The Biden administration is preparing to ramp up the kind of weaponry it is offering Ukraine by sending advanced long-range rocket systems that are now the top demand from Ukrainian officials, multiple officials said.
The administration is considering sending the systems as part of a broader package of military and security assistance to Ukraine, which could be announced as early as next week.
Senior Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, have advocated in recent weeks for the United States and its allies to provide the Multiple Launch Rocket System, or MLRS. US-made weapons systems can fire a barrage of rockets hundreds of miles away – far further than any of the systems Ukraine already has – which the Ukrainians say could be a game-changer in their war against Russia.
Another system requested by Ukraine is the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, known as HIMARS, a lighter wheeled system capable of firing many of the same types of munitions as the MLRS.
In recent weeks, Russia has beaten Ukraine to the east, where Ukraine is understaffed and under-armed, Ukrainian officials said.
The Biden administration has waived sending the systems for weeks, however, amid concerns raised in the National Security Council that Ukraine could use the systems to carry out offensive attacks inside Russia. , officials said.
The issue was high on the agenda for two meetings last week at the White House where deputy cabinet members gathered to discuss national security policy, officials said. At the heart of the matter was the same concern the administration has grappled with since the start of the war – whether sending ever heavier weapons to Ukraine will be viewed by Russia as a provocation that could trigger some kind of retaliation against the United States.
One of the main problems, according to the sources, was the extended range of the rocket systems. The MLRS and its lighter version, the HIMARS, can launch up to 300 km, or 186 miles, depending on the type of ammunition. They are fired from a mobile vehicle at ground targets, which would make it easier for the Ukrainians to hit targets inside Russia.
Ukraine is said to have already carried out numerous cross-border strikes inside Russia, which Ukrainian officials neither confirm nor deny. Russian officials have publicly declared that any threat to their homeland will be a major escalation and have said Western countries are making themselves a legitimate target in the war by continuing to arm Ukrainians.
Another major concern within the Biden administration was whether the United States could afford to donate so many high-end weapons from army stockpiles, the sources said.
When asked on Monday whether the United States would provide the systems, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin objected. “I don’t want to preempt where we are in the resource requirements process,” he told reporters.
The administration had similar concerns about supplying Ukraine with additional MiG-29 fighter jets, which some say could allow Ukrainians to take the fight to Russia. In the end, the United States decided not to fill Poland with new jets, which would have allowed the Poles to equip Ukraine with Soviet-era MiGs.
The MLRS debate is also similar to the one that unfolded before the US decided to start sending heavier, long-range howitzers to Ukraine last month. Weapon sets focused on short-range Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, as well as small arms and ammunition. At the time, the M777 howitzers marked a significant increase in range and power over earlier systems, but even these achieved around 25 kilometers or 18 miles of range. The MLRS can fire even further than any artillery the United States has sent to date.
A workaround could be to supply Ukraine with shorter-range rocket systems, officials said, which is also under consideration. It wouldn’t take too long to train the Ukrainians on one of the rocket launcher systems, officials told CNN – probably around two weeks, they said.
Each withdrawal from existing stocks involves a review of its potential effect on US military readiness. With previous withdrawals, the risk has been “relatively low”, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley said Monday. The military is monitoring “very, very carefully” to make sure stocks don’t fall below levels that create greater risk, he added.
The concern is growing significantly with more capable and more expensive systems of which the United States does not have such a large supply, the sources said.
Pentagon officials met with the CEO of Lockheed Martin last week to discuss sourcing and ramping up production of the MLRS, a source familiar with the meeting told CNN. The meeting was led by Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Bill LaPlante.
The UK is also deciding whether or not to send the systems, two officials told CNN, and would like to do so in conjunction with the US.
Frustration has grown on the Ukrainian side over US indecision in recent weeks, as they believe that once the US sends the systems, other countries will quickly follow.
Just this week, the Pentagon told Ukraine “we’re working on it,” said an irate Ukrainian official, who added that Ukraine was asking for an update on the decision “every hour.”
“We have a great need for weapons that will allow us to engage the enemy over a long distance,” Ukraine’s military commander, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, said Thursday. “And it cannot be delayed, because the price of delay is measured by the lives of the people who protected the world from [Russian fascism].”
When Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba was asked Thursday about his country’s most urgent needs, he replied: “If you really care about Ukraine, weapons, weapons and more weapons.” .
“My least favorite phrase is ‘We’re working on it’; I hate that. I want to hear either ‘We got it’ or ‘It’s not gonna happen’,” he added.
Democratic Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado, who was part of a congressional delegation trip to Kyiv earlier this month, told CNN he believes the systems could help Ukraine gain significant momentum against Russia.
“I think it could be a game-changer, to be honest with you,” Crow said, not just for offensive attacks but also for defense. He explained that Russian conventional artillery, which has a range of about 50 km, “would not approach” Ukrainian urban centers if MLRS systems were positioned there. “So that would take away their siege tactics,” he said of the Russians.