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Why is the Biden administration changing its mind on giving Patriot missiles to Ukraine?

US officials had said from the war’s early days that there were many reasons not to give Patriots to Ukraine. What changed?

In Ukraine, the realm of the possible is always expanding.

Assuming the reports are true, what may have changed America’s mind on Patriots? And what difference could this system make in the war?

Legacy system

Built by defense contractor Raytheon, the Patriot (a backronym for “Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept of Target”) uses advanced radar to detect incoming threats, mainly very large and significant ones: ballistic missiles, advanced cruise missiles, and aircraft. And it carries its own missiles that are then used to intercept the incoming firepower.

The Patriot was first developed in the late 1970s as an anti-aircraft system and deployed in Europe in the waning days of the Cold War. It first gained public attention during the first Gulf War, when Patriots were adapted to intercept Scud missiles fired by Iraq at Israel and at U.S. military bases. It later saw combat during the United States’ post-2003 Iraq War, and has been used by Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to intercept incoming projectiles, drones, and aircraft. Eighteen countries currently use the system and it is also deployed to protect U.S. military bases across the world.

Given the limited number of Patriots that Ukraine is likely to receive, and the fact that they’re less mobile than newer systems like the NASAMS, it may be that the Ukrainians have some very specific area of defense in mind. Ian Williams, deputy director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Grid, “I would expect them to set these up protecting some important piece of critical infrastructure.” They could do this either by setting up the system next to the target, or along a route where incoming missiles have been traveling in order to block them.

Right weapon, wrong task?

“Patriot interceptors are quite expensive. It’s not really sustainable to be shooting down little Shahed-136 drones with advanced Patriot missiles,” Williams said, referring to one of the most common and deadly Iranian drones being used in the war. He added that the Patriots are likely to be used as part of layered air defense system; in other words, they will likely be deployed against more advanced incoming threats while other systems handle the rest — a complex battle management task.

Closing the skies, no matter the cost

So why, given the various drawbacks American officials have been pointing to for months, has the calculus around Patriots apparently changed?

The Ukrainians have also proven surprisingly adept at integrating a host of weapons systems from different countries — such as Soviet S-300s, German Gephards, Britain’s portable Starstreak, Spain’s Aspide and America’s NASAMS — to work together. Ukrainian officials sometimes jokingly refer to this international mix as a “petting zoo,” but it’s been surprisingly effective as a coherent air defense system. (The French government also announced this week that Ukraine will be receiving the French-Italian “Mamba” air defense system.) On Wednesday alone, Kyiv’s air defense systems successfully intercepted a barrage of 13 incoming drones.

And this, as much as any technical or military questions, may be what is driving the push to dispatch the Patriot system to Ukraine. U.S. officials may still have doubts about whether Patriots are the right system for this war, and whether the training and logistics will work. But then another Russian strike pulverizes another Ukrainian electrical hub, or railway station, leaving millions without power and no easy way to leave. Given Ukraine’s air defense needs at this stage in the war, it’s getting very hard to say no.

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