Helmets and HIMARS: Assessing U.S. Weapons Transfers to Ukraine

Helmets and HIMARS: Assessing U.S. Weapons Transfers to Ukraine

Article and Image by Ryan Murphy

“We will continue providing Ukraine with advanced weaponry, including Javelin anti-tank missiles, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, powerful artillery and precision rocket systems, radars, unmanned aerial vehicles, Mi-17 helicopters, and ammunition…We are not encouraging or enabling Ukraine to strike beyond its borders. We do not want to prolong the war just to inflict pain on Russia.”

President Joseph Biden, May 31, 2022

On February 20, 2014, following the Maidan Uprising and the overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, the first unmarked forces of the Russian Federation crossed into the Crimean Peninsula and the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Following a period of low-intensity conflict, almost exactly a year later, on February 24, 2022, a renewed offensive under the auspices of a “special military operation” saw forces of the Russian Federation advance toward the cities of Luhansk, Donbas, Kharkiv, and the capital, Kyiv. While providing approximately $3 billion in military assistance to Ukraine during the period 2014-2021 (predominantly nonlethal military assistance such as helmets, vehicles, radios, rations, uniforms, and medical kits), the United States under the Biden administration rapidly increased its provision of lethal military assistance to Ukraine through supplemental appropriations, including the replenishment of Department of Defense (DOD) equipment stocks ($14.05 billion), the DOD Ukraine Security Initiative ($9.3 billion) and Foreign Military Financing ($4.65 billion). Notably, as of November 23, 2022, lethal military assistance has included sophisticated armaments including High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) (38), National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS) (8), T-72B tanks (45), Stinger anti-aircraft missiles (1,600+), Javelin anti-tank missiles (8,500+) and Phoenix Ghost Tactical and Switchblade Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) (2,500+). (For the most recent comprehensive categorization, see the U.S. Department of State and the Congressional Research Service).

Indeed, such sophisticated armaments appear integral to the success of recent Ukrainian counter-offensives, particularly in assisting the recapture of the city of Kherson, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky writing on Facebook on July 27, 2022 that “HIMARS and other precision weapons are turning the course of war in our favor.” Since the inception of the conflict, over 25 other countries, including members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have provided lethal military assistance to Ukraine, among which are included anti-air missiles, anti-tank missiles, tanks, and artillery. Under dark morning skies, images of uniformed personnel removing closely-bundled assemblages of ammunition from waiting aircraft have become synonymous with the unique form of (non) intervention of the United States and its NATO allies, which has nonetheless enabled Ukraine to remain a viable combatant.

Despite, and indeed perhaps as a result of their successful utilization by the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU), members of the Biden administration and the general public have expressed concern that the provision of sophisticated armaments to Ukraine may escalate Russian use of force, including horizontal escalation, or geographical expansion of conflict to include eastern members of the NATO alliance and the United States, or vertical escalation, or expansion of conflict to include more powerful weapons such as tactical or battlefield nuclear armaments. With regard to the former, on September 2, 2022, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov “[Warned] the U.S. about the consequences that may follow if the U.S. continues to flood Ukraine with weapons…[as it] effectively puts itself in a state close to what can be described as a party to the conflict.” With regard to the latter, in the same address, he cautioned the United States that Russian military doctrine permitted the use of nuclear armaments in response to conventional weapons shipments which threatened the existence of the Russian state. To assuage fears of horizontal or vertical escalation, the Biden administration has remained adamant that sophisticated armaments provided to Ukraine may not be used to strike beyond its territorial borders, although the Russian annexation of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk complicates this stipulation, as Ukrainian attacks on the regions would be considered an attack on Russian territory itself.

Proponents of offense-defense theory suggest differences in the nature of armaments which may affect the security dilemma. The security dilemma suggests that even capabilities acquired for defensive intentions may be perceived as threatening due to the inability of the acquiring party to credibly commit not to use such capabilities for offensive intentions in the future. That is, a firearm in the glove compartment is as much the preserve of the cautious traveler as the potential assailant. Proponents such as Jervis (1978) and Glaser (1997) have distinguished between two variables, including (i) whether defensive weapons and associated strategies can be distinguished from offensive weapons and associated strategies, and (ii) whether defensive weapons or offensive weapons possess an advantage (ease of taking territory versus ease of holding territory). Where offensive and defensive weapons are easily distinguished, and where defensive weapons possess an advantage relative to offensive weapons, such a dilemma might be ameliorated. The United States and its NATO allies have implicitly committed in their resupply policies to such a distinction, such as by rejecting the transfer of fighter aircraft to Ukraine from Poland, or modifying transferred HIMARS systems to limit their range. However, detractors from offense-defense theory such as Lieber (2005) suggest that while policymakers may view the acquisition of new capabilities as a unique opportunity to modify the status quo ante in their favor (“technological opportunism”), distinguishing offensive weapons from defensive weapons is a largely arbitrary endeavor, and few states modify their intentions based on their capabilities, but seek to employ their capabilities in pursuit of their intentions.

