By Mike Stone
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After successful testing in the U.S., Ukraine will soon receive it first big batch of long-range missiles made by Boeing that promise to extend its range deep into Russian-held territory, according to sources familiar with the matter.
They could arrive "on the battlefield" as soon as Wednesday, Politico reported.
Ukraine needs Boeing's Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs (GLSDB) to augment the limited number of 100-mile range Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) rockets the U.S. has sent.
The glide-bomb will allow Ukraine's military to hit targets at twice the distance reachable by the rockets it now fires from the U.S.-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) and could force Russia to move supplies even farther from the front lines.
Tests of newly built GLSDB occurred on Jan. 16 at the Eglin Air Force Base test range in Florida, a person familiar with the test and two people briefed told Reuters, enabling shipments to begin. The people briefed on the test said six rockets were fired as a part of the early morning test over the Gulf of Mexico.
The plan was for launchers and dozens of warheads to move to Ukraine via an air transport, the person familiar with the test and one of people briefed said.
The timing of the delivery and their ultimate deployment has been secret to preserve the element of surprise. A Pentagon spokesperson declined to comment.
For the Biden administration, the decision to send the GLSDB to Ukraine represents an alternative ATACMS missile, which the administration has so far provided in only small numbers.
Ukraine's supply of ATACMS has been depleted by use.
The new glide bombs, while not as powerful, are much cheaper, smaller and easier to deploy than ATACMS, making them well suited for much of what Ukraine hopes to accomplish: disrupting Russian operations and creating a tactical advantage.
"It's long past time to finding creative means to provide the capability and capacity needed to strike deep and often behind Russian lines," said Tom Karako, a weapons and security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
When Boeing pitched the weapon to commanders last year, they presented an "expedited nine-month option" for delivery that required exempting the contractor from an in-depth review that ensures the Pentagon is getting the best deal possible.
The Pentagon said publicly that funding was approved in February, a contract to begin production was inked the following month, U.S. officials have told Reuters. Because GLSDB has already been paid for, the weapon can avoid the recent Congressional funding dispute over continued weapons shipments to Ukraine.
Boeing, the prime contractor for the weapon, did not respond to a request for comment.
(Reporting by Mike Stone in Washington; Editing by Marguerita Choy)