Stinger missiles: US seeks to upgrade supply of lethal weapons for Ukraine

Anti-aircraft system has proven effective in war against Russia but some US officials say it is close to being replaced with more advanced technology

A military team leader practises firing a Stinger missile, but for how much longer will they be supplied to Ukraine? Photo: US Army

A supply of deadly shoulder-launched Stinger missiles for Ukraine may be in doubt after Raytheon, the company that produces the weapon, limited production to purchased exports, the Pentagon has said.

The move has put the number of Stingers available for donation to Ukraine in question.

A limited number of Stingers — which can seek enemy helicopters, drones and even missiles at three times the speed of sound, are being kept in service to protect US forces overseas.

The main problem with supply is that the missile was on the verge of being phased out by the US as the Ukraine crisis unfolded.

Stingers, of which the US has supplied 1,400 to Ukraine, rose to prominence in 1986 when they were supplied to Afghan resistance fighters, who used them against invading Soviet forces to great effect, forcing Russian aircraft to fly at high altitude, reducing the accuracy of their attacks.

Russian air losses — especially of helicopters — suggest the weapon is being used to deadly effect in Ukraine.

But while improvements have been made to the portable missile, the US military had decided before the Ukraine war to phase it out.

There is a reluctance among US defence officials to shift limited manufacturing resources to a weapon that could soon be obsolete in favour of a more advanced replacement, Reuters has learnt.

The US also needs to keep some stock to defend its own forces until a replacement system is in use — Stingers can be quickly deployed to counter threats for what the US military classes as short-range engagements — to take out low-flying helicopters and drones as they appear over the horizon.

In war zones such as Iraq, where drones have become an increasing threat, some of these stocks could be needed.

Replacing Stingers

"Right before Ukraine hit, we were going to divest ourselves of Stingers," a congressional source said. Still, US defence authorities are concerned about a "dwindling" surplus, according to one Pentagon official and the congressional source.

Ukrainian troops have shot down at least six targets during the conflict using Lithuanian-provided Stingers, according to a Facebook post April 6 by Arvydas Anusauskas, Lithuania's Defence Minister, including helicopters, planes, drones and a cruise missile. The claim has not yet been verified.

The Stinger production line was closed in December 2020, said Pentagon representative Jessica Maxwell. Raytheon Technologies won a contract in July 2021 to manufacture more Stingers but mainly for international governments, the US Army said. The sole Stinger plant, in Arizona, produces at a low rate.

The Pentagon has not ordered new Stingers for many years but has called for parts or made other efforts to increase its supply.

For example, the army is in the midst of a "service life extension plan" for some of its Stingers that were to become obsolete in 2023 and is extending what the military calls their "useful life" until 2030.

The Pentagon, which has thrown together weekly meetings to discuss surging weapons demand from Eastern Europe, met a group of eight defence contractor chiefs in mid-April to discuss the supply to Ukraine, including the Stinger.

Two sources familiar with the meeting said Raytheon chief executive Greg Hayes noted that it can require six to 12 months to restart a munitions production line.

Raytheon declined to comment.

At the meeting, industry executives voiced reservations about increasing weapons production. One chief executive said that when the Ukraine war winds down, they do not want to be stuck with warehouses full of unsaleable inventory without a guaranteed buyer, three sources familiar with the discussion said.

Congress also wants more Stingers, or at least a similar weapons that perform the same job.

The chairman of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, Representative Adam Smith, wrote to Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin last week and pointed out an "apparent absence of a Department of Defence plan to meet short-range air defence replenishment requirements for not only our US stocks of Stinger systems, but those of other contributing allies and partners".

Doug Bush, a Pentagon official who oversees weapons acquisitions for the army, told Congress on March 31 that the Defence Department was putting together a plan to increase Stinger production and intended to inform Congress imminently.

But as of late last week, a second congressional source who spoke on condition of anonymity said there has been no information about the plan to date.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a member of the Senate's Committee on Armed Services, this month asked Gen Austin at a Senate budget hearing about using the Defence Production Act to restore depleted supplies of Stingers and Javelins.

But using the DPA, which forces the industry to put resources into an immediate effort to make a product needed for national security purposes, is premature, the Ms Maxwell said.

Longer term, the US Army is looking for a replacement for the Stinger that will go into production in 2027.

Updated: April 26, 2022, 11:45 AM