The United States announced this week that it was supplying Ukraine with Patriot missile batteries — but experts say that while it would be a valuable addition to the beleaguered country’s air defenses, it is not a panacea.
The U.S. on Tuesday announced a new aid package to Ukraine that includes “the first transfer to Ukraine of the Patriot air-to-air missile defense system, capable of shooting down cruise missiles, short-range ballistic missiles and aircraft at a higher ceiling than previously provided air defense systems,” a State Department spokesman said. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky traveled to the United States on Wednesday to celebrate the handover with U.S. President Joe Biden.
“It increases the accuracy, it increases the kill rate, so it does exactly what you want it to do, which is ground protection of very specific targets,” said the retired major. General James “Spider” Max previously spoke to CNN about the system’s capabilities.
The Patriot radar system integrates “surveillance, tracking and engagement functions in one unit,” according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) description, which makes it stand out from other air defense systems. The system’s engagement with incoming aerial threats is “almost autonomous,” aside from requiring the operator’s “final launch decision.”
Ukraine has repeatedly requested the U.S. Army’s Patriot — an acronym for Phased Array Tracking Radar Intercept Targets — system because it is considered one of the most powerful long-range air defense systems on the market. Although the U.S. did not meet the demands in the first 10 months of the war, a senior administration official told CNN that the “reality of what was happening” on the ground in Ukraine influenced their decision to do so.
In recent weeks, the Russian military has increasingly attacked Ukraine’s power grid and infrastructure as winter looms and temperatures drop. Zelensky told Biden that “Russian missile terror attacks” had destroyed about half of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.
These attacks will only further intensify Ukraine’s demands on the patriots. In fact, the Army calls the Patriot system the service’s “most advanced air defense system” that can intercept “any aerial threat” in “any weather condition.”
Mark Hertling, retired lieutenant general and former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, told CNN that people may have some unrealistic expectations of what the Patriot battery can do for Ukraine. For example, after the U.S. agrees to supply it, it won’t go into service right away — it will take months to train the military how to use the complex system, Hertling said, adding that it takes about a year to train U.S. troops to work as maintainers or repairers . And it cannot provide comprehensive coverage for an entire country.
“These systems don’t move around on the battlefield,” Hertling said. “You put them somewhere to defend your most strategic target, like a city, like Kyiv. If anyone thinks it’s going to be a system all over the 500-mile border between Ukraine and Russia, they just don’t know How the system works.”
In fact, Tom Karako, director of the CSIS Missile Defense Program, told CNN that the Patriot “isn’t a game changer” because it “still only defends against a relatively small patch of dirt.”
Not to mention the significant logistical requirements; according to the Army, only one battery is operated by about 90 Soldiers, including computers, engagement control systems, phased array radars, power generation equipment and “up to eight launchers.”
The OSS said in a recent report that the Patriot missiles cost about $4 million each. Hertling said such expensive munitions probably wouldn’t be used to shoot down every missile Russia fires at Ukraine.
“This is not a system that can track drones or small ballistic missiles,” he said. “Can it do it? Absolutely. But when you’re talking about shooting down a $20,000 drone with a $3-5 million rocket or a $100,000 ballistic missile Russia bought, that doesn’t give You’re bringing too much ROI. What it can do is free up low-end and mid-range systems to go after those targets.”
The system has been bought by other U.S. allies, including Israel, Germany and Japan, and sent to Poland to help them fend off Russia should it invade Ukraine’s border. When the US military sent the Patriot system to Poland in March, it made it clear that it was purely for the defense of NATO territory and “will not support any offensive operation in any way”.
As far as Ukraine is concerned, Hertling said offensive operations are far more important than the Patriots system. CNN first reported last month that the U.S. was considering a major increase in training for Ukrainian troops by instructing as many as 2,500 troops a month at U.S. bases in Germany. The Pentagon said this month it would begin joint weapons training for battalion-level units in January, which will include infantry drills and live-fire drills.
“Patriot is a defensive, anti-ballistic and air defense weapon system with a focus on defense,” Hertling said. “You don’t win wars defensively. You win wars offensively.”