The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. reportedly mulls sending antitank missiles to Ukraine. It may be two years too late.

A U.S. Army soldier fires a Javelin antitank missile at the Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, on Feb. 24, 2016. (U.S. Army)

The U.S. government has reportedly sought to send Javelin antitank missiles to Ukraine. But it’s an idea two years too late for today’s battlefield, an expert on the conflict said.

As tensions mount over the order by Russian President Vladimir Putin to expel U.S. diplomatic and technical staff from Russia, Defense Department and State Department officials have pushed to arm Ukrainian troops with lethal aid to counter Russian-backed separatists fighting for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic.

But it remains unclear what, if anything, the delivery of an unknown number of Javelins could do to alter a battle that has mostly been relegated to artillery bombardment and nighttime skirmishes in no man’s land.

“This idea doesn’t flow from a policy or strategy” and may point to a political decision rather than military necessity, said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Ukrainian conflict and a senior fellow at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the Pentagon and State Department are looking to the White House to authorize the delivery of Javelin antitank missiles and other lethal aid to Ukrainian allies, a new wrinkle in a conflict that the United Nations has said cost about 10,000 lives since 2014.

The State Department told The Washington Post that it has not provided Ukraine with what it calls “defensive weapons,” a characterization not typically assigned to antitank missiles like the Javelin, but it has not ruled out the option to do so.

“We are examining how to best use our security assistance going forward to bolster Ukraine’s ability to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” a senior State Department official said.

Army Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza, a Pentagon spokeswoman, offered a similar statement.

The Journal reported officials in Kiev are confident the weapons would be used in emergency defensive situations away from the front.

On Ukraine’s front lines, U.S.-supplied equipment is falling apart

A delivery of weapons, which the Journal said could also include antiaircraft weapons, aligns with Pentagon plans earmarked in the 2018 defense budget to deliver half a billion dollars of equipment to Ukrainian troops, itself an escalation over the mostly nonlethal aid, such as Humvees, night vision goggles and surveillance drones, it has sent in previous years.

U.S. soldiers have trained alongside Ukrainian counterparts since the conflict began.

The Javelin is a shoulder-fired antitank guided missile system that uses infrared to lock on and track its targets at an effective range of just under three miles. At about 50 pounds, the warhead is light enough for a soldier to carry. It can acquire a target after parsing heat signatures by as little as a few degrees.

The Javelin fires a missile at a steep angle to rain down on top of a target, which is especially valuable when targeting tanks, Kofman said, due to relatively thinner armor at the top of the vehicles.

But tank skirmishes are relatively rare and have been since the height of fighting in 2015, Kofman told The Post. Tanks provided to separatists by Russia are now typically used as mobile artillery, far from where Ukrainian troops could feasibly infiltrate and target with Javelins, Kofman said, though they can also be used against other vehicles and fortified positions.

There is also another befuddling issue — the cost, he said. There are a host of antitank weapons already in Ukraine, like the locally made Stugna-P laser guided missile launcher, or the 9M119 Refleks.

Those are acquired at a lower cost than the Javelin, Kofman said, which had a unit cost of $246,000 as late as 2015.

U.S. shifting forces to monitor large Russian military exercises, officials say

The high cost and doubtful utility on the current battlefield suggest the Javelin procurement is about sending a message of strong deterrence from Washington.

“The Ukrainians want the U.S. to provide them with a weapon as a meaningful signal in Kiev and the Kremlin,” he said.

Otherwise, Kofman said, there are other urgent priorities such as encrypted communications systems and surveillance drones — which would shore up the U.S.-provided aid already in the hands of Ukrainian troops, but is less advanced than the equipment used by Russian-backed separatists.

Russia has emphatically denied it lends support to the separatists.

“The Russians provide equipment, some of their most modern equipment, and they provide proxy forces with advisers,” said Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the top U.S. and NATO military commander, according to the Journal.

Russia’s response to scattering Javelins among Ukrainian ground forces should factor into the decision, Kofman said.

“The Russians have a very clear policy of reciprocity, as we saw in the recent diplomatic purge. They see this as a premise of the U.S. wanting to kill Russians,” Kofman said.

“The answer to this won’t come in Ukraine.”

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