WASHINGTON — The billions of dollars in military aid the United States has sent Ukraine includes some of the most advanced and lethal weapons systems in the world. But Ukraine has also scored big successes in the war by employing the weapons and equipment in unexpected ways, and jury-rigging some on the fly, according to military experts.
From the sinking of the Moskva, Russia’s Black Sea flagship, in April to the attack on a Russian air base in Crimea this month, Ukrainian troops have used American and other weapons in ways few expected, the experts and Defense Department officials say.
By mounting missiles onto trucks, for instance, Ukrainian forces have moved them more quickly into firing range. By putting rocket systems on speedboats, they have increased their naval warfare ability. And to the astonishment of weapons experts, Ukraine has continued to destroy Russian targets with slow-moving Turkish-made Bayraktar attack drones and inexpensive, plastic aircraft modified to drop grenades and other munitions.
“People are using the MacGyver metaphor,” said Frederick B. Hodges, a former top U.S. Army commander in Europe, in a reference to the 1980s TV show in which the title character uses simple, improvised contraptions to get himself out of sticky situations.
After six months of war, the death toll on both sides is high: While American officials estimate that up to 80,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded, Ukraine’s outgunned military has said it is losing 100 to 200 troops a day. Even so, the engineering ingenuity of the Ukrainians lies in stark contrast to the slow, plodding, doctrinal nature of the Russian advance.
In the attack on the Moskva, for example, the Ukrainians developed their own anti-ship missile, called the Neptune, which they based on the design of an old Soviet anti-ship missile, but with substantially improved range and electronics. They appear to have mounted the Neptune missiles onto one or more trucks, according to one senior American official, and moved them within range of the ship, which was around 75 miles from Odesa. The striking of the Moskva was, in essence, the Neptune’s proof of concept; it was the first time the new Ukrainian weapon was used in an actual war, and it took down Russia’s flagship in the Black Sea.
“With the Moskva, they MacGyvered a very effective anti-ship system that they put on the back of a truck to make it mobile and move it around,” General Hodges, who is now a senior adviser at Human Rights First, said in an interview.