Hill worries mount about delays in arming Ukraine
CQ-Roll Call September 22, 2023
WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — As President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy argued this week for more funding of Ukraine’s defense, lawmakers are increasingly alarmed by America’s slow pace in getting weapons to Ukraine with the money appropriated so far.
In the weeks and months after Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Biden put off approving the transfer of certain weapons that Kyiv first requested in the opening weeks of the battle or sooner. The weapons included Abrams tanks, U.S.-built F-16 fighter jets, Patriot air defense systems, HIMARS rocket launchers and cluster bombs.
Biden eventually said yes to each of those systems, although he only approved limited numbers of the Abrams tanks, and the F-16s had to come from other countries’ inventories. But he continues to say no to others, most notably Army Tactical Missile Systems, or ATACMS, which have a range of nearly 200 miles, enough to potentially make a difference on the battlefield.
In addition to losing months — or a year or more in a couple of cases — to just making the decisions, the actual contracting and execution of those and other programs has since caused further delays, congressional aides said this week.
Some aides said this is happening despite a robust Pentagon effort to move faster, while others were more critical of the administration’s efforts.
The Pentagon, citing security concerns, will not say which of the promised U.S. weapons will not be in Ukraine until 2024 or later. The congressional aides said the list of held-up arms includes not just high-profile systems like NATO F-16s but also previously undisclosed ones such as 250 armored security vehicles (that are excess to U.S. needs) and a ground-launched version of the Small Diameter Bomb, a satellite guided munition that has up to now been fired from aircraft.
Over the last year and a half, the Pentagon has announced a wave of “commitments” of weapons for Ukraine, some of them drawn from U.S. stocks and others newly built or refurbished.
The press has often reported that the United States has sent or is sending these assets. In reality, a substantial portion of these weapons will take some time to arrive on the front lines. Critically, several of the most advanced U.S. systems have not been in Ukraine this summer during a Ukrainian counteroffensive that has had mixed results and that will have to temporarily halt in a few weeks as bad weather sets in. And it is not clear when in 2024 — or beyond — some of the systems will arrive.
Notably, contracts have not even been signed for just over half of the appropriations enacted by Congress last year for new or refurbished weapons under the so-called Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative. Fully $9.5 billion of the $18.6 billion Congress appropriated for new weapons under USAI has not yet been put on contract, a Sept. 12 Pentagon summary shows. USAI is intended not just for the current battle but also Ukraine’s future needs, officials noted.
Still, the “unobligated” money for buying USAI weapons comprises nearly a quarter of the more than $44 billion in overall Ukraine security aid appropriated by Congress to date, which includes not just USAI funds but also authority to send weapons from U.S. inventories and the money to replace those.
A Defense Department official said the situation is better than it may appear. That is because, the official said, USAI weapons are being procured under authorities that allow acquisition personnel to start spending money and launching work even before contracts have been formally finalized. Still, it is not clear how much such work has begun under this exemption or how it has affected the arming of Ukraine.
The department has “consistently and rapidly provided Ukraine with the critical capabilities it’s needed throughout the conflict,” said the official, who like others in this story requested anonymity to discuss the matter candidly.
Yet Todd Harrison, managing director of the Metrea Strategic Insights consultancy and a defense budget expert, said it is “a bit surprising to see that it is taking this long just to obligate funding, given the urgency of the situation. And obligation is not the end of the process — that’s just when a contract has been signed. It can take months or even years before those contracts actually deliver capabilities.”
Pentagon officials “seem to be acting without a sense of urgency,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who was a Marine Corps colonel and an official in the Office of Management and Budget.
Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, agreed.
“There’s been a slow-walking that has not been helpful and that has frankly been mystifying,” Wicker said.
‘A stain on our country’
What is not in dispute is how difficult the task of arming Ukraine has been and how much has been accomplished to help Ukraine defy expectations and keep Russian invaders at bay and even seize the advantage in places over the last 18 months.
“Moving an entire military operation across the ocean is harder than it looks, but without question, given the success the Ukrainians have had, we’re moving it,” said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
Similarly, Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., said credit is due to Biden, America’s allies and partners, and the people of Ukraine and the United States for all they have done.
