Ukrainian troops are set to begin training on the Patriot missile system in the United States as soon as next week, the Pentagon announced on Tuesday.
The training program will take place at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, where the US conducts its own training on operating and maintaining the advanced air defense system. Fort Sill is one of the Army’s four basic training locations and home to the service’s field artillery school, which has been training service members for more than a century.
CNN first reported the news earlier on Tuesday, with two US officials familiar with the matter saying the decision had been made to begin training in the US.
During the war the US has trained Ukrainian troops in Europe, but the decision to conduct patriot training on American soil could increase tensions with Moscow further as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has constantly warned western nations against further involvement in the war.
The training process and eventual deployment of the defensive weapons system, which had long been requested by Kyiv, will take months and won’t impact the course of the war in the short-term though once it’s completed it should provide better protection against Russian missile attacks that have devastated the country’s infrastructure.
On Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters that 90 to 100 Ukrainian soldiers would be arriving in Oklahoma for the Patriot training as soon as next week. He was unable to give an exact time frame for how long the training would take – typically it takes up to a year for US soldiers to be trained on it – saying only that it would last “several months.”
“Once fielded, the Patriot… will contribute to Ukraine’s air defense capabilities, and provide another capability to the Ukrainian people to defend themselves against Russia’s ongoing aerial assaults,” Ryder said at Tuesday’s press briefing.
Last week, he said the US was looking at a variety of options where to conduct the Patriot missile training “to include potential training here in the US, overseas, or a combination of both.” Politico reported in December that any US-based training would likely occur at Fort Sill.
Russia’s ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, said in a statement Tuesday that the decision to train Ukrainian servicemen on the system in the US is a confirmation of Washington’s “de facto involvement in the Ukrainian conflict.”
US initially refused to send patriots
The US announced it was sending Ukraine the Patriot missile system in late December when the country’s President Volodomyr Zelensky visited Washington, DC, and met with President Joe Biden.
CNN first reported that the advanced air defense system would be provided after months of denying the request due to the steep logistical and training challenges deploying it. However, a senior administration official told CNN last month that the “reality of what is going on” in Ukraine ultimately pushed them to provide the system.
The US is providing one Patriot battery, which includes power generating equipment, computers, an engagement control system and up to eight launchers. The battery is operated by roughly 90 soldiers and takes months to train up on.
Though the Patriot is broadly seen as one of the most advanced and effective air defense systems, experts cautioned that it is “not a game-changer” because of its limited range and the amount of time it will take for Ukrainians to be able to utilize it.
“These systems don’t pick up and move around the battlefield,” retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, former commander of US Army Europe, previously told CNN. “You put them in place somewhere that defends your most strategic target, like a city, like Kyiv. If anyone thinks this is going to be a system that is spread across a 500-mile border between Ukraine and Russia, they just don’t know how the system operates.”
Nevertheless, in the wake of the news that Ukraine would soon be operating its own system, Russian officials warned of “unpredictable consequences” in yet another threat of escalation.
“Earlier, many experts, including those overseas, questioned the rationality of such a step which would lead to an escalation of the conflict and increase the risk of directly dragging the US Army into combat,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said in December.
The US is not alone in providing the advanced system to the Ukrainians; Germany recently announced that it was sending Ukraine a second Patriot missile system from its own inventory. On Tuesday, Ryder did not have any details about how Germany intended to handle training on the Patriot system it committed to sending Ukraine and whether Berlin would wait for training to complete on the US system before sending its own.
He also confirmed that the previously announced combined arms training program for Ukrainian battalions in Europe will also begin as early as next week and “will not require a significant or any increase in terms of US trainers” deploying to Europe.
Last week, the US announced its largest aid package to Ukraine since the war began – $2.85 billion worth of US equipment, including 50 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, 500 TOW anti-tank missiles and tens of thousands of rounds of 25mm ammunition.
The new equipment heading to Ukraine is a “substantive” change in what the US had previously provided, two senior US officials told CNN, mirroring the evolving changes of Ukraine’s military as the war nears its one-year mark.
Ryder told reporters on Friday that the “international response” in providing equipment and training will “afford Ukraine an opportunity to change the equation on the battlefield and gain momentum, and defend not only their own territory, but hopefully take back territory.”
This story has been updated with additional details.