President Joe Biden is expected to make a final decision soon on sending long-range missiles to Ukraine for the first time, a major step recommended by the State and Defense departments after months of Ukrainian requests, people familiar with the discussions told CNN.
Discussions about sending the long-range Army Tactical Missile Systems, also known as ATACMS, picked up substantially in recent weeks, the sources said.
No final decision to send the missiles has been made, officials said. But “there’s a much greater possibility of it happening now than before,” one official familiar with the discussions said. “Much greater. I just don’t know when.”
US officials had been reticent to send the long-range surface-to-surface guided missiles amid fears about escalating the conflict as they could potentially be fired into Russia itself. That concern has largely abated, however, since Ukraine has shown it is not using other US-provided weapons to attack territory inside Russia, officials said. Ukraine has carried out strikes inside Russia, but those have been conducted using homegrown drones and weaponry, allowing Kyiv to stand by its commitment not to use American weapons inside Russia.
Currently, the maximum range of US weapons committed to Ukraine is around 93 miles with the ground-launched small diameter bomb. The ATACMS, which have a range of around 186 miles, would allow the Ukrainian military to strike targets twice as far away – even further than the UK-provided long-range Storm Shadow missiles, which have a range of about 155 miles. ATACMS missiles are fired from HIMARS rocket launchers, the same type of vehicle that launches the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) missiles that Ukraine already employs.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria last week that he planned to speak with Biden again on the matter and that Ukraine hoped to receive ATACMS “in autumn.” Zelensky met with the top US diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, for several hours in Kyiv last week.
It is not clear how many of them the US would ultimately provide but State Department and Pentagon officials think sending the missiles could help Ukraine make gains in its ongoing counteroffensive, which has been slow to make decisive progress.
More recently, defense officials were wary of providing a system that the US does not have a ton of in its own fixed stockpile. How many the US has in its arsenal is classified, but providing hundreds of the missiles, which Ukraine has asked for, could undercut US military readiness, some Pentagon officials argued.
Lockheed Martin, which produces the ATACMS, is currently manufacturing around 500 per year to fulfill current US Army contracts, a Lockheed spokesperson told CNN. Many of those systems have already been allocated to US allies other than Ukraine, however.
Ukrainian forces have also demonstrated that they are using the UK-made Storm Shadows responsibly and effectively, British officials have said. Storm Shadows have allowed Ukraine to strike Russian ammunition depots and repair facilities, among other targets, in faraway Crimea. France announced in July it was sending its own version of the Storm Shadows, known as SCALPs.
Ukrainian officials have in recent days stepped up their lobbying campaign for the ATACMS, arguing that the systems will be necessary to successfully repel the Russians from Ukrainian territory.
“When we talk about long-range missiles for Ukraine, it is not just a whim, but a real need,” the head of Zelensky’s office, Andriy Yermak, said on Telegram on Monday. “The effectiveness of the army on the battlefield, as well as the lives of the military and our progress depend on it.”
The transfer of the ATACMS would mark just the latest instance of the US reversing itself on providing a system after months of pressure. The Biden administration also resisted sending multiple-launch rocket systems, Patriot air defense systems, Abrams tanks, and cluster munitions – all of which were ultimately provided to Ukraine after extensive lobbying by Ukrainian officials.
Biden and top Pentagon officials also said earlier this year that the Ukrainians did not need F-16 fighter jets but relented in May and announced that the US would support an F-16 training coalition for Ukraine.
US officials have argued that the administration simply holds back on sending certain weapons and equipment until they assess that the systems are necessary for Ukraine’s battlefield objectives. But critics say the repeated delays in providing sophisticated weapons have only led to a more drawn-out war and given Russia “more time to mine all our lands and build several lines of defense,” Zelensky said in July.
“I’m tired of hearing about escalation,” Republican Sen. James Risch of Idaho told the Aspen Security Forum in July. “I want Putin to wake up in the morning worried about what he’s going to do that’s going to cause us to escalate instead of us wringing our hands and saying, ‘Oh, we can’t do that.’ Look, everything I said they should have done at the beginning, they’ve done now. God bless [Biden]. I wish he had done it a year ago.”
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