Destroyed armored vehicles litter the road in Balakliya, Kharkiv region, on September 10, 2022.

Destroyed armored vehicles litter the road in Balakliya, Kharkiv region, on September 10, 2022. Juan Barreto

The US Weighs Escalation Risk As Ukraine Asks for Longer-range Missiles

Will ATACMS become the latest weapon that Washington has initially withheld, but ultimately given? 

TALLINN, Estonia–While top U.S. administration and military officials praise Ukraine’s use of Western missiles, officials are showing no sign of fulfilling Kyiv’s requests for longer-range precision fires. The reason has to do with the Biden administration’s approach to escalation and even Russian threats.

Ukraine has captured the “strategic initiative” in its effort to retake key terrain and turn the tide of war, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters traveling with him to Europe and the Middle East on Friday. Last week in Germany, Milley highlighted how well Ukraine was using U.S.-supplied HIMARS launchers and almost half a million rounds of 155mm ammunition, as well as Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System, or GMLRS, rockets.

But Ukraine has been asking for the MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, since February, a senior Ukranian military official confirmed to Defense One. The missile, which can hit targets more than 185 miles away, would enable Ukraine to strike key supply lines inside  Russia or on the annexed Crimean peninsula.

On Friday, Milley declined to say why U.S. officials have so far declined to provide ATACMS. 

“The U.S. military are always evaluating various options and providing the President and Secretary of Defense with our estimates of the strategic operational and tactical cost, benefits and risks of approving any given weapons system. And we do that today. I would prefer not to discuss any kind of decisions that are currently under consideration,” he said.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin walked a similar balancing act in Prague last week, saying Ukranians are using U.S. weapons ”the right way and we'll stay engaged and make sure that we're giving them what they need to be successful.” 

Staying “engaged,” in other words, doesn’t mean giving Ukraine the rockets it's asking for. The murky risks of escalation explain why. 

Escalation Risk 

On Thursday, Russian officials called the provision of longer-ranged weapons a “red line” and said Moscow would consider the United States to a party to the conflict. 

Milley said that statements like that amount to an announcement on intent, which must be taken very seriously, even if such Russia doesn’t always enforce such threats. 

“Russia has made some recent public commentary,” he said. “Folks in academia or think tanks or other forms of analysis, they call that ‘declaratory policy,’ when senior officials…issue out statements, predictive statements, of what they would or would not do, if certain actions were to take place.” 

Russian doctrine suggests Moscow views such rockets as more than a tactical threat, but as a strategic one that could threaten Moscow and military command and control, Michael Kofman, Research Program Director in CNA’s Russia Studies Program, wrote in 2020. 

“In Moscow’s reading, long-range precision-guided weapons are strategic capabilities because of the damage they can inflict on a country’s critical economic and military infrastructure. There is always a lingering fear of strategic surprise, and the belief that if escalation is likely, then Russia should take the lead rather than attempt a costly defense,” he wrote. 

On Friday, Kofman told Defense One, “What Moscow intends to do in response were the U.S. to cross this threshold, and what it can actually do at this stage, beyond threatening nuclear escalation, is subject to debate.”

That’s exactly the debate the administration is having with itself continuously, a senior Defense official told Defense One last week. 

The official said President Joe Biden has four main objectives for U.S. policy toward Ukraine. The first is that Ukraine remains sovereign and in control of its country. The second is that the conflict not expand into a war between Russia and NATO, of which Ukraine is not a member. The third objective is that the invasion become a strategic failure for Russia and the fourth is that NATO emerges more unified and stronger. 

“It's in that context that we have managed escalation in order to make sure that we achieve those four objectives,” the official said. “And tested against those four objectives, we have provided Ukraine with the capabilities that [are] needed to push the Russians out of key [areas] to bring them to a standstill in the Donbass and now to take the initiative in Kherson.”

Further, said Austin, Ukraine can achieve the same sort of success with new combinations of materiel it already has. It has modified an $8,000 drone from Alibaba to strike military targets in Crimea. 

But some are frustrated by the reluctance to give Ukraine the weapons it wants. 

One former senior State Department official who recently met with senior Ukrainian military officials in Ukraine said they will continue to push for ATACMS under the belief that they could shorten the war. 

“We have heard that we can't do X or Y or Z since before the big invasion because the Kremlin considered X or Y escalatory. This is a default position of the Biden administration, much to its shame,” he said. 

The former official pointed out that the United States has changed its mind on what weapons to give numerous times since the conflict began and always under some threat from the Kremlin. 

“Things we couldn't give in January because it was escalatory were given in February. And things we couldn't give in February we can in April. That has been the distinct pattern, starting with, crying out loud, Stingers,” he said, referring to shoulder-launched FIM-92 Stinger missiles.

The former official criticized the U.S. approach as overly incremental and slow. 

“Even when we say yes, when new weapons systems go out, we send two or three as opposed to what they really need. It’s all part of that same caution which leads to more Ukrainian deaths and lengthens this war.”