With billions of dollars in weapons, the West has sought to give Ukraine the upper hand in its war with Russia. But the dizzying array of arms headed to the battlefield could make it hard for troops to tell friends from foes.
So the U.S. Army has come up with a new training tool seemingly designed for the conflict: a set of playing cards with pictures of 52 different NATO-made tanks, armored personnel carriers, trucks, artillery pieces and other weapons systems, plus two jokers.
The idea, said Maj. Andrew Harshbarger, a spokesman for the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, is to enable soldiers to quickly “identify enemy equipment and distinguish the equipment from friendly forces.”
The Pentagon has issued similar decks in the past to help forces familiarize themselves with elements of warfare over a hard-fought game of spades, hearts or poker. Each card has a picture of a weapons system, along with its name, the country where it is manufactured, its export destinations and its main armament.
Earlier decks have featured Chinese, Russian and Iranian military equipment. The idea goes back to at least World War II, when a pack showed fighter planes used by allies and adversaries. Playing cards depicting the U.S. government’s most wanted Iraqi fugitives, distributed during the American-led invasion in 2003, famously featured Saddam Hussein as the ace of spades.
In a statement, Major Harshbarger did not specifically say the new cards were aimed at helping with Ukraine’s fight against Russia. But he said they could be used across military services, and at all levels up the chain of command, and focused on “NATO equipment that has proliferated to non-NATO countries.”
Nowhere in the world is that more pertinent now than in Ukraine, where NATO states and allies have flooded the battle zone over the last year with an estimated $68 billion in commitments for weapons and military aid — the vast majority of that from the United States. Since the Russian invasion in February 2022, Ukraine has become the world’s third-largest arms importer, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Many of the weapons systems shown in the new deck have either been sent to Ukraine in the last year or are being used to train Ukrainian troops. Some are still under consideration for donation by NATO allies intent on Russia’s retreat.
There is no apparent hierarchy of importance in the deck. The German-made Gepard antiaircraft gun — at least three dozen of which Berlin has sent to Ukraine — is the seven of spades. The six of clubs is the potent M142 HIMARS system, an American mobile launching pad for guided missiles that helped Ukraine claw back territory from Russia last summer. France’s Caesar howitzer is the two of hearts.
Most, but not all, of the face cards feature American systems: the Bradley Fighting Vehicle (the queen of hearts); the M1 Abrams tank (the king of clubs); and M113 armored personnel carrier (the ace of spades). One of the jokers is the Stinger shoulder-fired missile that is manufactured by the United States, Germany and Turkey.
But some of the cards may unintentionally tip the hand of states that have tried to be opaque about the matériel they are sending.
The jack of hearts, for example, is an American-made UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, one of which was recently revealed to be in the possession of Ukraine’s military intelligence services. But the Biden administration has not disclosed that it is sending Black Hawks to the war, nor have other countries that have bought them — which, according to the cards, include Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and, before the Taliban seized the government in 2021, Afghanistan.
Similarly, France reportedly remains undecided on whether to send Leclercs, its main battle tanks, to Ukraine. The Leclerc is the eight of hearts in the new deck.
The cards will be printed over the next month, and officials said it’s expected they will be made available to American, NATO and Ukrainian troops. The Ukrainians are likely to need them the most as they slog through not just a fog of war but also a menagerie of foreign weapons systems, some of which they are still learning to use.
The cards could also help American and NATO troops who are responsible for receiving weapons from around the world and shipping them into Ukraine.
Christopher Skaluba, a senior Pentagon strategy and force development official during the Obama administration, said he knew of no previous deck of cards solely of NATO weapons, and that it could prove helpful not only to troops on the front lines and in logistics hubs, but also to officials in Western capitals deciding what systems to send to Ukraine.
It was impressive that Ukrainian forces have already absorbed the unfamiliar weaponry, he said, and as more complex systems are sent to the battlefield, “this seems like a super-fun way to recognize that effort and that success.”
“I’d love to have a pack for myself,” said Mr. Skaluba, now the director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington.