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US president Joe Biden has decided to send American long-range missiles known as ATACMS to Ukraine after months of deliberations over whether to provide Kyiv with the munitions, according to people familiar with the matter.
Washington will send a version of the missiles armed with cluster munitions rather than a single warhead, the people said.
The decision was made before Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited the US this week, but the Biden administration chose not to announce it publicly. One person said this was to avoid tipping off the Russians, prompting them to move their supply lines further back from the frontline.
The missiles have a range of up to 300 kilometres, or 190 miles, allowing Kyiv to strike Russian forces at longer range than they have previously been able to reach.
The US will send them in the near future, in small numbers at first, the people said.
Ukraine has long requested hundreds of ATACMS, including the kind with a unitary warhead. Until now the US held off — in part because of fears that supplying Kyiv with the weaponry could escalate the conflict, and in part because the Pentagon worried it did not have enough for its own future needs.
But after the Pentagon and other agencies signed off on it, officials said they had become comfortable enough to send them. Sending the cluster bomblet kind helped to ameliorate some of the officials’ concerns because they would not deplete stocks of the missiles with unitary warheads, according to the people familiar with the discussions.
On Thursday US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden was “constantly speaking both to his own military and to his counterparts in Europe and to the Ukrainians themselves” about battlefield needs “and then what the United States can provide while also ensuring that we are able to provide for our own deterrence and defence needs”.
The US has already sent Ukraine 155mm cluster munitions, a controversial decision the Biden administration made earlier this year when it became clear that stockpiles of 155mm artillery rounds were running low and that Ukraine would face significant challenges if it could not make up the shortfall.
Earlier this week Biden announced a $325mn aid package including air defence and additional cluster munitions and said American M1 Abrams tanks would arrive in Ukraine next week.
The ATACMS were not included in that package but Biden signalled to Zelenskyy this week that he would be open to providing them, one of the people familiar with the matter said.
Ukraine has been using British and French long-range Storm Shadow missiles, as well as shorter-range US Himars guided missiles, to strike Russian logistics, weapons stores and command posts in its summer offensive.
On Friday Ukraine’s air force fired two Storm Shadow missiles that hit the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in occupied Sevastopol, Crimea. It was the latest strike in an intensifying air campaign against Moscow’s military on the Black Sea peninsula.
ATACMS have an advantage over the British and French missiles because they can be fired from Himars launchers rather than Ukraine’s ageing Soviet-era fighter jets.