How should the Biden administration evaluate which of its sophisticated armaments to provide to Ukraine? I concur with critics of offense-defense theory that distinctions between offensive weapons and defensive weapons is particularly arbitrary in relation to the current conflict. If fortifications and defensive works are perhaps the exemplar of exclusively defensive weapons, mobile and long-range weapon platforms such as HIMARS and UAVs, even if intended for use in Ukrainian territory alone, provide no such guarantee of intentions. The aforementioned Russian annexations of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk further complicate such a distinction (i.e. What is Ukrainian territory?) Even supposedly defensive counter-force weapons such as Stinger anti-aircraft and Javelin anti-tank missiles may be used to support a Ukrainian offensive by potentially providing cover to ground forces. Ukraine has perhaps modified its objectives, including the liberation of the Crimean Peninsula, occupied by the Russian Federation since 2014, as a result of the success of recent counter-offensives. However, on multiple occasions, President Zelensky has promised that the UAF would not use weapons provided by the United States and NATO to attack Russian territory, claiming that “We are not planning to attack Russia…We are not fighting on their territory. We have the war on our territory.” Particularly if such restraint is a condition for further resupply, the offensive or defensive nature of weapons transferred to Ukraine should not significantly increase Ukrainian willingness to escalate to strikes within Russian territory. Indeed, Ukraine has intentionally excluded weapons provided by the United States and NATO, relying instead on modified Soviet-era equipment for a series of strikes on Russian military airfields earlier this month. Therefore, minute distinctions in the range and firepower of armaments transferred to Ukraine, and the accompanying concern of their offensive or defensive nature, should be somewhat mitigated.

Such an argument, however, does not imply that Western patrons of Ukraine should abandon all distinctions among sophisticated weapons in their resupply efforts. One particular concern is that sophisticated weapons provided to Ukraine may diminish the combat readiness of the armed forces of the United States, as the defense-industrial base struggles to increase its production capacity. Another concern is that sophisticated weapons provided to Ukraine may be diverted through smuggling or corruption and enter the possession of other adversarial actors. However, I assert that the greatest threat of horizontal or vertical escalation emerges from the high rates of attrition witnessed in the conflict so far in both casualties and material expended. As ammunition and weapons systems must be replenished at a high rate by the United States and NATO, the logistics of transfer create the possibility for accidental or intentional horizontal escalation. Indeed, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov noted on April 13, 2022 that “We warned the United States that pumping weapons into Ukraine from a number of countries as it has orchestrated isn’t just a dangerous move but an action that turns the respective convoys into legitimate targets.” One need only recall a history of American shipments of armaments preceding the Second World War to see that an increase in the frequency and volume of transfers may engender its own logic of escalation. Conversely, as Russian ammunition and weapons systems are expended at similar rates, the regime under President Vladimir Putin may grow more desperate and, in the logic of Downs (1994), “gamble for resurrection” through intentional vertical escalation, including the use of nuclear armaments, or, perhaps more applicably, the destruction of Ukrainian civilian infrastructure.

How should the Biden administration evaluate the success or failure of its provision of sophisticated armaments to Ukraine? Scholars of international relations are particularly concerned with war termination or an “exit strategy”, or the conditions under which a party to a conflict may extricate itself or durably attain some or all of its initial objectives. The stated objective of the Biden administration is to see “a democratic, independent, sovereign, and prosperous Ukraine with the means to deter and defend itself against further aggression.” The provision of sophisticated armaments to Ukraine is instrumental to this objective, as the administration has “moved quickly to send Ukraine a significant amount of weaponry and ammunition so it can fight on the battlefield and be in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table.” However, as the conflict continues, the question of whether to continue with the provision of sophisticated armaments will grow more, not less, pressing. Specific capabilities notwithstanding, contingencies of escalation, drawdown, and diversion remain highly salient. The pen may indeed be mightier than the sword, but as the mass of sharpened steel grows, the Biden administration should consider exactly what level of risk it is willing to write off.

[Post based on a research project conducted for the POLS-333 International Security seminar]

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