The newest U.S. weapons package heading for Ukraine will not include the advanced long-range missile system that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and several congressional leaders have requested. But Pentagon leaders said its latest gift will include more of the medium-range rockets and long-range artillery systems they claim have helped Ukrainian forces to reclaim territory and momentum from invading Russians during the counteroffensive in recent weeks.
The latest offering includes four additional High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, which have helped Ukraine turn the tide in its eastern lands by targeting Russian ground-force positions, command centers, and weapons caches. Laura Cooper, a top Pentagon civilian official for Ukraine war policy, said the U.S. believes the munitions those HIMARS fire, known as the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System, or GMLRS, can reach where Ukrainian forces need. Notably, the U.S. is withholding long-range missiles that some planners have feared could strike deeper inside of Russia, including the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, Zelenskyy wants.
“It’s our assessment that with the existing GMLRS capability that they have on the HIMARS, and that we’re providing more of with this package, that they can reach the vast majority of targets on the battlefield,” said the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia. “… including Crimea.”
Cooper said the Pentagon believes Ukraine has used these weapons effectively so far, “creating opportunities to maneuver and advance” and changing “battlefield dynamics,” to reclaim territory and to consolidate their gains.
“The liberation of Lyman was a significant operational accomplishment,” she said.
The weapons package announced Tuesday comes amid new polling showing Americans’ support for increased U.S. diplomacy to end the war growing, and conservative support to fund the war waning. Nearly 80 percent of respondents surveyed in mid-September said they were concerned about the war. But 58 percent said they would oppose current Ukraine aid levels if gas and consumer prices stay high. Only 30 percent believe the war will end in “total victory for one country,” with most foreseeing a negotiated settlement. While 30 percent support U.S. diplomatic and military support, only 9 percent support giving Ukraine everything it asks for.
President Joe Biden, in call with Zelenskyy on Tuesday, showed no sign of any hesitation one month ahead of the midterm elections. “President Biden pledged to continue supporting Ukraine as it defends itself from Russian aggression, for as long as it takes,” according a White House readout of the call.
Secretary of State Tony Blinken in a statement said, “United with our allies and partners from 50 nations, we are delivering the arms and equipment that Ukraine’s forces are utilizing so effectively today in a successful counter-offensive to take back their lands seized illegally by Russia.”
The first weapons package of the fiscal year also follows new threats by Russian President Vladimir Putin to use tactical nuclear weapons to influence the battlefield in Ukraine. Cooper said while all nuclear threats are taken seriously, there is no indication of more.
“At this point, his rhetoric is only rhetoric. And it’s irresponsible saber rattling that we see, at this point,” she said. “But we see no signs that have caused us to alter our posture.”
Cooper said she has seen open media reports of a Russian train carrying nuclear equipment to the front, but could not corroborate them.
The package includes 75,000 155mm howitzer artillery rounds, which speaks to how quickly and aggressively the Ukrainian counter-offensive is unfolding. While Russia still controls an area of Ukraine about the size of Portugal—roughly 15 percent of the country—that area is shrinking rapidly, with active advances in both the eastern and southern fronts. The increased pace of the fighting in recent weeks has renewed concerns about Western supplies and stocks.
“We are comfortable that we are not incurring any serious readiness impacts in terms of the HIMARS or any other capability in this or any previous drawdown package,” Cooper said, as the United States and allies increase production of ammunition. “While today you see very high rates of consumption of ammunition, but you also see an incredibly high op-tempo on the battlefield as the Ukrainians press forward very successfully. We are increasing production and we see over time that we will be able to have a sustainable rate” for U.S. and Ukrainian needs.
U.S. maintenance technicians in Poland said in September that Ukraine was firing howitzer rounds with such volume and frequency that they were rapidly wearing the guns down in ways even the maintenance personnel had never seen. So far, the United States has provided Ukraine with 10 HIMARS, while other allies have given 10 and promised 10 more.
Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the CSIS International Security Program, last month said, “The United States has given over one-and-a-half million projectiles to Ukraine, and this is probably close to the limit that the United States is willing to give without risk to its own warfighting capabilities … In FY 2023, the United States only planned to buy 29,000 of the basic high explosive projectiles (M795). Surge capacity was 288,000 projectiles per year, though with a 48-month lead time.”
European sources are also beginning to run low on rounds. “The military stocks of most [European NATO] member states have been, I wouldn’t say exhausted, but depleted in a high proportion, because we have been providing a lot of capacity to the Ukrainians,” Josep Borrell Fontelles, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security, told CNBC at the end of last month.
Cooper said that last week Defense Department Acquisition and Sustainment Undersecretary William LaPlante met with defense industry leaders. “And we’re seeing our allies and partners investing in ammunition production,” she said.
The arms package includes:
The total value of the package is around $625 million.