US To Ramp Up Military Equipment for Ukraine But Still No ‘Lethal’ Arms

A Ukrainian serviceman takes position at the front line outside Kurahovo, in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 11, 2015.

Efrem Lukatsky/AP

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A Ukrainian serviceman takes position at the front line outside Kurahovo, in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 11, 2015.

Humvees, radars, and drones are on their way to the Ukraine front lines.

This story has been updated.

The U.S. will provide more substantial arms and military equipment to Ukraine in the form of $75 million worth of armored Humvees, drones and counter-mortar radars. Much of it will help the Ukrainian military with situational awareness and targeting enemy artillery, but the list of goods does not include “lethal aid” that members of Congress and Ukraine supporters have asked President Barack Obama to authorize.

“This new assistance is part of our ongoing efforts to help sustain Ukraine’s defense and internal security operations and resist further aggression,” a senior administration official told reporters in an email. Missing from the announcement were Javelin portable anti-tank missiles requested by the Ukrainian military.

The announcement comes after months of pressure from Ukrainian officials and a recent push from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

“I think the administration has felt political pressure to do something…. This may well be a response to that political pressure,” Steven Pifer, Brookings senior fellow and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told Defense One. Pifer co-authored a report last month that is based on interviews with front line commanders in the Ukrainian military and argued that the U.S. should provide anti-tank and anti-battery weapons, but especially radars and unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, to detect enemy positions.

“UAVs for situation awareness would be useful. That was on the top six or seven [items] that they were talking about,” Pifer said. He added that commanders also highlighted the urgent need for radios and more secure communication equipment. “They were doing communications over telephones.”

Some members of the Ukrainian military were immediately appreciative of the development. “Well, it’s really good,” Natan Chazin, a Ukrainian battalion commander, told Defense One in regard to the statement. He added that the Ukrainian Army is now forming a special unit of at least 200 personnel for drone surveillance and reconnaissance.

The senior administration official did not detail what sorts of radios, radars and drones the U.S. is prepared to send to Ukraine. Igor Korolenko, a drone developer in Ukraine affiliated with the voluntary People’s Project, which is working to get arms to the front lines, told Defense One that all the items mentioned would be “very, very useful.” He added that the radios should be frequency-hopping spread spectrum, or FHSS, which effectively moves the carrier signal among frequencies, making the communication resistant to deliberate jamming.

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Better radars have emerged as perhaps the most urgent need of the Ukrainian forces since more than 70 percent of Ukrainian losses come from rocket fire. They would be essential for pinpointing the origin of rocket attacks and targeting Russian-made artillery quickly. The U.S. has already sent around 20 counter mortar radars to the front, according to Pifer. But, he says, “there’s a separate question about counter battery radars which would allow the Ukrainians to see out to say 20 to 40 kilometers, which would allow them to pinpoint the origin of longer range artillery and also rocket strikes. I don’t think that’s on offer at this point.”

A Pentagon spokesman was not immediately able to provide more specific information on the types of equipment under consideration for Ukraine except to say that the drones would be AeroVironment RQ-11 Ravens, a small handheld drone commonly used by the U.S. military.

While the promise of more aid was welcomed from within Ukraine and in Washington, questions persist as to how quickly the U.S. will be able to get the material to the front lines because of bureaucratic delays. The best thing that the White House can do now, says Pifer, is begin to lay the legal and formal groundwork for the eventual delivery of more aid, including possibly weapons.

“It would make sense now for the administration to work with congress to begin preparing the legislation and the authorities necessary to begin providing defensive arms. You can always suspend or stop that process later on,” said Pifer.

The specific quantities of the military equipment in the latest non-lethal U.S. aid package will determine its effectiveness, said Leonid Polyakov, who served as Ukraine’s deputy defense minister from 2005 to 2008 and for two months in early 2014 after President Viktor Yanukovych and his government were overthrown.

“If numbers are sufficient to have systemic impact, it is good,” he said.

The Pentagon’s European Command, which oversees military cooperation in the region, must also make sure Ukrainian forces are properly trained on this new equipment, Polyakov said.

“For me this decision means that we would have less casualties and our enemies would have less incentives to continue their provocations,” he said. “If numbers are not sufficient to provide systemic effect, we may loose more people and more territory than would have happened otherwise.”

The former minister called the Obama administration decision to send more non-lethal equipment “better late than never,” adding that Ukrainian forces have needed secure radios, drones, artillery radars and other navigation, communication and reconnaissance equipment for more than a year.

“We asked our U.S. friends to help us with body armor and this equipment early on, but it took a year of hesitation for U.S. leadership, and for us – thousands of dead and hundreds of thousands of refugees, wounded, handicapped and missing – until [a] decision was finally made,” he said. 

Marcus Weisgerber contributed to this story

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