As the war in Ukraine continues with no end in sight, concerns are mounting in Washington—in both Democratic and Republican circles—that the Biden administration is holding back from supplying Ukraine with certain weapons that could give the invaded country a clear edge against Russia.
The dispute centers around a mobile rocket launcher known in military circles as “HIMARS” (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System). It’s essentially a lightly armored military truck capable of firing multiple rockets. And the controversy on Capitol Hill is whether the United States should be supplying Ukraine with longer-range missiles—ones capable of traveling deep into Russia.
Most lawmakers are grateful the United States has already supplied Ukraine with these HIMARS. Just this week, the Biden administration announced a new aid package that includes more munitions for the HIMARS. But many lawmakers also said they were concerned the Biden administration was holding back on longer-range munitions, which they said could help Ukraine at a key moment in the war.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), the co-chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus, told The Daily Beast he thinks the Biden administration has been hesitant to provide longer range missiles because some officials fear it will provoke Russia.
“They think that is escalatory, but I reject that,” Portman told The Daily Beast, adding that he supports providing the missiles.
Another Republican—Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), who’s a member of the Armed Services Committee—said the Biden administration is far too concerned about ticking off 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 that we’re pounding Russia.”
The concerns that the Biden administration might be reluctant to put more skin in the game come as Ukrainian forces are working to mount a counteroffensive in Kherson, a city Russian forces seized early on in the war. Taking it back would be a major blow to Russia—both militarily and psychologically.
Some of the accusations about the White House’s trepidation may sound familiar. The Biden administration initially hesitated to send HIMARS earlier this year out of a concern that Ukrainians might fire into Russian territory and nudge the conflict into broader war. But the administration’s concerns about whether Ukrainians were going to fire into Russian territory were assuaged when Ukrainian officials promised not to, U.S. officials said.
The Biden administration then sent a handful of HIMARS in June, and has sprinkled a few more HIMARS and ammunition deliveries since, for a total commitment of 16 HIMARS. There’s been no reporting that Ukrainians have broken their promise, and senior U.S. defense officials have assessed that the HIMARS have been helpful.
“There has been significant impact on what’s going on on the front lines,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters in July.
But, despite Ukrainian officials’ repeated requests for longer-range munitions for the HIMARS, the United States hasn’t delivered. The Pentagon has provided medium-range rocket systems with Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) (which can travel approximately 45 miles), while the administration has held off on sending longer range munition to Ukraine that HIMARS can also fire, known as Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) (which can reach about 180 miles).
While some say the administration maintains concerns about provoking Russia, others suggested the United States doesn’t have as much information about Ukraine’s military operations as it should before just coughing up the longer-range rockets.
Concerns have emerged in recent days over 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 any weapons provided would be used. Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) said she wants to see Ukraine’s strategic plan before addressing longer-range munitions for HIMARS.
“What we have to do, what Ukraine has to do, and what we’re working with them to do is to develop a strategic plan moving forward and then trying to be sure that we get them the appropriate help that they need in order to execute that plan,” Rosen told The Daily Beast, adding that the discussions about these issues are ongoing in classified settings.
The U.S. intelligence community, for its part, lacks key insight into Ukraine’s strategy, which could be creating chasms in the way the United State provides security aid to Ukraine, as The New York Times reported. Ukrainian officials have not been sharing detailed operational plans in meetings with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin or Gen. 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’s appropriate—for what the game plan is.”
Some of Ukraine’s requests don’t appear to match up with their current target set.
A source familiar with the situation told The Daily Beast the majority of Ukraine’s targets, the Biden administration currently believes, are within a range of approximately 30 miles, which would make the longer-range HIMARS munitions unnecessary.
The current list of targets Ukrainian officials have provided to the Pentagon indicates they don’t need a long-range missile, a Department of Defense spokesperson, Lt. Col. Garron J. Garn, told The Daily Beast.
“We are providing the Ukrainians a range of capabilities commensurate with the fight they are executing, based on the requirements the Ukrainians have identified for us,” the spokesperson said, adding that the short range can handle “most” of Ukraine’s targets.
Given the concerns that Russia might interpret longer-range missiles as a sign Ukraine plans to fire into Russian territory, the Biden administration doesn’t consider the risk to be worth it, the source familiar suggested.
Nonetheless, Ukrainian officials continue to ask for the munitions.
Making sure the U.S. government has knowledge of Ukraine’s political and military plans is crucial for deciding what weaponry to send, according to Gordon “Skip” Davis, a former deputy assistant secretary general for NATO’s Defense Investment Division.
“That’s a question that we have a right to ask, provided the level of security assistance [and] the cost to the U.S. taxpayer,” Davis told The Daily Beast.
For now, the Biden administration hasn’t necessarily ruled out sending the longer-range missiles, according to the source familiar. It just isn’t doing so at the moment.
The Biden administration also has to make a key calculus about Russia’s potential response to any U.S. aid to Ukraine. There are looming concerns that Russia might 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.
“Russians have a lot of deep-seated concerns about the presence of U.S. or Western long-range strike assets in or around their territory,” Dougherty told The Daily Beast. “They really fear the possibility of the United States or NATO, more largely, launching decapitation strikes. Even though we may rationally know these weapons systems can’t be used for that… it is just a constant, underlying concern.”
Although U.S. strategy shouldn’t be driven by Moscow’s fears, Dougherty said, it still ought to take into account that Russia might interpret events and then escalate.
Questions about whether to send the longer-range missiles is also about supply and demand—and whether the Pentagon is willing to unleash America’s precious reserves to Ukraine, according to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).
We have “less of them,” Rubio said of the longer-range 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, with likely between 1,000-3,000 ATACMS left, Dougherty told The Daily Beast.
That raises questions about how far American support can go long-term, Davis said.
“The ATACMS can take a long time to produce,” Davis said. “There would be considerations here, as soon as we consider providing them, about replenishing stocks… because we didn’t have a whole bunch of systems to begin with.”
A source familiar with the stocks confirmed to The Daily Beast there are, indeed, finite resources when it comes to ATACMS.
In the meantime, Ukrainian officials’ requests have gone unheeded. An adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Mykhailo Podolyak, warned Thursday that receiving the longer-range munitions for HIMARS would be key to brokering an end of the war with Russia.
He said to talk with Russia, Ukraine needed to have “the right negotiating position,” and part of that “right negotiating position” was long-range artillery.