When President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the United States was put in a precarious position. On the one hand, it did not want to send advanced weapons to a country most experts predicted would quickly collapse, allowing Russia to destroy or capture such weapons. On the other hand, the Biden administration also felt it needed to act as an authoritarian regime invaded a democracy — albeit a corrupt one — and slayed innocent civilians.
In an effort to avoid direct military commitment, the Biden administration began an unprecedented weapons transfer program, which has seen the United States commit nearly $30 billion of security assistance to the country since February 2022. By sending weapons, the United States can support Ukraine while avoiding direct participation in the conflict. Similar weapons transfers are likely to continue as the war drags into its second year. More importantly, we will start seeing the potential problems from sending so many of these weapons to Ukraine.
WHAT’S BEEN SENT
The United States has committed to sending a variety of weapons. These weapons include non-major weapons systems like small arms and light weapons, ammunition, grenades, and short-range anti-access weapons like Man Portable Air-Defense Systems (MANPADS). It also includes major weapons systems ranging from things that provide medium-range missile defense to vehicles like tanks and ships.
Avoiding committing US troops and nuclear weapons must continue to be the two primary objectives of Biden’s Ukraine policy. Sending F-16s will make that more difficult in the future as Ukraine asks for increasing capabilities.
Deliveries of non-major weapons to Ukraine have the lowest net impact but are also necessary for Ukrainians. These small arms and light weapons deliveries include anti-personnel munitions, explosives and demolition equipment, grenade launchers, sets of body armor, and over 59 million rounds of small arms ammunition. This type of equipment is useful in close combat, whether to defend oneself or take and hold territory in a counter-offensive.
Despite their necessity, it is important to note that they have a high risk of dispersion due to the small size and sheer amount of these weapons sent. This has, unfortunately, already happened within Ukraine, throughout Europe, and even into parts of Africa and the Middle East. Nonetheless, because of the necessity of these weapons, their availability in US weapons stockpiles, and their low short-term risk for the United States, these weapons will continue to be delivered.
The second type of weaponry that the United States has been sending, which includes MANPADS and related equipment, was most useful in the early stages of the war. Weapons in this category include Stinger anti-aircraft systems and Javelin anti-armor systems, VAMPIRE counter-unmanned aerial systems, counter-artillery radars, counter-mortar radars, air surveillance radars, and counter-battery radar systems. In short, these weapons are best for short-range territorial defense and proved to be vital.
Through the first six months of the conflict, this type of weaponry made it impossible for Russia to gain air superiority, depriving the Kremlin of achieving a number of battlefield goals, including attaining knowledge about the positioning of Ukrainian forces, finding an ability to rapidly respond to events in the conflict, and freely operate surveillance and reconnaissance systems over the battlefield. By allowing Ukraine to deny Russia air superiority, these weapons deliveries allowed Kyiv greater success in the ground battle, where weapons like Javelin missiles were able to defeat Russian tanks and ground troops.
However, these weapons are also vulnerable to dispersion — and Washington has been cognizant of this risk. In November 2022, the United States released a plan to train Ukrainians on tracking these types of weapons. While the plan is imperfect, it is a starting point for preventing risks from sending these weapons. Given this plan, one should expect continuing transfers of these types of weapons to Ukraine in the conflict’s second year.
As the conflict continued, Ukraine’s battlefield needs changed. Washington also began sending missiles and artillery that could hit Russian soldiers at farther distances and weapons that worked better under indirect fire. This is because, after its initial failures, Russia changed its strategy to target civilian and critical infrastructure via greater distances, making it challenging for Ukraine to defend itself. Thus, Washington sent weapons to help, including High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), Tube-Launched, Optically-Tracked, Wire-Guided (TOW) missiles, Howitzers, 120mm systems, National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS), unmanned aerial systems, and Switchblade drones. These weapons can all be classified as major systems. They are expensive, take significant amounts of training, and allow Ukraine to fight against Russia’s massing of artillery and long-range strikes.
Due to these systems’ size and specific uses, the risk of dispersion is significantly less, albeit still existent. These systems tend to be larger, making them easier to track. Thus, fewer concerns exist about these systems being lost or used against US interests. With that said, their high costs also signify US commitment to Ukraine. Given that the war continues to be fought from greater distances, and holding land has become increasingly difficult, one should expect these major weapons systems deliveries to continue.
Finally, the United States has also committed to sending battle tanks and ships. The high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles, personnel carriers, and tanks are effective at transporting troops and ammunition as well as holding territory. Given that Ukraine wants more of this type of equipment, it is likely that these transfers will continue as well. For example, as Ukraine launched a counter-offensive last fall, it requested tanks to help hold the territory that it regained and push on into Russian-controlled areas. The west obliged.
