Both of us have been targeted by enemy fire. It almost cost one of us his life. We know a truth every war veteran learns: For all the planning and deliberation that goes into war, most are thrown out the window the moment the shooting starts. You often learn more about your enemy in the first 24 hours of a conflict than you learn in years.
This really happened in Ukraine. At the start of the war, Russia possessed one of the largest militaries in the world, and it was widely assumed that Russia would march through Ukraine and take Kyiv in a matter of weeks, if not days. It didn't happen. The limitations of Russia's military hardware, training, and discipline became apparent quickly—as well as the strength of Ukraine's resolve.
However, since the beginning of the conflict, we both saw that military assistance from the United States would be very important for Ukraine to win this war. Over the last 17 months, we have advised the Biden administration, urging it to continue to assess and reassess the changing realities on the front lines to understand what Ukraine needs and then deliver quickly. We must remain committed to keeping Ukraine supplied with missiles, artillery shells and other ammunition which at this stage of the conflict could be the difference between whether a commander approves an attack or not. And we have to do that while analyzing where new capabilities, such as modern fighter jets, can give Ukraine an edge.
War is dynamic. That requires us to look around the next corner. We heard from President Volodymyr Zelensky and met with other Ukrainian officials, and it was clear to us that Ukraine needed not only arms and ammunition but other, newer capabilities that could decisively change the course of the fast-evolving conflict. In the early weeks of the war, Javelin and Stinger missiles were needed to blunt the superiority of Russian armor and aircraft. Then the artillery moved long distances to attack the Russian positions. After that, it was a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System to engage strategic targets deep behind Russian lines and then the main battle tanks to destroy them.
Not every weapon system can get off the shelf and quickly deployed on the battlefield. That's what happened to the F-16. We both fly in battle. It takes hundreds of flying hours to learn to fly an airplane and many more to master the different missions we will be asked to perform, whether that be dropping bombs on targets or conducting combat search and rescue. That's why we pushed the Pentagon in March to analyze what it would take to train Ukrainian pilots and maintainers in modern F-16 fighter jets to replace their aging fighters such as the MIG-29 and understand their specific uses in this context of war. Last week The United States reaffirmed its commitment to supporting allies training Ukrainian pilots to fly American-made F-16s — a major step towards strengthening Ukraine's capabilities in the long term.
In all of these cases, the United States had to assess not only whether certain weapons would be effective but also how urgent each priority was relative to the others, how quickly Ukrainians could be trained to use those weapons and whether the equipment could be sustained throughout the war. The more complex a system is, the more difficult it is to keep it working.
The same assessment went into the government's decision to provide Ukraine with cluster munitions, or rounds that disperse smaller explosives. While some opposed this decision because of the risk to civilians associated with using cluster munitions, Zelensky and his military leadership requested this weapon because they considered it essential to the survival of their nation. Russia has used cluster munitions — with redundancy rates as high as 40 percent — since the early days of the war, likely firing tens of millions of small bombs on Ukrainian soil, including in civilian areas. Unlike Russia, Ukraine has vowed to deploy the weapons (US-made cluster munitions have a much lower redundancy rate) solely in self-defence and away from civilians and to document where to facilitate clean-up after the fighting has ended.
The cluster guns Zelensky requested were effective against dispersed targets, such as dug-in infantry groups, artillery batteries and vehicle convoys. The weapons will help Ukraine mount a successful counteroffensive and help ensure its military has sufficient ammunition to defend itself. Failing to do so, however, is what will pose the gravest risk to the people who call Ukraine home.
This is a tough call to keep on making every day until Ukraine wins. Some will criticize our decisions being too slow; others would say they went too far. What matters is that the United States continues to lead in favor of Kyiv – because even as the war enters its second year, the stakes have not been reduced by an inch. The Ukrainians are now weeks into their counteroffensive, hoping that with the right tactics, determination and Western hardware, they can take their country back. Vladimir Putin obliges his citizens, apparently relying on the belief that he can outlast the West and conquer Ukraine, then move on to his next objective.
It is very important that he failed. The world with the victory of Ukraine is a safer world. This is a world in which we can further strengthen the NATO alliance and build strongholds against tyrants like Mr. Putin.
We both know what it means to sacrifice for our country, but even we have never experienced what it means to fight on your own land, with your own family and environment in danger, to defend the ability of your children and their children to inherit a free homeland. Now as before, we must remain steadfast in our faith in the Ukrainian people and not be swayed in our work to get them the support they need.
Mark Kelly is a US senator from Arizona and a retired US Navy captain serving in Operation Desert Storm. Tammy Duckworth is a US senator from Illinois and a retired lieutenant colonel of the US Army National Guard who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
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