July 14, 2023 | Policy Brief

Biden Is Wrong: Ukraine Needs ATACMS

July 14, 2023 | Policy Brief

Biden Is Wrong: Ukraine Needs ATACMS

President Joe Biden said Wednesday that while he is considering granting Kyiv’s request for the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), Ukraine has already received “equivalent” missiles from other Western nations. In fact, ATACMS would provide significant added value for the Ukrainian military. 

In late June, The Wall Street Journal reported that the White House is warming to the idea of sending Ukraine ATACMS, which Kyiv has been requesting for over a year. But on Tuesday, The New York Times reported that the administration is still “quietly debating” the issue. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy likewise said he had received “no decision” from Biden after raising the matter at the NATO summit in Vilnius. 

When a reporter asked about ATACMS following the summit, Biden confirmed he is weighing the issue. But then he said the Ukrainians “already have the equivalent of ATACMS now.” The president was referring to air-launched cruise missiles Kyiv has received from the United Kingdom and France, known as the Storm Shadow and SCALP-EG, respectively. 

Biden’s assertion is incorrect. The Storm Shadow and SCALP-EG have a range of 250 kilometers. Modern variants of ATACMS, by contrast, can hit targets 300 kilometers away. That additional range would enable the Ukrainian military “to attack deeper targets,” as General Randy George, Biden’s nominee to become chief of staff of the U.S. Army, testified on Wednesday. 

With ATACMS, Ukraine could hold at risk high-value targets anywhere in or around the illegally annexed Crimean Peninsula. Most notably, Ukraine could strike the Kerch Bridge, which connects the Russian mainland to Crimea. Moscow relies on that bridge to supply its forces in southern Ukraine, where Kyiv is focusing its current counteroffensive. 

The Kerch Bridge lies at the ragged edge of the Storm Shadow’s and SCALP-EG’s range. To hit it, a Ukrainian pilot would need to fly right up to the line of contact, braving Russia’s formidable air defenses. Tellingly, Ukraine has not struck the bridge using a Storm Shadow or SCALP-EG.  

Taking out the Kerch Bridge constitutes Ukraine’s best shot at crippling Russian logistics in the south. While Kyiv’s Storm Shadows and SCALP-EGs can range the various bridges connecting Crimea to mainland Ukraine, these missiles are expensive and in relatively short supply. Ukraine may not have enough of them to ensure those bridges remain unusable. 

For example, a June 22 Storm Shadow strike temporarily disabled the Chonhar road bridge, a key chokepoint connecting Crimea to southern Ukraine. But Russia quickly constructed a pontoon crossing over the narrow Chonhar Strait and repaired the bridge itself soon thereafter. Ukraine has yet to hit either target since. 

However, disabling the Kerch Bridge would make striking the other bridges less important. Thus, even a fairly small number of ATACMS could have an outsized effect. Although Russia may also manage to repair the Kerch Bridge, well-timed disruptions, even if temporary, could provide Ukrainian forces with the opportunity they need to break through Russia’s so-far staunch defense. 

As Ukrainian troops fight to free their territory, the United States should ensure they have everything they need. The Biden administration should send Kyiv ATACMS without further delay. 

John Hardie is deputy director of the Russia Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from John and FDD, please subscribe HERE. Follow John on Twitter @JohnH105. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy. 


Military and Political Power Ukraine