EXPLAINER: How the latest US aid makes Ukraine stronger

Dec 21, 2022, 1:19 AM | Updated: 3:32 pm
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during a news conference with President Joe Biden in...

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during a news conference with President Joe Biden in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The presence of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Washington on Wednesday puts a dramatic exclamation point on the Biden administration’s latest announcement of military aid to the war-torn nation.

In ways big and small, the massive $1.85 billion package will expand the abilities of Zelenskyy’s troops to take out incoming Russian airstrikes and continue counter-offensives to push back against the invading troops. It also allows President Joe Biden to deliver his commitment to one of Zelenskyy’s most urgent battlefield requests — a Patriot missile battery.

And there’s more aid to come. Beyond the assistance announced Wednesday, Congress is poised to approve an additional $45 billion in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine. The money is part of a massive government funding bill that would support Ukraine not only next year, but in some cases into 2025, assuring continued assistance even as the House changes hands to Republican control.

A look at some of the weapons systems the U.S. is providing:

PATRIOT MISSILE BATTERY

Patriot missile systems have long been a hot-ticket item for the U.S. and allies in contested areas of the world as a coveted shield against incoming missiles. In Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific, they guard against potential strikes from Iran, Yemen and North Korea.

Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian leaders have begged the U.S. for months for a Patriot surface-to-air guided missile system that can intercept Russian missiles. U.S. officials said Wednesday they would take one from Pentagon training stocks and send it to Ukraine, marking a shift in the U.S. calculus. The officials discussed details of the Patriot decision on condition of anonymity, citing concerns about operational security.

The U.S. had been reluctant to provide a Patriot system, fearing it would provoke Moscow or risk that a missile could hit inside Russia and escalate the conflict. Russia’s Foreign Ministry has made clear that delivering Patriots to Ukraine would be “another provocative move by the U.S.” that could prompt a response from Moscow.

Another hurdle is training. U.S. troops will have to train Ukrainian forces on how to use and maintain the complex system. A senior defense official told Pentagon reporters Wednesday that the training will begin “very soon” and will take “several months.” U.S. officials have said the instruction will take place at Grafenwoehr training area in Germany.

The Patriot also has somewhat limited capabilities and officials acknowledge it won’t likely change the course of the war. Patriots have a long firing range, but can cover only a limited area. The Patriot’s current interceptor missile costs approximately $4 million per round and the launchers cost about $10 million. Each Patriot battery can have up to eight launchers firing four missiles each.

At that price, it’s not cost effective or optimal to use the Patriot to shoot down the smaller and cheaper Iranian drones that Russia has been using in Ukraine.

The senior defense official said the Patriot will complement Ukraine’s other air defense systems and would be integrated into a layered defense of the nation.

The U.S. has a limited number of Patriots and they are in high demand, with many already deployed around the world. Since Ukraine will get one used to train U.S. soldiers, that’s one less for troops to learn on.

SATELLITE COMMUNICATIONS SYSTEM

U.S. officials are being deliberately vague about the satellite communications that will be bought under the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which provides funding for weapons and equipment to be purchased from commercial vendors.

On Wednesday, the senior defense official said part of the $850 million in USAI announced Wednesday will be used for contracts to augment existing Ukrainian capabilities. The official said that because of ongoing contract negotiations, the Pentagon could say only they were talking to a number of satellite communications vendors.

Still, other U.S. officials acknowledged that the move will shore up a potential point of vulnerability for Ukraine after SpaceX founder Elon Musk said his company could no longer afford to provide the Starlink services for free.

Musk shipped the first Starlink terminals to Ukraine just days after Russia invaded in February, and as of October there were more than 2,200 low-orbiting Starlink system satellites providing broadband internet to Ukraine. In October, Musk asked the Pentagon to take over the costs for operating Starlink in Ukraine, and tweeted that it was costing SpaceX $20 million a month to support the country’s communications needs.

The terminals and satellite connectivity they have provided Ukraine have “been the game changer” in allowing Ukraine’s military and infrastructure to continue to operate, said John Ferrari, a senior fellow and space expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

Although the funding announcement is general and doesn’t cite Starlink, Ferrari said it would be more difficult to introduce other companies’ satellite terminal systems onto the battlefield because they often don’t operate well when mixed together.

JOINT DIRECT ATTACK MUNITIONS

Joint Direct Attack Munition kits, or JDAMs, are also being provided to Ukraine for the first time. JDAMs are essentially 500- to 2,000-pound “dumb” bombs that have been modified into “smart” bombs by adding a tail fin and navigation kit. That added kit enables troops to guide the munition to a target, rather than simply dropping it from a fighter jet onto the ground

The State Department said the JDAM “will provide the Ukrainian Air Force with enhanced precision strike capabilities against Russia’s invading forces.”

U.S. fighter jets, bombers and drones can all fire the JDAMs, but officials declined to describe the modifications being made so the bombs can be launched by Ukraine aircraft.

Another potentially attractive element about the JDAMs is that the U.S. has many of them, so providing them doesn’t involve the same type of stockpile pressures the U.S. has with other more limited munitions, said Mark Cancian a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Security.

But there’s also a potential catch: The weapons are typically dropped from aircraft flying over or near the target. That may be more risky for Ukrainian pilots, since it could put them within range of Russian air defense systems.

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EXPLAINER: How the latest US aid makes Ukraine stronger