Kyiv says it needs ATACMS, but the Pentagon says it doesn’t have enough to spare and Ukraine doesn’t really need them
By Karen DeYoung and Missy Ryan
July 23, 2023
The Washington Post
The Biden administration is holding firm, for now at least, on its refusal to send long-range Army missiles to Ukraine despite mounting pressure from U.S. lawmakers and pleas from the government in Kyiv, according to U.S. officials.
Disappointment at the slow pace of Ukraine’s counteroffensive against entrenched Russian forces and a newly equivocal tone by President Biden have led to widespread speculation that the missiles will soon follow the path taken by other U.S. weapons systems that were first denied but ultimately approved during the 17 months of the war.
In late May, Biden appeared to alter his previously firm “no” on the possibility of ATACMS, the Army Tactical Missile System, saying for the first time that it was “still in play.” Two weeks later, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that he and Biden had spoken about the missiles at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, but that no decision had been made.
But U.S. defense and administration officials familiar with the issue said that despite what one called a growing public perception of “some sort of slow, gravitational pull” toward approval, there has been no change in U.S. policy and no substantive discussion about the issue for months. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to address the sensitive subject.
The Pentagon believes that Kyiv has other, more urgent needs than ATACMS, and worries that sending enough to Ukraine to make a difference on the battlefield would severely undercut U.S. readiness for other possible conflicts.
The number of ATACMS in American stockpiles is fixed, awaiting replacement with the next generation, longer-range Precision Strike Missile, called the Prism, for PrSM, which is expected to enter service by the end of this year, officials said. Lockheed Martin still manufactures 500 ATACMS each year, but all of that production is destined for sale to other countries.
Ukraine has said that the ATACMS, with a range of 190 miles, is essential for destroying command posts and logistics areas far behind Russian front lines.
“Without long-range weapons, it is difficult not only to carry out an offensive mission but also to conduct a defensive operation,” Zelensky said at a July 7 news conference in Prague.
The ATACMS would allow Ukrainian forces to target the farthest reaches of Russian-occupied Crimea from their own current front lines, including the 12-mile Kerch Bridge and the Russian naval base at Sevastopol.
Asked at the Aspen Security Forum on Thursday what is at the top of Ukraine’s list of security needs, Andriy Yermak, the head of Zelensky’s presidential office, said: “My answer will be very simple. At this point, it’s very clear and understandable. We need and are waiting for decisions on ATACMS.”
Kyiv has asked for hundreds of the missiles.
Ukraine has appealed to its supporters in Congress — many of whom have visited Kyiv or met elsewhere with Zelensky and other Ukrainian government officials — and U.S. lawmakers have made increasingly loud demands for the Biden administration to approve the transfer of the missiles.
Last month, the House Armed Services Committee included funds to send ATACMS to Ukraine in its draft of the defense budget, and the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a bipartisan resolution calling for the United States to “immediately” provide the missiles.
“There’s no reason to give Ukraine just enough to bleed but not enough to win,” Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) said. “If we’re going to be helping them, either go all in or get out.” The resolution was backed by the committee’s chief Democrat, Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (N.Y.).
Early this month, Sens. James E. Risch (Idaho) and Roger Wicker (Miss.), the ranking Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, respectively, joined McCaul in a statement that said transfer of ATACMS, along with cluster munitions and F-16 aircraft, was “critical” to Ukraine’s success.
Since last year, the administration has cited several reasons for holding back. Refusal initially centered on concerns that Ukraine might fire the long-range missiles into Russian territory, escalating the conflict into a U.S.-Russia confrontation. Even supplying the weapons, Moscow has said publicly, would cross a red line.
Whatever Moscow’s threats, those worries seem to have abated. The Biden administration has said it is satisfied with public statements and written pledges from Kyiv not to use U.S.-supplied weapons to target Russians beyond the border. Although officials privately concede there have been some breaches, Ukraine is said to have largely complied with those promises.
Britain and France have recently supplied cruise missiles with a range of about 140 miles — nearly three times as far as what was previously available to Ukraine, but about 50 miles short of the range of the ATACMS — after coordinating their decisions with the United States.
“We are confident that these weapons will be used by Ukraine in accordance” with agreements “not to attack Russian soil,” a senior European official said.
The recent arrival of British Storm Shadow and French SCALP missiles means Ukraine has even less need for ATACMS, Colin Kahl, until early this month the Pentagon’s undersecretary for policy, said during the same Aspen panel at which Yermak appeared.
“The problem now is not their ability to strike deep” into Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory, Kahl said. “They have that ability. They are doing it now. The Russian command and control, their logistics, have been disrupted in the deep.”
“The problem is not a hundred kilometers away, it’s one kilometer in front of them with the minefields” the Russians have laid, along with rows of trenches and tank traps, in defensive lines along the 600-mile front line, Kahl said.
The minefields are the primary cause of delay in the Ukrainian offensive, according to Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Right now, [the Ukrainians] are preserving their combat power and they are slowly and deliberately and steadily working their way through all these minefields. And it’s a tough fight. It’s a very difficult fight,” Milley said after Tuesday’s virtual meeting of the 50-plus group of Ukraine’s international backers.
“The various war games that were done ahead of time have predicted certain levels of advance and that has slowed down,” he said. “Why? Because that’s the difference between war on paper and real war. These are real people in real machines that are out there really clearing real minefields and they’re really dying.”
Not only would the ATACMS not be game changers in Ukraine, in the view of the administration, but they also would “limit the use of HIMARS or the GMLRS,” a defense official said, referring to the U.S. High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System and the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System which is capable of firing six at a time with a nearly 50-mile range. The ATACMS are also fired from HIMARS, but only one at a time.
“There’s a very limited number [of ATACMS] available to export, and for distances longer than the GMLR can reach, the Ukrainians have been given Storm Shadows and SCALPS,” the defense official said. This fall or winter, Ukraine also will receive U.S. GLSDB, or Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs, with a range of 93 miles and the ability to fire on a 360-degree trajectory.
ATACMS are nearly two-ton guided missiles. Each one is 13 feet long, 2 feet in diameter, and costs nearly $1.5 million. First designed in the 1980s, they were used in combat by the Army in both the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Ukrainians believe the ground-launched missiles would provide a capability beyond the cruise missiles, which are launched from aircraft.
The limited number of ATACMS is the U.S. military’s most pressing concern. While the exact number in the U.S. arsenal is classified, Lockheed Martin has made only about 4,000 since production began, many of them used by the U.S. Army in combat, exercises and periodic testing.
At the same time, nearly 900 have been sold to allies and partners abroad in the past decade — including 211 since the beginning of the Ukraine war, according to the State Department’s list of foreign military sales. They have gone to NATO allies, Persian Gulf countries and as far afield as Taiwan and Australia, usually in conjunction with the sale of HIMARS. The administration notified Congress in April of the pending sale of 40 of the missiles to Morocco.
To fulfill those and future foreign orders, the Army has signed at least three contracts with Lockheed Martin since 2018, totaling about $1 billion, for ongoing manufacture of ATACMS, which are “currently in full-rate production at a rate of about 500 per year” at Lockheed Martin’s facility in Camden, Ark., according to a company spokesperson, who declined to be named. All are destined for foreign sales.
Alex Horton contributed to this report.