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How US trainers helped Ukraine reinvent its doctrine


HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — One of the U.S. Army’s smallest security assistance assets has had an outsized effect on the battlefield in Ukraine, and its role is expected to grow.

The service’s training partnerships with foreign nations range from deployments of security force assistance brigades to the Joint Combined Exchange Training events that Special Forces A-teams conduct around the globe. But only one office is regularly trains allies and partners on new capabilities: the Security Assistance Training Management Organization.

SATMO provides training on equipment sold to friendly nations, its commander Col. Andrew Clark explained in an interview. Its small teams are funded by the host nation and work under the U.S. State Department when teaching new technology, allowing flexibility compared to traditional Army cooperation efforts.

And in Ukraine, Clark said, his command’s doctrine advisory groups and trainers have helped Kyiv reinvent and reform its fighting style, force structure and professional military education. The post-Soviet nation’s existing warfighting playbook was dominated by Soviet- and Russian-influenced concepts.

Starting in 2016, SATMO advisers embedded in Kyiv and at Ukrainian bases, Clark said. “We were focused on bringing Ukraine to a NATO standard when it comes to doctrine and operations.”

The doctrine advisers trained Ukraine’s own doctrine writers, working from NATO operating concepts, and assisted in establishing a major training center in the country’s west, Clark added. Other members of the team went to the country’s National Defence University and helped standardize the logistics curriculum in addition to teaching classes there.

The mission continued up until they departed ahead of Russia’s renewed invasion in February 2022.

These efforts occurred alongside special operations community-led initiatives to help Ukraine prepare for an insurgency should its military fold amid a Russian onslaught.

Clark acknowledged “we can’t quantify” the impact that concepts- and capability-focused advising had on Ukraine’s armed forces, but he said many of the nation’s battlefield successes were linked to ideas honed with SATMO’s help — namely logistics and decentralized command philosophy.

“The Ukrainians have far exceeded Western expectations in their ability to supply and maintain their forces, and we had a logistics adviser there specifically working on that,” the colonel said. “[It’s] not perfect, but we’ve seen a flexibility in planning and operations that is inherent in Western doctrine [that is] not inherent in the Soviet style of top-down command.”

With the war in its second year, other countries in Europe are buying American weapons to fill gaps left when sending existing stocks to Ukraine. When new gear arrives in the donor countries, Clark said, his troops will be there to help get U.S. allies up to speed.

Clark also pointed at his command’s cost efficiency, thanks to legal requirements that hosts foot the training bill. All it takes is people and time.

“With a very small investment on the U.S. Army’s behalf in terms of manpower, we build super-important, high-end, niche capabilities for allies in partners,” he said. “But they really do help us.”

Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army, specializing in accountability reporting, personnel issues and military justice. He joined Military Times in 2020. Davis studied history at Vanderbilt University and UNC-Chapel Hill, writing a master’s thesis about how the Cold War-era Defense Department influenced Hollywood’s WWII movies.

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