U.S. Diverting Missiles From Foreign Customers To Ukraine Could Have Repercussions Beyond Air Defense

The Biden administration’s decision to temporarily halt deliveries of Patriot and National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems, or NASAMS interceptors for all countries except Ukraine and Taiwan won’t just affect allied air defense capabilities.

Patriot interceptors can only be used on the Patriot system, at least for now. The primary weapon for NASAMS is the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), which is also the most widely used western beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile, as we explained in our deep dive here. As such, it is a critical component of many Foreign Military Sales (FMS) the U.S. has for combat aircraft and to arm existing fighter fleets, as well as countries with NASAMS.

Dutch F-35 brandishing its AIM-120s during a NATO air policing drill. Photo by Bartek Bera

In response to Russia’s ongoing attacks on cities and civilian infrastructure, the White House opted to put Ukraine at the top of the list for hundreds of missiles for both the Patriot and NASAMS, a National Security Council spokesman told reporters, including from The War Zone, at a Thursday morning press conference. 

“We’re going to reprioritize the deliveries of these exports so that those missiles rolling off the production line will now be provided to Ukraine,” John Kirby said, adding that while the other countries will have to wait, it is only a temporary delay, through Fiscal Year 2025. The missiles will begin arriving in Ukraine in the coming weeks and certainly by the end of the summer, Kirby said. That dovetails with the pending delivery of U.S.-made F-16s that can carry AMRAAMs.

An AIM-120C AMRAAM on the wingtip of an F-16C. USAF An AIM-120C AMRAAM on the wingtip of an F-16C. (USAF)

While the interceptor decision focuses on Ukraine, Kirby said Taiwan will not be affected. Taiwan, which is facing a quickly expanding cross-channel threat from China, is a major user of the AIM-120 and has ordered batches of the missiles. Last year, the State Department approved the possible sale of 200 AIM-120C-8 missiles to that island nation.

“We have, of course, informed all the affected countries that we are taking this extraordinary step, and we’re making every effort to minimize any negative impact,” Kirby explained. “We’re going to make sure that we give Ukraine the critical air defense capabilities they need now and into the future, and we’re going to keep working with our allies and partners to make sure that they, too, get the air defense capabilities” that they need.

While NASAMS can also fire AIM-9X Sidewinders, a U.S. official told us that this plan involves two types of missiles, Patriot PAC-3 interceptors and AMRAAMs

A Medium Extended Air Defense System missile is launched to intercept a target during a MEADS test at White Sands Missile Range Nov. 29. The test exploited the MEADS capability for full-perimeter, 360-degree defense with the PAC-3 MSE Missile performing a unique over-the-shoulder maneuver to defeat the target attacking from behind the MEADS emplacement.
Patriot PAC-3 missile being launched. (US Army) John Hamilton

There are plans underway to produce Patriot interceptors in Germany, but that will only involve an earlier variant, the Guidance Enhanced Missile-Tactical (GEM-T) version of the PAC-2 Patriot missile, which is still capable of defeating some ballistic missiles. You can read more about that plan here. To boost U.S. supplies of Patriot interceptors, the Japanese government in December announced plans to deliver Patriots produced in Japan under an American license. The exact size of of U.S. Patriot stockpiles remains classified.

As for AMRAAMs, there are multiple FMS deals in the works for hundreds of those missiles. Kirby declined to say which nations will be affected by the delay. Some are part of recent deals for U.S. fighters. There are also other FMS deals in the works to provide hundreds of AMRAAMs to arm jets already in service. The AIM-120 is a critical weapon for these aircraft and they are severely degraded in the air-to-air realm without them.

About 500 AMRAAMs are in the pipeline that could potentially be available to Ukraine over the next 16 months.

The State Department said it was up to the Pentagon to discuss delivery timelines. A Pentagon spokesman said that information wasn’t immediately available.

Beyond the issue of how this will affect aircraft deals, the Biden administration’s decision on interceptors also impacts Pacific allies amid increasing Chinese belligerence. While Taiwan is exempted, South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines are among the nations waiting in line for their missiles.

This decision won’t “diminish our deterrence in the Indo-Pacific,” a U.S. official told The War Zone. “Under the President’s leadership, we are working with our Allies and partners across the Indo-Pacific to deter our adversaries and advance a free and open region. We will continue to do so. For example, we are working to finalize the rollout of $2 billion in Indo-Pacific foreign military financing from the bipartisan supplemental, a historic investment in the region – and Taiwan is exempted from this decision and will continue to receive interceptors under the same timeline as before.”

“I would also note that our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific understand just how critical it is to support Ukraine,” the official added. “Many of them have stepped up to provide aid to Ukraine themselves because they understand that if Russia succeeds in Ukraine, that will embolden autocrats and other regimes around the world who want to seize their neighbors’ territory. That would have damaging effects for countries everywhere.”

A battery assigned to 1st Battalion, 1st Air Defense Artillery Regiment, display their patriot radar and antenna mast group during table gunnery training exercise on Kadena Air Base in Japan, Oct. 19, 2017. U.S. Army Photo by Capt. Adan Cazarez

This move also does raise questions about U.S. stockpiles of these weapons after constant consumption in Ukraine and a costly battle against Houthi drones over and around the Red Sea. Diverting customers sales to supply Ukraine does point to limitations in just how many more drawdowns the U.S. can do from its own stockpile. The U.S. is set to buy around 360 AMRAAMs in the same period of time as this diversion is set to last, for now.

For U.S. allies waiting for interceptors, even a 16-month delay is a cause for concern. Moreover, holding back promised weapons can raise issues of trust about whether Washington won’t deliver along promised timelines in the future. This is especially true if the war in Ukraine drags on.

Regardless, it’s a reminder that even though firm orders are in place, the U.S. can manipulate the timing of those orders at will, even when it isn’t in a direct shooting conflict. This could impact the decision-making process for prospective customers in the future. While some allies may be fine with the decision, others may not. Each customer has its own unique security challenges to deal with and not all are highly engaged with supporting Ukraine.

Given world events, the chances that those allies would need these missiles in a fight are not inconceivable, and a delay now only could compound in the future, especially considering the extreme demands for anti-air missiles globally. While Biden administration’s move is good news for Ukraine, it remains to be seen how it works out for those who will be waiting and what type of protest some may make over the decision.

Contact the author: howard@thewarzone.com