The fear must surely be that arms sent to Ukraine might fall into the hands of unregulated troops. Officials have acknowledged that when the war erupted, they had no blueprint for tracking weapons.
A Ukrainian soldier carries a U.S.-supplied Stinger in the eastern Donetsk region on June 18. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)
U.S. monitors have conducted in-person inspections for only about 10 percent of the 22,000 U.S.-provided weapons sent to Ukraine that require special oversight.
U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide details that have not been made public previously, said they are racing to deploy new means for tracking weapons seen as having a heightened risk of diversion, including Stinger surface-to-air missiles and Javelin antitank missiles, amid what they describe as Ukraine’s “super hot conflict.”
They hope to achieve a “reasonable” level of compliance with U.S. oversight rules for those high-risk items, but also acknowledge that they are unlikely to achieve 100 percent of normal checks and inventories as the country’s escalating war with Russia strains systems for ensuring weapons are not stolen or misused.
Since late February’s invasion, which prompted the closing of the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv for several months, U.S. officials have been able to conduct just two in-person inspections of items requiring enhanced oversight at weapons depots where U.S. arms had been brought in from Poland.
“The conflict creates an imperfect condition for us to have to adjust quickly,” a senior State Department official said. “We want to put some of those resources to working with our allies and partners to mitigate risk however, wherever we can.”
The scramble to adapt oversight rules designed for peacetime has taken on greater importance as the volume of American assistance reaches dizzying levels and congressional scrutiny intensifies.
U.S. and Ukrainian officials say they have not documented any instances of illicit use or transfer of American arms in Ukraine since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion on Feb. 24. The State Department has acknowledged that Russian forces’ capture of Ukrainian arms could lead to those weapons being smuggled on to other countries. Other weapons have gone missing; a Swedish grenade launcher, apparently pilfered from a battlefield in Ukraine, exploded in the trunk of a car in Russia in May.
Arms trade experts warn that the administration and its allies must remain on guard despite the broad Western support for Kyiv’s effort to confront Putin’s invasion and the brutal tactics his forces have used against Ukrainian cities and civilians.
Rachel Stohl, the vice president for research programs at the Washington-based Stimson Center, said officials also must develop longer-term plans to ensure the security of surplus U.S. weapons once the conflict with Russia ends, noting Ukraine’s history as a theater for small-arms smuggling after the Cold War.
She said the demands for thorough oversight may appear to be at odds with the United States’ desire to help at a moment of existential importance in Ukraine. But, she added: “We have to make sure we’re not letting the pace and urgency outweigh our long-term interests.”
The challenges in Ukraine echo the larger concerns about how weapons produced in the United States, the largest global weapons seller, are employed worldwide.
Advocates have long complained that despite systems designed to prevent their misuse, foreign partners have sometimes employed those arms against civilians in places including Yemen. Sophisticated equipment also has fallen into adversaries’ hands, allowing the Islamic State to showcase Abrams tanks and the Taliban to pilot Black Hawk helicopters.
The Biden administration is trying to highlight a new oversight push to account for any potential leakage from the large flow of U.S. weapons — particularly as congressional Republicans voice growing concerns about aid accountability and the overall volume of assistance to Ukraine.
Passing massive aid packages could become more difficult after next week’s midterm elections.
Last week, the administration unveiled a plan to prevent weapons diversion in Eastern Europe. With nearly $18 billion of U.S. military aid provided since February alone, the Biden administration’s aid lifeline to Ukraine is the largest such sum since the Cold War ended.
National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said Kyiv had been a “willing and capable” partner in arms accountability.
“While we recognize the unpredictability of combat, the United States and Ukraine have cooperated to prevent illicit weapons diversion since Russia’s further invasion began earlier this year,” she said.
U.S. officials say Ukraine is working hard to illustrate its compliance with arms accountability requirements from the United States and other countries, in part because local officials know that any substantiated instances of diversion could weaken the strong Western support that is vital to their fight.
