After numerous delays the US is now on the verge of providing a Patriot missile system to Ukraine. The US had been reluctant to provide the systems to Ukraine previously because of the potential for escalation with Russia, as well as the cost and operational requirements of the system. In recent weeks Russia has increased its offensive campaign against Ukraine, battering key cities with missiles and destroying critical infrastructure including elements of the power grid, leaving cities including Odessa without power for days at a time, providing increased motivation for the provision of the systems.
Since the 10th of November Russia has launched more than 1000 missile and drone attacks, though Ukrainians claim to have shot down 85% of attacks – a figure confirmed by Western officials. Even with just 15% of strikes making it through existing air defense, the remaining salvo is a major problem for the country. The strikes are still primarily targeting vulnerable civilian infrastructure, meaning that one strike can effectively disable energy supplies to a large region of the county. A well-placed Patriot system has the potential to combat this remaining 15%.
The prime disadvantage of the Patriot missile defense system and a major factor behind the US’s reluctance to supply the system is its high operations cost, which at $4 million per shot is simply not cost effective when utilized against drones or loitering munitions which can cost as little as $50,000 each. In addition, the system has significant manning requirements, needing up to 90 skilled crewmembers for consistent operations. Ukrainian forces will need to be trained to use these systems, and while Ukraine’s allies have been able to shorten training times for other systems this will still delay the time it takes to deploy the system.
When compared to existing systems such as NASAMS, which the US provided in August, Patriots provide significantly increased range – potentially reaching 160km compared to the NASAMs 50km. This range will provide more defensive capability and enable greater airspace control. Additionally, the system has a significantly more powerful radar than the S-300 system currently operated by Ukraine and will thus provide better target identification capabilities. However, Ukraine is likely to only receive only battery, though the systems are typically operated as a battalion of four, limiting the applications of the system
The use of this system will have significant benefits for Ukrainians, providing better defensive capabilities against ballistic missiles and aircraft in particular. Though its use against ballistic missiles and aircraft will be more cost effective, the Ukrainians will have to utilize a variety of other systems already in their possession in order to better protect key resources as well as combat a variety of threats including inexpensive commercial-off-the-shelf drones. The provision of the Patriot system on top of existing systems will provide Ukraine a multi-layered air-defence network to protect infrastructure and other civilian targets.
As air launched cruise missiles have played a significant part in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Patriot system could be utilized to target long range bombers, presenting a new and serious threat to Russian aircraft. According to the Ukrainian Air Force (UAF), Tu-95 and Tu22M3 aircraft have conducted strikes in recent offensives, launching from the Engels airbase in Russia which was the target of Ukrainian drone strikes in recent weeks. According to Ukraine, the missiles used in those recent attacks including the Kh-55 as well as the Kalibr – which have ranges of 2,500km and 1,500Km respectively, meaning they can be launched from deep inside Russia to strike at Ukrainian targets.
The presence of the Patriot system would provide a significant target for Russia, who have already commented that the Patriot would be a ‘legitimate target’ for strikes, and they have indicated that the delivery of the system would be considered an escalation. The system will not be a game changer in the Ukrainian conflict; however, it will maintain the status quo in terms of air dominance and prevent Russia from asserting further control of the airspace – a key aim for Ukrainian forces. Russia has made significant efforts in recent weeks to erode Ukrainian air defenses, and while this system will go some way to mitigating that, Ukraine will also have to make strategically critical decisions about where to deploy the system in order to maximize its effectiveness.