February 18, 2023 | Washington Examiner

Biden’s latest weak excuse for not sending ATACMS to Ukraine

February 18, 2023 | Washington Examiner

Biden’s latest weak excuse for not sending ATACMS to Ukraine

NATO’s secretary-general warned on Monday that Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown “no sign whatsoever” that he’s ready for peace, “sending thousands and thousands of more troops” into Ukraine in an attempt to seize the initiative. On the same day, Politico reported that the Biden administration had again refused Kyiv’s request for the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, insisting the U.S. military doesn’t have enough missiles to spare.

This latest Biden administration excuse for not sending ATACMS to Ukraine does not withstand scrutiny.

The Pentagon possesses a sizable ATACMS inventory and is acting to buy more in increased quantities while simultaneously fielding a new system this year. Washington can safely send Kyiv at least some ATACMS, even a small number of which would yield significant battlefield benefits.

ATACMS is fired by rocket artillery systems that have already been transferred to Ukraine. Modern variants of the missile have a 500-pound warhead and 300-kilometer range, well beyond the 85-kilometer range of Ukraine’s current Western-supplied rockets. According to Politico, Lockheed Martin has produced over 4,000 ATACMS missiles for the United States and allied nations. Roughly 600 have apparently been fired by the U.S. in combat, and some have been sold to countries such as Poland and Romania. The bottom line is that there are still thousands left in U.S. and allied stockpiles.

Additionally, the recently passed fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act gave the Pentagon permission to enter into a multiyear contract to purchase 1,700 ATACMS. Exercising this authority, appropriating sufficient funds, and purchasing additional ATACMS could help replenish the number sent to Ukraine.

However, the Pentagon can do more than just replenish any ATACMS transferred to Ukraine. It is already planning to field a more capable replacement. The Precision Strike Missile, or PrSM, is expected to reach early operating capability in 2023. Like ATACMS, the PrSM is fired from the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System. But it has twice as many missiles per launch pod and potentially over double the range.

The Pentagon could purchase more of the PrSM than projected as another means to compensate for sending some ATACMS to Ukraine. Congress could further support the transfer of ATACMS to Ukraine by adding PrSM to the multi-year procurement list to ensure that stockpiles are sufficiently replenished.

Even if only a small number of ATACMS can currently be spared, they could still help blunt Russia’s efforts to regain the strategic initiative and facilitate Ukraine’s much-anticipated counteroffensive.

A few ATACMS strikes would likely be enough to disable, at least temporarily, the Kerch Bridge, which was previously damaged by a Ukrainian truck bomb. This would cut Russia’s most important supply line to Crimea, through which Moscow supplies its troops deployed throughout southern Ukraine. The Russian military’s rail-dependent logistics system would be hard-pressed to adapt, as the only alternative rail line runs too close to the front line to be of much use. Without proper logistics, Russia would be ill-prepared to fend off a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south, where Kyiv is expected to focus its efforts this spring.

A few more ATACMS strikes could sink a large portion of the Black Sea Fleet as it sits in port in Sevastopol or render Russian airfields in Crimea unusable. This could reduce Russia’s ability to fire cruise missiles at Ukrainian critical infrastructure and conduct combat air patrols and provide close air support to ground forces. Ukraine could use any additional ATACMS to target Russian logistics nodes, command-and-control posts, and other high-value targets beyond the range of Ukraine’s current Western-supplied rocket artillery.

Given that the U.S. clearly could spare at least some missiles, the Biden administration is likely offering this latest excuse to avoid a debate over its real rationale: fear of Russian escalation. While this risk should not be taken lightly, there are good reasons to believe it is overstated.

First, the Kremlin appears eager to avoid a direct war with NATO. That’s particularly true when the Russian army has deployed almost all its professional ground forces to Ukraine and suffered immense losses of men and materiel.

Second, Ukrainian strikes on Russian military targets in Crimea are unlikely to trigger Russian nuclear use, almost certainly not against NATO and probably not against Ukraine. The Ukrainian military has already conducted numerous strikes against air bases and other targets on the peninsula. Additionally, Moscow did not resort to nuclear weapons when Ukraine retook Kherson city, which Moscow had officially recognized as Russian territory. It’s also worth noting that providing Ukraine with short-range ballistic missiles, or SRBMs, would only be replying in kind to Russian actions since Moscow has used its own SRBMs extensively during the conflict and is now seeking to acquire Iranian SRBMs as well.

Third, Washington could condition the provision of ATACMS on a Ukrainian promise to use the missiles only within Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders. This compromise would balance the imperative to help Ukraine defeat Russia with the interest of avoiding a direct NATO-Russia conflict.

Washington has invested tens of billions of dollars in helping Ukrainians defend their homes and retake occupied territory. ATACMS will help Kyiv make good on that investment. The question shouldn’t be whether we can afford to give ATACMS to Ukraine but whether we can afford not to.

Ryan Brobst is a research analyst within the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Bradley Bowman serves as CMPP’s senior director. John Hardie is the deputy director of the Russia Program at FDD. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_L_Bowman. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Military and Political Power Russia U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy Ukraine