EXPLANATION: What can the Patriot missile do for Ukraine?
WASHINGTON (AP) – Patriot missile systems have long been a beacon for the United States and its allies, a coveted shield against incoming missiles in disputed regions of the world. In Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific, they protect against possible strikes from Iran, Somalia and North Korea.
So when news broke this week that the U.S. had agreed to send a battery of Patriot missiles to Ukraine, it marked a moment in which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had been working for months to strengthen its air defenses. US officials have confirmed the deal and an official announcement is expected soon. But experts warn that the system’s effectiveness is limited and may not be a game-changer in wartime.
Overview of what the system is and does:
WHAT IS A PATRIOT?
The Patriot is a surface-to-air missile system first deployed in the 1980s that can target aircraft, cruise missiles and shorter-range ballistic missiles.
Each Patriot battery consists of a truck-mounted launch system with eight launchers each capable of holding four missile interceptors, a ground radar, a control station and a generator. The Army said it currently has 16 Patriot battalions. A 2018 report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies found that these battalions operate with 50 batteries that intercept more than 1,200 missiles.
American batteries are regularly deployed around the world. In addition, Patriots are also owned or owned by the Netherlands, Germany, Japan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Taiwan, Greece, Spain, South Korea, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Romania, Sweden, Poland and Bahrain.
The Patriot system is “one of the most widely deployed, reliable and proven air-to-air missile defense systems,” and the theater’s ballistic missile defense capability could help defend Ukraine against Iranian-supplied ballistic missiles, said Tom Karako, director of the Missile Defense Administration. project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Over the years, the Patriot system and missiles have been continuously modified. CSIS said in its July Missile Defense Report that the Patriot system’s current interceptor costs about $4 million per round and the launchers about $10 million each. At this price, it is neither cost-effective nor optimal to use the Patriot to shoot down the much smaller and much cheaper Iranian drones that Russia buys and uses in Ukraine.
“Shooting a million-dollar missile at a $50,000 drone is a losing proposition,” said Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps reservist colonel and senior adviser to CSIS.
The Patriot battery can require up to 90 soldiers to operate and maintain it, and for months the United States has been reluctant to equip the complex system because sending forces to Ukraine to operate it is a setback for the Biden administration.
But there were also fears that deploying the system could provoke Russia, or that a launched missile could land inside Russia, escalating the conflict. Urgent appeals from Ukraine’s leaders and the devastating destruction of the country’s civilian infrastructure, including power and heat losses due to the prolonged winter, finally lifted U.S. reservations about the supply, Patriot officials say.
The main obstacle will be training. US troops will have to train Ukrainian forces in the use and maintenance of the system. Army soldiers assigned to Patriot Battalions receive extensive training to effectively locate, engage with radar, and fire.
The United States has trained Ukrainian troops on other sophisticated weapons systems, including highly mobile artillery missile systems known as HIMARS. In many cases, they were able to shorten training by bringing Ukrainian troops to the front for weeks. Officials declined to provide details on how long the Patriots’ practice will last or exactly where it will be held.
Ukraine faces many Russian threats, and Patriot is good against some and not so useful against others.
A former senior military official familiar with the Patriot system said it would be effective against short-range ballistic missiles and send a message of strong US support, but the battery would not change the course of the war.
The official, who did not want to be named because the contract with Ukraine has not yet been made public, noted that the Patriot battery has a long firing range, but can only cover a large, limited area. For example, Patriots can effectively protect a small military base, but cannot fully protect a large city like Kyiv. They could only cover a part of a city.
Patriots are often deployed as a battalion of four batteries. This will not happen in Ukraine, which said that the officials will buy batteries.
Karako and Cancian said the Patriot has a radar that is better at distinguishing more powerful targets than the Soviet-era S-300 system used by the Ukrainians, but it has limitations.
Still, the Patriot’s ability to target certain ballistic missiles and aircraft could potentially protect Kiev if Russian President Vladimir Putin follows through on his ongoing threat to deploy a tactical nuclear device. But it will depend on how the weapon is delivered, Karako said. If it was a gravity bomb dropped by a fighter jet, the system could target the plane; If it was a cruise or short- to medium-range ballistic missile, it could potentially intercept the missile, Karako said.
Raytheon, which manufactures the Patriot, claims to have been involved in the interception of 150 ballistic missiles since 2015. However, Patriot’s success rate has been repeatedly questioned. A 1992 Government Accountability Office report stated that we could find no evidence to support reports that the system achieved a 70% hit rate against Scud missiles during the Gulf War. In 2018, the success of Saudi Arabia’s use of Patriots against missiles fired by Houthi rebels in Yemen was called into question when videos of the failed systems emerged.
But its deployment beyond Patriot’s capabilities is a great expression of support for Ukraine.
“There’s a lot of symbolism here,” Cancian said.
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in London and Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Poland contributed to this story.
Tara Copp and Lolita Baldor, Associated Press