“Other US officials including military commanders have explained their opposition to the deal by contending that Ukraine’s military does not need additional fighter jet aircraft, a position strongly contested by Ukraine’s own government. A distinction has arisen concerning whether MiG-29 aircraft should be considered offensive or defensive weaponry, given the potential for their use to strike targets in Russia.”
White House National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, 14 March 2022.
Recently, Poland offered to supply 28 Russian-built MiG-29 fighter aircraft to Ukraine to help them in their battle against the Russian invasion. For reasons I never fully understood, the aircraft were first to be transferred from Poland to the US-NATO Ramstein Air Base in Germany and then onwards to Ukraine. Instantly, there were objections from the Pentagon, reinforced by US President, Joe Biden, Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, and other officials. Several reasons were cited—the US was not yet ready to replace Poland’s ancient MiGs with more up to date F16s, and supplying offensive weapons from a NATO base could signal NATO’s entrance into the war and cause major escalation. It was the use of the military interpretation of the adjective offensive that caught my eye. When is a weapon deemed offensive rather than defensive?
To date, thirteen countries, twelve of whom are members of NATO, have supplied Ukraine with an assortment of military weapons (pistols, assault rifles, sniper rifles, grenades, machine guns, mortars, anti-tank, anti-aircraft), protection gear (body armour, night-vision goggles, helmets) and supplies (fuel, field rations, armoured vehicles). How is it that sniper rifles, grenades, machine guns and mortars are considered defensive? They all appear very offensive to me.
Let’s go back to basics. Here are two simple definitions of the military versions of the two words.
Defensive: For the purpose of defence rather than attack.
Offensive: For the purpose of attack rather than defence.
Is one word the true antonym of the other?
In the animal kingdom, we find many examples of defensive mechanisms such as a hedgehog curling up into a prickly ball, the chameleon’s camouflage capability, the spray of a skunk, and the suffocating slime of a hagfish. Similarly, we find examples of offensive mechanisms or features: a tiger’s carnassial teeth, an eagle’s talons, the horns of a bull, and the venom of a snake delivered through its fangs.
Here we can argue that there is a clear distinction between defensive and offensive characteristics in the animal kingdom. Let’s move up a notch and bring in two prehistoric men—one with a spear and the other with a shield. We could argue that the offensive/defensive distinction between the spear and the shield is still very black and white although Marvel’s fictional character, WW2 super-soldier, Captain America, would not agree. He often uses his vibranium shield in an offensive way, safe in the knowledge that it will return to him like a boomerang when it has completed its aggressive mission. Returning to our two cavemen, even a spear can be used defensively e.g., to parry a blow from a cudgel, and a shield can be used to push back or slice at an attacker.
Already, the distinction is becoming blurred and we see that a weapon can be either offensive, defensive, or both depending on how it is used. A machine gun, for example, can be deemed defensive if it is used to return enemy fire. Similarly, a sniper rifle but the argument is now weakening. What about a MiG-29 fighter aircraft? Can that ever be described as a defensive weapon or is it always offensive?
It would seem that there is a scale of weapon classification with defensive at one end and offensive at the other but most, if not all, weapons have elements of both. Maybe someone in the Pentagon decried that a MiG-29 was fully at the offensive end whereas all other weapons so far supplied to Ukraine could be classified as having elements of both characteristics. What we need is a military adjective that summarises neither-fully-offensive-nor-fully defensive-and-can-be-used-for-either-purpose. Multipurpose, mixed-use, versatile, adaptable? Over to you.