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Giving away an arsenal

America’s military hardware is sent to eastern Europe via presidential drawdowns

Ukrainian servicemen loading a truck with FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missiles provided by the United States Getty Images/Photo by Sergei Supinsky/AFP

Giving away an arsenal

Since August 2021—six months before the Russian invasion—the United States has supplied Ukraine with $23.5 billion worth of military equipment from its own stockpiles. The weaponry includes Abrams tanks, Javelin missiles, mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, M113 armored personnel carriers, and more.

On Tuesday, Pentagon officials testified before the House Armed Services Committee about how that equipment is being used.

“It is the responsibility of Congress to ensure that every single penny of American taxpayer dollars is being effectively used as intended to assist the Ukrainian people in their fight against Russian aggression,” Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., said at the hearing. “Accountability of the weapons shipped in is absolutely paramount.”

Clyde asked the inspector general for the Department of Defense, Robert Storch, whether he was aware of any resource abuses. Storch, answered that he was not, but also explained he was unable to speak to any ongoing investigations. The inspector general’s office has attempted to keep close tabs on what equipment is going where—down to the disappearance of 33 hygiene kits that went missing last year.

The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, gives the president of the United States the power to “direct the drawdown of defense articles from the stocks of the Department of Defense [and] defense services.” As a military tool, drawdowns give the president the flexibility to address sudden, unforeseen emergencies overseas—usually by equipping an ally. But with a continued drain on resources available to the Department of Defense, the increased use of drawdowns raises questions about the preparedness of the United States to engage elsewhere.

Beyond simply informing Congress, the president doesn’t need permission to execute a military drawdown. When Congress created the drawdown power, it set a cap of $100 million in any one fiscal year.

That was 62 years ago.

The value of the military equipment sent to Ukraine through presidential drawdowns makes that cap look insignificant. Congress most recently raised the limit to $14.5 billion—increasing its original size by well over a factor of a hundred.

“They’ve been used many, many times since ’61,” said Ret. Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, the director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense. “But the stuff done before 2022 is really kind of dwarfed by drawdowns that have been used for Ukraine.”

Giving away military assets makes them unavailable to U.S. troops, but Spoehr said that can benefit the Department of Defense in the long run.

“It’s typical—it’s not required by law—but it’s typical that the executive branch requests reimbursements for items provided by a PDA from Congress in the next appropriations,” Spoehr said.

He explained that those funds could be used to buy the latest and greatest in armored personnel carriers, Javelin missiles, or whatever else is sent abroad. In a roundabout way, it could be used to upgrade the military’s weapons.

In requesting replacements, the Pentagon estimates the price of reimbursement and not an actual, already-spent amount. Congress could decide to spend more than what was given away, or, although unlikely, it also might decide to give less. The market price of a weapon can also influence the sum.

Between when the drawdown happens and Congress appropriates new funding for the Department of Defense, the military has to do without whatever it gave away. The process of reimbursement starts when the White House makes a formal resupply request through its budget proposal.

“There’s always a risk in between the period where you give the items up and the time when the reimbursement transfers into real capabilities,” Spoehr said. “There’s a time risk there in months or years. I can’t imagine that would happen any quicker than one year.”

The White House is set to propose its budget on March 9.

Spoehr says that before a presidential drawdown goes through, the Department of Defense conducts a careful evaluation of the risk that the receiving country may incur by not having those pieces of equipment. The president takes that report into consideration. Spoehr finds it unlikely the weaponry given to Ukraine would hurt the U.S. in any meaningful way.

Those weapons, Spoehr pointed out, are likely going to their designed destination anyway.

“Many of these munitions were in war reserves and they were allocated to a scenario where the United States would have to fight Russia,” Spoehr said. “Even though it’s not U.S. service members that are employing these weapons, we are already in that fight.”

Leo Briceno

Leo is a WORLD politics reporter based in Washington, D.C. He’s a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and has a degree in political journalism from Patrick Henry College.


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