The Pentagon is buying T-72B tanks to give to Ukraine as part of a new $400 million weapons package announced Friday, marking the first time it has supplied the armored fighting vehicles.
The U.S. funding will cover the refurbishment of 45 of the Soviet-era tanks by the Czech Republic, and another 45 will be donated to the Ukrainians by the Netherlands as part of an agreement between the three countries. The latest Pentagon shipment also includes Hawk missiles and Phoenix Ghost drones for Ukraine's fight against Russia.
"The contracting actions are going to begin soon and then some of the tanks will be available to Ukraine before the end of December, so the end of this year with additional deliveries to be completed in 2023," Sabrina Singh, the deputy Pentagon press secretary, said during a public briefing.
American security assistance has surged to $18.2 billion since Russia's invasion, and the Pentagon also announced Friday a new headquarters element based in Germany, called the Security Assistance Group-Ukraine, to handle the aid. The group will be part of U.S. European Command.
The group signals that the Biden administration intends to keep up the support for the long run, far beyond the U.S. midterm elections -- though some Republicans are challenging the spending to counter Russian President Vladimir Putin's attempt to occupy Ukraine and have vowed to scrutinize or cut off funding if the party wins control of Congress.
Last week, the Pentagon disclosed that U.S. personnel with the defense attache at the reopened embassy in Kyiv are conducting on-site inspections of the American weapons shipments, though officials insisted they would not be close to the frontline fighting.
The T-72 tank was manufactured and used by the former Soviet Union before its collapse in 1991. But its updated variants are produced and still widely used by other nations including Russia, which has an inventory from its Cold War years and has deployed them in its invasion of Ukraine.
Ukrainian forces are already trained on the tanks, making them an easier donation than other more advanced tanks used by the U.S. and western allies. The U.S. donation of Czech-made T-72Bs means the Ukrainian armor could meet Russian units using the same tanks as the war grinds on.
"Introducing a new main battle tank is extremely costly, it's time sensitive, and it would be a huge undertaking for Ukrainian forces," Singh said. "So, we do continue to consult with our allies and partners to assess our ability on what we can provide in terms of western armored platforms, but these tanks will make a difference on the battlefield."
The $400 million package announced Friday will also pay to refurbish Hawk surface-to-air missiles that are expected to be given to Ukraine in the future. The medium-range missiles were developed in the 1950s and are no longer used by the U.S. military but are seen as a more effective upgrade to the Stinger missiles shipped to Ukraine earlier in the war and used against Russian aircraft.
Another 1,100 Phoenix Ghost drones are headed to Kyiv, following assaults on the Ukrainian capital by Russian drones purchased from Iran. The Phoenix Ghost was developed in secret by the Air Force and unveiled earlier this year when it was sent in a weapons package to Ukraine.
It is the second security aid package sent to Ukraine in just a week as the Biden administration keeps up a steady tempo of support. Putin launched an unprovoked invasion in February centered on a failed attempt to take the capital Kyiv, and the war has since moved to the eastern part of the country as Russia shells cities and civilian infrastructure.
Russia has been considered a top adversary by the Pentagon for years, ranking just below China, a continuation with only minor interruption of a rivalry dating back to the Cold War. Putin, known for crushing domestic political dissent, meddling in foreign elections and likely ordering assassinations abroad, invaded and annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in 2014 amid international condemnation, and had been fueling a separatist insurgency in Ukraine's east since.
But support of Ukraine in Congress appears shaky. Republicans in the House, where the party is expected to win a majority in the midterm elections on Nov. 8, have questioned the billions in spending.
Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who could likely be the next House speaker, recently said the public won't be willing to write a "blank check" to help the U.S. ally defeat Russia and Putin.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., wields little political power in the House, but she has an outsized standing in Republican politics and the political movement inspired by former President Donald Trump, which favored an "American first" foreign policy that is skeptical of NATO and pushed for less involvement in conflicts abroad.
"The only border they care about is Ukraine, not America's southern border. Under Republicans, not another penny will go to Ukraine," Greene said Thursday at a political rally in Iowa for Trump-backed candidates for the House.
-- Travis Tritten can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.