The Complex

Ukraine's Military: Undermanned, Underfunded, and in Trouble

The Ukrainian government called for the mobilization of 130,000 troops on Monday, threatening to take on the Russian military if tensions on Ukraine's Crimean peninsula boil over into a full-scale armed conflict between the two nations. There's a major problem for leaders in Kiev, however: While Ukraine's military is stronger than the one Russia devastated when it conquered parts of Georgia in 2008, it is still under-funded, undermanned and poorly equipped to take on a vastly superior foe, experts said.

The tensions simmered as Russia and Ukraine also exchanged a war of words about their intentions. Russian forces seized or surrounded multiple Ukrainian military bases in Crimea, and Ukraine accused Russia of issuing an ultimatum to Ukrainian leaders to withdraw their forces, or watch their bases be stormed. Russia countered that it had issued no such demands, leaving it unclear what could occur.

Regardless, Ukraine is in trouble if Russia escalates its use of military force in Crimea. Ukraine's military has shrunk dramatically since 1991, when the Soviet Union fell to pieces and the Cold War ended. At that time, there were some 700,000 active-duty Ukrainian forces. The military there now numbers closer to 130,000, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer told Foreign Policy. Just as significantly, Ukraine has done little to upgrade their military equipment and weapons since then, leaving it a generation behind if facing the muscular Russian military.

The Ukrainian military was able to keep the best of its military equipment as it down-sized, but "has had a very rough time of it in budgets going back almost 20 years," Pifer, now a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, told FP. "They have purchased some new systems, but it's probably pretty much what they inherited in 1991."

The status of the Ukrainian military has become an increasingly important issue since Russia conquered and occupied Crimea late last week. Officials in the U.S., Ukraine, and other allied countries have decried the move as a violation of Ukraine's sovereignty, while Russia has said it is a necessary move to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Crimea, a border peninsula where a majority of the population remains loyal to ousted President Victor Yanukovych  and sees the new pro-Western government in Kiev as illegitimate.

The Ukrainian military has affiliated itself with the United States and other allied countries for years, sending troops to Afghanistan, the Balkans, and on anti-piracy missions, said Adm. James Stavridis (ret.), who left the U.S. military as the supreme allied commander of NATO last year.

"They operated effectively with us during the Libyan crisis," Stavridis, now dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, told FP. "While not highly skilled or particularly well-equipped, I found their troops to be willing and capable within the bounds of their training and the restrictions of their less-than-optimal logistics."

Those shortcomings now loom large, however. On the navy side, for example, Ukraine's military has about 22 vessels of various kinds, including five missile cruisers, according to Jane's Defence Weekly. Ukraine had at least one other cruiser, the Ukraina, under construction, but delayed it several years ago and was considering allowing several other countries, including Russia, to use it as recently as last year. Russia was said to be blocking two Ukrainian military ships into port on Monday, and Ukrainian officials said Russian forces had demanded that their crews surrender. Russia, by contrast, has dozens in the Crimean port of Sevastopol alone.

Ukraine also has a fleet of about 1,100 tanks, but hundreds of them are now rusting in a "tank grave yard" in the Ukrainian town of Kharkiv, about 20 miles from the Russian border, according to the Daily Mail newspaper in London. The best of the bunch is the T-84, an upgraded version of the Soviet-era T-80 tank. It has about a dozen of those.

Ukraine has about 200 combat aircraft, including a single squadron of Russian-built SU-27 fighter jets based in Crimea, one of which was spotted over the weekend armed with an unusually large 10-missile armament. But Russia's fighter jet fleet is much larger, and it is expanding its fleet of new SU-30SM planes through a deal between Putin's government and Irkut, the Russian aircraft maker. Overall, it is believed to have about 1,400 combat aircraft, according to the website Flightglobal.

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. and some of its allies have worked regularly with the Ukrainian military, primarily to build familiarity for when leaders decide to partner on missions. But F. Stephen Larrabee, an expert on European security with the Rand Corporation, said much of it lately has been geared toward modernizing the organization of Ukraine's military. The force decided to drop its longtime policy of conscription last year, which includes compulsory military service for many. The Ukrainians are now realigning their military to fight in brigade-size formations including a few thousand soldiers, rather than larger division formations that cannot react as quickly.

"They are not equipped necessarily to stop an invasion or intervention by Russian forces," said Larrabee, who served on the White House National Security Council staff during the Cold War. "What the U.S. has concentrated on is trying to get them to be more interoperable with NATO forces."

Ukraine's small military budget also has prevented the U.S. from selling many vehicles and weapons, and armaments, said Pifer, the former ambassador. The United States gave Humvees, communication equipment and other gear to the Ukrainians within the last decade as they deployed forces alongside the U.S. in Iraq, but it has no big-ticket foreign military sales programs with Kiev that would provide, for instance, new attack helicopters or jets.

