During the much-hyped visit of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr 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 it. A formal
announcement will be made once some necessary procedures are
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 West Asia. 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
Patriot Systems: How it Works
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 the 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.
Not a Game Changer
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
It will also take an estimated six months’ crash course to train the
Ukrainian military in operation and maintenance of the Patriot system,
compared with 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
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
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 toward 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, these 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 Vladimir 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.
The writer is with the Delhi Science Forum and All India People’s
Science Network. The views are personal.