WASHINGTON ― The U.S. has decided for now against providing Ukraine with the ATACMS long-range missile system, according to a senior Pentagon official.
“Our view is that we think the Ukrainians can change the dynamic on the battlefield and achieve the type of effects they want to push the Russians back without ATACMS,” Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, told reporters Wednesday.
Ukraine has been asking the U.S. for months for the Army Tactical Missile System, a long-range surface-to-surface missile which is fired by the Lockheed Martin-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS. Though truck-mounted launchers have been critical for Ukraine, the U.S. has held back the longer range missiles which would let Ukraine to hit Russian targets nearly 200 miles away, fearing it would escalate the conflict.
“Our judgement to date is the juice isn’t really worth the squeeze on ATACMS. You never know, that judgement at some point might change, but we’re really not there yet,” Kahl said.
“We think there are other capabilities that can enable the Ukrainians to service targets that they need to,” Kahl said, adding that other long-range systems from the Pentagon give Ukraine “strike potential in the coming phase of the conflict.”
According to Kahl, those include long-range unmanned aerial vehicles, Joint Direct Attack Munition kits that turn air-to-surface bombs into precision weapons, and thousands of 50-mile-range Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems ― which the Ukrainians have fired from U.S.-supplied HIMARS.
While the U.S. has denied Ukraine some capabilities, “I think our track record of partnership is pretty good. On the ATACMS issue, I think we’re at ‘agree to disagree,’” he said.
Asked whether the Biden administration’s refusal to provide ATACMS is driven by a fear Ukraine would use them to strike Russian territory, Kahl said it remains U.S. policy not to enable such strikes. Still, Kahl noted that the U.S. considers the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed after its 2014 invasion, part of Ukraine.
“Clearly the Russians are also attacking the rest of Ukrainian territory from Crimea, so we’ve never argued that Crimea is off limits for the Ukrainians to decide how they want to hold targets at risk in Crimea,” Kahl said.
The U.S. is working to equip Ukraine to break the near-stalemated conflict and break through dug-in Russian forces, Kahl said. That includes new pledges of Bradley armored fighting vehicles, but, for now at least, not the M1 Abrams tank.
“Really what we’re focused on is surging those capabilities to Ukraine for the next phase of the conflict and really trying to change the dynamic ― and continue the momentum that the Ukrainians had in the late summer and early fall,” Kahl said.
Critics, which include key Republican lawmakers, stepped up pressure on the Biden administration this week to send ATACMS or other longer range weaponry to help Ukraine.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, blasted what they called “handwringing and hesitation by the Biden administration and some of our European allies” for costing Ukrainian lives. They lashed out at an impasse with Germany over tanks it manufactures.
“Now is the time for the Biden and Scholz governments to follow the lead of our U.K. and Eastern European allies – Leopard 2 tanks, ATACMS, and other long-range precision munitions should be approved without delay,” the lawmakers said in a statement Wednesday, referring to the U.S. president and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army Europe, said that ATACMS, or Gray Eagle and Reaper drones could help Ukraine retake Crimea, a potential knockout blow against Russia. Ukraine could make Russia’s occupation untenable by targeting Russian logistics hubs like Sevastopol and key transit routes, like the Kerch Bridge, which links Crimea and Russia.
Hodges is also among advocates for sending Ukraine the Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bomb, which has a range of 90 miles and can be fired from HIMARS systems. It’s made by Boeing and the Saab Group, which added a rocket motor to Boeing’s GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb.
But Hodges argued that U.S. policy so far has “in effect created sanctuary for the Russians.”
“They’ve got to compel Russia to leave Crimea by use of force before the Russians can ever get back on their feet,” Hodges said.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.