Ukraine, on the other hand, has continued to build tanks with its armor factories and export them to other countries. In one example, the country's state-run arms exporter, Ukrspecexport, reached a $100 million deal with the Ethiopian government last year to sell 200 tanks. If the tensions with Russia persist, Kiev might come to wish it had kept them at home.

FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Exclusive: Congress Bars Families of Fallen SEALs From Testifying at Hearing About Their Deaths

After more than two years of waiting, the families of service members killed in the United States' deadliest mission in Afghanistan will finally get to hear Defense Department personnel testify before Congress on Thursday about the operation and the questionable ways the remains of the troops were handled afterward. But before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing even begins, lawmakers on the panel are already taking fire for not allowing any members of those families to testify about their pain and lingering uncertainty about why their loved ones died.

The hearing will address the disastrous and mysterious Aug. 6, 2011, mission that killed 38 people and a working dog on board a CH-47D Chinook helicopter that had been dispatched to reinforce Army Rangers locked in a fierce firefight in central Afghanistan. Insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades shot the helicopter out of the sky, killing 17 members of SEAL Team 6 -- the legendary unit responsible for killing Osama bin Laden -- as well as 13 other American troops. Witnesses later told military investigators that the aircraft -- call sign "Extortion 17" -- had crashed and exploded in a fireball.

In December, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) told Foreign Policy his oversight committee would hold a hearing on the demise of Extortion 17 early this year. The decision raised the prospect that senior U.S. military commanders could be put on the hot seat to answer for a mission that critics say was poorly planned at best, doomed from the start at worse, and needlessly risked the lives of some of the nation's most elite troops.

That won't be the case, however. The witness list for the hearing includes one civilian Pentagon official and four officials who oversee various aspects of military mortuary affairs. In addition, a plan to have a second witness panel comprising some family members of U.S. troops killed that day was scrapped in favor of having them submit written statements expressing their thoughts and concerns.

"This hearing is being conducted at the request of numerous families impacted by the loss of the brave men aboard Extortion 17," Chaffetz told Foreign Policy in a statement Wednesday. "Given the extremely diverse expectations between families, we have tried our best to treat all interests equally. After much consideration, it was determined that the only way to ensure that each family's personal equities and unique interests were addressed fairly was to have a set standard regarding the input of all families, regardless of their point of view or their ability to attend the hearing in person."

The decision is deeply disappointing to the families who had planned to testify, said Doug Hamburger, whose son, Patrick, was an Army staff sergeant and crew chief on board the helicopter when it went down. The elder Hamburger had planned to speak on his son's behalf at the hearing, but will now listen quietly instead.

"My understanding was that I was going to be one of the family members testifying, and I got a phone call from Congress last Thursday saying that wasn't the case," Hamburger told Foreign Policy. "Quite frankly, I think that anyone who lost a son in Extortion 17 should be able to address Congress."

The crash killed 30 U.S. service members, seven Afghan commandos, an Afghan interpreter, and a U.S. military working dog in Afghanistan's Tangi Valley in Wardak province, west of Kabul, U.S. officials said. The group included 17 SEALs, all but two of whom were from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, popularly known as SEAL Team 6. A different unit within that fabled SEAL unit executed the daring raid in which U.S. forces killed terrorist mastermind and al Qaeda head Osama bin Laden in his safe house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, early May 2, 2011. The other Americans on board Extortion 17 included five special operations support personnel and members of the Army National Guard who manned the helicopter.

Larry Klayman, a lawyer who has represented several of the families affected, said his clients are upset both about being silenced and by the fact that no top military commanders will be called before Congress for a grilling about the doomed mission. The witness list suggests that the hearing will primarily cover how the remains of the fallen troops were treated but not look at why, or how, they died.

To be sure, the treatment of the fallen troops has raised serious concerns since the crash. Charles Strange said the remains of his son, Michael -- a cryptologist with SEAL Team 6 killed aboard Extortion 17 -- were cremated along with many of the service members on board. U.S. military officials initially told the elder Strange his son's body was burned beyond recognition, but he later obtained a photograph from the military that showed his son's remains were recognizable, the father said. Those details were not released in a five-page executive summary published by Centcom in September 2011.

The witnesses include Garry Reid, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict; Deborah Skillman, director of casualty and mortuary affairs for the Defense Department; Col. John Devillier, commander of Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations; Col. Kerk Brown, director of the Army Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Center; and Cmdr. Aaron Brodsky, director of Navy Casualty services.

It does not, however, include the senior commanders who planned the mission or Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Colt, who was a one-star general when he was appointed by now-retired Gen. James Mattis to conduct an investigation into what went wrong for Extortion 17.

Klayman called the witness list disappointing.

"Notwithstanding the lack of family members as witnesses," Klayman said, "the only way to honor our fallen heroes is to get honest answers to the thus far inexplicable circumstances of their deaths."

Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Geneva G. Brier/ U.S. Navy