Unknowns about Ukraine gear accountability revealed in watchdog report

by Tommy Grant

The Defense Department inspector general ― the military’s leading oversight authority ― released a series of announcements in late September about planned accountability probes regarding the now more than $100 billion worth of military gear and equipment the United States has sent or promised to Ukraine.

While these measures were evidence of increased scrutiny over military aid, and a growing ability to track and monitor donated gear as the war wears on, an obtained early report illustrates the severe limitations of early accountability measures, and how much Americans officials trust their Ukrainian counterparts to self-police.

A redacted version of the IG’s first accountability report, released to Military Times in response to a public records request, paints a picture of just how little was known in the early days of the war, which began with Russia’s February 2022 invasion.

Dated Oct. 6, 2022, the 21-page report assesses “The DoD’s Accountability of Equipment Provided to Ukraine,” purchased out of what was then $23 billion in regular and supplemental appropriations for security assistance.

The evaluation covers the start of the war through September 2022.

“During the evaluation, we found that the DoD was unable to provide end-use monitoring (EUM} in accordance with DoD policy because of limited U.S. presence in Ukraine,” the report states. “Therefore, we are issuing this report identifying the challenges faced by DoD personnel responsible for conducting EUM and  Enhanced EUM when there are limited or no U.S. personnel present in the area the equipment is being used.”

EUM, according to 1996 federal law, requires regular in-person visits to partner-nation installations, while Enhanced EUM, for sensitive defense items, includes serial-number inventories of all items, as well as in-person assessments of storage facilities.

Unable to perform those measures due to a closed U.S. Embassy in Kyiv and a cap on the number of U.S. personnel allowed in country, U.S. European Command attempted to monitor gear by requesting and storing physical “hand receipts” for gear, using automated tracking where possible, asking the Ukrainian government for information about gear accountability and tracking intelligence reporting on where gear ended up.

Even these secondary measures were incomplete: the inspector general got reports about a U.S. diplomatic note issued to the Ukrainian armed forces asking for copies of the receipts but was unable to obtain a copy of the note or the receipts. The report stated it would pursue the matter in a later report focused on chain-of-custody records for gear.

“[EUCOM] J-5 personnel stated that Ukraine is making a good-faith effort to provide equipment hand receipts and updates on the status and location of provided equipment,” the report stated.

A member of the nonprofit Special Operations Association of America who made multiple trips to Ukraine in 2022, spending months on the ground helping to deliver and distribute aid as a civilian, said he found that statement to be true, adding that Ukrainian officials’ awareness of the country’s reputation for corruption drove an internal push to demonstrate accountability and trustworthiness.

That said, he added, smaller items, not as easily identified as U.S. military donations, often did go astray.

“What I found was a bifurcated system of accountability that favored end items, or things that could publicly come back and look really negative,” the SOAA member, who asked not to be identified by name, told Military Times.

He mentioned Stinger and Javelin missiles and artillery components as examples of gear for which he received accounts of a painstaking accountability process. That process, he said, included tracking serial numbers and taking pictures of empty missile tubes and doing one-for-one swaps with resupply.

“With Javelins and Stingers, it was so cumbersome that it almost negatively impacted combat operations,” he said.

The Ukrainian forces he encountered, he said, were keenly aware that having one of these weapons end up in the hands of a nefarious actor could create “catastrophic effects,” harming public perception and the flow of aid from the United States.

“That is very different from what I saw with lower-end items,” he said, citing gear like first-aid pouches, boots and small arms.

With those items smaller in size and value, he said, concerns over the consequences of loss or pilfering were much lower and therefore more likely to go astray at checkpoints on their way to the front.

While Defense Department officials have emphasized their intensified efforts to track gear, with Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl telling the House Armed Services Committee in February they were employing mechanisms “that go above and beyond our standard practices,” these methods still rely heavily on Ukrainian forces.

Kahl said at the hearing that the U.S. has given the Ukrainians scanners and tracking software but added that American officials do conduct remote site visits as they’re able. While congressional scrutiny over the growing tally of military support to Ukraine remains high, the reports of malfeasance that have surfaced have largely come from the country’s own intelligence service, the SBU.

The report cites a handful of events in June 2022 and August 2022, all of which had been featured in prior news stories about criminal heists involving the theft of small arms, ammunition and ballistic vests. SBU dismantled, disrupted and reported each of the schemes.

Many inspector general accountability probes have yet to publish results, and calls for greater accountability measures remain strident from within Congress and from critics of government waste.

The DoD IG’s announcement was for an evaluation to determine whether DoD elements were “effectively accounting for defense materials being provided to Ukraine from their points of origin to seaports of embarkation within the continental United States.”

That evaluation will be completed through interviews and site visits to U.S. Transportation Command and U.S.-based sea ports, assessing the integrity of supply lines to Ukraine before gear even leaves the country.

The office announced an “evaluation of land-based security controls” earlier that month for equipment being transported to Ukraine by cargo train. That followed a project announcement regarding DoD’s accountability processes for tracking equipment lost or destroyed after being delivered to Ukraine ― and an April one regarding “Security Assistance Group-Ukraine’s management, tracking, and coordination of the movement of U.S. defense articles to Ukraine.”

Released projects include a June evaluation of accountability controls transferred to Ukraine via air, which found that incomplete manifests diminished confidence in gear inventories for items flown out of Jasionka, Poland.

The SOAA member suggested the Defense Department could invest more deeply in public-private partnerships with American nonprofit organizations with International Traffic in Arms Regulations certifications to help ensure equipment makes the final mile and reaches the intended end user.

“There’s a huge past performance in some of these organizations,” he said, citing SOAA and Save Our Allies, another veteran-run organization that has had a presence on the ground in Ukraine since the invasion began. “They’re here. They’re able to transport these things and work with the Ukrainians.”

Hope Hodge Seck is an award-winning investigative and enterprise reporter covering the U.S. military and national defense. The former managing editor of Military.com, her work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Politico Magazine, USA Today and Popular Mechanics.

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