Use of the US’s unprecedented weapons supply to Ukraine has not been properly tracked by the Department of Defense — and the country has a history of alleged misuse, loss, or selling of munitions.

Commander of the Joint Forces the Armed Forces of Ukraine fires a US-made MK19 automatic grenade launcher during military training exercise in Kiev on September 27, 2023 amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Genya Savilov / AFP via Getty Images)

The Defense Department is not conducting adequate oversight of the unprecedented deluge of weapons it’s been sending to Ukraine since Russia’s February 2022 invasion, according to a new government report reviewed by the Lever. That means the end-use of billions of dollars’ worth of arms is at risk of being unaccounted for in a country that was previously a hub for the illicit arms trade.

The report was published a day before the Biden administration announced it would be sending another $300 million in weapons to Ukraine and urged passage of an aid bill held up in Congress that would deliver an additional $60.1 billion to the country.

The government report found that since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States has sent more than $42 billion worth of military equipment, weapons, training, and other military support to the country, and that the United States lacks proper systems to track what is being delivered, when the munitions were delivered, and how they are being used — all of which is required by law.

Federal law requires the Defense Department and Ukrainian officials to track how the military equipment and weapons are being used and to prevent them from being stolen, sold, lost, or misused. Military officials call this “diversion.”

The report, conducted by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO), found that the Defense Department is potentially failing to track allegations of end-use violations and arms diversions.

“While [Defense Department] officials said there had been no credible evidence of diversion of US-provided advanced conventional weapons from Ukraine, it is unclear whether all allegations are being tracked,” investigators found.

report released in January by the Pentagon Inspector General’s office found that the Defense Department failed to conduct proper end-use oversight on more than $1 billion worth of military equipment — nearly forty thousand weapons — sent to Ukraine. The Pentagon report did not investigate instances of diversion, but Defense Department Criminal Investigative Service personnel continue to “investigate allegations of criminal conduct with regard to US security assistance to Ukraine.”

The new GAO report, released March 13, follows a major expansion of how much military aid the United States was willing to export to conflict zones involving strategic partners. Previously, lawmakers had placed a $100 million cap on the value of total military equipment that could be exported under the Presidential Drawdown Authority — a program established in the 1960s that allows the president to ship weapons from US stockpiles to countries in need of military assistance. However, lawmakers vastly expanded that cap to $11 billion in 2022 and $14.5 billion for 2023 after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the report noted.

Congress has approved more than $113 billion in humanitarian and military aid for Ukraine through four different spending bills passed as of November 2023. Investigators found that the amount of military equipment and weapons being delivered and the rapid timeline have stressed the Defense Department’s delivery and reporting methods.

“The volume of [military equipment and weapons] delivered to Ukraine since the start of the war has been unprecedented,” government investigators said in their report, adding that military equipment deliveries that often took weeks in previous scenarios are now arriving in Ukraine within days or even hours.

The war in Ukraine has been viewed by some experts as a proxy war between the United States and Russia. NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg claimed in September 2023 that Russian president Vladimir Putin launched the invasion as a reaction to NATO potentially expanding into Ukraine.

“[Putin] went to war to prevent NATO, more NATO, close to his borders,” Stoltenberg said. “He has got the exact opposite.”

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has routinely pleaded for additional aid from the United States and other allied countries and has vowed to keep fighting the Russian invasion.

Inadequate oversight of the weapons being sent to Ukraine is especially concerning given the scale of the arms transfers involved and Ukraine’s spotty track record. While Russia appears to be responsible for a number of war crimes committed since the conflict began, Ukraine has at times been criticized for misusing weaponry — and has a history of alleged arms diversions to illicit markets.

“Ukraine, for its part, has done a pretty good job of avoiding instances of large-scale diversion, at least cross-border diversion,” said Elias Yousif, a research analyst focused on conventional defense with the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank focused on global peace. “But we know that these weapons have long shelf lives, and the world is replete with examples of weapons that were transferred to one context, that years later had been found somewhere else.”

Oversight Holes and Missing Military Equipment

The GAO report, conducted from October 2022 to March 2024, looked into three main issues: the process used to deliver US-based military equipment to Ukraine, how the Defense Department has tracked the deliveries, and how defense officials have monitored how the weapons are being used.

