Russia and Ukraine have a lot of the same tanks and jets, but Kyiv has a decisive 'flesh and bone' advantage, top US enlisted leader says
- Russia and Ukraine have often fought against each other using the same military hardware.
- But Ukraine has a "human dynamic" advantage that Russia lacks, a top US enlisted leader said.
Ukraine has a decisive "flesh and bone" advantage over Russia, an edge on the battlefield that comes from people, not weapons, a top US enlisted leader said this week.
Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine over a year ago, the two sides have often squared off against each other using the same Soviet-era military equipment, from tanks to combat aircraft.
Throughout the war, the US and other NATO allies have been steadily increasing the amount of security assistance for Ukraine, outfitting Kyiv with billions of dollars in advanced artillery systems, missile defense batteries, and other deadly weapons. These weapons have had a tremendous impact, even as the Ukrainian military continues to rely heavily on its Soviet-era systems, but it's the human element of Ukraine's military that is key, a senior military official said.
Ramón Colón-López, who serves as the senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the war in Ukraine has shown him "the decisive advantage that the human brings" to the battlefield and that "humans are more important than hardware."
Speaking before heading to Europe to meet with NATO counterparts, Colón-López said this human aspect applies both within a military's special forces and its conventional army. Having the "will and the pride to fight for your nation" is much more important for winning than technology, he said, adding that the situation in Ukraine proves the need for militaries to prioritize their troops' development, education, and training.
Colón-López compared the conflict in Ukraine to a football game, with both sides hitting the field with similar equipment. "It all boils down to the execution and the strategy that actually decides who is the victor in that game," he said. "It's no different in the military. And that is exactly what the Ukrainians have done."
"At the end of the day, the rivets and steel is not as important as the flesh and bone if the flesh and bone is not willing to go all-in in the execution of the wartime mission," he said, according to a transcript of his comments provided by the Pentagon on Tuesday.
Ukraine went 'all in' on NCO development
One important aspect of Ukraine's ability to keep the invading Russian forces at bay has been its development of its non-commissioned officers, or NCOs, which are higher-ranking enlisted soldiers who aren't commissioned as officers. US and Ukrainian officials have praised the role of Ukraine's NCOs during the conflict for being leaders on the front lines.
Ukraine overhauled its force after Russia's initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014, when it illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula and backed a separatist movement in the eastern Donbas region, fueling years of war. Ukraine had previously relied on Soviet military tactics and doctrine after it became an independent country in 1991, but starting in 2015, the US military began training Ukrainian NCOs.
"The government of Ukraine decided to go all in on an NCO development model," Colón-López said this week. "They wanted to Westernize their approach. So, immediately, they enlisted the help of the United States and also of NATO to go ahead and shift their mechanism and their procedures."
Military leaders introduced NCO training and education based on models from NATO militaries, Colón-López said, rooted in the idea that it would strengthen junior leadership. These NCOs were crucial components of Ukraine's chain of command and had to develop tactics and train new recruits. "That is the force that you see fighting today," he added.
Well-trained NCOs give an army more flexibility in combat situations by allowing leaders on the battlefield to make the kind of quick decisions required to gain the advantage. Russia's military, which is overly focused on senior officers, does not have an NCO corps and has been bogged down in Ukraine by numerous command-and-control issues, too heavily relying on its outdated tactic of upper-level leadership.
This is one of several problems that have interfered with Russian President Vladimir Putin's war ambitions— others include communication blunders, logistical failures, and the fact that Moscow has also been relying on poorly trained and ill-prepared troops out on the front lines.
"It is the human dynamic that is actually tipping the scales on victory versus failure out on that battlefield," he said. "It is definitely a decisive advantage that the Ukrainians have that the Russians do not."
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