The US will send a Patriot surface-to-air missile system to Ukraine to bolster its air defense capabilities, a move that represents one of the most advanced defense systems the Americans have delivered to support Ukraine since Russia invaded last winter.
The announcement was expected on a day when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was in Washington, D.C., on his first trip outside Ukraine since the war began — a trip to plead for additional aid amid a Russian attack on the critical infrastructure of Ukraine that has proven to be disruptive. power and water supply across the country as the long, cold winter season approaches.
“It becomes a real humanitarian problem when you try to rob an entire country of its power grid and water and everything else,” said Jeffrey Edmonds, a 22-year army veteran who now works as a Russia analyst at the Center for a New American Security . “I think they see that as a necessary step to help Ukrainians hold their own in the fight.”
What is a Patriot missile system?
Patriot arrays are used around the world by the US military and about a dozen US allies. It was originally designed as an anti-aircraft system and newer variants are mainly used to attack ballistic missiles.
The US is expected to send a single Patriot battery to Ukraine, according to a US official aware of the transfer who spoke to NPR on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release details ahead of a public announcement.
The system has three primary components: a set of launchers, a control center, and advanced radar.
Depending on what missiles are used and what the target is, a Patriot battery has a range of about 20 to 100 miles – far too small to cover all of Ukraine, which is about 800 miles east to west and more than 500 miles from north to south.
“That might well defend a single city, like Kyiv, against certain threats. But it’s not a bubble over Ukraine,” said Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps colonel and senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In total, the value of the batteries and associated missiles could be about a billion dollars, Cancian estimated.
Ukrainian soldiers will need weeks, if not months, of training
Early in the conflict, US officials had opposed the idea of sending a Patriot system to Ukraine.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle was the issue of manpower. About 90 positions are typically assigned to operate one missile battery. And the training required is substantial; course length ranges from 13 weeks for a launch station operator to 53 weeks for a maintenance role, according to Army recruiting materials.
Ukrainian troops are expected to be trained in Germany by Americans. (Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers already travel to Germany each month for other weapons training. Pentagon officials recently announced they would increase that number early next year.)
Even with a compressed schedule, the training requirements mean the Patriot system probably won’t be operational until late winter or early spring, perhaps February or March.
The drive to get the system up and running as quickly as possible can backfire, Cancian said: Ineffectiveness caused by hasty training can hinder the system’s effectiveness; at worst, the Ukrainians cannot prevent the Russians from destroying it. That, in turn, could damage the political will to send future aid to Ukraine, he said.
“If the Ukrainians had a year or two to assimilate the system, it wouldn’t be a problem. The problem is they don’t have a year or two. They want to do this in a few weeks,” Cancian said.
What role the Patriot system could play in the conflict
During nearly 10 months of conflict, Ukraine has succeeded in deterring Russia from achieving air superiority over its airspace – by denying the Russians important firepower and intelligence capabilities.
Under almost constant barrage from Russia, Ukraine manages to knock out most of the incoming missiles and drones. But supplies are dwindling for the defense systems Ukraine has relied on to date, analysts said.
Soviet-era S-300 missile systems were key for Ukraine, but its missiles are hard to come by. The US has regularly provided air defense assistance, including more than 1,600 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and eight ground-based anti-aircraft missile defense systems called NASAMS. The US has also supplied dozens of mobile missile launchers called HIMARS in addition to a range of other military vehicles and weapons, including Javelin anti-tank missiles, helicopters, howitzers and drones. But those supplies are also running out.
Recent Russian airstrikes and continued attacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure have increased pressure on the US and its allies to do more.
Zelenskyy had repeated those calls in recent weeks prior to Wednesday’s visit to Washington, including in a call to Biden earlier this month. Last week, the Ukrainian leader had urged the G7 for more help; in a statement afterwards, the group announced that it would “immediately focus on providing air defense systems and capabilities to Ukraine”.
Kelly Greico, a defense analyst at the Stimson Center, called the announcement “a sign of strong concern” among U.S. officials about Ukraine’s air defense capabilities.
A response to a new phase in the war
The Patriot system is one of the most expensive one-time aid transfers the US has made to Ukraine this year.
At $4 million each, the PAC-3 missiles accompanying the Patriot are much more expensive than Stingers or the missiles launched by HIMARS. They are so expensive that Ukrainians have to be sensible about how they are used, analysts said. “You can’t just let these things fly,” Cancian said.
Prior to October, Ukrainian air defenses were focused on protecting front-line troops in the east and south, along with key government and military sites in Kiev and a handful of regional hubs.
Now Ukraine is trying to defend an electricity grid that reaches every part of the country. In other words, there are more sites to protect, said Edmonds, the Russian analyst at CNAS.
“If you have an Iranian Shahed unmanned system headed for critical infrastructure in Ukraine, it could be worth the cost of a Patriot missile to take it out,” he said. “Given Russia’s attack on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, this move makes sense to me.”
Stimson Center’s Greico warned of the possibility of Russia playing a game of attrition by using Iran’s cheap drones to burn Ukraine through its expensive missiles before unleashing its air force.
“That’s a terrible choice to face, between the natural urge to protect your citizens from these brutal attacks and trying to make sure you have the long-term military assets to continue to withstand the Russian war effort,” he said. Greico.
As the war approaches the one-year mark, there has also been a steady escalation in the types of weapons supplied to Ukraine. Retired Air Force Lieutenant General Dave Deptula welcomes the addition of the Patriot system, but says more is needed. “Wars are not won with good defense alone,” Deptula said, adding that it is time for the US to supply Ukraine with fighter jets, advanced precision munitions and longer-range surface-to-surface missiles.
“It is critical to get more powerful weapons to Ukraine now to defeat the Russian forces,” Deptula said, “not just to keep them in a stalemate.”
Additional reporting by NPR’s Greg Myre in Kyiv.