Most of the equipment provided to Ukraine to date is subject only to minimal tracking requirements under the U.S. arms oversight system, known as “end-use monitoring.” For items such as small-arms ammunition or personal protective gear,seen as posing a lesser proliferation risk, a U.S. military officer in eastern Poland is assigned the sole task of overseeing the transfer of control of that equipment from U.S. to Ukrainian hands ,including a process in which officials from both countries inventory the items.
As occurs in any other transfer of American military equipment, Ukraine must commit to not transferring the arms to other nations without U.S. permission. But there is little routine monitoring afterward, officials said.
More-sophisticated or sensitive equipment requires an additional set of checks including an annual inspection, conducted — under normal conditions — by a U.S. officer to ensure that weapons are securely stored and that serial numbers correspond. Those items also include Switchblade drones and night-vision devices. Those devices make up about half of the items subject to additional tracking.
Larger weapons systems,such as the HIMARS multiple launch rockets and the M777 howitzer, do not require the enhanced monitoring.
Officials acknowledged that when the war erupted, they had no blueprint for tracking weapons in a conventional conflict like the combat in Ukraine. U.S. personnel are unable to venture into the vast stretches of the country occupied by Russian forces or experiencing active fighting.
To compensate for those limitations, officials are building on technology first embraced during the coronavirus pandemic, employing scanners that would allow Ukrainian personnel to inventory serial numbers without U.S. personnel being present. The inventory information — which is captured without geolocating the items, for operational security reasons — is then downloaded and provided to U.S. officials. American personnel have begun training Ukrainian peers in Poland on the new scanner technology.
Officials are scrambling to deploy this workaround ahead of the war’s first anniversary in February, after which scores of weapons potentially will fall out of compliance. The challenges are compounded by the size of the growing, but still small, security cooperation team.
U.S. officials also are trying to account for weapons used by Ukrainian forces, by scanning spent weapons canisters and getting expenditure reports from the Ukrainian military. Ukraine also has provided “a handful” of loss reports when equipment, mostly night-vision gear, is broken, they said. While loss and expenditure reports are still received in paper form, officials hope that that, too, will be automated soon, making it easier to get a real-time picture of how U.S. weapons are being employed against Russia.
A 2020 report from the Pentagon’s inspector general found that defense officials had complied with monitoring requirements for Javelins and their launchers provided to Ukraine but had not done so fully for night-vision devices. It cited the failure of Ukraine’s military to report consistently on the loss or theft of those items and found that serial numbers sometimes fell off or became illegible, preventing proper inventories.
In Kyiv, officials say the nature of the fight — in which Russian forces regularly strike Ukrainian cities and torture Ukrainian civilians — makes arms diversion unthinkable. Oleksandr Zavytnevych, who heads the Ukrainian parliament’s defense and national security committee, said that members of a parliamentary committee set up this year to perform arms oversight visited arms depots and looked into rumors of diversion or theft but found no “real signals” of illicit activities.
U.S. officials say that Ukraine’s military is now trying to update its own system for digitally tracking donated weaponry, as the military is doing for maintenance and logistics.
The Biden administration has begun briefing other nations that are supplying Ukraine about the U.S. monitoring process in Ukraine. So far, while there are new mechanisms to loosely coordinate weapons donations, there is no centralized international tracking system.
U.S. officials acknowledge that they are unlikely to be satisfied with the overall results of their evolving oversight approach — by which they hope to get to “greater than zero” assurances for U.S. taxpayers — but say that shouldn’t be seen as a reason for curbing American support.
“It is our moral and ethical responsibility to help the people in the government of Ukraine, and the consequences of not doing that are much worse,” the State Department official said. “So, in terms of cost-benefit, that seems very clear.”
Serhiy Morgunov in Kyiv, Ukraine, and Dan Lamothe and Alex Horton in Washington contributed to this report.