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U.S. will send Ukraine long-range missiles, after delay

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, center, walks with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., left, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday in Washington, D.C.  (Win McNamee)
By Karen DeYoung and John Hudson Washington Post

The Biden administration plans to provide Ukraine with a version of ATACMS long-range missiles armed with cluster bomblets rather than a single warhead, according to several people familiar with the ongoing deliberations.

Interagency discussions on whether to approve the weapons moved in recent days from the deputies committee, a meeting of representatives of the No. 2 officials in national security agencies, to the principals committee, involving the heads of each agency and to a decision by President Biden, the people said, speaking on the condition of anonymity about the sensitive issue.

The cluster-armed ATACMS, with a range of up to 190 miles, depending on the version, could allow Ukraine to strike command posts, ammunition stores and logistics routes far behind Russian front lines and dug-in defenses. Ukraine, with backing from a number of U.S. lawmakers, has been asking since last year for ATACMS, which stands for Army Tactical Missile System.

Biden moved during the summer from a firm and long-standing “no” to saying the issue was “still in play.” Although the administration backed away from initial concerns that Kyiv, which has asked for hundreds of the long-range weapons, would use them to strike inside Russian territory, the Pentagon still worried that drawing down enough ATACMS from relatively small military stockpiles to make a difference on the Ukraine battlefield would undercut the readiness of U.S. forces for other possible conflicts.

Biden informed visiting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of the plans when the two met at the White House Thursday afternoon. Earlier in the day, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Biden was “constantly speaking” to the U.S. military, allies and Ukraine “about what is needed on the battlefield at any given phase of the war and then what the United States can provide, while also insuring that we are able to provide for our own deterrence and defense needs.”

White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday that she had “nothing new to announce” on ATACMS.

Cluster-armed ATACMS are no longer considered a front-line U.S. weapon. From an estimated original production of 2,500, some from the early 1990s, many were later refitted with unitary warheads, according to a fiscal year 2018 Defense Department publication. Consideration of the cluster warhead ATACMS was first reported by Reuters.

As of the end of August, the Army had 1,486 ATACMS in its arsenal, 1,122 with unitary warheads and 364 armed with cluster munitions, according to information it provided to lawmakers. The Pentagon has repeatedly declined to provide the number of ATACMS. The ground-launched missiles are to be phased out, beginning later this year, by a newer long-range system. ATACMS are still in production, with Lockheed Martin under contract to produce 500 a year, but all are designated for overseas sales.

Coinciding with the Zelenskyy meeting, the administration announced on Thursday an additional $325 million in weapons drawn from Defense Department stocks for Ukraine, including “additional air defense munitions to help strengthen Ukraine’s air defenses against aerial assaults from Russia now and in the coming winter, when Russia is likely to renew its attacks against Ukrainian critical infrastructure,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

The weapons package “also contains artillery ammunition and anti-armor capabilities, as well as cluster munitions, which will further enhance Ukraine’s capacity to continue its counteroffensive against Russia’s forces,” the statement said. Initial plans to include the cluster ATACMS on that list were changed several days ago, in part to allow Biden to speak first with Zelenskyy.

The provision of cluster ATACMS to Ukraine follows an administration announcement in July that it would begin sending 155 millimeter cluster artillery shells to resupply Ukraine until dwindling U.S. and allied stocks of non-cluster shells could be replenished. The artillery has a maximum range of roughly 15 to 20 miles.

That announcement brought immediate criticism from human rights groups and some governments. Cluster munitions, outlawed in more than 120 countries, explode in the air over a target, releasing up to hundreds of smaller bomblets across a wide area. Critics of the weapon note that some of the submunitions fail to explode, putting civilians at risk often years after a conflict has ended.

The Pentagon said at the time that the artillery cluster munitions being sent to Ukraine had “dud,” or failure, rates no higher than 2.35 percent, compared to 6 percent or higher in earlier tests. Since Ukrainian forces started using the artillery shells this summer, U.S. officials have hailed that decision as a success, saying the munitions have been an effective tool in a major counteroffensive to dislodge occupying Russian troops.

The original Defense Department decision to convert some of the long-range cluster ATACMS to unitary warheads was intended to meet a dud rate requirement, set in 2008, of 1 percent by 2019. Under the Trump administration, that policy was retained for new production but the deadline was eliminated for updating existing munitions or removing them from service.

According to a 2022 Army publication, different versions of the cluster-armed ATACMS contain between 300 to 950 individual bomblets. It was unclear whether the aging cluster weapons remaining in U.S. stockpiles have been subjected to the same updated dud rate testing as the 155mm artillery shells.

This spring, Britain and France provided Ukraine with cruise missiles with a range of about 140 miles – nearly three times as far as what was previously available to Ukraine, but about 50 miles short of the farthest ATACMS range.

Colin Kahl, who served as the Pentagon’s undersecretary for policy until early July, said at a think tank forum later that same month that the arrival of those weapons lessened the need for ATACMS. Ukraine’s biggest problem, he said, “is not a hundred kilometers away, it’s one kilometer in front of them with the minefields” the Russians have laid, along with rows of trenches and tank traps, in defensive formations along the 600-mile front line.

The minefields have proved a significant obstacle to Ukrainian advances, especially in the southeast, where Kyiv’s forces hoped to punch through Russian defenses and cut supply lines.

Amid the counteroffensive’s slow progress, the British Storm Shadow and French SCALP cruise missiles have allowed Ukraine to attack targets it has been unable to reach on the ground. U.S. officials have said that long-range capabilities are not a “silver bullet” to solve Ukraine’s problems, even as they acknowledge their usefulness.

But a senior French official said this week that the country has no more SCALPs to send without cutting into its own military readiness, and it is unclear how many more Storm Shadows Britain plans to provide.

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Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.


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Video: Fifty years after the last bombs were dropped on Laos, unexploded cluster munitions continue to be dangerous making the U.S. decision to send cluster weapons to Ukraine controversial.(REF:aldagjc/The Washington Post)

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