LONDON ― The Biden administration will send Ukraine $700 million in new military aid including high-tech, medium-range rocket systems that Ukrainian leaders have been pleading for as they struggle to stall Russian advances in the Donbas region.
The aid includes four of the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, a light wheeled multiple rocket launcher, from U.S. military stocks. It’s aimed at helping Ukrainian forces take out positions from which Russian forced launch brutal artillery barrages in what’s become a tough fight for Eastern Ukraine.
HIMARS, Ukraine’s “top priority” request from the U.S., would provide that country’s forces with greater range and precision than artillery previously sent, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl told reporters at a Pentagon Wednesday.
“I think we’re not we’re not seeing the Ukrainian defenses buckle, they’re hanging on,” he said. “But it is a grinding fight, and we believe that these additional capabilities will arrive in a timeframe that’s relevant and allow the Ukrainians to very precisely target the types of things they need for the current fight.”
Trying to avoid an escalation in the war, the White House obtained a formal commitment from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to use the system only for defensive purposes and avoid firing missiles into Russian territory, according to Kahl.
“We don’t have an interest in the conflict in Ukraine widening to a broader conflict or evolving into World War III, so we’ve been mindful of that,” he said. “But at the same time, Russia doesn’t get a veto over what we send to the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians didn’t start this war, the Russians did.”
While any weapon can shoot into Russia if it’s close enough to the border, the aid package would send an undisclosed number of Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System rounds, which have a range of 70 kilometers (43 miles), instead of the Army Tactical Missile System projectile, which has a 300 km range .
The Pentagon prepositioned HIMARS in Europe in anticipation of the announcement and plans to conduct three-week trainings for Ukrainian forces on their operation and maintenance. Kahl said the U.S. will be able to send more systems as the fighting evolves.
The package also includes counter-artillery and air surveillance radars, 1,000 Javelin anti-tank weapons, 6,000 anti-armor weapons, 15,000 155 millimeter artillery rounds, four Mi-17 helicopters and 15 unspecified tactical vehicles along with spare parts and equipment.
It’s the first tranche funded by the $40 billion Ukraine aid package Congress passed last month, and the 11th since the Russia invaded on Feb. 24.
Ukraine may use the rockets in the eastern Donbas region, where they could both intercept Russian artillery amid intense fighting. Russia been making slow-moving gains, displaying an increasing effectiveness in both the concentration of its artillery and its use of tactical air support.
While western officials don’t expect HIMARS to turn the tide of the conflict, Ukraine could use the rockets to target Russia’s supply lines, an achilles heel for Moscow. The system is considered highly mobile and effective at engaging multiple targets in quick succession, and it could outperform systems Russia is fielding.
Ukrainian officials have been calling for the provision of HIMARS for two months. Kahl defended the Biden administration’s deliberate pace, saying Ukrainian needs and priorities have evolved over time. For the current stage of the fighting, an artillery duel, the focus was on sending M777 howitzers.
“The first thing was to get these howitzers into the fight, and now we’re shipping the HIMARS,” he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly warned the West against sending greater firepower to Ukraine. The Kremlin said Putin held an 80-minute telephone call Saturday with the leaders of France and Germany during which he warned against the continued transfers of weapons.
Overall, the U.S. has committed about $4.6 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since the beginning of the Biden administration, including $3.9 billion since Russia invaded.
“This new package will arm [Ukrainian forces] with new capabilities and advanced weaponry, including HIMARS with battlefield munitions, to defend their territory from Russian advances,” President Joe BIden said in a statement. “We will continue to lead the world in providing historic assistance to support Ukraine’s fight for freedom.”
With reporting by The Associated Press.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.