Foreign Policy

U.S. To Provide Ukraine With Most Advanced Air Defense System Yet

What is the Patriot air defense system, and how would it benefit Ukraine?

U.S. To Provide Ukraine With Most Advanced Air Defense System Yet
Sebastian Apel/U.S. Department of Defense, via AP
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Three hundred days into Russia's war, the United States is providing a more advanced military capability to help Ukraine: a Patriot air defense system. 

The Pentagon calls it one of the world's most advanced air defense capabilities. It's part of a nearly $2 billion security package, and the announcement was timed with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's historic visit to Washington.

"The strongest element of this package is the Patriot battery system, something that will strengthen our air defense significantly," said Zelenskyy.

"The United States and our allies and partners around the world have delivered a broad range of assistance at historic speed, and it's been critical to bolstering Ukraine success thus far," said President Joe Biden.

It's a long-range air defense system — around for decades but improved on over time — that can intercept ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and fixed-wing aircraft.

This round of aid includes a Patriot air defense battery and munitions.

Experts like retired General Philip Breedlove describe it as significant but still note some limitations.

"It is an incredibly capable system," Breedlove said. "What it will allow the Ukrainians to do is cover a high-value target. They'll have to choose which one that is. In order to have a massive tactical effect on the ground, it would have to be much more than one battery." 

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Breedlove also notes the policy decision that comes with this.

"But again, this is the policy piece that is important. And that is the United States has taken this step. And now it would be important for others to follow. And I think then, if we start to have other nations providing this type of capability to Ukraine, and we get the numbers up, now we begin to have a real tactical change on the battlefield," he said.

The announcement comes as Russia continues to attack critical infrastructure in the cold winter months, and as Ukraine stresses the need for air defense support.

A senior defense official described a goal of adding to a layered defense, but notes the training for Ukrainians is expected to take several months

Experts say it's a complicated system that will help augment defenses.

"How I see this Patriot transfer is, what I think, is the beginning of what will be a replacement, gradually replacing those old Russian air defenses with newer Western air defenses, that we'll be able to help sustain and supply into the future that will help maintain that protective bubble over Ukraine and to deter the Russian Air Force from making penetrating sorties," said Ian Williams, deputy director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In total, the U.S. has committed more than $21 billion in security assistance since the invasion started.

Former Ambassador John Herbst says the administration deserves credit for the substantial assistance thus far but cautions it takes time and there's still more to do.

"The pattern has been clear since February of this year. The administration says note, usually to most Ukrainian West, that over time, they reconsider on certain systems. So, we are consistently sending them better stuff. But it takes time. And given the damage this war is creating not just in Ukraine, especially in Ukraine, but also in Europe, and in the United States, it's in our interest to end this war sooner," said Herbst.