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Europe Seeks to Solve the ‘Patriot Puzzle’ in Ukraine

Europe Seeks to Solve the ‘Patriot Puzzle’ in Ukraine

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A European plan to give Ukraine another Patriot air defense system to protect its battered cities from Russian airstrikes is coming together, piece by piece.

The radar and three missile launchers are being supplied by the Netherlands. Some interceptor missiles are coming from a four-country coalition led by Germany. A mobile fire control center has been promised, though officials won’t say yet from where or by whom. Additional missiles and launchers, as well as training for Ukrainians to use the sophisticated system, will be provided by as many as eight countries.

“We have all the pieces of the puzzle,” the former Dutch defense minister, Kajsa Ollongren, said in an interview before she left office this week as part of a long-expected transition in the Netherlands’ caretaker government. “We just have to put them together.”

It is the Patriot puzzle, as the assembled air defense system is being called by NATO officials.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has said he desperately needs at least seven Patriot batteries to fend off attacks across the country. President Biden has promised that five Western air defense systems will soon be delivered to Ukraine.

Romania has pledged to give one of its systems, following similar commitments from Germany and Italy. One more is expected from the United States.

The fifth may be delivered via the piecemeal approach. For months, allies have been scouring their arsenals and settling on a creative, if not surefire, way to provide another Patriot system: build a complete one out of spare parts donated from around Europe.

“All of us have limited possibilities,” said Ms. Ollongren, who devised the plan after Mr. Zelensky first asked for seven Patriot systems in April. “But if we join forces, I think we can make it happen.”

A spokesman said the Dutch government will continue the effort under the new defense minister, Ruben Brekelmans, who took office on Tuesday.

All of NATO’s member states are hard-pressed to give up any more of the estimated 90 surface-to-air Patriot batteries that weapons trackers at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London say are scattered across the military alliance — two-thirds of them owned by the United States. For smaller European countries that can ill-afford the $1 billion-plus systems, donating even one from their stocks poses risks to their own national defense.

Yet, presenting Ukraine with additional air defense is likely to be one of the few tangible commitments that the allies will announce next week at a high-level meeting of NATO leaders in Washington — a pledge that may only partially placate Mr. Zelensky.

“They know that urgently we need seven Patriot systems — yes, to save our cities,” Mr. Zelensky said at a news conference with Mr. Biden at the Group of 7 meeting last month in Italy. “And we discussed the possibility of having five of them, it’s true.”

“It doesn’t mean that tomorrow we will have these five systems, but we see, in the closest future, good result for Ukraine,” Mr. Zelensky said in English.

It was Mr. Zelensky’s request for seven systems that had started Ms. Ollongren exploring how to provide another Patriot system, even though the Netherlands’ highest-ranking military officer had advised that the Dutch did not have one to spare.

They did, however, have some spare parts available. As it turned out, so did some other NATO nations. And countries that didn’t have any pieces to give but wanted to contribute something nonetheless said they would help to finance or train as many as 90 or so Ukrainian soldiers needed to operate a single Patriot battery.

“One of the things that we’re exploring right now is the interoperability of the systems,” the Swedish defense minister, Pal Jonson, said at a NATO meeting in Brussels last month. He said Sweden is considering “a whole range of things that we could contribute to this puzzle,” but would not explicitly say what.

Sweden and the Netherlands are among only seven NATO countries in Europe that field Patriot systems; the others are Germany, Greece, Poland, Romania and Spain, according to data provided by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, or IISS.

There is a Spanish battery positioned at a Turkish air base under NATO authority, but three others that alliance members had stationed in Slovakia have all been withdrawn by their owners, Germany, the Netherlands and the U.S., according to the IISS data. “We have no system in Slovakia, and we are on the border with Ukraine,” the Slovak defense minister, Robert Kalinak, said at last month’s NATO meeting. Slovakia is negotiating to buy some systems, he said, but “we need some kind of solidarity for the next two years as we gave away all we had.”

Germany’s defense minister, Boris Pistorius, said that with its latest donation, his government had already given what it can, “but others maybe can do more.” Three of the four Patriots already in Ukraine were given by Germany, which also recently donated two additional midrange IRIS-T air defense systems and is leading a related effort with the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark to deliver 100 Patriot interceptor missiles in the coming months.

The United States owns the vast majority of the Patriot arsenal in NATO — 62 deployable batteries, according to the IISS data — but is fielding some in the Middle East, mainly to protect U.S. bases and interests from Iranian airstrikes, and also in Japan and South Korea in the event of an attack by North Korea or China. The Biden administration is also redirecting orders for Patriot missiles placed by other countries to focus on getting them to Ukraine.

Henry Boyd, an air defense expert at IISS who tracks Patriot systems worldwide, said the Dutch plan to piece one together could be a limited solution for Ukraine, given that the United States “is overstretched” and the Europeans are “basically at minimum levels already.” But he questioned whether Patriot parts coming from different countries — with a range of aging models and software upgrades — could be made to work together.

“There’s quite a question mark in terms of interoperability,” Mr. Boyd said. It is also unclear, he said, “whether any significant additional work would be required to achieve this compatibility.”

Ms. Ollongren agreed that some parts sourced from around Europe might not immediately work together. “But we also know we’re able to solve it,” she said, adding that the Netherlands has set up a team of technical experts to go to each donor country and help ensure all of the pieces fit.

She would not say when the assembled Patriot battery might be delivered to Ukraine, and also raised the possibility that it might instead be sent in parts to replace broken pieces of systems that are already there.

“There are different options,” she said. “We have all the puzzle pieces, but we have to see how we want the puzzle to look.”

It can take up to three years to build and deliver a single Patriot system, and officials in the United States and Europe are trying to speed production with joint contracts and new factories for its manufacturer, Raytheon. Until then, officials said, Ukraine may soon need to be satisfied with other kinds of Western air defense systems, even if they are not as precise or powerful as the Patriot.

Ms. Ollongren said the shortage has also stressed countries in Europe that were initially reluctant to give away any more air defenses. But the dire battleground conditions for Ukraine earlier this spring, as ammunition dwindled and an American military aid package stalled for six months, prompted her to call “for more creativity in what we were doing.”

“There are always challenges,” she said. But after proposing the Patriot puzzle, “everybody was really, first of all, aware that we have to do this for Ukraine,” she said, “and also that everybody can do something.”

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