Today's D Brief: F-16 training for Ukraine; $3B aid goof; New fighter competition; ‘100 roles’ for robot wingmen; And a bit more.

New: Ukraine’s allies are planning to train Kyiv’s pilots on F-16s and other fourth-generation fighter aircraft used by certain NATO members like the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. The developments were announced Friday after U.S. President Joe Biden spoke to his counterparts among the Group of 7 industrialized nations ahead of the G7 conference this weekend in Hiroshima. CNN, Politico, and the Associated Press were among the first outlets to confirm the news, citing U.S. officials. 

Ordinarily for the U.S., F-16 training specifically for foreign pilots has been conducted in Phoenix at Luke Air Force Base, according to Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber. But this new program “will likely happen entirely in Europe,” according to CNN. It could also take several months to complete—possibly as few as four, according to Yahoo News, reporting Thursday. 

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s president hopped a plane to Saudi Arabia on Friday, part of his efforts “to enhance bilateral relations and Ukraine’s ties with the Arab world,” President Volodymir Zelenskyy said on social media. He also said he’s interested in negotiating another prisoner swap with Russia, similar to how Riyadh assisted back in September. 

Zelenskyy is expected to visit Hiroshima for the G7 summit on Saturday. It would be his first trip to Asia since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began nearly 15 months ago. “Zelenskyy may also tour the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum during his trip,” according to the Japan Times. G7 leaders visited the site Friday and spoke with a survivor as Prime Minister Fumio Kishida guided the leaders “through vivid exhibits displaying the horrors of nuclear weapons,” according to the Times.

New: A Pentagon accounting error was discovered while reviewing aid to Ukraine, and it appears to have freed up about $3 billion in more arms that Washington can send to Kyiv’s military. Reuters first reported the error Thursday, with this explanation: “In its accounting, the Pentagon used replacement cost to value the weapons aid, instead of the weaponry's value when it was purchased and depreciated,” according to a defense official. The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Associated Press have similar coverage. 

By the way: One of the U.S.-made Patriot missile defense systems donated to Ukraine was recently used to “shoot down at least one faraway Russian fighter jet,” CNN reported Thursday. 

Coverage continues below… 

From Defense One

USAF Opens Bidding to Build Its 1st New Fighter in Decades // Audrey Decker: An engineering and manufacturing development contract is to be awarded in 2024 for the secretive Next Generation Air Dominance aircraft.

USAF Sees '100 Roles' for Its Robot Wingmen—and Firms Are Lining Up to Make Them // Audrey Decker: Air Force procurement chief offers the most detailed description yet of the collaborative combat aircraft program.

Chinese Breakthroughs Bring Quantum Tools Closer to Practicality // Peter W. Singer and Thomas Corbett: Still, concerns of a Chinese “quantum supremacy” should be softened by the realities and difficulties of this new space.

Unmanned Weapons Will Save Innocent Lives in War, Former SOCOM Chief Says // Patrick Tucker: But how? We’ll have to wait and see, Tony Thomas said.

US Medics Must Learn from Ukraine’s Harsher War, Report Says // Sam Skove: Russia’s artillery and jammers make battlefield medicine harder and more dangerous than in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Marcus Weisgerber. On this day in 1950, more than 420 tons of explosives detonated while in transit at the Raritan River Port in South Amboy, New Jersey. Thirty-one people were killed and more than 350 were injured in the explosions, which occurred at about 7:30 p.m. and could be felt 30 miles away. 

Russia’s battlefield adaptation: From new thermal camouflage to “disposable infantry,” we have an updated analysis of several ways Russia’s military has been forced to adapt to Ukraine’s many donated weapons thanks to a new report (PDF) from the London-based Royal United Services Institute. RUSI analysts Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds recently returned from another trip to Ukraine to roll up dozens of battlefield adaptations Russian forces have deployed to prolong their occupation, which just entered its 450th consecutive day on Friday. Here are just a few of the things you’ll learn in that report:

Enormous drone casualties: “Ukrainian UAV losses remain at approximately 10,000 per month,” which strikes us as a staggering number from pretty much any perspective in this conflict. RUSI attributes a large percentage of those downed UAVs to Russia’s “extensive use of navigational interference.” Additionally, it's now “typical for there to be between 25 and 50 UAVs from both sides operating over the contested area between the forward line of own troops (FLOT) and forward line of enemy troops (FLET) at any given time for each 10 km of frontage.” Russia is also routinely equipping frontline platoons with drone jammers and interceptors—and its troops are able to spoof drone signatures, making Ukraine think there are far more aloft than there truly are.

In terms of communications, “Russian forces largely rely on unencrypted analogue military radios, reflecting a shortage of trained signallers at the tactical level,” according to RUSI. However, Russian forces are “also apparently achieving real time interception and decryption of Ukrainian Motorola 256-bit encrypted comms, which are widely employed by the Armed Forces of Ukraine.”

Digging in is mandatory: “Once Russian troops have taken a position, it is reliably fortified within 12 hours through the digging of fox holes or blasting on less favourable ground. This is rapidly augmented in frontline positions with cut-down trees to create strongpoints for support weapons…They also make limited use of decoy positions to obscure the layout of their actual defensive positions and fires plan.”

Russian artillery use is down by nearly half from last year. E.g., “whereas total ammunition expenditure in 2022 was approximately 12 million rounds, fluctuating between 20,000 and 60,000 rounds fired per day, Russian fires in 2023 are currently trending closer towards 7 million rounds if the current rate of fire is maintained for the remainder of the year.” More recently, however, Russia’s “MLRS launches are significantly less than in previous months, suggesting munitions shortages.”

Russia has been more selective in its use of tanks compared to the opening months of the invasion. And not only have the tanks been modified to reduce their exhaust plumes, they're also being used more so only “at dusk and dawn when the vehicle temperature is most similar to the ambient temperature of the surroundings (known as ‘thermal crossover’),” which makes them more difficult to locate with thermal imagery.

And when it comes to Russia’s “disposable infantry,” which are largely prisoners and conscripts, many of them “often appear to be under the influence of amphetamines or other narcotic substances.” What’s more, Watling and Reynolds note, “If these attacks were executed by capable assault troops motivated by factors other than coercion and narcotics, they would be roughly equivalent to historical assault tactics such as the ‘short attacks’ of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army in the Korean War.”

But those “disposable” units, under threat of fratricide for retreating, have served a particularly useful function for Russia: “First, they find points of weakness in the Ukrainian defences where these troops make surprising amounts of progress or face very limited fire”; and “where the defence is strong, the revelation of Ukrainian firing positions allows specialised troops to begin targeting them.”

As far as what might lie ahead, Ukraine will need to train and equip for assaulting “layers of prepared defences” by Russian occupation forces, and that is going to be a significant challenge, according to Watling and Reynolds. And in terms of advice for Ukraine’s allies, “if Ukrainian forces are to set the conditions in any sector for offensive action, its international partners should prioritise the provision of detection systems for directing counterbattery fire,” since Russia retains its notable artillery advantage, which has been its ground forces’ primary asset going back to the Cold War. 

But the seemingly best-case picture this advice paints, of course, is one of incredibly brave trench-rushing Ukrainians dodging artillery fire and shrapnel and counter-fire—with the defense of their nation hinging on these apparently anachronistic hordes of men, many of whom are apt to be mowed down just like their European brethren were up and down the front more than a century ago. After all, “Mine clearing and breaching is another area where Ukraine’s partners must prioritise support” if Ukraine is to claw virtually any of its occupied territory back, the report’s authors warn. Read more, here

Additional reading: 

Have a safe weekend, everyone. And we’ll be back on Monday!