The U.S. military is stepping up its aid to Ukraine with high-tech medium-range rocket systems as part of a new $700 million shipment that also includes Javelins and Soviet-era helicopters, the Pentagon said Wednesday.
The decision to send the rockets, which are used by the Army, comes as the head of U.S. Cyber Command, Gen. Paul Nakasone, told a U.K. news outlet Wednesday that U.S. military hackers have also been conducting offensive operations to help the Ukrainians fight a Russian invasion that began in February.
Support for Kyiv against Russian President Vladimir Putin's forces has evolved from shoulder-fired tank and aircraft killers such as the Javelin and Stinger earlier in the conflict to more advanced heavy weapons systems and equipment such as M777 howitzers, combat drones and armored vehicles. The Florida National Guard has also been training Ukrainian forces on the weapons in Germany.
Colin Kahl, the under secretary of defense for policy, said the new aid package will include four units of the Army's High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, as well as guided rockets that can hit targets at a range of 40 miles.
Kahl told reporters at a press conference at the Pentagon that the rocket artillery system is aimed at supplementing and enhancing the Ukrainians' ability to fight off Russian forces in the eastern part of the country where the war is now focused.
"Right now, it's a concentrated artillery duel in the east," Kahl said, adding that "it's why we put so much emphasis on providing 108 M777 howitzers," which were supplied to the country in May.
"The first thing was to get these howitzers into the fight, and now we're shifting to HIMARS," Kahl said. The conventional artillery can hit targets at a range of about 18 miles, compared to the HIMARS' 40-mile range, and with far less accuracy.
Although Kahl noted that the Defense Department "pre-positioned the HIMARS systems in Europe to ensure that they can be rapidly delivered to the Ukrainians," it will take a few weeks before they will see action on the front lines. Ukrainian operators will have to be trained on how to use and maintain the high-tech weapons platform.
"We think that'll take around three weeks," Kahl said.
In addition to the HIMARS, the latest aid package also includes another 1,000 Javelins, 15,000 artillery rounds for the M777 howitzers, 15 tactical vehicles, and 6,000 general anti-armor weapons. A Pentagon statement placed the total value of all the aid at $700 million.
Kahl noted that the Defense Department "will be in a position to rapidly surge additional munitions [for HIMARS] as appropriate in the battlefield."
Meanwhile, Sky News reported exclusively that U.S. hackers have been striking at targets in cyberspace to support Ukraine, according to Nakasone, who is also the director of the National Security Agency.
When reached for a comment, Russell Goemaere, a spokesman for Cyber Command, told Military.com in an email that he had nothing further to add to Nakasone's comments.
Goemaere also noted that both Nakasone and other Cyber Command officials have previously spoken publicly about the defensive cybersecurity aid that they have been providing to Ukraine.
In an address to Vanderbilt University in early May, Nakasone said that he had "deployed a hunt team who sat side-by-side with our partners to gain critical insights that have increased homeland defense for both the United States and Ukraine."
"These operations have bolstered the resilience of Ukraine and our NATO Allies and partners," Nakasone added.
Officials in both situations were quick to note the actions they were describing were not meant to be escalatory.
Maj. Gen. Joe Hartman, the head of Cyber Command’s Cyber National Mission Force, also speaking at Vanderbilt, noted that "our adversaries were taking advantage of us in cyberspace regardless, and would have continued to do so, with impunity if we hadn't shifted to a proactive approach."
Kahl noted that the "Russians engaged in this further invasion of Ukraine completely unprovoked ... so the onus is on Russia to de-escalate; they can de-escalate anytime they want."
Kahl also said that Ukrainian leaders, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, assured the U.S. government that the HIMARS system would not be used to strike targets inside Russian territory.
"It is a grinding fight, and we believe that these additional capabilities will arrive in a time frame that's relevant and allow the Ukrainians to very precisely target the types of things they need," Kahl said.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.