January 01, 2023

US Patriot Missile System for Ukraine


DURING the much hyped visit of Ukraine’s President Zelensky to the US, the latter let it be known that, as part of its latest tranche of advanced weapons that Ukraine has been pleading for, the US would be supplying the Patriot anti-missile system to the US. A formal announcement will be made once some necessary procedures are completed. Ukraine has been repeatedly calling upon the west, and the US in particular, to supply air defence systems in view of the barrage of missile and drone strikes inflicted by Russia which, among other targets, has damaged or destroyed a substantial proportion of the energy infrastructure in Ukraine.

The Patriot system is proclaimed by the US and its allies as the currently most advanced missile defence system in the world, and has been sold to almost all US allies in NATO and elsewhere including to cash-rich countries in the middle-east. Ukraine has long been arguing that, apart from all the other assistance it has been receiving from the west, what it requires most apart from financial assistance, in the words of President Zelensky, are “weapons, weapons, weapons,” especially advanced systems that would assist it not only to defend itself against Russia but also to enable victory over it. The west, and the US in particular, have been responding with generous military assistance in the form of artillery, short- and medium-range missiles, and satellite-based intelligence and targeting systems, but has fought shy of supplying fighter aircraft or long-range missiles which, it is reasoned, may escalate the war to undesirable levels, including possible crossing of the nuclear threshold.

The US may see the Patriot system as a defensive weapon and therefore not a major escalation that may cross any Russian red-lines. However, supply of the Patriot system to Ukraine is certainly viewed by many as a significant move in the Ukraine conflict. This article examines the impact of the Patriot systems on the battlefield scenario, as well as the significance of the US decision on the longer-term strategic dimensions of the war in Ukraine.

PATRIOT SYSTEMS                     

The MIM-104 Patriot (Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept on Target) system designed by Raytheon in the US is a ground-to-air defence system against aircraft, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. Patriot started as an anti-aircraft system but was upgraded to counter tactical ballistic missiles and is now the US military’s primary anti-missile system.

It comprises three major elements, an integrated radar tracking and target engagement system, a control system which generates the shoot parameters, and the launcher. It is not clear which particular model of the Patriot system is on offer, but the Patriot PAC-2 (Patriot Advanced Capability) model usually has four missiles in a canister set, while the latest PAC-3 model has four or eight canister-sets with 16 or 32 missiles in all. The latest configuration has capability to track medium to high altitude targets over 360 degrees but also low-flying drones etc, anti-jamming and other features to evade tracking and fires “hit to kill” missiles rather than the earlier versions which explode in close proximity to the target.

Each Patriot battery needs 100 personnel for operations and maintenance. It has a range of 60km, meaning it can protect an area with a 120km diameter.

For Ukraine, the Patriots have three times the range of air defence systems earlier supplied by the US and its European allies. The Patriots also provide defence against ballistic missiles whose terminal speeds can be much faster than most cruise missiles. Yet, the Patriots are not game-changers at all in the Ukraine war, and pose many challenges for the Ukrainian military.


The US and its allies have few spare Patriot systems on hand, and it will take many months to increase the output of US manufacturers if more are to be supplied to Ukraine. The present US aid offer of $1.8 billion is for only 1 Patriot battery costing around $ 1.0-1.3 billion and an unspecified number of missiles costing around $1.2 million each. To expedite delivery, it is likely that a system earlier transferred to Poland will be sent to Ukraine and replaced by a system from Germany.

It will also take an estimated six months’ crash course to train the Ukrainian military in operation and maintenance of the Patriot system, compared to the normal 12 months required for the many inter-related and complex operations. If quicker induction is required, then already trained NATO forces from other countries or US “contractors” would be required, risking crossing Russian red lines and escalated retaliation. 

Further, since Russian missiles and drones have been hitting targets all over Ukraine, the single Patriot system can at best protect, say, Kyiv and its surroundings, or another strategic location such as Odessa.        

There are other problems too. The Patriots are not as invincible as the US would like to make out. Its phased array radar is “visible” to certain types of satellite-borne radars, which Russia for instance uses, and can therefore be targeted with precision weapons. Although such targeting may take a few minutes, it is doubtful if the large and cumbersome Patriots can be moved far enough away in that time to evade being hit.  Russian military and government leaders have been describing the Patriots as an obsolete system.

In the Ukraine battlefield scenario the cost of using the Patriots is yet another problem. Targeting low-flying drones with low radar signatures is difficult enough, but using missiles costing over $1 million to try and shoot down a drone costing $10,000-$20,000 is obviously problematic, especially if it takes two or three missiles to complete the job. While targeting costly fighters offers the best cost-benefit ratio, targeting multiple missiles is also not easy.


With all these problems, the US decision to supply Patriots to Ukraine probably has more political-strategic than military significance.

It signifies to Ukraine, and to Russia, US willingness to raise its involvement in the war and to enhance the technological level of Ukrainian capability, even at the risk of escalation. Ukraine has repeatedly conveyed to the US that it does not agree with the US’ perspective that it would not supply advanced weapons such as fighter aircraft or long-range missiles to Ukraine because such weapons could be used to hit Russian territory and otherwise risk escalation, possibly even to the nuclear level.

Ukraine has already started striking targets deep inside Russia, such as the Ryazan and Saratov military airfields several hundred kilometers inside Russia, the former housing the Engels long-range bomber base as seen in satellite images. The weapons used are not clear. Obviously, any Russian retaliation, as happened with a barrage of missiles targeting Kyiv, will prompt Ukrainian demands for more advanced weapons from the US and the west in general. The US kept egging Ukraine on towards a military confrontation with Russia, and to refuse any negotiations. The Patriot system, whatever its limitations, is one step further up the escalatory ladder, pushed by Ukraine in a classic case of the tail wagging the dog.

Ukraine is pushing for advanced US Abrams tanks, armoured vehicles and other weaponry. Again, whatever their effectiveness in the Ukraine scenario, they will undoubtedly enhance Ukrainian strike capabilities and enhance its bargaining position. The problem, however, is the maximalist position being increasingly taken by President Zelensky, further strengthened by advanced weapons. The recent Ukrainian “peace plan” calls for complete Russian withdrawal from the Donbas and even from Crimea annexed in 2014, war crimes trial of President Putin and other Russian officials, and war reparations. It is highly unlikely that Ukraine will be able to reach such a position of military victory as to be able to enforce such conditions, without incurring huge costs itself, but efforts to achieve such ends, supported militarily and politically by the US and its European allies, will only take the conflict further up the escalatory spiral, even provoking an extreme Russian response.

Rather than significant military escalation, it is time to start negotiations, which is the only way this war can be brought to an end, whoever was responsible for precipitating it in the first place.