Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Inside a Major Nerve Center for Shipping Military Aid to Ukraine

In just a few weeks, U.S. and British officials have turned an ad hoc operation into a pipeline.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
An airport vehicle pulls a portion of a shipment of weapons that include Javelin anti-tank missiles and other military hardware delivered on a National Airlines plane by the United States military at Boryspil Airport near Kyiv on January 25, 2022 in Boryspil, Ukraine.
An airport vehicle pulls a portion of a shipment of weapons that include Javelin anti-tank missiles and other military hardware delivered on a National Airlines plane by the United States military at Boryspil Airport near Kyiv on January 25, 2022 in Boryspil, Ukraine.
An airport vehicle pulls a portion of a shipment of weapons that include Javelin anti-tank missiles and other military hardware delivered on a National Airlines plane by the United States military at Boryspil Airport near Kyiv on January 25, 2022 in Boryspil, Ukraine. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

STUTTGART, Germany—Inside a reconfigured conference room not much bigger than a high school basketball gym, more than a hundred troops from 30 different countries are planning, plotting, and tracking almost every Western bullet heading to Ukraine.

In just the past several weeks, British troops, with help from their American counterparts, have transformed a sleepy conference room here at Patch Barracks into one of the nerve centers within the NATO alliance for fielding Ukraine’s weapons requests. Their task is to get artillery, tanks, fighter aircraft, ammunition, and nonlethal aid like helmets from the heart of Europe into the fight in the Donbas, with the help of a handful of Ukrainian liaison officers in the room working the phones with soldiers on the front lines.

Foreign Policy was one of two media outlets with exclusive first-time access to the so-called International Donor Coordination Center, where 110 troops help track weapons deliveries around the clock. This reporter sat in on a briefing of the group’s activities on condition of anonymity, under ground rules set by the Pentagon.

STUTTGART, Germany—Inside a reconfigured conference room not much bigger than a high school basketball gym, more than a hundred troops from 30 different countries are planning, plotting, and tracking almost every Western bullet heading to Ukraine.

In just the past several weeks, British troops, with help from their American counterparts, have transformed a sleepy conference room here at Patch Barracks into one of the nerve centers within the NATO alliance for fielding Ukraine’s weapons requests. Their task is to get artillery, tanks, fighter aircraft, ammunition, and nonlethal aid like helmets from the heart of Europe into the fight in the Donbas, with the help of a handful of Ukrainian liaison officers in the room working the phones with soldiers on the front lines.

Foreign Policy was one of two media outlets with exclusive first-time access to the so-called International Donor Coordination Center, where 110 troops help track weapons deliveries around the clock. This reporter sat in on a briefing of the group’s activities on condition of anonymity, under ground rules set by the Pentagon.

The center has the distinct feel of a start-up—but hatched inside of a U.S. military base, in a room once reserved for orientation for newcomers to U.S. European Command. The room is crowned with concentric circles of laptops and filled with the low din of chatter in several languages as troops huddle to get military equipment from where it is to where it’s needed. Some parts of the room, like the blue carpet, are literally held together with duct tape.

“Two months ago, you didn’t exist,” a senior U.S. military official said to the group, with a plasma television screen detailing weapons moving to Ukraine from hubs across Europe. The effort has gotten more organized. For instance, when the United States sent speedboats to Ukraine in November 2021, “it was just a series of 5,000 phone calls,” the official said.

Now, some $4 billion dollars of U.S. military aid later, instead of thousands for phone calls, there’s an app for that. In the first days of the war, U.S. officials and British troops worked separately. But the British military—headed by the 104 Theater Sustainment Brigade—set up a software system with a Ukrainian code name akin to Craigslist, where Ukrainians can post weapons requests and countries can pull down separate cases. By the beginning of April, the U.S. and British efforts had merged into one unit.

