What a counter-drone truck says about US aid to Ukraine
Many programs are moving quickly—but there’s plenty of room for improvement.
This story was updated at 2:10 p.m. Aug. 7 to include a statement from the Pentagon.
Following a stream of Russian drone attacks that plunged Kyiv into darkness last year, the Defense Department unveiled a plan in early April: send anti-drone gun and missile trucks to Ukraine.
The 19 unidentified trucks were “important capabilities,” a senior U.S. defense official said at the time, listing them alongside more well-known systems like the Patriot surface-to-air missile.
Four months later, the Defense Department has yet to deliver the trucks. They haven’t even been built—because the Pentagon has not yet offered a contract to Northrop Grumman, the company that manufactures them.
The delay shows that even as the Pentagon works to speed up its acquisition procedures, there is room for improvement. And, said some in the defense industry and the think-tank community, it shows the United States must do more and move more quickly to help Ukraine.
The initial concept for supplying Ukraine with anti-drone gun trucks was meant to deal with Russian attacks on Ukrainian power stations, often by means of cheap, Iranian-produced loitering munitions called Shaheds. The push-propeller drones pack a smaller punch than Russia’s ballistic and cruise missiles, yet still helped plunge Kyiv and other cities in Ukraine into darkness during an icy winter.
In response, the Office of the Secretary of Defense tasked an Army office with coming up with a counter-drone solution that could be delivered within 30 to 90 days of a contract award, the Army office involved said in a press conference in July.
The office that ran the test, the Army’s Joint Counter-small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office, rushed to set up the competition on a “very short” timeline, according to Col. Michael Parent. Trucks firing missiles and at least one truck firing a gun were tested against targets in the same weight class as the Shahed loitering munition.
The test ran from Jan. 23 to Feb. 3. On April 4, Defense officials announced they would send nine counter-drone gun trucks and ten counter-drone mobile missile systems to Ukraine.
The officials said the shipments were to be paid for with money allocated under the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative. USAI funding is for manufacturing weapons for Ukraine from scratch, not for arms drawn from Pentagon warehouses.
A Pentagon spokesperson told Defense One: "From our view, with more than $16 billion obligated on contract since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, DOD has repeatedly proven it can move very fast in acquisitions. In fact, overall, the results have been extraordinary. Contracts that used to take months are often being awarded in a matter of weeks. In addition to leveraging existing contract vehicles to move rapidly, the Department’s using available tools—such as Undefinitized Contract Actions and Indefinite Delivery / Indefinite Quantity contracts—to accelerate our procurement and production. ... For USAI, we’ve been able to commit $16.4 billion of $18.6 billion appropriated. For the replacement side, we’ve been able to commit $20.5 billion of $25.9 billion appropriated. These figures represent genuinely remarkable progress.”
Still, Northrop Grumman has spent the past four months waiting for a contract.
“It's been next week for the last two months,” said Rob Menti, an air defense portfolio manager at Northrop Grumman.
Another complicating factor: the truck is an experimental platform and has no established production line.
The company began developing a counter-drone gun platform years ago in the hope that government orders would emerge. The system consists of a guidance module that tracks enemy drones and a Bushmaster cannon that shoots exploding rounds to shred them.
While the system initially had no production line, Northrop has provided Menti’s unit with engineering money to at least start to build three trucks following the Defense Department announcement, Menti said.
Others also wait
Northrop is not the only company waiting on USAI contracts.
In July, the Pentagon said there were “commitments” to spend $16.4 billion in USAI money appropriated by Congress. But the government has signed contracts for $7 billion, or less than half.
Money spent under the other major vehicle for supporting Ukraine, the Presidential Drawdown Authority, is going slightly faster. This authority, which pays to replace U.S. military arms sent to Ukraine, has funded contracts worth $9.7 billion. That’s just over half the value of the $18.2 billion in arms and support sent to Ukraine.
Army leaders are happy with the pace. Defense acquisition and contracting officers “have been very successful over the last year, year and a half, in responding to this challenge,” said Army Under Secretary Gabe Camarillo in an interview with Defense One.
“Even in the last three months, I think there's been like $400 or $500 million of contracts that were awarded very, very quickly,” Camarillo said, “And these are negotiations that could in some instances take months or a year and they're now taking a matter of weeks to get done.”
The speed at which the government has supplied weapons to Ukraine is notable, agreed Greg Sanders, a defense analyst at think tank CSIS, who called the government response “remarkable.”
According to data compiled by Sanders, the $7 billion obligated so far under USAI compares favorably with the historial U.S. yearly spending on munitions, which have rarely gone beyond $25 billion in any year since 2000. “It’s a large chunk of change,” Sanders said.
Still, given the existential threat Ukraine faces, the U.S. could do more to pick up speed, according to Mark Cancian, a senior advisor at CSIS who has tracked U.S. support for Ukraine. The U.S. is “still operating at a peacetime pace,” when it comes to acquisitions, he said.
Some industry leaders would like to see the acquisition process accelerated. Greg Hayes, CEO of defense giant RTX, complained of “institutional resistance” to awarding Ukraine-related contracts more quickly. Rayes also said Pentagon reluctance to waive regulations designed to prevent company price gouging were adding “six to nine months…to the procurement process.”
Sanders contrasted the current acquisition with the all-out effort the U.S. made to acquire mine-resistant vehicles amid frequent bomb attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq. The U.S. was comfortable with acquiring vehicles it ultimately decided to scrap or store in large numbers because of the urgent threat posed by improvised explosives.
“If we were as engaged in conflict as Ukrainians right now, if we were directly having losses at their level, we would be revolutionizing our production system in ways we are not today,” he said.