Ukraine has been pushing for a US Patriot air defence system “at every international meeting, at every contact with the United States”, its foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said earlier this month.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will finally get what Kyiv wants when he visits Washington on Wednesday, for his first foreign visit since Russia’s February 24 invasion.
The Patriot system, the centrepiece of a new $2bn weapons package to be announced by the Biden administration, will be one of the most advanced pieces of western weaponry so far obtained by Kyiv. It will be a powerful addition to Ukraine’s air defences but, analysts say, will not offer immediate respite from the repeated Russian mass missile and drone attacks that are smashing the country’s power infrastructure.
The ability to protect critical infrastructure and the capital from ballistic missiles was “new for Ukraine and crucially important”, said Oleksiy Melnyk, a former Ukraine air force lieutenant colonel and now co-director of the Razumkov Centre think-tank in Kyiv.
“But it’s still defensive. It doesn’t provide new offensive capabilities to attack targets deep inside Russia or Crimea. In that sense it is not a game-changer.”
The Patriot system’s interceptors have a longer range — up to 75km, giving a 150km radius, depending on the munitions used — and are more accurate than the Soviet-designed S300s and Buks that make up the backbone of Ukraine’s air defences. Crucially, they can shoot down fast-moving ballistic missiles that Russia is likely to use in greater numbers as it depletes its stocks of subsonic cruise missiles.
“How do you shoot down a ballistic missile if they are launched with a fairly large radius of action, and if it is launched into the stratosphere, in fact, into space, and then it flies down at a huge speed along its radius?” said Colonel Yuriy Ignat, a spokesman for Ukraine’s air force in an interview with the Financial Times earlier this month. “The Patriot can.”
Moscow is attempting to procure hundreds of ballistic missiles from Iran in return for military support for Tehran, say US and UK officials. Ukraine’s military says it has nothing in its arsenal to intercept them. US-supplied Patriot systems in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have proved effective at shooting down Iranian-designed ballistic missiles fired by Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The Patriots would also provide an extra layer of defence should Russia try to run high-altitude bombing missions over Ukrainian territory. Ukraine’s S300 rockets have been enough to deny access to Russian bombers. But Kyiv is burning through its stocks of S300 interceptors and needs to shift to western equipment with greater possibilities for resupply.
Patriots will add another layer to Ukraine’s already complex, multi-layered air defences. On top of S300s and Buks, Ukraine has acquired two NASAM systems — with Norwegian launchers and US munitions — and a state of the art Iris-T air defence unit from Germany, with three more expected next year. These are highly accurate but have a range of only 40km.
Ukraine has also been supplied with older air defence systems, such as Hawks from Spain and Crotales (Rattlesnakes) from France. In addition, it has been given thousands of shorter-range shoulder-launched missiles, such as Stingers and Starstreaks, and 30 Gepard anti-aircraft cannon from Germany.
“We need all systems in place,” said Ignat, pointing to Ukraine’s 2,500km external border. “There are not as many systems in the world as we need.”
US Patriots may do little to help Ukraine in the short-term withstand Russia’s repeated missile and drone bombardments. Some US officials said it would be unlikely they would arrive on the battlefield until the spring. It could take several weeks to train Ukrainian personnel to operate the system, expected to take place in Germany.
“We will train Ukrainian forces on how to operate the Patriot missile battery in a third country. This will take some time, but Ukrainian troops will take that training back to their country to operate this battery,” said a senior US administration official, describing the system as a “critical asset”.
But the US is sending a single battery with up to eight launchers, and as such will only be able to help protect one area of Ukraine. It also seems unlikely Ukraine would use sophisticated and expensive Patriot interceptors to shoot down the kamikaze drones Russia is firing in waves at Ukraine’s electricity infrastructure. A single Patriot interceptor is reported to cost $3mn dollars — 100 times the estimated cost of an Iranian-supplied Shahed-136 loitering munition.
“The high cost per missile and the relatively small number of missiles in a battery means that Patriot operators cannot shoot at every target,” Mark Cancian and Tom Karako noted in a commentary for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank in Washington.
Russia has fired hundreds of Shaheds at Ukraine, largely with the intention of crippling critical infrastructure and plunging the country into darkness. In the early hours of Monday alone it launched 23 of them at Kyiv. While 18 of them were shot down, five hit targets, further degrading the power network that is becoming harder to repair.
Ukrainian officials have been frustrated by US reluctance to provide Kyiv with long-range munitions, armed drones, tanks and fighter jets that they say are needed both to fend off a possible renewed Russian offensive later this winter and to support Ukraine’s ambitions to liberate its territory.
Zelenskyy is expected to press the case for modern offensive weaponry in his meeting with President Joe Biden on Wednesday.
Melnyk said the US decision to provide Patriots was encouraging because it showed Washington would eventually respond positively once Ukraine showed itself a “reliable customer” for each new piece of kit.
But foreign minister Kuleba said that while he wished for the dialogue with Washington over weapons to move with the “speed of an airplane”, instead it advanced “with the speed of a tank”.
Additional reporting by Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv and Felicia Schwartz in Washington