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Why is the US sending 'downgraded' weaponry to Ukraine?

Roman Goncharenko
March 25, 2023

Howitzers without GPS, rocket launchers restricted to short-range: The US is sending Ukraine weapons with critical limitations. Observers say US officials are trying to avoid a confrontation with Russia.

three soldiers operating an M777 howitzer
Ukrainian soldiers prepare to fire at Russian positions with a US-supplied M777 howitzerImage: AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky/picture alliance

Whether Leopard 2 battle tanks from Norway, or MiG-29 fighter jets from Slovakia, Ukraine receives pledges for the delivery of heavy weapons from its international allies almost daily. On March 20, the United States announced a new military aid package worth $350 million (€325 million). But the M1 Abrams main battle tanks previously promised were not included.

US officials said they were seeking to shorten delivery times and they would deliver older models by fall. In January, Politico reported that, because of export regulations, the United States intended to strip the Abrams tanks of their classified armor package, which includes depleted uranium, before sending them to Ukraine.

Gustav Gressel, a senior policy fellow who specializes in armed conflict and military affairs at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW that this is nothing unusual. "Ukraine is receiving the export variant of the Abrams, the same ones that are used in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq,” Gressel said. He added that the armor is comparable to that of the older German Leopard 2A4 tanks that Norway and, earlier, Poland had delivered to Ukraine. Gressel said the older Abrams was "still a good battle tank: It has a good thermal imaging camera and a powerful cannon, and is superior to Russian tanks in terms of handling.”

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'Captured and analyzed'

Export regulations are one of the reasons why the United States is only delivering certain weapons to Ukraine in modified editions. But that is not the only reason. "In Ukraine, they are asking themselves what would happen if a tank would be left behind and would be captured and analyzed by the Russians,” Gressel said. This concern also extends to the M777 howitzers that the US has been delivering to Ukraine since April 2022. These howitzers were handed over without GPS navigation and associated onboard computers. Weapons without GPS are generally less accurate.

Ukraine's army quickly found a solution and installed its own systems, including GIS Arta military software developed in Ukraine to coordinate artillery strikes. In May, media reported that Ukraine had deployed M777 howitzers using GIS Arta software to stop the advance of a particularly large number of Russian troops crossing the Siverskyi Donets river near the village Bilohorivka in the Luhansk region. "With artillery, firing orders go much faster digitally," Gressel said. For Russia, he added, "much is still being done with radiotelephony."

Serhiy Hrabsky, a former officer in Ukraine's armed forces, told DW that he is not concerned by the limitations of weapons systems sent by Ukraine's allies. "All guidance information systems are integrated into NATO command structures," Hrabsky said. They can only be used in the framework of NATO tasks." He said this was common practice and Ukraine used its own systems.

Soldiers pose for photo in trench during fighting with Russian troops near Bakhmut
Ukrainian forces have thwarted Russia's advance with the help of international armsImage: Libkos/AP Photo/picture alliance

Short-range HIMARS launchers

The situation is different with US-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launchers, which Ukraine has successfully been using since summer for precision strikes deep behind the front line. The United States has been supplying missiles with a range of about 80 kilometers (50 miles), but not the far-more-powerful Army Tactical Missile System missiles, which can hit targets up to 300 kilometers away.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the United States modified these rocket launchers prior to delivery so that missiles with a longer range could not be fired — even if Ukraine could procure them on the global market. The paper cited an anonymous source from the US government as saying the decision was made to reduce the risk of escalating the standoff between the United States and Russia. In September, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said long-range missiles would be a "red line" that would make the United States a party to the conflict. Gressel said the technical limitations could be reversed on the HIMARS launchers should the United States choose to do so.

Stephen Blank, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who specializes in Russia and a former professor at the US Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute, said the limitations on weapon systems had to do with a "fear of Russia and an escalation of the war by Russia." However, Blank said he considered such concerns exaggerated. "I think we are too afraid of a escalation by Russia," Blank said. "I don't understand why Russian territory should be excluded from Ukrainian strikes. Russia started this war and has destroyed Ukraine." On the battle field, Blank said he saw a "significant difference" in the fact that Russia could concentrate its military equipment on the border with Ukraine and "fire at will" without fearing a counterattack. "If they could not do that anymore," Blank said, "that would be a great advantage for Ukraine." Blank advocates for demonstrating that Ukraine "won't be pushed around."

At them beginning of 2023, international allies promised Ukraine missiles with a range of 150 kilometers. At the time, Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said Ukraine would pledge not to fire them into Russia. But that did not go for areas occupied by Russia.

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Blank said Ukraine's allies within Europe were more worried than US officials are. He said the administration of US President Joe Biden sought to preserve NATO unity and was therefore taking such concerns into account. The alliance has repeatedly emphasized that it is not a party to the war and will not be drawn into it. Gressel also does not think that NATO should engage directly, but he criticizes the apparent notion in the United States that the war could be "micromanaged in a way that it ends in a desired stalemate." He said that war is "too complex and too chaotic to be micromanaged."

"This just signals to Putin that he has a certain chance of winning the war by sitting it out," Gressel said. "Any restraint in Western weapon deliveries is a signal to him that we are not serious."

This article was originally written in German.