On 21 December, the White House announced a new package of nearly $2 billion worth of military aid for Ukraine, which contains a Patriot missile battery that Ukraine desperately needs to protect its airspace from Russian missile attacks.
The Patriot missile battery, a surface-to-air guided missile system, is manufactured by the US defense contractor Raytheon Technologies Corporation. Each Patriot battery consists of a truck-mounted launching system with eight launchers, a ground radar, a control station, and a generator. Each Patriot launcher can hold four missiles.
Even one Patriot battery will boost Ukraine’s air defense and help Ukraine’s Armed Forces to protect critical civilian infrastructure targeted by Russian missiles. Apart from aircraft and cruise missiles, Patriots can shoot down ballistic missiles, which is a capability that Ukraine’s air defense currently lacks.
The US Armed Forces have been using Patriots to protect American airspace since 1981. This highly effective air defense system derives its name from the key radar component known as “Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept on Target,” which is the backronym for PATRIOT.
A Patriot battery requires as many as 90 troops to operate and maintain it. For many months the US government declined Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s requests to provide this complex and costly system to Ukraine.
Currently, Ukrainian troops are not trained to operate the system, and sending American operators to Ukraine has never been an option for US President Joe Biden. However, Russian missile attacks on Ukraine’s energy system, which cut millions of people off from electricity, water supply, and heating during the cold winter, have made the White House change its mind.
The US will train Ukrainian forces how to operate the Patriot missile battery in a third country, according to the White House. Thus, it will take some time for the first Patriot system to be deployed to Ukraine.
A Patriot missile battery will significantly strengthen the Ukrainian air defense system because of its long operation range, Ukraine’s Air Force spox Yuriy Ihnat told Radio Liberty. Patriots will help to keep Russian bombers away from Ukrainian borders, Ihnat added.
A Patriot missile system uses a variety of missile interceptors with different operation ranges. For instance, Patriot’s MSE missile interceptors can hit ballistic missiles within a range of 60 km, while missile interceptors PAC 2 can destroy air targets within a range of 160 km, according to Defense Express.
However, when it comes to cruise missiles that fly at a low altitude, the operation range of a Patriot system does not exceed 47 km. Although one Patriot battery has a relatively long firing range, it can’t fully protect a big city like Kyiv. However, one battery can close the sky over a considerable segment of such a large city as the Ukrainian capital.
The success rate of the Patriot missile system has long been a subject of heated debates.
According to a 1992 Government Accountability Office report, there is no evidence that the system had ever achieved a 70% success rate against Scud missiles (ballistic missiles made in the Soviet Union and used by the Armed Forces of Iraq during the Gulf War in 1991).
Moreover, back in 2018, the success of Saudi Arabia’s Armed Forces in using Patriot air defense systems against missiles fired by Houthi rebels in Yemen was put in doubt when videos leaked showing the Patriot system’s failure to down the missiles.
On the other hand, Patriot is widely considered one of the most reliable air defense systems in the world. Patriots are operated by a great number of countries, such as Germany, Sweden, Poland, Spain, the Netherlands, Greece, Japan, South Korea, Israel, Taiwan, Greece, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Romania, and Bahrain, according to AP.
The answer to the question of whether Patriot systems can help Ukraine close the sky is: it depends.
- It depends on the number of Patriot batteries that Ukraine will eventually get.
- It depends on the number of missile barrages that Russia can launch at a time.
- It depends on the area that Ukraine’s Armed Forces will choose to protect.
One Patriot battery is not able to protect the entire critical civilian infrastructure of Ukraine that has been targeted by Russian missiles on a regular basis since October 2022. However, one Patriot battery will surely boost the capacity of Ukrainian air defense to intercept Russian missiles and protect the sky over the strategic focus area in at least one big Ukrainian city.
The decision of the US government to deploy a Patriot battery to Ukraine has a symbolic meaning. It demonstrates the commitment of the United States to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes in order to help the Ukrainian people win this war of attrition against such a powerful aggressor as Russia.