The major risk with these expensive platforms is that they signal a strong commitment without providing an equivalent defensive value. Moreover, they take a significant amount of time to train troops on, require significant logistics capabilities, and are likely not as important as armored fighting vehicles, artillery, and ammunition for fast counteroffensives. Worse still, they could create a change in strategy that hurts more than helps Ukraine in the war. Nonetheless, given that they are part of packages of other weapons that are valuable, tanks will likely be sent in small and insignificant numbers, at least insofar as the United States is concerned.
WHAT HASN’T BEEN SENT
The United States hasn’t really denied Ukraine much since the invasion. While things like nuclear weapons have never been discussed, the main items that Ukraine has asked for — and still not received as of the writing of this piece — are fighter jets and long-range missiles. So far, the Biden administration has refused Kyiv’s requests to send F-16 fighter jets, but they once did the same with the M-1 Abrams tanks. In fact, some in the administration believe the president will eventually relent, and the F-16s will be “M-1-ed.”
How many weapons could Washington send to Ukraine without Russia treating it as an enemy combatant? US policymakers should fear becoming entrapped in a war against a nuclear-armed power.
This would be a mistake for two reasons. First, sending Ukraine F-16s would likely change its military strategy and in doing so, cede its “defensive advantage,” all while still not achieving air superiority against Russia. Throughout the first year of the war, Ukraine succeeded in the air war by denying Russia air superiority. They did this through the use of MANPADS, small drones, and portable air defense missile systems.
Ukraine wants to abandon this strategy because Russia has adapted its own strategy in the air war. Moscow is now using massive missile and drone attacks, forcing Ukraine’s previously undetectable mobile air defenses to reveal themselves by firing at Russian soldiers or not firing at all and allowing Russia to target Ukraine’s civilian and critical infrastructure. Making the problem worse, Ukraine is running out of missiles used for air defense. The F-16, in theory, could allow Ukraine to shift to a more offensive strategy in the air war, but Russia will still have a numerical advantage. Instead, Ukraine needs more portable air defense systems and ammunition, allowing it to fight in the same way it has throughout the conflict — protecting critical infrastructure and denying Russia air superiority.
Beyond a potentially flawed strategic change for Ukraine, sending fighter jets that could theoretically target citizens living in Moscow is a significant step up the escalation ladder for Washington. There are very few weapons the United States could send that escalate their role more in the war than fighter jets. Avoiding committing US troops and nuclear weapons must continue to be the two primary objectives of Biden’s Ukraine policy. Sending F-16s will make that more difficult in the future as Ukraine asks for increasing capabilities.
WHAT ARE THE RISKS OF SENDING THESE WEAPONS?
The Biden administration has taken positive steps toward better tracking advanced US weaponry sent to Ukraine and continues plans to send more watchdogs into the country.
Nonetheless, while the administration is right not to send US troops into combat in Ukraine, the lack of boots on the ground in the country has made it substantially more difficult to track individual weapons. According to CNN, defense officials said that the Biden administration factors in the risk that some of these weapons will show up elsewhere into their decisions. Reports have already begun to emerge that US weapons destined for Ukraine have shown up in the Finnish underground arms market.
A report by the Pentagon Inspector General stated that the Pentagon has been “unable to provide end-use monitoring in accordance with DOD policy.” In other words, the Department of Defense is unsure where some of its weapons have gone or how they have been used. In fact, according to the Washington Post, the United States has only provided in-person monitoring for 10% of the weapons requiring additional oversight it has sent Ukraine.
The Biden administration and Congress made the right decision to send Ukraine equipment that would help its people defend their homeland. However, choices still have consequences, and in this case, there are two. First, an inability to track these weapons could lead to blowback in the future.
Second, since the conflict began, conversations about the escalation ladder emerged. In other words, how many weapons could Washington send to Ukraine without Russia treating it as an enemy combatant? While, so far, the United States has not crossed a redline. Yet, if the United States continues sending billions of weapons and potentially more advanced weapons like fighter jets could make Russia treat the United States as an enemy combatant and lead to a more antagonistic Russian policy toward the United States. US policymakers should fear becoming entrapped in the war, as entering a war against a nuclear-armed power would be devastating to global security.
Thus, the Biden administration should continue its cautious approach when evaluating what weapons to send to Ukraine. So far, it has aided Ukraine effectively while not inflicting direct costs on the American people. Arming Ukraine to defend itself while the costs are low is a defensible strategy, but doing so when the costs are high carries unsavory risk.
Jordan Cohen is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute and PhD candidate in political science at George Mason University.
Jonathan Ellis Allen is a research associate and producer at the Cato Institute.