The US secretly provided Ukraine with long-range ATACMS missiles, according to two US officials, providing Ukraine with a significant new capability that could allow its forces to hit new Russian targets that were previously out of reach.
The confirmation came on Tuesday after images of the missiles’ submunitions inside Ukraine began circulating on social media.
US officials indicated to CNN on Tuesday that Ukraine has already used the ATACMS, some variants of which have a maximum range of approximately 186 miles, to attack Russia’s Berdyansk and Luhansk airfields in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian military tweeted on Tuesday that the attack destroyed several Russian helicopters, an ammunition depot and an air defense launcher, but did not specify whether they used ATACMS to do it.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged the ATACMS in his daily address and expressed his gratitude for the agreements with the US being implemented.
“Today, I am especially grateful to the United States. Our agreements with President Biden are being implemented. They are being implemented very accurately – the ATACMS have proven themselves,” Zelensky said.
It is not clear when the US missiles were provided. But the US decided in recent weeks to send them quietly because they wanted to take the Russians by surprise, especially after months of public back-and-forth over whether President Joe Biden would agree to send the weapons, an official said. The Russians are aware of the range of the missiles and the US was concerned they would move equipment and weapons out of reach before the missiles could be used, the official said.
The US has sent some weapons secretly in the past. In August 2022, the Pentagon acknowledged that it had sent HARM anti-radiation missiles to Ukraine unannounced.
But the US typically announces significant weapons packages to Ukraine, including when it sent Patriot air defense systems last year and cluster munitions this year. Asked repeatedly over the last several weeks about the status of the systems, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the US has “nothing to announce.” That was a deliberate choice of words, officials said.
The Pentagon said it was referring all questions about the ATACMS to the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
Discussions about sending the systems picked up substantially last month, CNN previously reported. US officials had previously been reluctant to send the long-range surface-to-surface guided missiles amid fears about escalating the conflict as they could potentially be fired into Russia itself. That concern largely waned over the last several months, however, since Ukraine demonstrated that it was not using other US-provided weapons to attack territory inside Russia, officials said.
During a visit to Washington, DC, in September, Ukrainian President Zelensky reiterated his request for the ATACMS during a meeting with Biden and Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, said at the time that “when we talk about long-range missiles for Ukraine, it is not just a whim, but a real need. The effectiveness of the army on the battlefield, as well as the lives of the military and our progress depend on it.”
The US announced a new aid package to Ukraine while Zelensky was visiting that did not include ATACMS. But asked again earlier this month about providing the missiles, Biden told reporters, “I have spoken with Zelensky, and everything he’s asked for, we’ve worked out.”
Currently, the maximum range of US weapons committed to Ukraine is around 93 miles with the ground-launched small diameter bomb. Ukraine also has the UK-provided long-range Storm Shadow missiles, which have a range of about 155 miles. ATACMS missiles are fired from HIMARS rocket launchers, the same type of vehicle that launches the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) missiles that Ukraine already employs.