Forces: The Ukraine War and the American Army


June 8, 2024: The Ukraine War is very much an American war because Russia and the United States have been the major military powers, and opponents, since the end of World War II. In that time these two nuclear superpowers never fought each other. Instead, Russia and the United States supported smaller allies in a series of wars where the Americans were usually victorious, more, or less. This includes Korea (1950-53), Vietnam (1964-73), Kosovo War (1989-96), Gulf (Iraq) War (1990-91), Afghanistan War (2001-2021), Iraq/Islamic terrorists (2003-2011), Iraq Intervention (2014-2021), Syrian Civil War (ongoing since 2014). In addition to these wars that involved American forces, often mainly airpower, there were dozens of smaller interventions which also involved few American troops other than airpower or warships offshore.

The United States has also been involved in wars where no American troops were directly involved. This includes the Ukraine War (ongoing since 2022) that began when Russia invaded Ukraine. Once more the Americans were heavily involved, but only via over many billion dollars’ worth of military and economic aid from NATO countries. Most of the NATO aid was supplied by the United States. This aid enabled Ukrainian forces to halt the Russian invasion and continue fighting.

Meanwhile American armed forces have struggled to maintain their combat capabilities. For most of American history the military depended on volunteers. Conscription was used during the Civil War (1861-65), World War I (1914-18) where American involvement was primarily economic and military aid until 1917 when American troops were sent and fought until the Germans were defeated in 1918. This enormous conflict was supposed to be the war to end all wars. That didn’t happen and in 1939 World War II began with the Americans getting involved in 1941, though conscription began in 1940. Most of the U.S. effort was against Germany, which surrendered 0n May 8, 1945. The Japanese fought on until September 1945, when the American use of two nuclear bombs on Japanese cities compelled the Japanese to forget about fighting to the end and instead did the unthinkable, from the Japanese perspective, they surrendered. Since World War II, Germany and Japan have prospered and become American allies.

In Europe the United States was one of the twelve founding members of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). Along with the Americans, Britain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, and Portugal were the original members. American conscription ended in 1975 and its armed forces have since been all-volunteer. NATO has since expanded to 32 members, with Ukraine planning to join once the 2022 Russian invasion has been defeated. Currently the Russians are seeking a negotiated end to the war. Russian troops losses have been heavy, with over a million casualties and an economy wrecked by economic sanctions.

The victory in Ukraine was unique for the United States because no American troops were involved. The United States is still a major military power, with the most powerful land, naval and air forces on the planet. Despite that the United States is having a difficult time maintaining its military forces. This is because American voters have to support American participation in a war. This support is often provided by the enemy attacking Americans troops or ships. This has been the case since victory in the Spanish American War that lasted from April to December 1898. The U.S. mobilized 307,000 troops for this conflict and suffered 4,300 dead. Only 385 U.S. troops died in combat, the rest of the losses were mainly due to disease. This was typical of all wars until World War I when, for the last time, combat losses of 53,000 were outnumbered by 117,000 non-combat losses. In World War II it was, for the first time, different. The United States lost 292,000 troops (including the Army Air Forces) in combat compared to 114,000 dead from non-combat causes. The U.S. Navy lost 30,831 men in combat with another 26,000 dead from other causes. Another interesting development was that U.S. Marine Corps personnel were less likely to die in combat during World War II than army troops. That was because marines were not constantly involved in combat as the army soldiers were. The marines were trained to take part in amphibious operations, which they did successfully throughout the Americans war in the Pacific. Because the Pacific War was mainly one of capturing enemy held islands, ground combat was intermittent and the various island battles did not last long because of the enormous fire power supplied by warships and combat aircraft.

The Ukraine War has been unique in terms of casualties. By the third year of the war most casualties were caused by armed UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) or Ukrainian USVs (Unmanned Surface Vessels.) The American military is trying to adapt to these new realities. The U.S. Army and Navy are having a difficult time doing that because both the army and navy have been undergoing one crisis after another. The United States is having a difficult time building new warships and maintaining the ones it has. This is mainly because China now controls most of the commercial shipping market and has substantially more shipyards and trained shipyard workers than the United States. The Chinese fleet now has more ships than the U.S. Navy. The Americans still have the edge with the combined displacement of all its ships standing at 138,000 tons. This is more than all of the next 13 largest foreign navies combined. The U.S. Navy advantage here is due to eleven large aircraft carriers and their escorts plus over 60 nuclear submarines.

The primary American problem is the increasing difficulty in recruiting enough soldiers and sailors. Fewer military age American men are willing to join. When conscription ended in the early 197os and was replaced by volunteers the military was able to maintain a force of 2.1 million active duty and reserve troops until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. That ended the Cold War between the Russians and NATO that lasted 42 years. All NATO countries ended conscription and relied on volunteers. In the United States that meant military personnel declined to 1.4 million by 2024. With no credible military threat and lots of good jobs available outside the military, recruiters are having a difficult time. Extended periods of peace tend to do this. If there is a war, the situation turns around quickly but starting a war or joining one that is already underway, like in Ukraine, is political suicide and impossible. American voters support defense and the people in the military. The voters do not back looking for a war to get involved in.

The American military also has problems with recruiting, training, and retaining competent officers. This is nothing new because the United States traditionally had a small armed force and many of the officers were supplied the army (West Point) and navy (Annapolis) military academies supplemented by officer training programs at colleges. The quality of these new officers has declined since the Cold War ended. With no real threat, like the defunct Soviet Union, it has proved difficult to get officer candidates to take their training and performance seriously. The military has become another civil service job. European militaries had this problem before the Cold War ended. For Europeans, the end of World War II marked the end of more than thirty years of horrendous combat and losses.

In Ukraine the Russians have found that their military age men and those of European nations have similar attitudes and are now eager to get into another war. The Russians still have conscription but since the end of the Soviet Union Russian voters have demanded an end to conscription and Russia was in the midst of doing that when they invaded Ukraine. The hostility to military service, especially when Russian troops are ordered to invade a neighbor rather than defend Russia, has weakened the ability of the Russian army to prevail in Ukraine. Morale matters and the Ukrainians have better morale because they are defending their country from foreign invasion.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin ordered his forces to invade Ukraine because he believed the Ukrainians would not or could not resist. Putin misjudged the situation and is now threatened with losing his job as the number of Russian troops killed in Ukraine keeps growing and the Russian people fail to see any justification for these personnel or economic losses. Most of Russia’s trading partners consist of Europe and the United States. That trade stopped when Russia invaded Ukraine and morale among the Russian population is low and getting worse as long as the war lasts and the economic sanctions remain in place.



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