Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Charles Q. Brown, Jr., attends a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony on March 21, 2024.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Charles Q. Brown, Jr., attends a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony on March 21, 2024. Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Giving ATACMS to Ukraine no longer as risky, says Joint Chiefs chairman

The United States is becoming more comfortable giving Ukraine the long-sought weapons.

Ukraine has been asking the United States for long-range ATACMS missiles since 2021, and the White House has consistently resisted, at least publicly. But the tide may be turning. 

Thursday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. C.Q. Brown, told reporters “the risk of escalation is not as high as maybe it was at the beginning.”

Russian statements in September 2022 indicated that providing such weapons to Ukraine would cross a “red line,” because their range would allow Ukraine to target Moscow. Gen. Mark Milley, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Defense One at the time: “Folks in academia or think tanks or other forms of analysis, they call that ‘declaratory policy,’ when senior officials…issue out statements, predictive statements, of what they would or would not do, if certain actions were to take place.”

Top military officials, speaking on background, have pointed to Russian military doctrine specifically as it relates so-called existential risk, saying that giving Ukraine such weapons could compel a nuclear response from Russia, or spur it to attack a NATO partner.  

Since the fall, reports have suggested the United States may have changed its calculation, and may be sending small numbers of the long-range missiles in secret—despite the fact that the White House has previously said it doesn’t have enough of them to send. 

But the Biden administration has taken pains to avoid confirming or denying that reporting. As recently as March 20, White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan declared, “I have nothing to announce here publicly today on that issue. When we do have something to share, we will be sure to share it.”

Brown didn’t officially confirm or deny the reporting either, but he did say that Russia’s muted response to a series of recent Ukrainian drone attacks well inside of Russian territory have allowed the Pentagon to adjust its analysis on the risk of sending ATACMS. 

“Those are the things that we…pay attention to. You know, what is the likelihood of escalation based on…different capabilities and different actions,” he said.

Observers and even some Republican lawmakers have been pushing the United States to send the missiles, as they would allow Ukrainians to hold Russian positions in Ukraine in danger, including Crimea, far from the front line, including from well into western Ukraine. That would make it harder for Russia to advance as Ukraine could continue to strike even the most well-fortified Russian positions in the eastern portion of the country from virtually anywhere else in the country. That, in turn, would make it more difficult to reinforce troops even if Russia took more territory. 

Ukraine has recently been losing territory, and some experts say that if Congress does not pass the $60 billion supplemental aid package for Ukraine, Russia may take more this spring. 

Brown again encouraged swift passage of the supplemental, and said Ukraine will face continued artillery shelling for the foreseeable future. But he also said that fears of a massive spring Russian offensive may be overblown. 

“I don't know if the Russians can generate a major offensive. I mean, if you look at…what's happened over the course of…the past year, the Russians have actually thrown a lot of capability and personnel and weapon systems and vehicles to gain what they have gained. And the way I would say, it's almost a meat grinder.”