Foreign Policy

Incrementalism Is Throttling US Support for Ukraine

Ad hoc, one-off decisions and lagging implementation are undermining the strategic effects of US military assistance.

Ukrainian servicemen move towards the front line near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on March 8, 2023. (Sergey Shestak/AFP via Getty Images)
Ukrainian servicemen move toward the front line near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on March 8, 2023. (Sergey Shestak/AFP via Getty Images)

The US announcement in January that it would send 31 M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine has upped the ante with Moscow without achieving tangible operational effects. It will take at least a year before the tanks are delivered, with one US official explaining to the Washington Post that they are “probably not for the near fight.” This will give Moscow time to adapt and plan, degrading the operational benefits of the tanks to Ukraine. Moreover, in a year, the war could be over or look very different.

This decision illustrates the persistent problem of incrementalism, which has characterized the US and allied effort toward Ukraine—with ad hoc, one-off decisions and lagging implementation undermining the strategic effects of this assistance.

A successful military campaign is guided by an overall strategy and by what the US military calls “mission analysis.” Leaders define the desired end state, analyze the opponent and other operational factors, and develop a plan that specifies the forces, weapons systems, materiel, and logistics needed to succeed. Adjustments are made—war is unpredictable—but mission analysis offers a way to provide an answer to the question of what it takes to achieve the end state.

What the United States has done in Ukraine departs from that template. Since Russia’s invasion in February 2022, US President Joe Biden has used his presidential drawdown authority—which purportedly allows for the faster delivery of defense equipment and services from the US Defense Department to foreign countries in the event of emergencies—30 times. The fact that the administration has used this authority so many times suggests that the United States could do better in thinking through—up front—the equipment required to achieve its objectives.  It also suggests that the administration has no clear and articulable strategic objective.

Incrementalism has plagued Washington’s Ukraine policy for a long time. After Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Obama administration refused to provide arms to Ukraine, instead opting to provide nonlethal equipment, such as night vision goggles and training. The Trump administration began to send around 200 Javelin anti-tank weapons to Ukraine in 2018. Although then-US President Donald Trump threatened to hold off on this aid, it was released a few months later.

By June 2021, Russia was massing forces along Ukraine’s border. Yet the Biden administration halted a military aid package to Ukraine that included lethal weapons, such as short-range and anti-tank weapons, purportedly due to an impending meeting between Biden and Putin. It was not until after the war began that Biden authorized the delivery of lethal aid.

Once lethal aid was restarted after the invasion, it was provided in ad hoc, incremental steps rather than in support of a plan based on mission analysis. In just the eight months between August 2021 and April 2022, the United States completed six drawdowns of equipment from Pentagon inventories for Ukraine.

Two months after the invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky continued to request tanks, missile defenses, and anti-ship weapons. And some eight months after the invasion, by the fall of 2022, Zelensky continued to request more “air and missile defenses from the West.” The United States and its NATO allies staggered their assistance throughout this period, with Javelin missiles, Stinger air defense systems, laser-guided rocket systems, and eventually High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems all arriving at different times in the fall of 2022. By late fall 2022, the United States was at its 25th presidential drawdown package, which committed Hawk surface-to-air missiles and added more Stingers. Yet these missiles had been in US stockpiles all along.

Although some might rationalize the Biden administration’s approach by arguing that it reduces the risk of Russian escalation, the opposite is likely true. Russia, from the outset of the war, was already throwing all available conventional forces at Ukraine. A support program driven by sound mission analysis and campaign planning would checkmate Russia’s attack, giving Moscow a choice between losing or coming to terms with Kyiv. Fears of nuclear escalation were exaggerated, principally because few suitable targets existed in Ukraine for such weapons—the costs of such escalation exceeded potential benefits. Ukrainian military strength and Western resolve decrease, rather than increase, the risk of escalation.

Incrementalism is compounded by the US government’s inability to move fast—a problem that existed well before Biden took office. As former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it in his book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, during the Iraq War, he had to “[wage] war on the Pentagon” to get mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles to troops quickly in Iraq.

“The very size and structure of the [Defense] [D]epartment assured ponderousness, if not paralysis, because so many different organizations had to be involved in even the smallest decisions,” Gates writes. “The idea of speed and agility to support current combat operations was totally foreign to the building.”

The Pentagon has yet to institutionalize the Gates mindset. Despite emergency authorities, the US government is rarely able to act quickly.

Time—and time lag—must be a key input in war planning and in arming allies. The Biden administration needs to engage in an emergency troubleshooting exercise to figure out how to overcome the sclerotic performance that is compromising US support for Ukraine’s war effort and costing Ukrainian lives. This requires doing mission analysis up front and breaking down the barriers to rapid implementation, even if that means tapping US prepositioned stocks, weapons from National Guard units, or emergency ramp-ups of production.

No matter your views on Ukraine, incrementalism increases the chances of escalation and, at the same time, makes strategic defeat more likely.

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