U.S. Weapons to Ukraine Could Take Months, Officials Say

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U.S. Weapons to Ukraine Could Take Months, Officials Say
Published 13-02-2015, 04:30

Julian E. Barnes

Julian E. Barnes covers the Department of Defense and national security issues from The Wall Street Journal's Washington bureau. He writes regularly on Pentagon policy, military strategy and other defense issues. He has covered the Pentagon for more than a decade. Before joining the Journal in 2010, Mr. Barnes reported on the military for the Los Angeles Times and U.S. News and World Report. A graduate of Harvard University, He has also worked for the New York Times and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. To contact Mr. Barnes, email him at Julian.Barnes@wsj.com or call 202-413-9128. He is on Twitter: @julianbarnes

Supply Shortages, Pentagon Bureaucracy Complicate Sending of Lethal Aid

WASHINGTON—Even if President Barack Obama decides to send U.S. weaponry to Ukraine, supply shortages and a bureaucratic procurement process mean delivery could take months—potentially blunting any battlefield impact.

Such logistical delays plagued the delivery of nonlethal aid: After Kiev issued a plea for help early last year, meals ready-to-eat arrived in March. First-aid kits began arriving in June, hand-held radios in July, helmets in August, night-vision goggles in September and radar to locate enemy mortars in November and December.

"If it was that hard to get night-vision goggles to Ukraine, I don’t know how hard it will be to get them Javelin antitank missiles,” said a senior U.S. official.

Other officials say many of the bureaucratic hurdles affecting aid deliveries have been ironed out of the system, and note that Ukraine now is classified as a top-priority recipient.

"It has gotten much more responsive, and much faster,” said Army Lt. Col. Joe Sowers, a Department of Defense spokesman. "When we align efforts to priorities, the process is more efficient.”

But the U.S. doesn’t have extra supplies of some of the weapon systems and equipment being considered by the White House. As a result, arms would need to be ordered from manufacturers, a step likely to take several months for some critical weapons systems, according to defense officials.

Advocates of such weapons shipments are worried that a significant lag in their delivery could give the Russian military ample time to step up its arms shipments to the separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Russia has denied arming the rebels, while warning that any U.S. weapons shipments to Ukraine would be viewed as a threat to Russia itself.

Mr. Obama is considering sending antitank missiles, mortar systems and other defensive weapons. Advocates believe they could help make the Ukrainian military more effective, prompting Russian President Vladimir Putinto change course in his backing for the separatists there.

Once the White House gave the green light to nonlethal aid last year, Pentagon officials scrambled to get it out as fast as possible. But that effort was slowed by the absence of approved funding and by a lengthy and complex military sales process.

The problem, defense and other administration officials said, was twofold.

The U.S. foreign military sales system is designed to gradually build up the capacity of allies, not for emergency aid, officials said. In addition, Ukrainian officials were unfamiliar with the bureaucracy and didn’t know how to craft specific requests. U.S. officials had to try to write the requests for them.

"What we have seen with Ukraine, their unfamiliarity with U.S. defense systems, means they provide us with lists of things that they want,” said one defense official, leaving the task of threading the requests through the procurement process to others.

The system also has built-in protections to make sure American technology doesn’t fall into the hands of adversaries. U.S. intelligence officials have complained that Russians have penetrated many corners of the Ukrainian government. So deciding whether to transfer technology can become a lengthy interagency discussion, slowing the approval of even nonlethal equipment, officials said.

"You don’t want the technology to fall into the wrong hands and be used against us,” the defense official said.

Critics also cited the influence of an entrenched bureaucracy.

"If you leave it to the bureaucracy, they will take their time, they will check every box and they will free up only things they don’t need,” said Dov Zakheim, a former undersecretary of defense and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank.

‘If it was that hard to get night-vision goggles to Ukraine, I don’t know how hard it will be to get them Javelin antitank missiles?’If it was that hard to get night-vision goggles to Ukraine, I don’t know how hard it will be to get them Javelin antitank missiles?

—A senior U.S. official

Mr. Zakheim said that during Falklands War, when he was a relatively junior civilian Pentagon official, then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger required daily updates from him on how quickly materiel was moving to the U.K. military.

Senior defense officials said Ukraine now has top level attention, and midlevel defense officials say they have found ways to speed up the bureaucracy.

Although the White House hasn't approved lethal aid, Congress has passed a bill authorizing it, which should help smooth some hurdles. Ukraine also has been accorded the highest priority for a foreign military sales customer, moving them to the front of the line.

That has already resulted in benefits for Kiev.

Kevlar vests headed to Pakistan were diverted to Ukraine, officials said. The U.S. used a contract for allies fighting in Afghanistan to speed up the delivery of radios to Ukraine. And the Pentagon was able to use special presidential drawdown authority to take equipment from its stockpiles to ship counter-mortar radar to Ukraine.

 

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

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