The United States says it doesn’t really know what happened to much of the weapons it sent to the government of Ukraine, with much of it dropping into a “big black hole.”
According to a new CNN report Tuesday, sources told the network that the U.S. government has few ways to track the massive supply of anti-tanks, anti-aircraft, and other arms sent to the conflict zone — and it is in large part due to a lack of observers on the ground to monitor where the weapons go.
CNN reports that the risk of the weapons falling into the wrong hands is a “risk the Biden administration is willing to take.”
A senior defence official told the publication that the transfer of arms is “certainly the largest recent supply to a partner country in a conflict.”
U.S. officials and defence analysts say in the long term some of the weapons sent to Ukraine may well end up in the hands of bad actors, including militaries and militias that the U.S. did not intend to arm.
“We have fidelity for a short time, but when it enters the fog of war, we have almost zero," said an intelligence source. “It drops into a big black hole, and you have almost no sense of it at all after a short period of time.”
To date, the Biden administration has sent billions of dollars of weapons and military equipment into Ukraine. The risk that some of the shipments may land in “unexpected places” is high.
Speaking to CNN, an official said that the Biden administration views a failure to adequately arm Ukraine’s military as a greater risk.
The United States and NATO are almost entirely reliant on information from Ukraine’s government, which is notoriously corrupt. Indeed, as CNN itself points out, the government has an incentive to only provide information to only bolster their case for even more armaments and assistance.
“It's a war — everything they do and say publicly is designed to help them win the war,” said another source. “Every public statement is an information operation, every interview, every Zelensky appearance broadcast is an information operation.”
“It doesn't mean they're wrong to do it in any way,” the source added.
However, it would certainly be wrong for the United States, Canada, or any other NATO member to simply go along with the narrative as it offers little to no benefit for donor countries.
In addition to having few details about where the weapons are ending up, the U.S. admits that it has some “information gaps” in its ability to estimate Ukrainian casualties, which pale in comparison to the status of Russian forces in the country.
The Biden administration and NATO countries say they are providing weapons to Ukraine based on what the Ukrainian forces say they need, whether it's portable systems like Javelin and Stinger missiles or the Slovakian S-300 air defense system that was sent over the last week.
Javelin and Stinger missiles and rifles and ammunition are naturally harder to track than larger systems like the S-300, which was shipped by rail. Although Javelins have serial numbers, there is little way to track their transfer and use in real time, sources familiar with the matter say.
Last week the US agreed to provide Kyiv with the types of high-power capabilities some Biden administration officials viewed as too much of an escalation risk a few short weeks ago, including 11 Mi-17 helicopters, 18 155 mm Howitzer cannons and 300 more Switchblade drones. But much of that support hasn't yet come online — and the Switchblades are mobile, one-time use drones that would also likely be difficult to track after the fact.
The situation in Ukraine is similar to the U.S. support of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which saw much of its anti-aircraft stinger missiles landing on the black market. Terrorists have also threatened to use the U.S. weapons against commercial aircraft.