Meet the tiny State Department offices clearing billions of dollars’ worth of weapons for Ukraine
They’ve handled a 150-fold increase in work by doing in hours what used to take months.
Editor's note: This article was updated at 5:17 p.m. Aug. 28 to remove an incorrect characterization of U.S. aid to Isreal.
As Ukraine battled to push Russia out of the suburbs of Kyiv in March of last year, State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Mira Resnick got an urgent call from a U.S. military airfield in Germany.
An allied cargo plane full of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles had just landed, and the U.S. needed permission from the State's Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs to ship the weapons on to Ukraine.
“They needed the legal authorization, and we needed to get it done fast,” said Resnick, whose office typically measured its work in weeks and months, not hours. “It was at that moment that I knew that our priorities would be shifting.”
Resnick’s bureau has since approved military aid to Kyiv worth tens of billions of dollars, all with less than 10 staff members focused on the issue.
The bureau’s heavy workload highlights the unique way the U.S. has participated in the largest land war in Europe since World War II, as well as what political will, bureaucratic innovations, and an energized workforce can accomplish.
However, State Department leaders also warn that staffing numbers, technological limitations, and the increasing complexity of the work are problems that could slow the rate at which aid is approved.
As wars go, the United States’ $46 billion in support for Ukraine is relatively low budget compared to the nearly $3 trillion it has spent on the wars in Iraq and Syria, or even the Pentagon's own 2022 budget of $858 billion.
Compared to other efforts to arm allies, though, the effort is enormous, vastly larger than the funds given to Iraq or Afghanistan in 2020.
The funding reflects in part the careful line that the U.S. has walked, in which it both seeks to prevent a Russian victory while also being unwilling to commit its own troops.
The unusual way of funding the war has put unusual demands on the offices that process foreign military aid—in particular, the Bureau of Political Military Affairs.
Among the bureau’s missions is determining whether proposed military aid advances U.S. national-security goals.
Three offices play an outsize legal role in this process, responsible not only for approving the delivery of U.S. military aid, but also approving the transfer of any U.S.-made weapons that foreign nations wish to send and any weapons Ukraine buys from U.S. arms dealers.
These offices are the Office of Regional Security and Arms Transfers and the Office of Security Assistance, which handle government-to-government transfers, and the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, which handles foreign governments’ purchases of goods directly from their manufacturers.
Each office has seen their work rise exponentially. The Office of Regional Security and Arms Transfers, which handles the tens of billions of dollars of weapons sent from U.S. warehouses to Ukraine, saw a 15,000 percent increase in its caseload, State Department Assistant Secretary Jessica Lewis told Congress in May.
Not only did the work rise, but the tasks expected of them also changed.
“We changed our policy completely,” Resnick said, particularly when it came to convincing allies to send weapons to Ukraine.
“Where before we were waiting for partners to come to us, in the context of Ukraine, we were going out to partners and saying, ‘Listen, we know that we approved this number of Stingers 35 years ago, and we are asking you to transfer these Stingers or Javelins to Ukraine’,” she said.
Also on the rise: work related to U.S. arms dealers selling weapons to Ukraine, either from the U.S. or acting as brokers for Soviet-designed weapons made elsewhere.
“It was just an explosion of U.S. entities and persons that sought to fill that void…hundreds and hundreds of them,” said one analyst working in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, whom Defense One agreed to quote anonymously.
To handle this avalanche of paperwork, the State Department had just eight staffers, with a single person often handling major funding programs, Resnick and Directorate of Defense Trade Controls Director Catherine Hamilton told Defense One.
Getting the job done involved a certain amount of plain hard work and late nights. Particularly at the start of major U.S. assistance in March 2022, it “was crazy late nights and early mornings,” said Resnick, who oversees both the Office of Regional Security and Arms Transfers and the Office of Security Assistance.
The National Security Council, Defense Department, and State Department’s focus on the mission also smoothed over previously lengthy coordination processes, which went from weeks to months to mere days.
One key task was approving foreign governments’ requests to send Ukraine weapons bought from the U.S. government. Normally such a transfer would take “weeks or months to staff out,” said another analyst.“They did 15 or 16 on a Saturday. And that pace never really stopped.”
As the offices processed transfer after transfer, they became much faster at it.For the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, staffers sometimes needed just hours to process transfers in cases where allies were donating previously approved munitions or equipment.
Changing their own staffing also helped. The Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, for instance, typically processes applications by type of weapon. The directorate centralized all Ukraine-related decisions under one person, making them so familiar with potential problems in a prospective arms dealer’s paperwork that the analyst could process each case more efficiently.
The Directorate also used outreach events to educate new arms dealers on how to file paperwork correctly, and stayed late hours in order to take calls from across the country, Hamilton said.
A year and a half into this frenetic new pace, the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs feels that the work is moving along well, without delays in approving transfers to Ukraine and other countries.
“We move 95 percent of cases on the foreign military side within 48 hours,” State Department Assistant Secretary Jessica Lewis told Congress.
But with the U.S. and allies sending increasingly sophisticated weapons, the time it takes to approve transfers may also rise. “That's getting a little tricky, because now the Department of Defense has to look at releasability standards,” said Hamilton.
For gear like night vision or sensor systems, she said, “There's definitely going to be policy considerations that have to have to be weighed there, and those could prolong the adjudication of those requests.”
Resnick said more staff are also needed to process the current workload and handle any increases in aid to Ukraine.
Entering “the 21st century” would also help, she said. Currently, if a request for approval comes into their classified computer systems on the weekend, staff will only see it on Monday, a problem that Resnick said more spending on technology could fix.
Still, for all that, the staff feel buoyed by their mission, which is having a rare moment in the spotlight.
“I've been here 12 years, and we were hardly ever in the news,” one analyst said.
From the early days of the war, when Javelin anti-tank missiles defeated Russian tanks, to the current monthly announcements of aid, that has changed.
“It's given me a shot of adrenaline because you know, you feel a real purpose and meaning for what you're doing,” said one analyst.