US ramps up training of Ukrainian forces

The US military is ramping up its weapons training for Ukrainian forces, with hundreds now being trained on artillery systems, drones and radars, defense officials said Wednesday.

The effort, which involves taking out of their country to train at multiple locations in Europe, has picked up significantly after the Pentagon in early April revealed it trained about a dozen such troops on how to use Switchblade drones.

Now, more than 220 Ukrainians have been trained on US artillery, particularly the M777 Howitzer, a 10,000-pound system that can be towed by vehicles and hit targets up to 18 miles away with 155 mm rounds. Washington has promised 90 such systems to Kyiv.

Another 20 Ukrainian soldiers on Sunday finished a week-long training course on the newly developed Phoenix Ghost unmanned aerial system, 121 of which are being sent to Ukraine.

“And there’s more of that coming,” the senior US defense official said Monday, noting that another 50-plus Ukrainians would arrive at one of the sites to begin their training later this week.

“We are running them through a streamlined course here on the new equipment that they’ll be receiving. The goal in all of this is to get them back as soon as possible, so that then they can train others within their army on the equipment,” Gen. Joseph Hilbert, head of the 7th Army Training Command in Europe, told reporters Tuesday.

American forces training troops is nothing new, though the Pentagon has had to make some adjustments on how to go about such activities since Russia attacked Ukrainian Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Over the last seven years, the US has trained some 23,000 Ukrainian soldiers inside the country, a $126 million effort, with training provided mostly by American National Guard troops, according to Hilbert.

That training began in 2015 — after Russian-backed separatists began fighting in the Donbas region of Ukraine — and ran up until early this year, when the threat of the incoming Russian invasion forced the Pentagon to pull US forces from Ukraine.

In addition, Ukrainian forces have taken part in more than a dozen large war drills with US troops in Germany since 2015, according to Hilbert.

Ahead of Russia’s invasion, the US military was also planning for troops to lead a division-level Ukrainian exercise across the country.

Among the US troops pulled out of Ukraine earlier this year were 160 members of the Florida National Guard, who had been training Ukrainians at the Yavoriv Combat Training Center in Lviv.

“One of the lowest parts of the mission … was when we had to pull them out of Ukraine, out of the operation back in February,” Hilbert said.

Now US forces, including Florida Guard members, are back instructing the Ukrainians from locations outside the country, with the Pentagon first revealing late last month that it had begun training Ukrainians on artillery systems and radars at US military installations in Germany.

Among the locations is Grafenwöhr, home of US Army Garrison Bavaria, where about 50 to 60 Ukrainian troops have been instructed on howitzers. That first group is now back in their country and another tranche of 50 to 60 soldiers are being trained.

Hilbert said the training there already have a background with what they’re using, “so for the howitzers, they are already Ukrainian artillerymen.”

Though defense officials have declined to offer specifics on the other locations of training and equipment involved, Hilbert said the troops are taking their training “to heart.”

“They understand how to operate it and employ it as effectively as they can on their own and in accordance with their own tactics and their own doctrine,” Hilbert said of the weapons and equipment. “The soldiers that we are receiving here are absolutely motivated, incredibly professional.”

Lt. Col. Jeremy “Todd” Hopkins, deputy commander for the Florida National Guard’s 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, described a scene only a few days prior when a Ukrainian soldier, during a lunch break, heard that his hometown was being attacked.

“He and his team immediately stopped with what they were doing and stopped eating their lunch and went back to training knowing that was how they were going to go back and support their homeland,” Hopkins told reporters.

The training is not without its “natural challenges,” Hilbert noted, including the difficulties with overcoming language barriers when describing more technical pieces of weapons and equipment.

The US also must adapt lessons based off of what’s happening on the ground in battles in Ukraine.

“We’re absolutely paying attention to what is happening out there and we’re absolutely incorporating the lessons observed and the lessons that we learned in a part of training that we do, and that’s across the whole force,” Hilbert said.

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