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ATACMS, F-16s and What Might Be Next for Ukraine

7 minute read

In the early hours of Sept. 13, Ukrainian missiles slammed into Russian dry docks in the strategic port of Sevastopol, damaging a Russian submarine and a large landing ship in one of Kyiv’s most significant attacks on Moscow's navy since the war began. Images and videos on social media showed explosions and flames tearing through the shipyard on the southern tip of occupied Crimea as smoke drifted up into the pre-dawn sky.

For Ukraine and its supporters, the strike was bittersweet. Executed using newly acquired British Storm Shadow missiles, it showed that Kyiv can now hit targets from more than 150 miles away with pinpoint accuracy, increasing the pressure on Russian military sites and supply lines deeper behind the front line. But Storm Shadow missiles and similar French-supplied SCALP missiles may not be enough. They have been supplied in limited quantities and can only be fired from the air, which creates logistical challenges in Ukraine’s contested airspace.

Enter ATACMS, the Army Tactical Missile Systems, pronounced “attack ‘ems”. For more than a year, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has led the push for the U.S. to provide ATACMS, which are ballistic missiles with a range of up to 190 miles that could slot into Ukraine’s existing rocket launchers. The weapons system would put virtually all of Russia’s forces on Ukrainian territory within striking distance.

So far, the Biden administration has held back on ATACMS, arguing that they would increase the risks of escalating a war with Russia, either beyond Ukraine’s borders or to ever more destructive types of weapons, including ultimately battlefield nuclear weapons. But as Zelensky prepares to visit Washington on Thursday after attending the United Nations General Assembly’s gathering in New York, expectations are rising in Ukraine that ATACMS may be in the offing. “We are on the finishing line, I’m sure of that,” Zelensky said in an interview with CNN on Sept. 19.

Reports differ about whether Biden will countenance sending ATACMS to Ukraine. ABC News first reported on Sept. 9 that the U.S. was leaning towards sending ATACMS to Ukraine, even if a final decision was yet to be made. On Sept. 15, Axios reported that the administration has yet to come to a conclusion, and may be unlikely to reach one while Zelensky is in the U.S. “Those conversations will probably happen when President Zelensky comes to meet President Biden,” says a Department of Defense official.

Either way, Ukraine is on the verge of ticking one of the last weapons off its wish list of American support. After that, experts say, Ukraine’s vocal campaigns for ever more advanced weapons systems may shift towards pushing for maintaining and renewing its weapons stocks as Ukraine’s grinding offensive continues to use up vast amounts of supplies.

Ukraine’s wish list

“The two things on the top of their wish list are ATACMS and F-16s, which have strong symbolic meaning” for the Ukrainians, says Mark F. Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Ukrainian pilots are currently being trained on F-16s fighter jets, and U.S. officials have said that they expect the planes to be delivered to Ukraine by the end of the year. So far, the Netherlands and Denmark have committed to providing up to 61 F-16s, although the exact number is not yet clear.

While Ukraine has insisted that the planes will make a significant difference, extensive air defenses on both sides have largely made the conflict a ground war so far.

Read more: Ukrainian Pilots Begin F-16 Training This Month. Here's Why That Matters

ATACMS are the last new weapons system on the long list of equipment that Ukrainian officials have been calling for since the war began.

While big-ticket items such as F-16s and ATACMS continue to dominate the headlines around military aid to Ukraine, analysts and experts tell TIME that other forms of support may ultimately prove more vital.

According to a Congressional Research Service report from Sept. 14, Ukraine’s “equipment focus likely will shift toward sustainment, as U.S. and Western partners have largely exhausted supplies of new capabilities and systems.”

“We're at the point where a steady supply of munitions is most important” for maintaining Ukraine’s offensive momentum, says Mykola Bielieskov, a research fellow at the National Institute for Strategic Studies in Kyiv. He says that in the kind of attritional combat that Ukraine is facing along its front lines, maintaining a steady rate of artillery attacks will be crucial. Both Russia and Ukraine are struggling to replace the thousands of artillery shells they are firing everyday.

Read more: Why Kim Jong Un's Russia Trip Is a Sign of Putin's Weakness

Cancian echoed this sentiment, saying that “an army in the field expends vast amounts of weapons, munitions, and supplies.” Without a continuing replenishment of artillery shells, engineering equipment, trucks, medical supplies, and provisions, Ukraine’s military capability will start to diminish, he says.

Ukrainian officials have also emphasized the need for more air defenses to help protect the front lines as well as Ukraine’s urban areas. “As we approach the winter, we are preparing for a Russian attack on our energy infrastructure, another attempt to leave Ukrainians without heating, lights and water in the cold season," said Liubov Nepop, political director at the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at the Hudson Institute on Sept. 16.

Throughout the summer, Ukraine has struggled to break through Russian trenches and minefields, which are between three and 10 miles deep in front of Russia’s key strongholds in eastern and southeastern Ukraine. While the U.S. has provided some mine-clearing systems, Russia has prioritized targeting these in a bid to slow down Ukraine’s counter-offensive.

“The situation right now is that they’re having to go up against a lot of minefields. So we’re trying to provide items that assist with that,” says the DoD official.

U-turn from the Biden administration

Whatever the final decision is on ATACMS, the fact that the administration is seriously debating sending them represents a dramatic shift in tone. Just over a year ago, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan ruled out providing ATACMS to Ukraine. “There are certain capabilities the President has said he is not prepared to provide. One of them is long-range missiles, ATACMS,” he said at the Aspen Security Forum, adding that the administration wants to ensure “we do not end up in a circumstance where we are heading down the road towards a third world war.”

But William B. Taylor, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, says a U-turn on ATACMS would be part of a larger pattern of the U.S. eventually relenting on arming Ukraine. “Step by step, weapon system by weapon system,” the U.S. government has made decisions to provide an ever-larger quantity and ever-greater quality of weapons,” he says.

Similarly, protracted debates have taken place with Patriot air-defense batteries, longer-range HIMARS rocket launchers, M1 Abrams tanks, and F-16 fighter jets, which the U.S. has started to train Ukrainian pilots to use after allowing allies to give the American-made warplanes to Ukraine.

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The U.S. has also provided Ukraine with cluster munitions and depleted uranium shells, which human rights groups argue may lead to civilian casualties and contaminate the soil respectively. Ukraine maintains that it is committed to using the weapons responsibly.

There has been “a real evolution” in the U.S.’s security assistance to Ukraine, according to Margarita Konaev, a researcher at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology, a think tank based out of Georgetown University. She says that while the administration has been cautious to avoid any Russian escalation of the conflict, it has realized that Russia on its part has no interest in a wider war with NATO. “So there’s a lot more room to maneuver than what they thought earlier on.”

Says the DoD official, “We're focused on giving them as much as we can, as fast as we can."

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