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Territorial Defence - Essential for Ukrainian National Defence, Resilience and Survival


Ukraine Forces Training. Classification: NATO UNCLASSIFIED

By Kenneth S. Myrup, Lieutenant Colonel (A), NATO International Military Staff.

The Ukrainian Society has demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of hybrid Russian attacks for more than 8 years, and since 24 February 2022 an invasion and an all-out war for survival.

Several factors underpin this heroic defence, which not only has shown Ukrainian tenacity, resilience, and valour on the battlefield, but in all aspects of the society. Key elements are the whole-of-society approach, strategic communication, intelligent battlefield preparation, utilization of intelligence networks, an innovative approach to combat and combat service support, and the implementation and utilization of a strong Territorial Defence (TD) and volunteer base.

Ukraine´s modern Territorial Defence (TD) started with the Maidan revolution in 2013/2014. Many of the volunteer formations were integrated into volunteer battalions to withstand the Russian hybrid aggression. Realizing a break with the soviet and post-soviet past in military training was needed, these units worked with international instructors (Georgian Advisory Group and others), who initially didn’t have the time to heal all the flaws of the old system, but between 2014 and 2016 developed the curriculum and the culture of the new defence forces, including new approaches towards reserve forces and TD.  An incremental part of the new approach to Reserve Forces and TD was integration of all previously privately owned and spinster volunteer movements into the Ministry of Interior police structures and later in the National Guard of Ukraine based on NATO compatible concepts for training, sustainment, and combat which stood the test of war in Mariupol, Hostomel, Sumy and Bakhmut.

The current TD system, influenced by Baltic and Nordic models, was approved with the new law “On the Foundations of National Resistance“ by the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine and signed by President Volodymyr Zelenskyj the 21 of July 2021 with implementation 1 January 2022. As an integral part of Ukraine's defence TD is supporting the three major pillars of the Strategy of Military Security of Ukraine. This outlines the system of national measures meant to protect the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine. A governance structure was established nesting the TD capabilities firmly within the Armed Forces, and at the same time linking them to local and regional administrations, which plays a significant role in the overall crisis response and resilience system of Ukraine. In the local community’s volunteer Detachments are formed in platoons and/or companies, battalions within districts, and brigades within regions. All with own command & control and ability to engage an enemy independently. As such is it not only about creating military capabilities but enhancing the basis for a broader integration of a defensive national will where every citizen from 16 – 60 years, would be able to contribute to the security and defence of the country.

Having a Defence based on legacy conscription, the reserve component in Ukraine is traditionally well established. The reserve is divided into four main categories; Operational (immediate and inactive) reserve, which will first-up strengthen regular Armed Forces units; Mobilization human reserve including active conscripts intended to strengthen active training centres; Territorial reserve for manning of TD Units; Public reserve, comprising a broad contingency base to backfill all the above mentioned. From this reserve structure and with the building of new formations, a peace time structure with up to 10000 permanently employed growing to a wartime base structure with up to 130.000 was established with the ambition to establish and train a total of 25 Brigades and 23 independent Infantry Rifle Battalions. Some units intended to be mobilized within 2 hours following an attack, TD headquarters within 2 days, battalions within 3 days and brigades within 7-9 days. The tasks in crisis and conflicts (war tasks) as integrated part of the Armed Forces of Ukraine are predominantly related to upholding law & order, security and protection of public order and facilities, and fighting alongside the Armed Forces against enemy sabotage, reconnaissance and ultimately combat units. In peacetime the focus is on the preparation, including training and information of Ukrainian citizens for the defence of the State and preparing for the war tasks.

The staffing of the TD units is provided by a combined principle – servicemen who sign contract with the TD and reservists of the territorial reserve. In peacetime, the individual unit structures are organized around a core of regular officers and non-commissioned officers conducting the training and preparing for a potential mobilization as part of a declaration of martial law. Most of these cadres are and have been engaged in the fighting in East of Ukraine prior to 24 of Feb 2022, and as such is the majority battle proven. Training is provided in four categories based on the individual affiliation with the TD. From the age of 16, high school students can receive military and patriotic education general training once a month. This can be followed by basic training twice a year for all citizens aged 18 – 24 as a preparation for military service. Finally, the base for the Human and Public reserve is intended to be generated through a yearly general training of the population age 24 – 60. Individual weapons of servicemen and reservists are stored in defined and specially equipped facilities on the territory of permanent duty stations or in designated storage facilities. For the period of execution of individual tasks, they are authorized to receive, store, and utilize individual weapons and ammunition on condition that it is done in compliance with the requirements of the legislation of Ukraine on the storage of weapons. The manning, equipment and performance level of TD Units is very diversified with a three-layered structure from the professional part of the Armed Forces in brigades and battalions to the local volunteer units performing their duties next to a day job, even in wartime.

Initial indications/lessons from the war in Ukraine clearly shows that modern war cannot be fought and won without Volunteers and Reserve Forces. These structures are paramount in support of the Armed Forces and other entities within Defence & Security and encapsulates the national will to fight an existential war with high attrition.

Despite the preparation, the Defence and Security forces of Ukraine were subject to a high degree of “fog of war” during the first period of the all-out attack in February 2022. The Armed Forces were fast supplemented with Operational and Territorial reserve soldiers. TD Units were rapidly committed, initially in local security and defence, and later in defensive and offensive operations against armoured Russian formation. Preparation, training, and engagement in scenarios, including utilizing newly received western equipment and introducing and utilizing emerging technologies which traditionally takes many years of research, development, and training to implement, was executed successfully. The TD system has proven itself and has now also been implemented within the Air Force, and potentially the Navy.

The new TD system was barely introduced when the all-out war started. Several challenges emerged and are to a degree still hampering the effort. The level and balance of the funding to empower the development of the TD units is not found yet. Due to this, and developed yet immature processes and structures, sufficient equipment and weapons etc. are still not available, especially for the local units based on soldiers continuing their daily jobs and performing military duties evenings and weekends. As such many Reserve Forces/TD Forces soldiers are utilizing personal hunting weapons and ammunition during their service, and other basic needs are provided by volunteer contributions through a widespread network of common funded projects in addition to the official logistic system.

Many local TD soldiers or reservists moved on to receive supplementary training, nationally or through international partners before joining the regular Armed Forces. Unfortunately, it seems like these soldiers, upon fighting in the hardest of combat operations, are amongst those with the highest degree of attrition. Previous lessons learned from other wars showing that it is often newcomers/the least trained personnel suffering the most casualties seems to be the truth. As such supplementary training and battlefield adaptation is highly important and should have upmost focus. Any half measures in pre-deployment training and integration of TD units will lead to high casualty rates.

The Ukrainian TD system draws inspiration from Nordic and Baltic models. The tasks, structure, organization, and the close ties to a whole of society approach and local communities are very similar. Ukraine still has a very different cultural understanding of legal implications, individual civil rights possibilities, and development of volunteer organizations in general. As such Ukraine has, in a very short timeframe, moved far in terms of developing a democratic funded Defence understanding. With the right intervention from Western reservist organizations, it can be further developed and enriched.