission in Western Europe. So if you could include Irish troops in this protective force inside of Ukraine, it gives even more legitimacy to this not being a NATO mission, but an EU one. And just because it's the EU mission, does not mean you cannot have other countries outside of the European Union contribute to that. So guess what, the Norwegians and the Brits could easily also contribute their forces as could Australia and South Korea.

Training of Ukrainian Military. Photo by General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine

— It seems like a really good point. I also do not remember Putin saying something regarding European Union missions. He is focused on the rhetoric about NATO.

— Politicians, especially in Europe, keep saying, "No NATO troops in Ukraine." You don't have to call them NATO troops. They are European Union-flagged troops. And then people are like, "If a French, British or German soldier is killed inside of Ukraine, that means automatically Article 5 of NATO." No, that's not how it works!

People have this really bizarre understanding of NATO and Article 5. Did people forget that for the last 20 years, U.S. and NATO countries troops have been doing missions all over Africa and the Middle East and they were dying and nobody was saying, "Oh, yeah, we got to invoke Article 5 and invade this country"?

— As we all know, Article 5 was used only once and it was because of the 9/11 attacks. And the mechanism was completely different.

— Yes. That's why I got extra passionate about this because people don't understand NATO Article 5. When a missile or a drone from Russia lands in Poland or Romania, so-called self-proclaimed war experts say, "Automatic Article 5, we have to invade Russia." I bet a dozen more drones and Russian missiles could land in these countries and it doesn't mean the Alliance has to mobilize for full-scale war to invade Russia and go to Moscow. It just means we would probably put more air defenses in Romania and Poland.

I think that the European Union-flagged mission is going to become a logical step in the progression of the war because, at the current rate, it does not look good for the Ukrainians if they don't get a fresh infusion of capable forces.

In my article for CEPA, I did the math, and it seems like an EU-flagged mission like this would probably free up at least 20 brigades of Ukrainian troops. Ukraine could definitely use those on the front.

— It would be a huge practical contribution of the European countries to Ukrainian security.

— And then it becomes incumbent upon Putin’s calculation, "Do I really want to test the resolve of European Union-flagged troops or try to purposely target them in major Ukrainian cities like Dnipro, Odesa, Kyiv, and Lviv?" Because guess what? If he targets them, Europe will probably send more troops with improved weapon systems making them better at defending their positions. It works in favor of the European Union because there will be really drastic consequences if Russia can actually win in Ukraine.

The real crux is the training of Ukrainian forces

— The last but not least question. One of the areas of cooperation between NATO and Ukraine is bringing the Ukrainian army up to Alliance standards. In your opinion, how long will it take for the Ukrainian Armed Forces to meet the requirements of NATO? And what West and Ukrainian Ministry of Defense should focus on now?

— As part of my trip to Ukraine in 2021, I went to the Odesa Military Academy. And Ukrainian officers talked to me about the way they were teaching cadets, and about their curriculum and doctrine. And while they told me they were doing everything up to NATO standards, it did not really come across as actual NATO standards. The best way I would describe it was like they had gone to Wikipedia and looked up "NATO standards" and used all the words and fluff, but there was no actual substance to this. It was a group of officers that were all basically over the age of 40-50 talking to me about this. In many ways, you can't just transition from the Soviet mentality to Western training standards overnight.

At this point, it's probably going to take about five to 10 years to truly have a substantive NATO standard inside of Ukraine. And maybe getting more Ukrainian colonels and generals to spend time being trained by the Western trainers. Because the more time you spend around the Americans, Canadians, and Europeans, the more you start to understand the way we think about war planning processes and how to fight.

I think the real crux is the training and education of Ukrainian forces. Unfortunately, again, this is a problem of time and availability. We can't just pull out a few hundred officers for a year from the Ukrainian military and be like, "We're going to train and educate you comprehensively and holistically to NATO standards. So that when you go back to your units, you'll be like the NATO unicorn and you'll be able to fix all the problems in your unit, and upscale it." It doesn't work like that. And also, Ukraine can't afford to lose a few hundred of their best officers to do something like that.

It sounds like the Canadians are open to the idea of conducting training and education inside of Ukraine. It is so highly disruptive having to pull Ukrainian troops out of the country and get them into the U.K., Germany, or Baltics. It just takes a lot of time. So moving training and education programs inside of Ukraine would actually make things much more effective.

The views expressed are those of Jahara Matisek and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Air Force, U.S. Naval War College, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. His research is supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research under award number FA9550-20-1-0277.