But Crow, a former Army Ranger who serves on the Foreign Affairs and Intelligence committees, said Biden has still not done enough as quickly as required.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is banking on outlasting Ukraine’s supporters, he said, and so exacting as steep a price as possible — as soon as possible — from the invaders is the key to victory.
“To do that, we do need to speed up the provision of certain types of support both quantitatively and qualitatively,” Crow said. “We can and should have provided ATACMs months ago. We can and should have provided F-16s last year. And Patriots we could have done sooner.”
Crow also advocated sending Ukraine more than the 31 Abrams tanks promised so far. He said the Army retains a large number of Abrams tanks that America “will never use in war,” a position shared by the Senate Armed Services Committee Republican aides.
Likewise, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters Sept. 19 that Ukraine still “desperately needs” more anti-missile and anti-aircraft defenses, warplanes and long-range artillery.
“The failure to provide them is going to be a stain on our country,” he said. “But more importantly, it’s going to imperil our national security, because Putin will keep moving against NATO countries, and we will be obligated by our treaty commitments to put troops on the ground.”
Republicans in the House Freedom Caucus are opposing appropriation of $24.1 billion in additional Ukraine aid that Biden requested of Congress last month, $13.1 billion of which is for buying new arms for Ukraine or backfilling stocks of those U.S. weapons that have been sent to Kyiv.
More traditional GOP hawks have supported Biden on funding for Ukraine — except that most of them want him to go further.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for example, said in a Wednesday floor speech that, when it comes to arming Ukraine, Biden’s “actions have been tentative and his caution has been debilitating.”
Some systems that will be delayed into 2024 or later have not been reported on.
The Senate Appropriations Committee, in its report accompanying its fiscal 2024 Defense spending bill expressed concern about how long it will take to refurbish 250 M1117 armored security vehicles that were built for the post-9/11 wars but are now excess articles.
A congressional aide said the first of those vehicles is now expected to be available soon, but all 250 will not be ready until late 2024, two years after the commitment to transfer the vehicles was announced by the Pentagon.
What’s more, the newly developed Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs, which are expected to accurately hit targets up to nearly 100 miles away, were supposed to come online this fall, a Pentagon official testified in June.
But the weapons are now not expected to be delivered to the Defense Department until late December, and then they will be tested, the Senate Armed Services aides said.
The staffers think the bombs should be tested on the Russians. But Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokeswoman, said the bombs need to be verified as safe and effective, though the testing process will be more abridged than usual and it will be combined with training for Ukrainian operators, she added.
It is not clear how much longer it will be until the bombs can be used by the Ukrainian military.
Ten troubled transfers
A list of hangups in delivering 10 major weapons compiled by GOP Senate Armed Services Committee staffers tells a story of a process that started late and in many cases did not accelerate quickly thereafter.
Biden did not approve transfers of the following weapons until more than three months after Ukraine requested them in the invasion’s aftermath: HIMARS rocket launchers, Harpoon anti-ship missiles and the NASAMS air defense system, the committee’s database shows.
Other systems took close to a year or more to be approved for transfer — namely, Patriot air defense platforms, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Abrams tanks and Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs.
American-made F-16s in the Danish and Dutch air forces are slated to be sent to Ukraine, but that decision was not made until 520 days after the war began. Those jets are now not expected to enter the fight until some time next year as Ukrainian pilot training gets going.
Then there were the delays in just signing contracts, including 120 days for the production of new NASAMS and 70 days for the Abrams.
Still more holdups occurred in getting weapons to Ukraine once contracts were signed.
Even the NASAMS that were taken from U.S. inventory took about 110 days to be delivered, the aides said. New production NASAMs will not be ready until November 2024, which is 720 days after the contract was signed, they said.
Similarly, the modified Abrams tanks arrived in Germany in August and are expected to arrive in Ukraine this month, but that is more than four months after the contract was signed.
“We’ve seen this ‘no, then maybe, then yes’ dynamic with many major weapon systems under consideration for Ukraine, and that has unnecessarily deprived Ukrainians of these vital capabilities for months, even as they are dying on the battlefield,” said Bradley Bowman, a former Army Black Hawk pilot and Senate aide who is now senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“The Biden administration often seems worried about provoking Putin, but what are we waiting for?” said Bowman. “This is the largest invasion in Europe since World War II.”
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