The United States and its allies have attempted to assist Ukraine by upgrading its patchwork of air defenses. However, the US is secretly altering rocket launchers to keep Ukraine from firing missiles into Russia.
According to American officials, the U.S. modified the sophisticated Himars rocket launchers it gave Ukraine in secrecy so they could not be used to launch long-range missiles into Russia, a precaution the Biden administration claims is required to lower the likelihood of a wider conflict with Moscow.
Since June, the United States has given Ukrainian military 20 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System launchers, sometimes known as Himars, and a sizable stock of satellite-guided rockets with a nearly 50-mile range. These guided multiple launch rocket systems, also known as GMLRS, have been deployed to attack Russian command posts, logistics hubs, and munitions storage facilities on Ukrainian soil.
However, the Himars launchers have a special capability designed to keep them from developing into even more powerful battlefield systems. According to American authorities, the Pentagon changed the launchers to prevent them from firing long-range missiles, such as the ATACMS rockets used by the US Army Tactical Missile System, which have a range of around 200 miles.
The previously unknown changes demonstrate the lengths to which the Biden administration has gone in weighing the risks of escalation with Moscow against its assistance for Ukraine’s armed forces. They also reflect administration officials’ concerns that their Ukrainian ally would stop honoring its commitment to refrain from using U.S.-provided weapons to attack Russian territory.
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Two Russian air bases were hit by explosions on Monday, one of which served as a staging facility for long-range bombers. The attacks, which damaged two aircraft and killed three Russian personnel, were carried out, according to the Russian Defense Ministry, by Ukraine using drones. There is no proof that the strikes employed weapons that were supplied by the United States.
Although Kyiv did not openly take credit for the attack, Ukrainian officials made it seem as though they were capable of striking deep within Russia. Following the strikes, Russia attacked Ukraine with missiles.
The United States has opted not to give Ukraine any long-range ATACMS missiles. However, the adjustments assure that Ukraine could not acquire ATACMS missiles by other means, such as other countries that have purchased the weapons from the U.S., or utilize the Himars launchers the U.S. has provided to fire them. Officials claim that even if Ukraine managed to manufacture or get longer-range missiles, it would not be able to fire them from those launchers.
The adjustments, which according to American sources affect its hardware and software, were not addressed by the Pentagon.
“Due to operational security considerations, we do not comment publicly on the configuration of systems provided to allies and partners,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman. “The United States remains committed to providing Ukraine the capabilities it needs to counter Russian aggression.”
The Biden administration has frequently stated that Kyiv is in charge of making decisions on a potential diplomatic solution with Russia and that Washington’s objective is to put Ukraine in the best viable position should peace negotiations ever take place. However, the military assistance that the United States and its allies have given Kyiv has influenced what Ukraine is able to achieve on the battlefield.
The U.S. has gradually increased the types of weapons it is ready to offer Kyiv beyond the shoulder-fired Javelin antitank missiles Ukraine initially acquired during the Trump administration since Russia assembled forces to invade Ukraine in February.
The first Stingers from American stockpiles arrived in Ukraine in late February, just as the Russian invasion was taking place, following months of internal debate about how to supply Stinger antiaircraft missiles without containing any classified technology. Early that month, Stingers from the Baltic states started to arrive in Ukraine.
M777 howitzers had already arrived in Ukraine by April. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced in May that Denmark would send Harpoon antiship missiles developed in the United States and a shore-based launcher to fire them.
U.S. officials announced that they would provide wheeled Himars later in that month. The GMLRS, which have almost double the range of the howitzers, will be fired from those launchers, according to officials.
Volodymyr Zelensky’s promise that the launchers would not be used to attack targets on Russian soil was obtained by the United States to prevent the possibility of escalation. According to Ukrainian officials, the fact that Ukraine kept its word demonstrates that it can be trusted with longer-range missiles.
The Pentagon announced in August that it had given High-speed Anti-Radiation Missiles, or HARM missiles, which Ukraine uses to attack Russian radars from its Soviet-era fighters.
However, the White House has acted prudently, assessing the military benefit to Kiev against the threat of escalation with Moscow, leaving Ukraine without long-range US missiles capable of striking Russia’s naval headquarters, air-force units, and logistics in Russian-occupied Crimea, or military assets on Russian territory.
The United States has refused to provide Gray Eagle MQ-1C drones due to Pentagon worries that they could be used to strike Russian targets.
Ukraine’s expectations of getting Western aircraft in the near future have also been dashed by the Biden administration, while the United States has not ruled out sending them in the years after the Ukraine conflict is settled.
Long-range, surface-to-surface missiles such as the ATACMS missiles, that can be launched from Himars launchers and can strike well into Russian territory, are one significant system that Russia has cautioned Washington not to provide—both privately and publicly.
“If Washington decides to supply longer-range missiles to Kyiv, then it will be crossing a red line and will become a direct party to the conflict,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in September.
The United States will not give Ukraine “rocket systems that strike into Russia,” according to President Biden’s May statement.
The Russian demand to withhold ATACMS from Kyiv comes as former and present US and European officials argue whether the Biden administration has been too conservative in delivering military assistance to Ukraine.
This conflict has escalated as Russia has bombed Ukraine’s infrastructure, depriving millions of residents of electricity, heat, and water by shooting missiles from Russian territory and launching Iranian-made drones with impunity from bases in Russian-occupied Crimea.
The United States and its allies have attempted to assist Ukraine by upgrading its patchwork of air defenses. However, the allied efforts have been tardy. While Ukrainian officials report that over 80% of the assault missiles have been shot down, those that have gotten through have destroyed almost 50% of Ukraine’s electrical grid, but Ukrainian workers are working to restore it.
Experts such as Charles Kupchan, the top National Security Council representative for Europe during the Obama administration, and other experts argue that the U.S. should continue to restrict the range and sophistication of the weapons provided to Ukraine in order to reduce the possibility of a wider conflict with Russia.
“The United States should avoid encouraging or facilitating a Ukrainian effort to fully expel Russian forces from all of its territory, including Crimea, a war aim that would run too high a risk of prompting [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to undertake even more reckless actions, including the possible use of nuclear weapons,” Mr. Kupchan said.
Former alliance officials are on the opposing side. According to them, the West has effectively given Russia free rein to shoot cruise and ballistic missiles into Ukraine from the Crimea and its own territory, as well as to mount drone assaults, without worrying that Kyiv might retaliate.
“Since the 10th of October, Putin has changed strategy,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former Danish prime minister who served as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s secretary-general from 2009 to 2014, told The Wall Street Journal. “He has accelerated the war by targeting civilian infrastructure, including the energy grid. Potentially we are now facing a humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine, and we have not adapted.”
“If you are to stop Putin then you have to deter by delivering, for instance, long-range missiles,” he added.