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‘Cheetah,’ ‘Switchblade’ and ‘Phoenix Ghost’: Will the new weapons headed to Ukraine be enough to win the war?

The war in Ukraine is changing. So is the technology on the battlefield.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his NATO counterparts are meeting in Germany this week to discuss what may be their most important contribution to Ukraine’s defense against the Russian invasion: the large-scale and growing effort to deliver military hardware to Ukraine.

To discuss what weapons Ukraine really needs to win the war, the challenges in getting them there and what the war is teaching us about which weapons are actually effective on a 21st-century battlefield, Grid spoke with David Johnson, a principal researcher at the Rand Corporation. A retired U.S. Army colonel, Johnson created and led the Chief of Staff of the Army Strategic Studies Group for Gen. Raymond Odierno from 2012 to 2014.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

David Johnson: What we’re seeing is that this is a war of artillery. That’s partly because the Russians have not been able to maneuver effectively and partly because even though the terrain in the east is open “tank country,” that also means it is very open for observation and [artillery] fires. Since the initial Russian invasion in that area years ago, it’s been dug with trenches because of the artillery they were receiving. That hasn’t changed.

The drone problem is more significant, not just because it’s an anti-tank system, but because it’s a sensor platform that can give you pretty much total visibility of everything. If you’ve got enough of them out there, and they’re so small, cheap and ubiquitous, how do you defend against those? There’s ways to spoof them and shoot them down, but you have to have a system that can deal with the large numbers they’re sending up. If drones are swarming, how many times can you do that?

So, getting Soviet-era equipment, the Ukrainians are familiar with it because they have the same equipment. All the instructions are in Cyrillic. So there may be some changes to the avionics because of NATO standards, but it’s not like stepping into something that’s completely different.

[As to helicopters,] I think we’ve seen already in this war that it’s not a good idea to fly anything low and close to ground forces. I don’t know how many times we have to learn this lesson. We’ve learned it with helicopters in Iraq. We saw in Afghanistan. They’re extremely useful over your shoulder, providing support, but when they get out over the front line of troops, everything in the world wants to shoot them down, and there’s a lot of stuff there to do it. [Russian weapons] range from small arms to cannons to [man-portable air-defense systems] to higher-end air defense systems like the S-500 that shoots out to 500 kilometers.

So it’s a really deadly air environment.

Why save all this stuff because you might have to use it against the Russians? Someone else is already using it against the Russians.

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