WASHINGTON — As the war in Ukraine drags into its third month, the United States is trying to figure out the best way — and pace — to train troops there on how to use the Western arms flooding into the besieged nation.
Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers have either completed or are undergoing training on how to operate artillery, air defense radar systems, loitering drones armed with explosives and armored personnel carriers, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said during a Friday briefing.
But on Monday, Kirby noted the importance of not “overload[ing] their system” in the midst of an active fight by delivering more new weapons than their troops can handle.
“It’s a balance,” Kirby said during a briefing. “You want to make sure that they can use the materiel, that they can keep it up and maintain it. But you don’t want to put such an onerous requirement on them that it distracts them too much from the fight at hand.”
To strike that balance, Kirby said the Pentagon is in touch with Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister, to keep tabs on the nation’s needs and capacities.
For now, the Pentagon doesn’t see a need to boost the number of trainers.
“We obviously want to be flexible and if we need to change the numbers or add people to do training, we’ll certainly be open to looking at that,” Kirby said.
“Task Force Gator,” made up of troops from the Florida National Guard’s 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, was removed from Ukraine after the invasion, but it has stayed in Europe to lead training. About 160 U.S. personnel in Grafenwoehr, Germany, and other undisclosed locations are training Ukrainian forces on artillery and radar systems.
As of Monday, the U.S. has trained more than 300 Ukrainian artillerymen on the American-made M777 howitzer, with 50 more learning howitzer maintenance, Kirby said. In a signal the U.S. military sees a long-running fight, the U.S. has included spare parts for howitzers in its shipments and Kirby said the maintenance course would likely become “an ongoing requirement.”
“We’re going to stay open minded here, and if there’s a need for additional training, if there’s a need for other systems that could use some maintenance support, to include the provision of spare parts — because we can’t expect that the Ukrainians are going to necessarily have old spare parts for these things — then we’re going to do that,” Kirby said.
Separately, 15 Ukrainian troops have completed a U.S. military training on AN/MPQ-64 Sentinel mobile air defense radars provided by Washington, and 60 Ukrainians have completed a course on the venerable M113 armored personnel carrier.
Over the weekend, about 20 Ukrainian soldiers wrapped up their week-long training on how to use the new Air Force-developed Phoenix Ghost drone, Kirby said Monday. They were trained by airmen at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, he said.
Phoenix Ghost is similar to the Switchblade loitering munition drone, and was rapidly developed specifically for Ukraine. Bill LaPlante, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, told reporters Friday the Air Force’s Big Safari office was behind the drone’s creation.
“If you know anything about that office, they do lots of really great fast-type work,” LaPlante said. “They were very active during Afghanistan and Iraq.”
The United States is sending more than 121 of the tactical drones to Ukraine, and more than 20 have already arrived.
Kirby said Friday he’s not aware of plans to train another cadre of Ukrainian troops on the Phoenix Ghost, but that it would not surprise him if a second course was held.
“As we’re doing with the howitzers, we want to keep that training going,” Kirby said.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.