It’s gotten busier since the Pentagon started hosting a monthly weapons pledge conference for Ukraine in late April. Now, a huddle of mixed-and-matched uniforms convenes here every day at 11 a.m. Operations officers tracking the battlefield in real time give updates on the tug-of-war battle in the Donbas, which U.S. officials have characterized as a “gunfight.” In the past week, Russia has taken control of Mariupol—besieged for nearly three months—and the Donbas towns of Popasna and villages south of Izyum, prompting Ukrainian withdrawals and raising fears of a Russian breakout.

Now, as soon as a donor is identified for a weapon Ukraine needs, troops inside the coordinating center figure out how to get it into the country by ground, air, or rail through one of several hubs in Europe—whichever is the most effective. The weapons can be delivered by contractors or collected by the armed forces of Ukraine, one British military official said. But the work has gotten more difficult as Ukraine’s needs have evolved from small arms and handheld weapons like Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that helped stop Russia’s assault on Kyiv to planes, tanks, and artillery, such as 108 U.S.-provided M777 howitzers.

Training needs to be coordinated, too. Other nations are ferrying Ukrainians back and forth to training in Eastern Europe, such as Canadians training Ukrainian troops on U.S.-provided artillery, and to help pick up the weapons. A team in the field in Eastern Europe connected to European Command has helped disassemble Soviet-era Su-25 “Frogfoot” aircraft and Mi-17 helicopters so they can be shipped to Ukraine. The Ukrainians are showing single-mindedness in training sessions, officials said. “They don’t want to take tea breaks,” the British military official said. “They just want to carry on learning and get back into [the] country.”

“There are some moments where it’s a bit tight, [but] we get it across,” the British official added. A second British official said the cell discovered rifles in a warehouse that could be given to Ukraine that they weren’t using; they just lacked sights and ammunition. That was sourced and sent in. A third British official said that units training in Eastern Europe have been able to move around equipment during the recent U.S. Army-led Defender exercise that spanned nine counties with more than 3,400 U.S. and 5,100 multinational troops.

And Ukraine needs to figure out how to keep those new weapons systems flying and firing, too. Officials inside the planning cell developed a checklist for training and sustaining those weapons, including making sure that ammunition was ready. And after getting tougher-to-sustain weapons, like armored vehicles, Ukrainians are aware that the more urgent the request is, the more difficult it becomes.

“If you use kit that’s out of their scope, it will break,” the first British military official said. “There’s a political will to have a rapid effect” that’s behind a desire to push weapons into the field that aren’t always the most reliable, the official added.

But Ukraine is pressing the West to go still further. At the top of Kyiv’s wish list are multiple rocket launch systems that can fire up to a dozen rockets up to 80 miles away, which Ukrainian officials said the United States has refrained from sending, for fear of escalating the conflict further.

The United States and NATO countries are still figuring out whether this will become a formal operation, akin to the Berlin airlift that brought millions of tons of food and other supplies into the allied area of the German city blockaded by the Soviet Union in the late 1940s. U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, who attended the briefing, said that the United States is already preparing the first batch of military aid to Ukraine from President Joe Biden’s $40 billion assistance package that cleared Congress last week.

But Washington isn’t ready to define victory just yet. “The U.S. aim is fundamentally about support to Ukraine, and the end state goal will be decided primarily between Ukraine and Russia,” Hicks told reporters after the briefing. “We want to be supportive of an approach that protects Ukraine’s statehood and understands that beyond that, it’s going to be between those two parties.”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin
A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin

What Russia’s Elites Think of Putin Now

The president successfully preserved the status quo for two decades. Suddenly, he’s turned into a destroyer.

A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa
A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa

Cafe Meeting Turns Into Tense Car Chase for U.S. Senate Aides in Zimbabwe

Leading lawmaker calls on Biden to address Zimbabwe’s “dire” authoritarian turn after the incident.

Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.
Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.

Putin’s Energy War Is Crushing Europe

The big question is whether it ends up undermining support for Ukraine.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.

A Crisis of Faith Shakes the United Nations in Its Big Week

From its failure to stop Russia’s war in Ukraine to its inaction on Myanmar and climate change, the institution is under fire from all sides.