The question of whether the US has deployed offensive missile systems in Ukraine is a complex one without a simple yes or no answer. While the US has provided substantial military aid to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion began in February 2022, it has stopped short of supplying certain advanced offensive weapons that could be seen as overly provocative escalations by Russia. However, the US and its NATO allies have sent sophisticated defensive weapons to Ukraine that allow it to better protect itself from Russian airstrikes and missile attacks.
What offensive weapons has the US provided to Ukraine?
The US has focused its military aid to Ukraine on defensive weaponry like Javelin and Stinger anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, artillery systems, armored vehicles, radar systems, and drones for reconnaissance. The US has so far declined to provide longer-range offensive weapons like fighter jets, missiles with ranges over 100-200 km, or rocket systems that could strike deep inside Russia.
The furthest reaching offensive weapon the US has provided is the HIMARS rocket system, which has a range of around 80 km. HIMARS has allowed Ukraine to hit some high value Russian targets behind the front lines, but not far inside Russia itself. The US has declined to provide ATACMS missiles for HIMARS that have a 300 km range and could hit major Russian cities, out of concern this would be seen as a major escalation.
What missile defense systems has the US provided?
While avoiding the supply of long-range offensive missiles, the US and NATO have provided sophisticated air and missile defense systems to Ukraine that have helped reduce its vulnerability to Russian strikes.
- S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft missiles
- Patriot surface-to-air missile defense batteries
- NASAMS and Aspide air defense systems
- Barak-8 missile defense systems
- Avenger air defense systems
Russia has lobbied against the provision of these defensive weapons, claiming they could be used offensively by Ukraine. But the US and NATO have dismissed these concerns, saying they are purely defensive in nature. The advanced missile defense batteries have shot down hundreds of incoming Russian missiles and drones, saving countless Ukrainian civilian lives.
What is the risk calculation around providing offensive missiles?
The US has sought to balance Ukraine’s need for more advanced weapons with the risk of escalating the conflict to a direct clash between Russia and NATO. Providing long-range offensive missiles that could strike mainland Russia raises several dangers:
- It may prompt Russia to retaliate directly against NATO countries
- Russia could feel its existence is threatened and escalate to using nuclear weapons
- It may play into Putin’s narrative that Russia is under attack from the West
These risks have so far led the US to determine that the escalation risks outweigh the benefits of providing missiles and jets that would allow Ukraine to go on the offensive against Russia itself. The calculation may change as the war evolves, but for now caution has prevailed.
Could Ukraine modify defensive missiles for offensive purposes?
Russia has occasionally accused Ukraine of modifying the missile defense systems it has been provided with to use them for offensive attacks on Russian territory. For example, after an apparent Ukrainian strike on a Russian air base, Russia claimed old Soviet missiles originally supplied for air defense were modified for use as ground attack missiles.
While theoretically possible, there is no evidence Ukraine has actually modified defensive missiles in this way. Western intelligence would almost certainly detect if Ukraine was attempting to “convert” defensive missile batteries into offensive strike weapons. And Ukraine already possesses some Soviet-era missiles capable of limited offensive use without difficult modifications.
What missiles does Ukraine already operate?
While many of its missile and aircraft stockpiles were depleted in the early months of the war, Ukraine still operates some remaining air and missile systems that give it an limited offensive capability, including:
- Tochka short range ballistic missiles – 120km range
- Scarab cruise missiles – 250-500km range
- S-300 anti-aircraft missiles – 200km range
- MiG-29 and Su-27 fighter jets – capable of air to ground missiles
These allow Ukraine to undertake air strikes or missile attacks to a depth of around 150-300km into Russian occupied Ukrainian territory if needed. With Russian bases and logistics depots well behind the front lines, some of these weapons allow Ukraine to harass and disrupt Russian rear staging areas. Their ranges do not extend deeply into Russia itself however.
In summary, while the US has provided substantial military aid to Ukraine, it has not directly provided long-range offensive missile systems capable of striking mainland Russian territory. The missile defense systems it has supplied are judged to be fundamentally defensive rather than offensive in nature. While Ukraine retains some Soviet-era missiles and aircraft that give it limited offensive reach, it does not currently possess advanced Western supplied weapons able to directly threaten major Russian cities or bases deep inside Russia. The US calculation appears to be that the risks of nuclear or wider NATO-Russia escalation from supplying such weapons continues to outweigh the benefits of enabling Ukrainian strikes on Russian territory. This calculation could shift as the dynamics of the conflict evolve, but for now the US stance remains cautious.