GAO investigators reviewed Defense Department documents, interviewed Defense and State Department officials, observed deliveries in Germany and Poland near the Ukrainian border, and analyzed the types of military equipment and weapons sent to the conflict.

The kinds of weapons sent to Ukraine fall into two categories: enhanced — which includes “highly sensitive” weapons such as Javelin missiles and unmanned drones — and routine — which includes 155 mm Howitzers, ammunition, tanks, helmets, and medical kits.

The weapons sales and transfers are guided by laws that require Defense Department and Ukrainian officials to report any potentially unauthorized use, including illegal sales, security violations, losses, and other incidents. Federal law requires that assistance must be ended if there is a “substantial violation” of how the weapons are used and overseen.

The GAO report highlights how the amount of weapons being sent into Ukraine has made oversight a problem, as well as the lack of monitors on the ground. A large portion of the end-use monitoring process does not account for “wartime dynamics,” investigators noted.

US embassy staff who usually monitor the use of military equipment and weapons were evacuated in 2022 when Russian forces began shelling Kiev, Ukraine’s capital.

Defense Department officials have been able to monitor military equipment and weapons use in some low-risk areas. “However, [Defense Department] officials said they were unable to directly perform routine or enhanced [end-use] checks on [military equipment and weapons] in high-risk areas of the country because of restrictions barring US officials from most areas outside of Kyiv,” the report found.

As of August 2023, the Defense Department’s military equipment tracking system included only one allegation of military equipment being “inappropriately transferred” to Russian forces since the beginning of the invasion. Two months later, Defense Department officials told GAO investigators that there is no credible evidence of US-provided military equipment being diverted.

Defense Department officials in Poland told the investigators they had heard of diversion allegations, but said the allegations were “consistent with Russian disinformation.”

The tracking system also found twenty-five incidents of military equipment or other items — including night-vision devices — being lost or destroyed. Investigators noted that without a proper tracking system, there may not be an accurate count of end-use allegations and that the groups involved may lack proper information to report patterns of misuse.

Ukraine’s current extensive battlefield demands have likely helped prevent diversions, said Yousif at the Stimson Center, but a proper tracking system helps ensure weapons and other military equipment remain in the right hands, even after hostilities have subsided.

“The demand is so great on the battlefield that it has dulled the incentives for people to take weapons from where they’re most needed to maybe make some sort of lucrative deal,” he added. “But those dynamics may change, and they actually become more acute after the guns fall silent. This is a long-term challenge.”

Delivery Unknown

GAO investigators also found that the process of delivering weapons to Ukraine was riddled with problems.

The Defense Department divisions in charge of transferring weapons to Ukraine lacked a clear set of rules and responsibilities, the GAO report found. Additionally, the sheer volume of arms and the rapid pace in which they are being shipped created problems for personnel tasked with tracking the shipments.

In the report, investigators highlighted how the military’s main tracking system, called DSCA 1000, lacked a clear definition of what it meant for these weapons to be “delivered.” Officials from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps all had different standards for when they counted shipments as complete, investigators found.

“Inconsistent record-keeping across three separate entities has resulted in officials marking orders complete when only they’re only partially fulfilled,” investigators noted.

The Army considers shipments delivered “as soon as they begin movement from Army points of origin,” which usually means locations in the United States or Europe. But in some cases, it could still take weeks before these shipments reach Ukraine.

The Navy, meanwhile, marks shipments delivered once they arrive at the first port outside of the United States, while the Air Force told investigators that they “had not determined a standardized delivery confirmation process for defense articles provided to Ukraine.”

Only the Marine Corps recorded items as delivered once they received an email confirmation from officials that they had handed over supplies to Ukrainian officials.

“Officials responsible for overall management of the DSCA 1000 system confirmed that [military equipment and weapons] should be considered delivered only when they have been transferred to Ukrainian authority,” investigators wrote. “However, officials from the Office of the Secretary of Defense said that there may be instances in which it would be appropriate to record defense articles as ‘delivered’ prior to their physical delivery to Ukraine.”

“Industrial-Scale Warfare”

The United States has been sending military equipment and weapons to Ukraine since at least 2014, when Russia seized control of the oil-rich Crimean peninsula, which was previously under Ukrainian control.

The US authorizes shipments of artillery, ammunition, missiles, anti-aircraft systems, tanks, and medical supplies to Ukraine using two avenues: the Presidential Drawdown Authority, and the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which was implemented in 2015 and allows the Defense Department to purchase military equipment and weapons from the private sector or foreign partners on behalf of Ukraine.

