Posted by Curt on 10 April, 2023 at 6:22 pm. 3 comments already!


by Big Serge

Another winter has ended, and spring has again arisen on the war in Ukraine. Amid the thaw and attendant mud, Russian forces – including the indominable Wagner Group – have pushed the Ukrainian grouping in Bakhmut to the brink, with the AFU now clinging its last defensive toehold in the city. Bakhmut has become the largest battle of the 21st century, and is now entering its climactic phase.

Nevertheless, battlefield developments have been upstaged to some extent by the apparent leak of classified US military intelligence documents which provide a sweeping view into the inner workings of the Pentagon’s war.

I am not entirely clear on Substack’s content policies as it relates to such documents. It is certainly too late for the US Government to contain the leak, as the images have by this point been shared, screenshotted, and downloaded countless times, but that does not preclude an attempt to limit its circulation via a whac-a-mole campaign of content deletion. In any case, desiring neither to violate US law nor run afoul of Substack’s content rules, prudence dictates that I ought not embed the images directly in this post, but they are not hard to find – the “Rus Fleet” Telegram channel has them up at the moment, for example. Use your own discretion.

While I will not be posting the leaked documents either here or on twitter, I would like to talk about them. If they are indeed authentic (and it appears that they are), they offer important insight into force generation and combat power in Ukraine – and perhaps even more importantly, into the intelligence framework that the Pentagon is working with. None of the items adduced paint a particularly rosy picture for either the AFU or its benefactors on the Atlantic seaboard.

A Brief History of the Leaks

Let’s briefly indulge in an overview of the leaked documents as such before we think about their contents. They take the form of photographs of physical pieces of paper from an American intelligence briefing. This implies that the particular nature of the breach is a leak (personnel with legitimate access to the documents illegally disseminating them to the public) rather than a hack (someone gaining illegitimate access through intrusion of one form or another). The pages have visible creases on them, and a hunting magazine can be seen on a table in the background. Many of the pages are marked for sharing with NATO allies, but some stipulate US eyes only.

The general impression is that an American folded the briefing documents up, put them in his/her/their/xer/xem/plur pocket (the American military is a Diverse and Inclusive institution, and the leaker could have any, all, or no gender), took the pages home and photographed them. It was almost certainly not a Russian asset – if the documents had been acquired by Russian intelligence, they would have kept it internal.

Now, the obvious question is whether the documents are real. There’s probably at least some rational basis to suspect a misinformation operation. All militaries engage in a range of intermingling intelligence (seeing what the enemy is doing), counterintelligence (hiding what you are doing), and misinformation (lying about what you are doing). Perhaps, one may muse, these documents were not leaked at all, but indelibly planted on the internet to mislead.

I was originally rather agnostic about the documents’ authenticity, but I have come to the view that they are genuine (let’s rate it a 90% likelihood of authenticity and a 10% likelihood of forgery or misinformation). My reasons are essentially as follows:

  • The timeline of events suggests an authentic leak. While the documents only started to circulate widely in the last week or so, they were actually first posted to the internet (as best as I can tell) on March 1st – but nobody noticed, apparently. The documents didn’t attract mass attention until a pro-Russian telegram channel found them and reposted them after badly photoshopping the casualty estimates to show much lower Russian losses. Ironically, it was these falsified edits that sparked mass interest in the documents. To me, this suggests that the documents are not part of some sort of Pentagon misinformation campaign, because they essentially sat idle in the remote corners of a Minecraft Discord server for an entire month. If American intelligence wanted to circulate fake documents, one suspects they would have actually circulated them, rather than dropping them in an obscure corner of the information space and leaving them to languish.
  • The documents have perfect internal consistency. The full leak includes dozens and dozens of pages which are totally consistent down to the level of delivery dates, inventory listings, and arcane unit identification. This goes even above and beyond the perfect use of acronyms and military symbiology. Creating these documents would be a colossal undertaking and would require both precise subject matter expertise and a mammoth amount of cross-referencing to prevent contradictions – unless, of course, the documents are genuine, in which case the material would be consistent because it is real.
  • The documents are relatively low on actionable intelligence. They contain no planning details of Ukraine’s coming offensive operations and only hazy outlines of Ukrainian force dispositions. A ruse intended to deceive the Russians would be expected to contain highly actionable (but false) intelligence.
  • Finally, both the government and the media are proceeding as if the documents and the associated security breach are real, and they are attempting to both limit the spread of the documents online and track down the source of the leak.

All of this to me suggests that these documents offer a genuine look into the Pentagon’s handling of the war. We can retain some measure of caution and doubt, but let us proceed on the presumption of their authenticity and think on what we can learn from them.

Ukrainian Force Generation

The most significant implication of the documents is simple: Ukraine’s combat power is significantly degraded, and in particular their mechanized units and artillery forces are in very rough shape.

The relevant material here in particular is a page entitled “US Allied & Partner UAF Combat Power Build”, which details the force generation, training, and equipment tranches that will create the mechanized package which Ukraine will use in its spring offensive. The plan calls for a force of twelve nominal brigades, nine of which will be equipped by NATO and three internally generated by the Ukrainians. The leak does not offer insight into the three Ukrainian brigades, but the intended complement of the nine NATO brigades is meticulously listed).

