The Pentagon is preparing to send a Patriot missile system to Ukraine


The Pentagon is preparing to send the Patriot missile system to Ukraine, senior US officials said on Tuesday, a move that would give the government in Kiev the most advanced air defense weapon in America’s arsenal as Russia mounts a relentless assault on the country’s power grid.

The plan has not yet been approved by President Biden or Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, but it could be soon, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to detail sensitive internal discussions. This would fulfill one of Ukraine’s biggest and most frequent requests to Washington, and it follows weeks of Russian bombing that plunged much of the country into cold and darkness as winter set in.

While the Biden administration has provided about $20 billion in weapons and military equipment to Ukraine since the invasion in late February, it has stubbornly resisted sending some advanced weapons — including long-range missiles, fighter jets and battle tanks — on the grounds that in Russia eyes, this would draw the US even deeper into the war, and the maintenance and operation of such systems is complex. The White House National Security Council recommended reversing course only in recent weeks as the Kremlin stepped up attacks on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, a senior administration official said.

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The United States has taken other steps to improve Ukraine’s air defenses, including sending two National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems, or NASAMS, last month and signing a $1.2 billion contract to build and deliver six more over the next two years. Earlier in the conflict, US officials helped broker a deal with NATO ally Slovakia to send its only S-300 air defense system to Ukraine in exchange for NATO Patriot units.

Waves of Russian cruise missiles and Iran-supplied drones are targeting power plants across Ukraine, cutting off electricity, water and heat. Although many of them have been taken down using existing systems, it is not enough. At the same time, Iran agreed to significantly increase the number of drones it supplies to Russia, from hundreds to thousands, and Moscow acquired Iranian ballistic missiles to supplement their own dwindling stocks.

The senior administration official said Biden would sign off on the plan to give Ukraine the Patriot system only after the Pentagon answered all questions about training and maintenance, the legality of the transfer and its effect on U.S. military readiness. The Ministry of Defense is currently working on the parameters of a training program that will likely take place in Germany. Under normal circumstances, training may take more than six months. Another US official said the weapons would come from US stockpiles but not from operational units.

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Austin is expected to sign the proposal, first reported Tuesday by CNNbefore going to Biden, officials said.

“This is going to be the most challenging piece of equipment that Ukraine has received so far,” said Mark F. Cancian, a retired U.S. military officer at the Center for Strategic and International Studies whose wartime research has focused on arms supplies. “If the Ukrainians had a year or two to absorb the Patriot, it wouldn’t be a problem. … I imagine the Pentagon is very nervous about that.”

Cancian said the Pentagon is “taking quite a risk here” in deploying the Patriot system. “I think they decided that because the need for air defense was so great, they were willing to take a risk that wasn’t the case in the past.”

The Patriot system relies on advanced radar to detect incoming threats and fires long-range missiles to intercept them. Its launchers are located on truck chassis and are very mobile. About 90 service members are assigned to a typical Patriot battery, which includes up to eight launchers, each containing between four and 16 ready-to-launch missiles, depending on the type of ammunition.

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Although a team of only three is required to operate the system once deployed, sufficient backup is usually required. The system is designed to be used at the battalion level, with each battalion comprising a headquarters, support company, and communications specialists.

The United States has about 15 Patriot battalions, many of which are stationed in Europe and the Middle East. Several US allies and partners also have their own US-made Patriot systems.

Patriot-launched missiles can fly to altitudes of up to 79,000 feet, with an operational range, depending on the type of munition used, of a dozen to 100 miles, for use against ballistic and cruise missiles as well as aircraft. It was not clear what type of munitions the Pentagon would offer to supply. Most of the Russian missile fire was fired from aircraft outside Ukrainian territory, from aircraft flying inside Russia’s borders or over the Black Sea.

Patriot’s extended range and sophistication gives it a greater ability to see and destroy incoming threats than other systems, said Tom Caracco, director of the Missile Defense Project at CSIS. But, he said, it also requires greater responsibility for distinguishing friend from foe and “an increased need to be sure what you’re shooting at.”

While Karako praised the administration for being attentive to Ukraine’s needs, he expressed some concern about the potential effects. Patriot systems and their missiles are a scarce resource, he said, and the Pentagon needs to understand the cost of U.S. modernization and training efforts.

“We will have to be careful that this does not affect the ability of the United States to flex its power globally,” he said. “One can imagine that they will not return” from Ukraine.

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