Since taking office, the Biden administration has kept up Washington’s shipments of weapons and training to the Ukrainian military, including $275 million worth of equipment and support packages since March.
The suggestion of selling or sending new air defense systems to Kyiv would likely increase tensions with Moscow, which has been fighting a proxy war in eastern Ukraine since 2014 and would regard such a transfer close to its border as a provocation. Russia has long complained about an American ballistic missile defense system in Romania, claiming it could be used for offensive purposes, an accusation the U.S. and NATO have dismissed.
Since being deployed in Israel in 2011, the system, built by the Israeli defense company Rafael in partnership with Raytheon, has proven itself one of the world’s most effective killers of short-range missiles. The Israeli military has said Iron Dome has knocked down about 90 percent of missiles fired into Israel over the past several years.
As it stands, the U.S. doesn’t have much in the way of excess air and missile defense batteries ready to be transferred. But the Army has been trying to figure out how to operate two Iron Dome systems Congress ordered it to purchase in 2019 as a stopgap for delayed efforts by the service to get its own new air and missile defense systems up and running.
The HASC’s version of the fiscal 2022 defense bill that was approved on Sept. 2 by a 57-2 margin doesn’t specify any particular weapons system to hand over to the Ukrainians. But one congressional staffer said the language about transferring current systems is telling, and that the Army’s two Iron Dome batteries are prime candidates because there are few relevant systems the Army possesses that could defeat the threat Ukraine faces from Russia.
The Army has long taken the lead on land-based missile defense, but the past two decades of conflict with groups that lack sophisticated missile or drone capabilities led to some under-investment in short-range air defense weapons. That in turn has made the small number of Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense batteries some of the Army’s most frequently deployed units in recent years in the Middle East.
Yet the government in Kyiv has suggested in recent months that they’re looking for more. Following the May announcement that Ukraine would begin increasing its annual defense budgets, Ukrainian Defense Minister Andriy Taran said he would like to spend some of it on new air defense systems, pointing to Iron Dome as a possibility.
The Ukraine air defense amendment was introduced by Rep. Scott Franklin (R-Fla.) and passed by a bipartisan vote.
The House bill already calls for $275 million in military aid to Ukraine even before any new transfer of a missile defense system, but any transfer wouldn’t add significantly to the total as Iron Dome has already been paid for.
Several Ukrainian and Israeli news reports this spring suggested Kyiv was looking to buy the Iron Dome from Israel, but such a purchase could be complicated. The Israeli government would need Washington’s approval to sell it to a third country given the co-development agreement with U.S.-based Raytheon, and there are sensitivities in Tel Aviv over their relationship with Moscow. The two countries have agreed to not sell weapons to some third parties such as Ukraine and Iran and have forged an uneasy understanding on Syria in recent years.
The amendment that features the Ukraine missile defense language is nestled within HASC ranking member Mike Rogers’ $24 billion funding increase to the Biden defense policy bill. The package also includes a $25 million increase to the $250 million Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, bringing it back up to the 2021 level of $275 million.
In June, the Biden administration had put together a new $100 million military aid package to Ukraine, only to put the plan on hold after Russian troops moved away from the Ukraine border this spring after a series of exercises. The package included short-range air defense systems, small arms and anti-tank weapons, marking a departure from the non-lethal weapons the Biden administration provided this year under two separate packages, one announced in March and a second in June.
It’s not clear what the eventual fate of the Ukraine funding increases will be once the bill heads to the full House and then is taken up by House and Senate conference committees later this year to hash out a final bill.
In July, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved a $25 billion increase to the defense budget by a 25-1 margin, suggesting both houses of Congress agree broadly that the president’s $715 billion Pentagon spending plan didn’t make the grade.
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