The White House will provide 580 Phoenix Ghost drones and five high-mobility artillery rocket systems to Ukraine as part of the latest security package to help in the fight against Russia, officials confirmed Friday.
White House national security council spokesman John Kirby also acknowledged that U.S. officials have begun discussions on potential aircraft acquisition for Ukrainian pilots as part of long-term partnering with America. But he said that work is not likely to produce any short-term changes for Ukraine’s air forces.
“[The White House] is making some preliminary explorations in the feasibility of potentially providing fighter aircraft to the Ukranianas, but it’s not going to be something that they’re going to be able to execute immediately,” he said.
“Integrating and operating any kind of aircraft, especially advanced fighter aircraft, involves complex systems and weapons capabilities, and that’s a difficult endeavor. So this is not something that’s going to happen anytime soon.”
But the White House confirmation solidifies comments from senior U.S. Air Force officials earlier this week that they will work with Ukrainian leaders to shift its air force away from legacy Russian MiG and Sukhoi fighters and toward more modern Western-made aircraft.
Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly said his nation needs more advanced fighters, such as F-15s and F-16s, to counter Russian air forces.
The drones and M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, are part of the 16th package of military equipment being sent to Ukraine by the United States. Kirby said altogether the White House has authorized more than $8.2 billion in weapons transfers since the start of fighting in February.
In coming weeks Ukrainian forces will have access to more than 20 HIMARS, including contributions from Britain and Germany.
The rocket launcher has a range of more than 50 miles and has been hailed by Ukrainian leaders as a key tool in halting Russian attempts to advance further into their country. A senior U.S. military official said the skill of Ukrainian forces in using HIMARS, a wheeled platform, has kept them from being destroyed by Russian forces.
“All of the HIMARS have continued to really be a thorn in the Russian side, and ... continue to prosecute [Russian] targets related to command and control, ammunition, logistics, support areas ― all of those having a very significant effect on the Russians’ ability to mount offensive operations,” the official said.
But this week, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said that his forces “would need at least 100″ of the long-range weapons systems to sustain an effective counter-offense against advancing Russian forces.
The Phoenix Ghost is a munitions drone which operates similar to the Switchblade, and was rapidly developed by the U.S. military specifically for Ukraine. The latest shipment would more than quadruple Ukraine’s arsenal of the drones.
While the HIMARS would be drawn from U.S. military stocks, the Pentagon plans to buy the drones through Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative funds. A senior U.S. defense official said the procurement would enable “steady deliveries,” starting in August, to ensure Ukrainian force shave a continuous supply.
Kirby said that more security assistance is expected to be announced in coming months.
“Russia continues launching deadly strikes across the country, at strip malls, apartment buildings, killing innocent Ukrainian civilians,” he said. “In the face of these atrocities, President Biden has been clear that we’re going to continue to support the government of Ukraine and their people for as long as it takes.”
Joe Gould contributed to this report.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.