During their talks in Washington, DC, US President Joe Biden told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that the United States will equip Ukraine with limited operational-tactical missiles ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System) to aid in the ongoing conflict with Russia. On September 22, 2023, NBC reported this, asserting information from three unnamed American officials and a member of the US Congress. However, they did not provide any details regarding the delivery or announcement of these missiles to Ukraine.
Ukraine has requested for several months that the US provide it with ATACMS missiles, allowing it to strike targets up to 180 miles (300 km) away, including supply lines, railways, and command centres behind the Russian front line.
According to representatives from the Department of Defence, the US does not have a large surplus of ATACMS missiles to provide to Ukraine. In addition, some in Washington oppose the export of these missiles, also known as “attack ’ems,” for fear that it could spark a conflict with Russia.
A representative of the US Congress stated that there are still ongoing discussions regarding the type and quantity of missiles to be delivered to Ukraine.
ATACMS with cassette warheads
In an article titled “US will send Ukraine long-range missiles, after delay,” Karen DeYoung and John Hudson of The Washington Post report that after almost a year of denials to Kyiv’s requests, the Biden administration intends to provide Ukraine with ATACMS tactical missiles equipped with cassette warheads, which would allow strikes deep into territory controlled by Russia.
According to several individuals with knowledge of the discussions, the Biden administration is on the verge of announcing that it will provide Ukraine with the operational-tactical variant of the ATACMS missile, outfitted with cassette warheads rather than a single-block warhead.
According to sources who spoke on anonymity regarding this sensitive issue, interagency discussions regarding whether to approve the shipment of this weaponry to Ukraine have recently shifted from the committee of deputy heads of national security agencies to the committee directly led by these agency heads. The conclusion of the procedure is President Biden’s decision.
Depending on the version, the ATACMS missile with cassette warheads has a range of up to 190 miles, allowing Ukraine to attack command centres, ammunition depots, and logistical routes far behind the front line and Russia’s defensive positions. Since last year, Ukraine has been requesting the delivery of ATACMS missiles with the support of several American legislators.
Cassette warhead ATACMS variants are more common than single-block warhead variants, and the US no longer considers them a priority weapon. The US Department of Defence estimates 2,500 missiles were initially manufactured with cassette warheads; some were manufactured in the early 1990s. However, the 2018 fiscal year publication states that an unspecified number of these missiles were modified with single-block warheads. However, there are still several missiles in storage that use cassettes. Reuters was the first to report that Ukraine may receive ATACMS missiles equipped with cassette warheads.
On September 21, 2023 afternoon, Biden met with visiting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the White House and briefed him on preparations to send ATACMS missiles. Biden has been “constantly discussing” with US military officials, allies, and Ukraine what is needed on the battlefield at any stage of the war and what the US can provide while ensuring it can meet its deterrence and defence needs, according to US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s earlier remarks to journalists on the same day.
The Pentagon refused to reveal any information on the number of single-block ATACMS missiles in US inventory. The ATACMS missile system will be phased down by the end of the year as the new long-range [PrSM] system is introduced. Lockheed Martin is obligated to manufacture and export 500 ATACMS missiles annually per contract.
Cassette ammunition controversy
The US administration announced in July that it would begin supplying 155mm cassette artillery ammunition to Ukraine to replenish its dwindling supply of non-cassette artillery projectiles.
Human rights organisations and a few governments immediately criticised this announcement. Cassette ammunition, or cluster ammunition, prohibited in over 120 nations, explodes above the target, disseminating hundreds of small bomblets over a large area. Critics of this weapon point out that certain submunitions fail to detonate, threatening civilians long after the conflict has concluded.
The Pentagon claimed that the failure rate for cassette artillery rounds sent to Ukraine was less than 2.35 per cent, compared to 6 per cent or greater in previous tests. Since Ukrainian forces began using these cassette artillery rounds this summer, US officials have hailed it as a success, stating that these munitions have become an effective weapon in Ukraine’s massive counteroffensive against Russian forces.
The initial decision of the US Department of Defence to convert some cassette ATACMS into single-block warhead missiles was made to satisfy the 1% failure rate requirement established in 2008 by 2019. During the Trump administration, this policy was retained only for newly manufactured munitions, but the threshold was eliminated for refurbishing existing munitions or those removed from service.
According to a 2022 publication by the US Army, numerous variants of ATACMS cassette warheads contain between 300 and 950 separate submunitions. Unknown is whether the ageing cassette variants of these missiles, which remain in the US storage, were subjected to the same new unexploded ordnance testing as the 155mm artillery projectiles.
Ukraine’s counteroffensive has been moving slowly, but with the help of British Storm Shadow cruise missiles and French SCALP missiles, it has been able to assault locations it previously couldn’t reach. US officials have said that while they see the value in Ukraine’s long-range armament capabilities, they are not a “silver bullet” solution to the country’s issues.
It is unknown how many Storm Shadow missiles the United Kingdom plans to supply to Ukraine, and a senior French official said this week that France no longer had SCALP missiles that could be sent to Ukraine without endangering its military readiness.