Ukraine’s effort to fully and rapidly modernize its military to deter Russia has a multibillion-dollar price tag — way beyond its means.
President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration, however, suggests that foreign allies, namely the United States, could foot most of the bill.
During his latest visit to the U.S., Zelensky presented a $277 billion plan that can theoretically see Ukraine’s development boom in the next decade.
The plan envisages as much as $25 billion-plus to enhance the country’s Armed Forces — most of which would be covered by U.S. defense aid.
With this money, Zelensky wants to finally move on from the uphill battle of reviving Ukraine’s dwindled navy and its rapidly aging air force, and much more.
Experts believe, despite high costs, such a grand plan is still a possibility — and basically, the only way Ukraine can truly rearm in the foreseeable future.
But the key question is whether Ukraine would be capable of making proper use of such a generous gift.
Before obtaining additional billions for modern fighter jets, the country’s defense sector still has to overcome its overwhelming bureaucracy and poor financing.
Long wish list
Zelensky presented his program on Aug. 31 at Fred W. Smith National Library in Washington, D.C., to an audience of representatives of leading U.S. think tanks and journalists.
Titled “A Greater Justice and Opportunity – Building Prosperous and Resilient Ukraine,” it was summarized the following day on Zelensky’s official website. But more details have been appearing in the media.
The plan envisages nearly 80 different projects in infrastructure, transport, energy, and agriculture over the next 5 to 10 years. The total value — $277 billion — is effectively twice the amount of Ukraine’s annual domestic product in 2020, or nearly five times its annual state budget.
According to the plan, Ukraine will cover the costs from budget funding but is also seeking international assistance, loans and investments.
The result should be a Ukraine that is a major “digital, infrastructural and agrarian hub” of Europe, “a security vanguard” — and, importantly, “the most reliable U.S. ally in the region.”
The program foresees Ukraine enhancing NATO’s southern flank against the threat from Russia.
The project includes a long shopping list that, according to the concept, can be covered mostly by the U.S. Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and Excess Defense Articles (EDA) programs, loans and investments.
First, Zelensky wants to ask donors for $4.3 billion for boosting Ukraine’s naval power, which currently consists of a handful of obsolete warships. The program envisages acquiring new vessels, minesweepers and surveillance aircraft, as well as building new naval bases.
When it comes to the ground forces, the aim is to enhance its artillery reconnaissance, which is often mentioned as Ukraine’s weak spot, and obtain more short- and medium-range missile systems and counter-battery radars.
The price tag is $6.1 billion, of which $3.3 billion is expected to be received through “international support.”
Ukraine’s Air Force is planned as the biggest would-be recipient, involving $14 billion, with $13.5 billion of it to be received from abroad.
The administration wants to purchase new jets, drones, and helicopters to replace Ukraine’s Soviet-era air fleet, whose operational capacity, according to the military authorities, will become obsolete by the 2030s.
The proposed spending corresponds to a roadmap for the air force’s modernization by 2035, according to which the military command recommended allocating at least Hr 320 billion ($12 billion) over the next 15 years to preserve Ukraine’s air power.
The country’s air force has repeatedly signaled its desire to get U.S.-made, 4+ generation fighter jets – General Dynamics F-16 Block 70/72 or McDonnell Douglas F-15EXs.
Some $110 million (including $50 million as international support) would be allocated for cybersecurity, and a further $500 million (including $450 million as U.S. assistance) for medical support.
The plan also wants the international community to allocate $157 million to enable Ukraine to set up a scientific center researching “individuals affected by unknown gasses.”
It is not clear what the research would entail. The Ministry of Defense hasn’t replied to the Kyiv Post’s request for an explanation.
In general, the military aspect alone comes to nearly $25 billion, of which Ukraine itself is ready to allocate nearly $4 billion.
According to the plan, on its own, it would take Ukraine some 30 years to implement the projects. With international assistance, they could be completed by 2025.
More to pay
Experts consider the proposed allocations as unrealistically excessive. However, the U.S. has already run multibillion packages to help its key allies build up their militaries.
The most obvious instance is Afghanistan, where the U.S. spent nearly $86 billion on security and defense, although the 20-year effort infamously turned out to be futile.
Ukraine in its turn has so far consumed nearly $2 billion in U.S. security assistance since the outbreak of Russia’s war in 2014.
This includes obtaining mothballed U.S. military hardware at no costs to Ukraine, such as the ongoing handover of five Island-class patrol boats, two of which are already flying the Ukrainian flag.
Zelensky’s plan, meanwhile suggests assistance programs on a far larger scale. And this is where Ukraine’s leadership often has a hard time keeping up.
Although it was recently increased, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry budget for 2022 is currently expected to reach Hr 131 billion ($4.9 billion), which nevertheless is only 55% of what the military had requested from the government.
Even though this is a new record, just Hr 33 billion ($1.2 billion) is to be allocated for armed forces’ weaponry and hardware.
Meanwhile, a truly massive program of acquiring U.S. hardware in the form of aid would still require serious expenses from Kyiv, says Taras Chmut, a marine veteran and chief editor of the Ukrainian Military Portal website.
“It very rarely happens that a recipient nation gets ready-to-operate aid hardware at absolutely no cost,” Chmut says.
“If you get used aircraft, you get them as they are. Transportation, repairs, modernization, maintenance, personnel training, munitions, etc. are for your country’s budget to accommodate. This means millions and millions of dollars,” he says.
In the case of the Island-class boats, even though they were provided at no cost, Kyiv nonetheless had to spend over $10 million to integrate the first two into its navy in early 2020. Three more vessels are expected by the end of 2021.
The handover of Island-class boats also revealed grave organizational issues within Ukraine’s administration.
It took more than three years of bureaucratic ping pong in Kyiv to finally arrive at a political decision on obtaining the vessels. The process was stalled even though the Ukrainian navy, desolated by Russia’s occupation of Crimea, had been desperate for replenishments.
“And then it took more time to get three more that we expect this year,” says Chmut.
“And this whole process constantly runs into lots of problems from the Ukrainian side. We sometimes find it hard to find crew members; we don’t have a base where to deploy them; we can’t decide on how to modernize them; and we run short of money to buy American-made hardware for them.”
The U.S. usually gradually switches from smaller assistance projects to grand multi-billion programs. To be able to continue receiving the Western aid, Ukraine needs to be far more effective in making use of it, the expert says.
“But while we still find it challenging to acquire a 168-ton boat, the U.S. is not going to talk about something bigger.”
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