Two weeks ago, the Trump administration announced it will allow the sale of some lethal weapons to Ukraine, including the Javelin anti-tank missile. The United States has sent non-lethal aid to Ukraine since soon after the outbreak of the war, including night vision goggles, Humvees, and body armor. However, Javelins will not be the first type of lethal aid sent to Ukraine by the United States — rocket-propelled grenade launchers manufactured in Texas may already be on the front lines of the Donbas.
2016 Contract, 2017 Deliveries
In December 2017, the Ukrainian defense trade company Spetstechnoexport announced that it worked with the American company AirTronic, based in Spring Branch, Texas, to supply PSRL-1 (Precision Shoulder-Fired Rocket Launcher, an “advanced version of the Soviet RPG-7”) weapons systems to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. A contract, as the press release described, was drawn up in 2016 with approval from the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine.
An October 2016 press release from AirTronic matched the information provided last month by the Ukrainian defense trade company. In this press release, AirTronic described:
A recent $5.5 million contract award originating from an Allied European military customer for their Precision Shoulder-fired Rocket Launcher (PSRL) and system-supporting accessories.
This “Allied European military customer” was, apparently, Ukraine.
Specific information on the contract between Ukraine and AirTronic came from a source not accustomed to providing verified information: Southfront, the notorious pro-Russian/separatist online news portal. In August 2017, Southfront published photographs of the contract between AirTronic and Spetstechnoexport, with details which were since been proven correct. In particular, one page of the contract shows that 100 PSRL-1 systems were to be sold at a price of $5,454.75 per unit, for a total of $554,575. This total is almost exactly one tenth of the announced agreement ($5.5 million) in the October 2016 AirTronic press release.
The documents leaked by Southfront have not been fully verified, but information that came to light since their publication has corroborated the leak.
Two weeks ago, Voice of America spoke with the CEO of AirTronic in Texas, who described how the manufacturer is “continuing deliveries” to Ukraine up to the current moment in “very close coordination with the U.S. Embassy, with the U.S. State Department, with the U.S. Pentagon and with the Ukrainian government.”
AirTronic did not release specific details on the number of PSRL-1 units delivered to Ukraine, but the leaked contract from Southfront and additional details from Ukrainian journalists filled the information gap.
Arrival and deployment of American-made lethal weapons
A shipment of 100 PSRL-1 systems reportedly arrived in Ukraine in April 2017, as confirmed by both the contract leaked by Southfront and Ukrainian journalist Yury Butusov. According to a Facebook post by Butusov, many of these 100 PSRL-1 systems were sent to military units in the Donbas, including military unit 3057 based in Mariupol—more widely known as the unit made up of soldiers from the “Azov Battalion,” the notorious detachment that has been integrated into the Ukrainian National Guard.
Butusov identified the Azov Battalion as a recipient of the PSRL-1 systems. On July 10, 2017, the Azov Battalion was introduced to the new weapons, as their press service stated that they would “soon” receive the grenade launchers.
On July 20, 2017, in photographs shared by an Azov Battalion website, soldiers wearing Azov insignia in the Azov Battalion tested PSRL-1 systems.
While verified information about the sale of American-made grenade launchers in Ukraine is available, unanswered questions remain. Most importantly, it is unclear how many of these PSRL-1 systems have been sent to the front lines of the Donbas, such as “Sektor M” near Mariupol where the Azov Battalion is active. Additionally, just how widely, if at all, these weapons have been used in non-training situations in the Donbas.
There have yet to be any confirmed, publicized casualties from the usage of a PSRL-1 in the Donbas, but the first verified incident with one of these weapons is likely to create some turmoil in Washington and Moscow, especially against the backdrop of additional American weapon sales to Ukraine.
@DFRLab will continue to monitor the sale and deployment of American-made lethal weapons in Ukraine.