US races clock to ship weapons to Ukraine
The United States and allied countries are racing against the clock to ship weapons and other military equipment to Ukraine amid a brutal and renewed Russian attack on the country’s east.
Juggling supply chain demands, weapons needs and the logistics of actually getting defense aid into Ukraine, the balance is pivotal in Ukraine’s effort to hold the Donbas region, according to officials and experts.
“Having a continuous flow of just supplies and munitions, like ammunition, is critical,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“You know, it’s not very high visibility, it’s not very exciting, but that’s what keeps armies functioning,” he added.
The Biden administration has sent $3.4 billion in military aid to Ukraine since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, of which approximately $1.6 billion was rolled out over the past seven days. The latest two packages included new capabilities that Ukraine specifically requested, including 155mm howitzers, armored personnel carriers and lethal drones, including the new Phoenix Ghost Tactical Unmanned Aerial System.
To coordinate this influx of weapons into Ukraine, the U.S. military in early March officially established the U.S. European Command Control Center Ukraine in Stuttgart, Germany, a lead point to handle the security and humanitarian assistance to the Ukrainians. The center was also in charge of consolidating and synchronizing deliveries of U.S., Allied and partner aid.
“Eight to 10 flights a day are going into the theater, and not all of those flights are American flights, but most of them are. And every single day, including this day, there has been ground movement inside Ukraine. So we have seen no slowing down,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Thursday, highlighting the frantic pace of deliveries.
The Biden administration sought to streamline the situation this week with the appointment of a retired three-star general as the lead coordinator of security assistance for Ukraine.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Terry Wolff will serve as the liaison between U.S. defense companies, the administration and allies and partners in making sure weapons and other military equipment are provided to Ukraine.
But the fact remains that the U.S. doesn’t have a terribly reliable way to track what happens to arms shipments after they cross into Ukraine, including what units they go to and how they’re used.
The blind spots are linked to several factors, including the fog of war and the fact that many of the arms being sent in are smaller, man-portable systems such as single use drones and shoulder-fired rockets. Those easy-to-transport weapons are far harder to track compared to larger systems such as tanks, air defense systems or aircraft.
“We track the deliveries to the border into Ukraine and when the handoff happens at the border control points with Ukrainians, it’s up to them for how they move that equipment,” a defense official told reporters Thursday.
U.S. defense officials at Stuttgart work with several Ukrainian liaison officers at the base and those inside the country to make sure the material sent in reaches the units that can use it and need it the most, the official said.
“I’m assured with every conversation I have that that equipment is getting to where it’s needed, and being used accordingly,” the defense official added.
Another issue that Washington will have to face is the logistical challenge of providing training on some of these systems.
The Pentagon is already training the Ukrainians on the howitzers and has acknowledged that other more advanced systems that the Ukrainians don’t currently have in their arsenal will require additional training.
As the war moves forward, the U.S. and its allies will have to work harder to make sure it can supply Ukraine with the capabilities it needs.
Cancian noted that Washington and Kyiv appear to be coordinating more closely than earlier in the war on military capabilities. But allies will also have to be closely involved as Washington nears the end of its inventory of certain capabilities, such as the stingers and javelins.
“Having more sources of supply is helpful, and there are some areas where the United States is running short and we really need the allies to step up,” he said.
One unknown will be how well Russia is able to carry out its offensive in eastern Ukraine. Thus far, a combination of surprising resistance from Ukraine and logistics challenges have plagued Moscow in what it thought would be a rapid war.
Ret. Navy Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery, who worked with U.S. European Command to improve military relations between the U.S. and Ukraine, said Russia’s performance in the latest offensive will play a role in whether Washington is forced to switch tactics for getting weapons to Kyiv.
“You know, do they try to remove repetitive logistics lanes? Now, if they see us repeatedly using the same logistics lanes? Do they first understand what we’re doing? And second, can they target it?” Montgomery said.
“I think there’s a risk to our logistics lines. I assume that the United States has, and our allies and partners have developed backup plans,” he added.
Another factor in Washington’s ability to send more weapons to Ukraine is whether it has the funds to ensure that it can resupply its own stocks.
President Biden said on Thursday that he will send a request to Congress for supplemental funding because he is nearing the end of the drawdown authority that he was provided under the $1.5 trillion government funding bill that he signed in March.
Montgomery said that he thinks the president will be “pushing on an open door” with his pending request.
“You don’t say that easily, supplemental appropriations are tough,” he said. “But this is the right cause.”
Another conundrum is whether weapons makers can keep up with the pace of demand.
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.), has been a particular critic of the administration in shipping weapons to Ukraine, saying it is not quick enough, especially as the war is set to ramp up in the Donbas region.
“The war is changing in the east, and the Ukrainians need much more to win and roll back Russian aggression. We’ll need to get creative,” Inhofe tweeted Friday. “Further, we must ensure the Pentagon is able to get contracts out to industry to increase production ASAP. Let’s get to work.”
On the Pentagon’s end, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin invited 40 nations for a conference on how to meet Ukraine’s defense needs. About 20 nations have accepted invitations so far for the meeting, set for Tuesday in Stuttgart. It is also expected to touch on Ukraine’s postwar military needs.
The Pentagon also on Friday announced a broad request for information from industry to offer weapons and systems that can be rushed to the front line.