Bear, Meet Porcupine: Unconventional Deterrence for Ukraine

By "going porcupine," Ukraine can make it clear to Russia that invasion will be costly and unsuccessful. But Kyiv needs help.

Neither the forces committed nor the economic sanctions threatened by Washington and Brussels are enough to deter Russia from sending its massing forces across the Ukrainian border. What’s needed is a new form of deterrence: “going porcupine.” Ukraine must quickly grow a coat of quills that can make it unassailable or at least un-occupiable. Fortunately, affordable and scalable capabilities make this possible—if the U.S. will back the effort to the tune of just one-tenth or less of the money spent annually on Iraq and Afghanistan.

One key is vastly expanding Ukraine’s existing arsenal of a few dozen large drones, plus unknown quantities of smaller systems. Drones’ usefulness in large force-on-force warfare was demonstrated during last year’s 44-Day War, when Turkish-manufactured Azeri Bayraktar TB2 drones and various loitering munitions defanged Armenia’s Russian-made air defense systems, then destroyed hundreds of armored vehicles, fortifications, and troop concentrations—both by direct strikes and by spotting for artillery.

But Ukraine could, and should, also use its new drones to help persuade Russia not to start a fight in the first place. For example, drones might regularly snap high-quality imagery of potential targets that could be broadcast on social media. They might be used to frequently and unpredictably test air defenses. Entire fleets of drones—“swarm troopers”—could be brandished in “elephant walk” flights undertaken from several of Ukraine’s dozens of drone-capable airfields. Elephant walks could intersperse actual armed TB2s and other cheaper and numerous unarmed machines with a similar radar, visual, and aural signature to sow further uncertainty. Non-lethal “roof knocking” attacks against military targets might also be employed.

But “going porcupine” isn’t all about drones. To deter a Russian combined arms invasion, drones must be integrated with anti-air, anti-tank, and, particularly, cyber assets. Starting immediately, Ukraine should “defend forward” on the cyber front to pre-empt threats and shape the information and physical battlespaces. Kyiv should hold at risk Russia’s pipeline and energy sector control systems, power grid, GLONASS global positioning system, and communications infrastructure, among other things—especially if Russian-linked actors attack Ukraine’s domestic energy system, as they did in 2015 and 2016.

Russia also has asymmetric cyber vulnerabilities in the political space. A hundred or so key oligarchs control an estimated $630 billion in wealth, much of it stashed abroad in various forms (even crypto-currencies). Other Russians likely serve as wealth-holding fronts for the country’s political leaders, allegedly even including Vladimir Putin himself. Ukrainian cyberwarriors—with NATO assistance—could likely locate, freeze, seize, or otherwise interdict these asset pools. There is precedent for such actions. For instance, Sheldon Adelson’s casino operations were disrupted by a cyberattack after he suggested a nuclear strike against Iran.

Civil society presents another asymmetric vulnerability. Ukrainian cyber-teams could build counter-surveillance “halos” around opponents of the Putin government, protect their communications, interfere with telecommunications eavesdropping, and potentially, sow confusion among Russian internal security agencies. They could also take steps to ensure that any carnage wrought by “Putin’s war of choice” will regularly appear on smartphone screens across Russia, along with messaging that Ukraine simply wants a normal relationship with Russia, not one imposed at gunpoint.

Once shooting starts, Ukraine would need to imperil Moscow’s helicopter fleet, force strike aircraft to stay above 10,000 feet, and force a “mostly ground war.” U.S. Stinger missiles and Polish GROM/Piorun systems would be particularly useful in this effort, because they are relatively easy to use, affordable, and replenishable at scale. For instance, the Polish military spent $220 million in 2016 for 420 Piorun launchers and 1,300 missiles. MANPADS could be geo-fenced to operate only within Ukraine in order to assuage proliferation/leakage concerns.

On the ground, Ukraine already has domestically-made RK-3 and Skif anti-tank missile systems, but these are either heavier or shorter-ranged than the American Javelin missile. Also, neither Ukrainian indigenous system is fully fire and forget, which exposes operators to counterfire. The U.S. has done a bit to rectify these challenges, delivering a total of 77 Javelin anti-tank missile launchers and 540 missiles to fire from them. But it should hurry to send several times that many.

One way to do so quickly would be through a temporary lease where after sufficient de-escalation by Russia, the unused missile stocks could be transferred back to U.S. custody. Such a modern “Lend Lease” process would supply munitions such as Javelins and Stingers at scale in response to Russian actions and place them under temporary, but full, Ukrainian operational control. Once Russia showed signs of de-escalation, remaining weapons above a pre-established baseline level would be handed back over to U.S. or NATO custody.

To maximize anti-armor capabilities’ deterrence impact, the U.S. could transfer “fast attack”-style vehicles that can mount anti-tank guided missiles or carry Javelin teams and move much faster than Russian armored units, thus enabling them to rapidly shoot and reposition, complicating invading forces’ ability to hit them with air or artillery fire. These vehicles cost around $30,000 apiece (versus $6 million or more for a UH-60 helicopter) and can also safely operate underneath Russian surface-to-air missiles that would threaten helicopters.

The third key is providing targeted financial support to convince Russia that Ukraine can sustain high-impact armed resistance—and that it can be scaled up if necessary. Targeted investments by the U.S. could magnify Ukraine’s ability to sustain drone operations in the face of formidable Russian air defenses. Armenia lacked the ability to conduct effective counter-UAV operations against Azerbaijan with its four Su-30SM fighters because it did not procure missiles along with the jets—a mistake Russia won’t make.

Work is already underway to construct a TB2 factory near Kyiv. In late 2019, Baykar announced plans to spend 600 million liras ($106 million) to double TB2 production capacity at its plant near Istanbul to 92 units per year, while also producing 24 Akinci and 36 other combat drones annually. Extrapolating from those numbers suggests that U.S.-NATO financial assistance to Ukrainian defense firms on the order of $1 billion could credibly lead to production of more than 100 drones annually in Ukraine and a similar number from facilities cited in Poland or another willing neighbor less subject to direct Russian attack. The U.S. could also fund equipment upgrades and raw material procurement for other relevant parts of the Ukrainian defense sector to help it sustain a multi-year conflict.

This deterrence strategy would communicate clearly to Russia the near-certainty of hell if it invades. It also emphasizes limited objectives. Porcupine quills only impale bears that attack.

The views expressed in this article are exclusively those of the authors. They do not reflect official assessments or positions of the Baker Institute, Rice University, or the University of Houston.

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