Since the invasion, the United States has sent 76 tanks; 186 armored vehicles; and more than 10,000 Javelin anti-tank missiles, 2,000 anti-aircraft missiles, and 35,000 grenade launchers. It has also sent well over one million rounds of heavy-duty artillery and a bevy of other weapons.

Ukraine has a well-documented history of illicit weapons sales in the country, and the massive amount of weapons the United States has sent to the country is raising concerns for some peace watchers.

Ukraine, which was a Soviet state, held large weapons stockpiles after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Throughout the subsequent decade, those weapons found their way via the black market into a number of conflict zones in Africa and the Middle East.

A 2022 report conducted by Yousif and Rachel Stohl for the Stimson Center noted that the illicit weapons industry in Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union was estimated at around $32 billion throughout the 1990s. Ukraine became “a centerpiece of the global illicit arms market, with its weaponry providing the means of violence for battlefields in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Afghanistan, and many others, all the while enriching criminal networks in Ukraine,” the two wrote in their report.

Yousif said that the United States’ end-use monitoring was designed for peacetime settings and is therefore “ill-suited” to track weapons during wartime. The “industrial-scale warfare” unfolding in Ukraine makes tracking US weapons even harder, he added.

“This isn’t just about Ukraine,” Yousif said. “There are risks associated with arms transfers in any context and under the best scenarios. And of course, Ukraine isn’t in the best scenario or the best of circumstances.”

Ukrainian forces have been fighting Russians in the Donbas region since 2014 and over the years, there have been reports of indiscriminate attacks on civilians in the region. Human Rights Watch detailed how Ukrainian forces used cluster munitions — missiles that spread small bombs that explode on impact — in a populated area in the city of Donetsk, which killed six people and injured dozens more.

Cluster munitions have high failure rates and essentially act as land mines if they do not explode upon impact. More than 120 countries have agreed to ban the use of cluster munitions, but the United States, Ukraine, and Russia did not sign onto the agreement.

In July 2023, the Biden administration announced that it was sending cluster munitions and other high-duty artillery to Ukraine.

“Even if Ukraine uses those within the bounds of what you might call reasonable battlefield use, that still presents a decade’s long challenge for civilians,” Yousif said. “Those will essentially contaminate acres and acres of important civilian areas for the foreseeable future, so you are essentially leaving behind fields of unexploded ordinance that could spell disaster for non-combatants and children going forward.”

The United States’ five largest weapons manufacturers — Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon — have raked in billions of dollars since the Ukraine war started. Defense contractors spent nearly $140 million lobbying Congress, regulators, and other federal authorities in 2023.

The Defense Department has also relied on smaller arms dealers with questionable pasts to fulfill Ukrainian weapons requests. According to the New York Times, one arms dealer, who received a Pentagon contract worth $431 million in April 2023, was indicted in 2009 on conspiracy and money laundering charges after he was allegedly caught on tape trying to bribe foreign officials. Prosecutors later dropped the charges.

The weapons used in the Russia-Ukraine war have taken a massive toll on human lives. A US intelligence report from December 2023 estimated that more than thirty thousand Russian troops had been killed or injured. Ukrainian president Zelenskyy estimated last month that thirty-one thousand Ukrainian troops had been killed so far.

The GAO investigators issued eight recommendations for the Defense Department to improve its tracking system. The recommendations included the Secretary of Defense developing new guidelines for the military equipment delivery process, developing a clear definition for determining when weapons have been “delivered,” improving delivery accuracy, evaluating the end-use monitoring process to ensure it is being followed, and updating monitoring protocols for allegations of end-use violations.

According to the GAO report, Defense Department officials agreed or partially agreed with seven of the recommendations. However, Defense Department officials did not concur with the recommendation to update monitoring and documentation of alleged end-use violations.

Yousif agrees that as the US military scales up the amount of weapons it is sending to conflict zones across the globe, it needs to similarly expand its tracking and oversight of these tools of war.

“The United States needs to make similarly scaled investments in the structures that it has in place to oversee, monitor, evaluate and hold accountable its security assistance,” said Yousif. “It can’t just be about getting the things to the place at the right time.”

You can subscribe to David Sirota’s investigative journalism project, the Lever, here.

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