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Pentagon will buy Ukraine laser-guided rockets, surveillance drones

The Biden administration turns to defense companies to complement the weaponry and other hardware it’s providing from U.S. stockpiles

U.S. Marines launch an RQ-20 Puma during a training event in California. The battery powered unmanned aircraft is designed for surveillance and intelligence gathering missions. (Sgt. Manuel Serrano/I MEF Information Group)

The Pentagon is expanding delivery of commercially available weapons and military equipment to Ukraine, detailing on Friday its $136 million in purchases of aerial drones, laser-guided rockets, binoculars and other items set for shipment soon.

The weapons and equipment, to be purchased from U.S. companies, represent a separate category of military assistance than the vast quantities of armaments that the United States already has provided Ukraine from existing Pentagon stocks. This round includes $22.6 million worth of 70mm rockets — known as the advanced precision kill weapon system — that can be fired from helicopters, and $17.8 million in additional Switchblade drones, which when armed can be flown into Russian armored vehicles and troop formations. The Pentagon also will procure handheld Puma surveillance drones for $19.7 million, officials said, a decision initially announced last month.

Bill LaPlante, the Pentagon’s undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment, told reporters Friday that the Defense Department has $300 million in congressionally approved funding to spend on commercially available military equipment. Separately, LaPlante said, the Pentagon is negotiating with defense contractors to replace the thousands of Stinger antiaircraft missiles and Javelin anti-armor missiles already provided to Ukraine from its stockpiles.

“We are in contact with industry every day as our requirements evolve,” LaPlante said, “and [the Biden administration] will continue to utilize all available tools to support Ukraine’s armed forces in the face of Russian aggression.”

Biden seeks a dramatic increase in aid for Ukraine

LaPlante’s announcement was the first of two from the Pentagon on Friday outlining additional support for Ukraine as its forces turn to defend against Russia’s bid to seize more territory in the country’s east. Officials said a separate aid package — totaling $150 million worth of artillery rounds, counter-artillery radars, electronic jamming equipment and other gear — was designed for needs unique to the fighting in Donbas.

President Biden issued a statement saying that, with this tranche of weaponry taken from U.S. stockpiles, the administration “has nearly exhausted” its available funds to arm Ukraine and implored Congress to approve his request for more money.

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The hardware being purchased from U.S. defense firms possess a range of capabilities. The advanced precision kill system, for instance, works by converting low-cost ammunition into guided weapons. U.S. forces have used it to supplement the firepower inherent to a variety of aircraft, including helicopters and fighter jets.

The Switchblades, also called “kamikaze drones,” require little training to operate, defense officials say, and already have proven effective against Russia’s more advanced military. The Puma surveillance drones are expected to expand Ukraine’s intelligence-gathering capabilities.

LaPlante said in an interview Friday that these commercial deliveries complement the weapons shipments that the Pentagon has delivered from its existing stocks. Officials received more than 300 responses from defense contractors after issuing a request last month seeking information about commercially available weapons that might prove helpful to Ukraine, LaPlante said.

As administration officials consider which weapons to send, they are evaluating not only what’s available, but how much can be provided without hindering U.S. national security, how easy it will be for Ukrainian soldiers to learn how to use such systems, and whether there are any classified components that could complicate exporting them, LaPlante said. While many weapons do have classified aspects, some also come in readily exportable versions, he added.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told lawmakers earlier this week that the Pentagon is “in pretty good shape” when it comes to supplying Ukraine with weapons to beat back the Russian invasion while still maintaining minimum required stockpiles for protecting the United States.

Some Republican senators expressed doubts about that.

“Our missile stockpiles are being stretched thin after years of producing at a minimum rate of sustainment and the increased demand resulting from efforts to bolster Ukrainian defenses,” Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) told Austin, arguing that his contacts within the defense industry were worried about “the challenges they face with trying to increase production rates while shortening lead times.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) questioned whether Ukrainian troops were receiving sufficient guidance on how to use the weapons the United States is providing, citing letters from high-ranking officials in Kyiv and reports that their troops “are not provided adequate training” to operate Javelin missiles, she said.

Javelins have been a bedrock of the U.S. lethal aid to Ukraine since 2018. Austin said he was unfamiliar with such complaints.

The Pentagon has recently restarted its training program for Ukrainian forces, using sites outside the war zone to teach small numbers of personnel how to operate certain systems that the United States is providing. Those troops then return to Ukraine and show their colleagues what they’ve learned.

Congress is weighing President Biden’s request for $33 billion in supplemental support for Ukraine, including $20 billion in security assistance — a package that the Pentagon’s top spokesman, John Kirby, said would likely sustain U.S. support to Kyiv for the next five months. The speed at which the United States would be able to ship weapons to Ukraine, however, will also depend in part on how swiftly and ably the U.S. supplies are able to be replenished by new production.

“For Ukraine to succeed in this next phase of war, its international partners, including the U.S., must continue to demonstrate our unity and our resolve to keep the weapons and ammunition flowing to Ukraine, without interruption,” Biden said in his statement. “Congress should quickly provide the requested funding to strengthen Ukraine on the battlefield and at the negotiating table.”

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia fired at least 85 missiles on at least six major cities in Ukraine on November 15, in one of the most widespread attacks of the war so far. The strikes came just hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking by video link, presented a 10-point peace plan to G-20 leaders at a summit in Indonesia. As in previous Russian missile attacks, critical civilian infrastructure appeared to be primary targets. Parts of several cities that were hit were left without electrical power on Tuesday afternoon.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

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