The US is poised to approve sending its most advanced ground-based air defense system to Ukraine, responding to the country’s urgent request to help defend against an onslaught of Russian missile and drone attacks, two US officials said on December 13. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin could approve a directive as early as this week to transfer one Patriot battery already overseas to Ukraine, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Final approval would then rest with President Joe Biden.
White House, Pentagon and State Department officials declined to comment on details of the transfer of a Patriot battery, which, if approved, would amount to one of the most sophisticated weapons the United States has provided Ukraine. The Patriot system can knock down Russia’s ballistic missiles, unlike other systems the West has provided, and can hit targets much farther away. “We have been very clear that the United States will continue to prioritize sending air defense systems to Ukraine to help our Ukrainian partners defend themselves from the brutal Russian aggression that we’ve seen for the better part of a year now,” Ned Price, a State Department spokesman, told reporters. Many questions remain about the potential transfer, which was reported earlier by CNN, including how long it would take to train Ukrainian soldiers on the system, presumably in Germany, and where the Patriots would be deployed inside Ukraine.
The US had previously resisted providing the Ukrainians Patriot batteries, of which it has relatively few and which require sophisticated training. But Ukrainian officials have intensified their pleas for air defenses from the US and other Western allies as Russia has conducted relentless attacks on power plants, heating systems and other energy infrastructure. The attacks, using missiles and Iranian-made drones, have left Ukrainians vulnerable and in the dark just as the coldest time of the year is beginning. Over the weekend, Russian drone strikes on the southern Ukrainian port city of Odesa plunged more than 1.5 million people in the region into darkness. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said the strikes by Russia, part of a nationwide assault on Ukraine’s energy grid, had left the region in a “very difficult” situation, warning that it would take days, not hours, to restore power to civilians.
The decision to send the Patriot system would be a powerful sign of the US’ deepening military commitment to Ukraine. The Pentagon’s active-duty Patriot units frequently deploy for missions around the world, and experts say the United States does not have the kind of deep stockpiles of Patriot missiles available for transfer that it did with munitions like artillery shells and rockets. Capable of being configured in a number of ways, a Patriot battery typically consists of one or more launchers, radars, and vehicles for command and control of air defense operations.
The US previously provided Ukraine with two shorter-range air defense weapons called National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System, or NASAMS, which arrived in November. The US Department of Defense is spending $1.2 billion for six more NASAMS to be built and delivered to Kyiv in the coming years. But NASAMS can strike targets only about a third as far as the Patriot system. The US military has deployed Patriot batteries in numerous conflicts since the early 1990s. In perhaps the weapons’ most recent combat use, US Army soldiers at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates fired “multiple” Patriot interceptors at missiles headed toward the base in January, according to U.S. Central Command.