Negotiations on whether to send F-16s and Patriots to Ukraine continue — but quietly

Last updated on September 16, 2022

Ukraine has stopped publicly asking for high-end U.S. weapons such as Patriot air defense systems, F-16 fighter jets and Gray Eagle drones.

But behind the scenes, the push hasn’t stopped for weapons that could turn the tide of the war. Kyiv’s just getting savvier about its requests.

Both sides are discussing whether to send all three items as long-term financing deals are being hammered out, according to advisers to the Ukrainian government, Pentagon officials and defense industry executives.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hasn’t been a wallflower in calling out Western governments for the weapons his country needs to repel Russian invaders, and has demanded more artillery, rocket launchers and precision weapons, which the U.S. and Western allies eventually provided in large numbers this summer.

But there’s been a shift in recent weeks from loudly calling for air defense and fighter jets to quieter negotiations. The campaign to tone it down has been led by Zelenskyy’s advisers in Kyiv and key interlocutors in Washington, along with friendly advice from the Biden administration itself, which encouraged Kyiv to focus more intently on what it needs right now to push Russian forces out of entrenched positions in Ukraine’s east and south, the people said.

The change from a public campaign to a private one came as advisers grew concerned that the requests for high-end weapons were a distraction from Kyiv’s more immediate battlefield needs and concerns that the asks were muddling their tightly-scripted message.

For months after Russia’s full-scale invasion in late February, Ukrainian leaders asked for Patriot systems and other high-end technologies, putting them at the top of the wish lists sent to Washington and circulated in the press. But big-ticket items have been left off the latest requests for must-need weaponry, which have stuck to requesting more artillery shells and rockets for HIMARS rocket launchers.

Talks about eventually obtaining Patriots, F-16s and Gray Eagles at some point down the road continue at low levels, however, according to three industry sources and people who are in touch with the Kyiv government.

The concerns aren’t merely that the high-tech systems would be provocative to Moscow, but also that complex maintenance and support for the systems would challenge Ukraine in the middle of the war. In the case of Patriots, their relative scarcity makes supplying Ukraine a challenge. U.S. Army Patriot units are some of the most deployed units in the service, with allies across Europe, the Middle East and Pacific demanding the protection they provide.

There is also a prioritization problem: existing NATO allies want these systems too. As more Eastern European countries ditch their older Russian or even Soviet-era aircraft, they’re looking to the U.S. to begin selling or financing F-16s for their own defense. Already, the delivery of 14 F-16s to Slovakia has been delayed a year — to 2024 — due to supply chain issues, and Taiwan remains high on the priority list for the jets and their spare parts.

Some of these more complex systems — including the F-16s slated for retirement by the U.S. Air Force — “are likely to arrive after this conflict is over,” said a congressional staffer with knowledge of the discussions.

As for the request for Patriot missile batteries, the U.S. has agreed to finance the sale of the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System, or NASAMS, for Ukraine. Officials warn that Ukraine’s capacity to train on and put to use both systems at once would be limited, at best.

“The NASAMS and Patriot are different systems and you’re training the same air defenders so there’s only so much they can do,” the staffer said, who like others in this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the talks. “I think we’ll get there.”

The Pentagon recently awarded a $182 million contract to Raytheon Technologies, using Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative funds, for NASAMS. The first two systems will be delivered within the next two months, the Pentagon said Friday.

Ukraine’s blitz to capture Kharkiv and push Russian troops out of thousands of square miles of Ukrainian territory this month has played to Ukraine’s strengths — quick decision-making on the ground and the effective use of artillery and precision munitions guided in part by timely U.S. intelligence — while exposing Russian weaknesses in leadership and logistics that were evident in the Kremlin’s lunge toward Kyiv in February.

While the Ukrainian advances have been stunning, the war doesn’t appear to be close to winding down. Kyiv and the Kremlin have yet to engage in talks to end the conflict, while Ukraine appears intent on pressing its newfound advantages. Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, has shown no sign of backing down from his maximalist position to change the government of Ukraine.

As the artillery and armor-heavy fight continues in the east and south, Russian ballistic missiles continue to target civilian infrastructure in Ukraine, underscoring the need for more modern air defense systems than the handful of Russian-made S-300s Ukraine currently operates.

To get there eventually, U.S. officials continue to discuss whether to send the Patriots to Ukraine as part of a long-term strategy, the people said. Discussions about whether to send the system are in early stages at the Defense Department, and a final decision would be up to President Joe Biden. But the fact that officials are talking about such a move is a major shift from this spring, when U.S. officials rejected the idea.

If the plan moves forward, it’s likely the U.S. would sign a contract with Raytheon to build additional systems for Kyiv, rather than transferring relatively rare — and heavily deployed — Patriot batteries in the U.S. inventory.

The Patriot system would be a significant boost in capability for the Ukrainians.

Patriot is a sophisticated, multi-mission system designed to shoot down fixed-wing aircraft, ballistic or cruise missiles. In addition to the United States, 17 countries operate the system, including Romania and Poland.

It’s a defensive weapon that would cause Russian pilots to “think twice” before attacking Ukrainian forces, said Tom Karako, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“For it to be used in anger, you’ve got to have a Russian missile or a Russian aircraft that has done the escalating, has come into range,” Karako said. “I would say it’s deescalatory.”

Compared to Ukraine’s existing air and missile defense assets, Patriot is a much newer, longer-range system that would provide Kyiv a critical new capability against Russian attacks, Karako said. Slovakia in April sent Ukraine an old Soviet S-300 missile defense system. The NASAMS being sent by the U.S. can shoot down short-to medium-range missiles.

If the U.S. decides to go the acquisition route, the Ukrainians would not expect delivery of the Patriots for years, a timeline similar to weapons the Biden administration announced in August as part of a $3 billion package that directly funds contracts with the U.S. defense industry.

The defense industry funding will go to the production of artillery rounds, mortar rounds, surface-to-air missile systems; a new counter-drone capability; additional drones; and 24 counter-battery radars. None of the equipment will arrive for months; some will take years. But officials say the investment will allow Ukraine to plan for its own future defense.

Asked about sending Patriots and other new weapons to Ukraine, a DoD spokesperson said the department has “no new announcements to make at this time.”

“Generally speaking, we are working around the clock to fulfill Ukraine’s priority security assistance requests, delivering weapons from U.S. stocks when they are available, and facilitating the delivery of weapons by Allies and partners when their systems better suit Ukraine’s needs,” said the spokesperson, Lt. Col. Garron Garn.

Patriot would be “less escalatory” than some other systems that are being considered, a DoD official said, including longer-range rockets such as the Army Tactical Missile System, an offensive weapon that can fly up to 190 miles and reach into Russian territory, and which the White House has said is not being considered.

Talk of supplying the MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone has also been ongoing for months. The drones don’t appear any closer to heading overseas than they were this spring, when discussions first became public, though two advisers to the Ukrainian government told POLITICO that talks continue.

There are several concerns, including the potential loss of technology carried on the drone if Russians were to shoot them down, along with uneasiness within the U.S. Air Force — which is eager to retire its own fleet of Gray Eagles — should the systems prove more survivable on the modern battlefield than expected. The Air Force wants to move the money spent on the aging drones on other modernization priorities.

Whenever more new technologies arrive, it has become clear that Ukraine will increasingly be flooded with NATO-standard equipment as older Russian stockpiles of everything from ammunition to spare parts dries up across Europe, putting Western donors in the position of donating — or selling — increasingly high-end equipment to Kyiv for decades to come.