US scrambles to keep up with US weapons in heat of war in Ukraine
They hope to achieve a “reasonable” level of compliance with US surveillance rules for these high-risk items, but also acknowledge that they are unlikely to achieve 100% of normal checks and inventories, as escalating the country’s war with Russia strains systems to ensure that weapons are neither stolen nor misused.
Since the invasion in late February, which closed the US Embassy in Kyiv for several months, US officials have only been able to conduct two in-person inspections of items requiring heightened surveillance at the arms depots where American weapons had been placed from Poland.
“The conflict creates an imperfect condition for us to adapt quickly,” said a senior State Department official. “We want to use some of these resources to work with our allies and partners to mitigate risk, wherever we can.”
The scramble to adapt oversight rules designed for peacetime has taken on greater significance as US aid volumes reach dizzying levels and congressional scrutiny intensifies.
US and Ukrainian officials say they have not documented any cases of illicit use or transfer of US weapons to Ukraine since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion on February 24. But other weapons have disappeared; a Swedish grenade launcher, apparently stolen from the battlefield in Ukraine, exploded in the trunk of a car in Russia in May.
Arms trade experts warn that the administration and its allies must remain on guard despite broad Western support for Kyiv’s efforts to deal with Putin’s invasion and the heavy-handed tactics his forces have used against cities and towns. Ukrainian civilians.
Rachel Stohl, vice president of research programs at the Washington-based Stimson Center, said officials also needed to develop longer-term plans to secure surplus US weapons once the conflict with Russia ends, noting Ukraine’s history as a theater of small arms. smuggling after the Cold War.
She said the demands for extensive monitoring may seem at odds with the United States’ desire to help at a moment of existential importance in Ukraine. But, she added, “We have to make sure we don’t let the pace and the urgency trump our long-term interests.”
The challenges in Ukraine echo broader concerns about how weapons produced in the United States, the world’s largest arms seller, are used around the world. Proponents have long complained that despite systems designed to prevent their misuse, foreign partners have sometimes used these weapons against civilians in places like Yemen. Sophisticated equipment has also fallen into the hands of adversaries, allowing the Islamic State to field Abrams tanks and the Taliban to fly Blackhawk helicopters.
The Biden administration is trying to highlight a new surge of surveillance to account for any potential leaks from the massive flow of US weapons – especially as congressional Republicans express growing concerns about aid accountability and the overall volume of aid to Ukraine.
Passing massive aid packages could become more difficult after next week’s midterm elections.
Last week, the administration unveiled a plan to prevent the diversion of weapons to Eastern Europe. With nearly $18 billion in US military aid provided since February alone, the Biden administration’s lifesaving aid to Ukraine is the largest of its kind since the end of the Cold War.
National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said Kyiv had been a “willing and capable” partner in arms accountability.
“While we recognize the unpredictability of the fighting, the United States and Ukraine have cooperated to prevent the diversion of illicit weapons since the new Russian invasion began earlier this year,” she said.
U.S. officials say Ukraine is working hard to demonstrate compliance with arms accountability requirements of the United States and other countries, in part because local officials know that any proven cases of hijacking could weaken the strong Western support which is vital to their fight.
Most of the equipment supplied to Ukraine to date is subject to only minimal tracking requirements under the US arms monitoring system, known as “end-use monitoring”. For items such as small arms ammunition or personal protective equipment, considered to pose a lower proliferation risk, an American military officer in eastern Poland is given the sole task of overseeing the transfer of control of this equipment from the United States into Ukrainian hands, including a process in which officials from both countries inventory items.
As happens in any other transfer of US military equipment, Ukraine must agree not to transfer the weapons to other countries without US authorization. But there is little routine monitoring thereafter, officials said.
More sophisticated or sensitive equipment requires a series of additional checks, including an annual inspection, carried out – under normal conditions – by a US officer to ensure that the weapons are stored safely and that the serial numbers match. These items also include Switchblade drones and night vision devices. These devices account for approximately half of the items subject to additional tracking.
Larger weapon systems, like the HIMARS multiple launch rockets and the M777 howitzer, do not require enhanced surveillance.
Officials acknowledged that when the war broke out, they had no plan to follow up arms in a conventional conflict like the fighting in Ukraine. American personnel are unable to venture into the vast swaths of the country occupied by Russian forces or plagued by active fighting.
To compensate for these limitations, officials are relying on technology first adopted during the coronavirus pandemic, using scanners that would allow Ukrainian personnel to inventory serial numbers without U.S. personnel present. Inventory information – which is captured without geotagging the items, for operational security reasons – is then uploaded and provided to US authorities. US personnel began training Ukrainian peers in Poland on the new scanner technology.
Officials are working to deploy the workaround before the first anniversary of the war in February, after which dozens of weapons may no longer be compliant. The challenges are compounded by the size of the growing, but still small, security cooperation team.
US officials are also trying to account for the weapons used by Ukrainian forces, by scanning spent weapons cartridges and obtaining expense reports from the Ukrainian military. Ukraine has also provided “a handful” of reports of loss when equipment, mostly night vision equipment, is broken, they said. Although casualty and expense reports are still received in paper form, officials hope that this too will soon be automated, making it easier to get a real-time picture of how US weapons are being used against Russia.
A 2020 report by the Pentagon’s inspector general found that defense officials had complied with monitoring requirements for javelins and their launchers supplied to Ukraine, but had not done so fully for the devices. of night vision. He cited the failure of the Ukrainian military to consistently report the loss or theft of such items and found that serial numbers sometimes fell off or became illegible, preventing proper inventories.
In Kyiv, officials say the nature of the fight — in which Russian forces regularly strike Ukrainian towns and torture Ukrainian civilians — makes the diversion of weapons unthinkable. Oleksander Zavytnevych, who heads Ukraine’s parliament’s defense and national security committee, said members of a parliamentary committee set up this year to carry out arms checks have visited arms depots and examined rumors of hijacking or theft, but found no “real signal” of illicit activity. .
US officials say the Ukrainian military is now trying to update its own digital tracking system for donated weapons, as the military does for maintenance and logistics.
The Biden administration has begun notifying other countries that supply Ukraine about the U.S. surveillance process in Ukraine. So far, although there are new mechanisms to loosely coordinate arms donations, there is no centralized international tracking system.
U.S. officials acknowledge they are unlikely to be satisfied with the overall results of their evolving surveillance approach — through which they hope to gain “greater than zero” assurances for U.S. taxpayers — but say it shouldn’t. be seen as a reason to curb American support.
“It is our moral and ethical responsibility to help members of the Ukrainian government, and the consequences of not doing so are far worse,” the State Department official said. “So in terms of cost-benefit, it seems very clear.”
Serghiy Morgunov in Kyiv and Dan Lamothe and Alex Horton in Washington contributed to this report.