While the war in Ukraine continues with no end in sightConcerns are mounting in Washington, both in Democratic and Republican circles, that the Biden administration is refraining from supplying Ukraine with certain weapons that could give the invaded country a distinct advantage against Russia.
The dispute centers on a mobile rocket launcher known in military circles as “HIMARS” (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System). It is essentially a light armored military truck capable of firing multiple rockets. And the controversy on Capitol Hill is whether the United States should supply Ukraine with longer-range missiles capable of penetrating deep into Russia.
Most lawmakers are grateful that the United States has already supplied these HIMARS to Ukraine. Just this week, the Biden administration announced a new aid package that includes more ammunition for HIMARS. But many lawmakers also said they were concerned the Biden administration was withholding longer-range munitions, which they said could help Ukraine at a key moment in the war.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), co-chair of the Ukraine Senate Caucus, told The Daily Beast that he believes the Biden administration has been hesitant to provide longer-range missiles because some officials fear it will provoke Russia.
“They think it’s an escalation, but I reject it,” Portman told The Daily Beast, adding that he supports providing the missiles.
Another Republican—Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), who is a member of the Armed Services Committee, said the Biden administration is too concerned with upsetting Russia when it should be focused on how to beat the country.
“They worry about escalation because … this administration is risk averse,” Ernst told The Daily Beast, adding, “We need to make sure we’re hitting Russia.”
Concerns that the Biden administration may be reluctant to put more skin in the game come as Ukrainian forces are working to mount a counteroffensive in Kherson, a city that Russian forces took early in the war. Taking it back would be a huge blow to Russia, both militarily and psychologically.
Some of the accusations about fear from the White House may sound familiar. The Biden administration initially hesitated to send HIMARS earlier this year due to concerns that the Ukrainians could fire on Russian territory and push the conflict into a broader war. But administration concerns about whether the Ukrainians were going to fire on Russian territory were allayed when Ukrainian officials promised not to do so, US officials said.
the The Biden administration then sent out a handful of HIMARS in June, and has sprayed a few more HIMARS and ammunition deliveries since then, for a total commitment of 16 HIMARS. There have been no reports that the Ukrainians have reneged on their promise, and senior US defense officials have assessed HIMARS as having been helpful.
“There has been a significant impact on what is happening on the front lines,” a senior US defense official told reporters in July.
But, despite repeated requests by Ukrainian officials for longer-range munitions for HIMARS, the United States has not complied. The Pentagon has provided medium-range rocket systems with the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) (which can travel approximately 45 miles), while the administration has delayed sending longer-range munitions to Ukraine that HIMARS can also shoot, known as Army Tactical. Missile System (ATACMS) (which can reach about 180 miles).
While some say the administration remains concerned about provoking Russia, others suggested the United States doesn’t have as much information about Ukraine’s military operations as it should before launching longer-range rockets.
Concerns have been raised in recent days about whether the United States really has a clear understanding of Ukraine’s war plans, which would be necessary for the Biden administration to know how the weapons provided will be used. Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) said she wants to see Ukraine’s strategic plan before addressing long-range munitions for HIMARS.
“What we have to do, what Ukraine has to do, and what we are working with them for is to develop a strategic plan to move forward and then try to make sure that we get them the appropriate help they need to execute that plan,” Rosen told The Daily Beast, adding that discussions about these issues continue in classified settings.
The US intelligence community, for its part, lacks key information about Ukraine’s strategy, which could be creating chasms in the way the US provides security assistance to Ukraine, such as The New York Times reported. Ukrainian officials have not been sharing detailed operational plans in meetings with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin or General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to the Times.
“We have to see what their strategic plan is,” said Rosen, who also sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “And it’s important that we give them the weapons or the help that is appropriate, for what the game plan is.”
Some of Ukraine’s requests do not appear to match its current set of goals.
A source familiar with the situation told The Daily Beast that most Ukraine targets, the Biden administration currently believes, are within a range of about 30 miles, which would make longer-range HIMARS munitions unnecessary.
The current list of targets that Ukrainian officials have provided to the Pentagon indicates that they do not need a long-range missile, a Defense Department spokesman, Lt. Col. Garron J. Garn, told The Daily Beast.
“We are providing the Ukrainians with a range of capabilities commensurate with the fight they are executing, based on the requirements that the Ukrainians have identified for us,” the spokesman said, adding that the short range can handle “most” of the Ukrainian goals.
Given concerns that Russia could interpret the longer-range missiles as a sign that Ukraine plans to fire on Russian territory, the Biden administration does not see it as worth the risk, the familiar source suggested.
However, Ukrainian officials continue to ask for the ammunition.
Making sure the US government is aware of Ukraine’s political and military plans is crucial in deciding what weaponry to send, according to Gordon “Skip” Davis, a former deputy assistant secretary general of NATO’s Defense Investment Division.
“That is a question that we have the right to ask, as long as the level of security assistance [and] the cost to the American taxpayer,” Davis told The Daily Beast.
For now, the Biden administration has not necessarily ruled out sending longer-range missiles, according to the source familiar. He just isn’t doing it right now.
The Biden administration also has a key calculation to make about Russia’s likely response to any US aid to Ukraine. There is looming concern that Russia could interpret longer-range munitions for HIMARS as a much greater threat, Chris Dougherty, a former senior adviser to the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development at the Pentagon, told The Daily Beast.
“The Russians have many deep-seated concerns about the presence of American or Western long-range attack assets in or around their territory,” Dougherty told The Daily Beast. “They really fear the possibility of the United States or NATO, to a greater extent, launching decapitation attacks. Even though we can rationally know that these weapon systems can’t be used for that… it’s just a constant, underlying concern.”
Although the US strategy should not be driven by Moscow fears, Dougherty said, it should still take into account that Russia could interpret events and then escalate.
Questions about whether to send the long-range missiles also have to do with supply and demand, and whether the Pentagon is willing to release precious US reserves in Ukraine, according to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).
We have “fewer of them,” Rubio said of the more far-reaching tools. “So they have to come out of our own stocks,” Rubio, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told The Daily Beast. “The question is, how do you replenish them?”
The United States has a limited supply of those missiles, probably 1,000 to 3,000 ATACMS left, Dougherty told The Daily Beast.
That raises questions about how far long-term US support can go, Davis said.
“ATACMS can take a long time to produce,” Davis said. “There would be considerations here, as soon as we consider providing them, about restocking … because we didn’t have a ton of systems to begin with.”
A source familiar with the stock confirmed to The Daily Beast that there are indeed limited resources when it comes to ATACMS.
Meanwhile, requests from Ukrainian officials have gone unheeded. An adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Mykhailo Podolyakwarned on Thursday that receiving the longest-range munitions for HIMARS would be key to negotiating an end to the war with Russia.
He said that in order to talk to Russia, Ukraine needed to have “the correct negotiating position,” and part of that “correct negotiating position” was long-range artillery.