The Patriot missile battery that the Biden administration is sending to Kyiv is as much a symbol of Washington’s commitment to defend Ukraine against an onslaught of Russian missile and drone attacks as it is an actual boost to the country’s air defense capability, analysts said.
The Patriot is a major part of a $1.8 billion aid package announced Wednesday as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy received a hero’s welcome in a White House meeting with President Biden and top aides and in a later address to a joint session of Congress. It is the U.S. Army’s most advanced air defense system, capable of knocking out both high-performance aircraft and tactical ballistic missiles.
It is also something the Kyiv government has long coveted as a shield against enemy missiles and a sign of enduring commitment from the U.S. government, which has supplied by far the bulk of the military aid to Kyiv since the war began Feb. 24. And the transfer has already sparked fury in Russia, where Kremlin officials have denounced the steadily expanding pipeline of weapons flowing from the U.S. and NATO allies to Ukraine.
Russia has already vowed that any Patriot missile in Ukraine will become a prime target of its own artillery.
“It will give Ukraine a critical long-range capability to defend its airspace. It is capable of intercepting cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and aircraft,” a senior defense official told Pentagon reporters on Wednesday. “Patriot is one of our most sophisticated capabilities and certainly within a class of its own.”
Analysts say the Patriot is highly sought after by other countries, but a single battery by itself will offer only a modest improvement to Ukraine’s capacity to ward off Russian air threats. As it has failed to make any substantial gains on the ground, the Kremlin has resorted to targeting Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, especially the country’s power grid.
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“The battery won’t be over there for a while [and] it will require some fairly extensive training,” said Wes Rumbaugh, an associate fellow with the missile defense project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In a recent CSIS analysis, retired Marine Col. Mark F. Cancian and missile defense specialist Tom Karako acknowledged that sending a single Patriot battery to Ukraine will not be a “game-changer” militarily.
The Patriot will “fill some gaps in Ukraine’s air defenses and increase Ukraine’s capability,” they wrote. “It will protect only one piece of the country against certain kinds of threats. It will not put a protective bubble over all or even large parts of Ukraine.”
But its role as a symbol of reassurance to Ukraine‘s embattled population looms much larger: “Transferring Patriot shows that the leadership of both countries is doing what they can. The fact that the United States is willing to take the risk of transferring the system expresses a strong political commitment to Ukraine.”
And despite Russian bluster, the analysts noted, the transfer of the purely defensive missile defense system does not cross two explicit Russian red lines: “introducing NATO soldiers into Ukraine or [aiding an] invasion of the Russian homeland.”
The Pentagon said the air defense system bound for Ukraine will come from U.S. Army stockpiles. A Patriot battery — the basic firing unit — consists of a phased array radar, an engagement control station, computers, power-generating equipment, and up to eight launchers, each of which holds four ready-to-fire missiles. About 90 soldiers are typically assigned to a battery.
The Ukrainian soldiers to be trained on the Patriot most likely will have experience with Soviet-era air defense systems. But it will most likely take “several months” before the country’s new missile battery is ready for combat, Defense Department officials said.
“We’re still working through some of the details on the specifics of the training. It will begin very soon,” the senior Defense Department official said.
Baptism in Iraq
Patriot is an acronym for “Phased Array Tracking Radar for Intercept on Target.” The missile system got its baptism of fire during the Persian Gulf War in 1991 when it was used to bring down incoming Iraqi Scud missiles. While its track record in that conflict was mixed, it has been regularly upgraded over the years. With the inclusion of Ukraine, at least 19 nations now operate Patriot batteries or plan to acquire one.
A single interceptor missile costs about $3 million to $4 million, while each launcher costs about $10 million, officials said.
The Kremlin has relentlessly pounded power plants and other civilian infrastructure with missiles and drones, leaving millions of people without electricity or heat, following Moscow’s humiliating retreat from Kherson in southern Ukraine. Although Ukraine says it has had success with its existing missile defense systems in warding off most of the attacks, the increased tempo of Russian aggression and the use of cheap but effective Iranian drones have spurred urgent requests from Kyiv for improved air defense capabilities.
“It is important to put the Patriot battery into context. For air defense, there is no silver bullet,” the senior defense official said. “Our goal is to help Ukraine strengthen a layered, integrated approach to air defense.”
That will include Ukraine’s own existing capabilities, as well as the NATO standard systems, officials said.
The Patriot system “will complement a range of medium and short-range air defense capabilities that we’ve provided and that allies have provided in prior donations packages,” the Defense Department official said.
The U.S. has provided the vast majority of the military firepower to Ukraine, including the M142 HIMARS light multiple rocket launcher, M777 howitzers and the FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile. Although the transfers have enjoyed bipartisan support, Mr. Biden is expected to face tougher scrutiny in the new Republican-run House in January, while some private analysts say the U.S. risks getting drawn deeper into the 10-month war.
“The U.S. has provided over six times more support than the next closest European state — the UK,” Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, a retired Army officer, and fellow with the dovish Defense Priorities think tank, said in a statement. “Instead of expanding that gap to over 10 times more than any other European country’s contribution, Washington could insist that Europe step up to its responsibilities.”
Russian missile and drone attacks against Ukraine tapered off during the summer as Russian military inventories declined. But, the tempo increased in October when Russia received large numbers of Iranian-made drones. Officials said the most recent attacks spurred urgent requests to the U.S. and other Western countries for improved air defense capabilities.
“Recent news reports that Russia could also be acquiring Iranian ballistic missiles for use in the conflict,” CSIS said in a recent report on the Patriot system.
With many expecting the fighting in southern and eastern Ukraine to die down a bit with the coming of winter, some analysts said the Patriot missile battery could be ready by February, although Pentagon officials have not confirmed that estimate. The total cost of the battery is probably about $1.1 billion: about $400 million for the system itself and $690 million for the missiles.
Because of the high costs of a Patriot missile, it likely will be used to protect the most valuable and high-profile targets in Ukraine. Firing one at a $4 million Russian cruise missile if it were heading toward a sensitive target might be appropriate, but launching a Patriot at a $50,000 Iranian Shahed-136 drone might be a harder sell, analysts said.
“It will force Ukraine to be selective about what it protects. It could certainly protect critical assets like power stations,” Mr. Rumbaugh with CSIS said. “That’s something that Ukraine has demonstrated a strong capability for. They’ve been doing more with less throughout the entirety of this conflict.”