Ukrainian troops are improving rapidly, but there are some key areas that will need U.S. Army assistance in the weeks to come, said Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, head of U.S. Army Europe.
That will include training the Ukrainians to better:
*Avoid and respond to artillery fire.
*Conduct electronic warfare.
*Care for combat casualties.
U.S. soldiers will deploy to Ukraine in the spring and begin training four companies of the Ukrainian National Guard, but that is just the latest initiative as the U.S. continues to beef up its Europe presence in response to Russian-stirred conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Russia has denied supplying the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine who have taken over a number of cities and towns. Hodges compared the Russian denials to late-night sketch comedy.
"It's almost like a Saturday Night Live skit, except they're completely serious about it. But they say it so much, when in fact the only foreign troops in Ukraine are Russian," Hodges said, addressing reporters at the Pentagon via video feed from Wiesbaden, Germany.
The U.S. Army has already provided sorely needed lightweight counter mortar radar as well other systems to detect rockets and other artillery, Hodges said.
"They have suffered a lot of casualties from heavy artillery and rockets," Hodges said.
Electronic warfare has also proven problematic; Hodges said knowledge of the enemy's location doesn't help much if you can't communicate it.
"The EW environment is very heavily contested," Hodges said. "Their opponents have exceptional amounts of jamming capabilities."
Hodges spent some time in Kiev, visiting a military hospital there. Capacity had proven insufficient for their number of casualties, he said, and while the U.S. Army can't fix capacity, medics could be tapped to leverage their field experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The skills of unit medics in U.S. armies and other Western armies has improved so much over the last 10 years, I think we can help provide some of that training to the Ukranians," Hodges said.
Despite these areas of concern, Hodges said the Ukrainians had come along way even in the last year. He cited as an example the fact that in the week-and-a-half-long multinational Rapid Trident 2014 training exercises in Ukraine last September, when Ukraine felt it could spare only cadets from its military academy.
"This year, we've got three battalions from [Ukraine's] Ministry of Interior, plus officers and NCOs being pulled out," Hodges said. "That shows a maturation and professionalization of the military and the ministry."
The Army still plans to add 100 armored vehicles to Europe, and in March will send in the neighborhood of 3,000 soldiers from the 1st Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division to multiple European countries. They will support of Operation Atlantic Resolve, which the Pentagon describes as a U.S. commitment to reassure its NATO allies.
The U.S. has stepped up its training exercises in a number of other countries bordering Russia and the Black Sea, from Estonia through Bulgaria. Hodges said he hopes that will deter future Russian aggression which he said is designed to redraw international boundaries and undermine NATO.