All told, the combat power build calls for these brigades to field a total of 253 tanks, 381 Infantry Fighting Vehicles, 480 Armored Personnel Carriers, and 147 artillery pieces. This implies that these will be brigades in name only, and will in fact be far understrength. Parceling these systems out across nine brigades will give an average strength of a mere 28 tanks per brigade, along with some 95 IFVs/APCs and 16 artillery tubes. Compare this to a US Army Armored Brigade Combat Team, which would have almost 90 tanks and almost 200 IFVs/APCs. An American Stryker Brigade (a lighter, rapidly deployable formation) would have about 300 Strykers – the Ukrainian 82nd Brigade is listed to receive only 90.

In combat power terms, therefore, these new brigades are going to be far understrength. Their tank strength, far from being full brigade level, amounts to less than an American armored battalion.

Another key aspect of the force build document is the training schedules. This document dates from the beginning of March, at which point five of the nine brigades were listed at “Training 0% Complete”. Only one of the brigades was more than halfway trained, rated at 60% complete. Despite this, six out of nine were scheduled to be ready by the end of March and the remainders by the end of April. This can only be achieved with significantly truncated training times, and these are detailed in the document. Leopard tank training, for example, is listed at only six weeks. Just for context, American tankers can pencil in 22 weeks of training for the Abrams.

The overall picture, therefore, is rather foreboding for Ukraine. The leaked documents do not give us insight into the three brigades that Ukraine is expected to generate with their indigenous assets, but the nine NATO trained and equipped brigades are slated to be significantly understrength and manned by personnel who are receiving a hugely accelerated training course. These brigades will almost certainly need to be deployed in groupings to be capable of the requisite combat tasks.

An ancillary but important note at this point is the fact that, as best we can tell from these documents, Ukraine’s prewar tank park is almost completely gone. Ukraine went to war with about 800 of its workhorse T-64, but the NATO combat power build notes only 43 now on hand. There are others, of course, that are currently being operated by Ukrainian frontline units, but the build plan indicates that Ukraine has virtually none in reserve to equip this vital attack package, on which all their hopes will depend.

Meanwhile, a separate element of the leak paints a similarly dismal picture of Ukraine’s ranged fires. Buried on a page marked “NOFORN” – which means No Foreign Nationals, even allies, are supposed to see it, is a logistics table showing 155mm shell deliveries and expenditures. This bit is rather shocking.

We have known for quite some time that Ukraine is facing a critical shell shortage, but the leaked documents reveal just how acute this issue is. Ukraine’s usage rate is very low right now – the report claims only 1,104 shells had been expended in the previous 24 hours – compare this to the 20,000 or so shells that the Russian army is firing on a daily basis. Even more alarming for Ukraine is the note that they have only 9,788 shells on hand.

Even with a low burn rate that leaves the AFU massively outgunned, they have enough on hand to sustain combat for a little over a week, and they rely on a trickle of deliveries from the USA to keep these stocks stable. The report noted a shipment of 1,840 shells departing in the next 24 hours. Batches of this size are obviously insufficient for Ukraine to build up its stocks, and can only serve to backstop and replenish daily expenditure. There is no possibility of America quickly ramping up the size of these deliveries, because a mere 14,000 shells are produced per month. US officials hope to get this number up to 20,000 this year, but this is still below Ukraine’s current burn rate.

The implication is pretty straightforward. Ukraine is on a shell ration that leaves it unable to offer more than token fire, and it will likely have to live with this shell ration for the duration of the war.

The overall picture of Ukrainian combat power is atrocious. Their overall combat effectiveness faces a hard ceiling due to systemic shell shortages, and the mechanized package slated for the spring offensive is going to be far less potent than advertised. Those nine NATO-created brigades will have the striking power equivalent of (if we are being generous) perhaps four genuine full strength brigades, augmented by three internally generated Ukrainian brigades of dubious quality. Ukraine’s hopes for a glorious assault on the Russian land bridge to Crimea will rest on, at most, 400 tanks and perhaps 30,000 men.

Should this force dash itself to pieces against the well prepared Russian forces in the south, an important question would present itself. If this was the best force that NATO could generate for Ukraine, what will the second team look like? Will there even be another force? This understrength and undertrained mechanized package may be Ukraine’s last serious roll of the iron dice.

The American Analytic Framework

While the leaked documents certainly do not paint an encouraging picture of Ukraine’s force generation, they also offer a similarly shocking glimpse into the state of American military intelligence.

One of the things that immediately jumps out when one looks at the operational reports (the pages showing detailed situation maps) is that the Pentagon apparently has far more information on Russian dispositions than on Ukrainians units. Russian units are strongly accounted for – their locations are precisely marked, unit designations are identified, there are assessments as to which Russian units are combat capable or not, and there are very specific estimates of Russian frontline strength (IE, 23,250 men on the Zaporizhzhia axis and 15,650 men on the Kherson axis).

In contrast, Ukrainian units are not given combat capability designations, their locations are more generally indicated, and there are huge ranges on the assessed manpower (10,000 to 20,000 men on the Donetsk axis – an enormous margin of error!) This, incidentally, is another reason why I think the documents are genuine. If the intent was to put forth disinformation to confuse or deceive the Russians, one would expect actionable (but fake) intelligence about Ukrainian deployments – yet there is no such thing here. Ukrainian strengths and dispositions are presented vaguely and inconclusively, so the only thing the Russian army might extrapolate from this report is that the Americans don’t really know what’s going on with Ukrainian forces.

Indeed, this is the inescapable conclusion. The Pentagon does not seem to have a strong sense of Ukrainian unit strength, location, or activities. They also list their assessed Ukrainian KIA at a mere 16k-17.5k. This is an absurdly low number – where could they have gotten it? In fact, it is a direct copy-paste of the casualty numbers reported publicly by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense.

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