Why the Biden administration may send Patriot missiles to Ukraine

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Why is the Biden administration changing its mind on giving Patriot missiles to Ukraine?

In Ukraine, the realm of the possible is always expanding.

In the early days of the conflict, despite Ukraine’s pleas for more advanced air defense capabilities, U.S. officials were adamant that Patriot missiles, the U.S. military’s premier air defense system, were not on the table. “There’s no discussion about putting a Patriot battery in Ukraine,” a senior defense official told Defense One in March, citing the number of troops — usually around 90 — required to operate a single Patriot missile battery, and the extensive training they would require. Other objections included cost, the relative scarcity of available Patriots, and the fact that they’re not really designed for combating many of the weapons Russia is firing at Ukraine.

U.S. and NATO officials continued to cite these objections in the months that followed. As recently as the end of November, when asked about the possibility of sending Patriots to Ukraine, Secretary of State Antony Blinken replied, “We’ve helped the Ukrainians adapt by making sure that the weapon systems that we were giving them — and many others are giving them — are actually fit for the threat that they’re facing.” In other words, they still weren’t convinced Ukraine needed the Patriots.

Now, however, it appears the U.S. has decided that Patriots are fit for the threat. As CNN first reported Tuesday, the Biden administration is finalizing plans to send a Patriot battery to Ukraine. This would reportedly be a battery already deployed somewhere overseas. Countries bordering Ukraine, including Poland and Slovakia, have received Patriots since the war began. While Patriots, as a defensive system, are considered less of an escalation risk than other systems Ukraine is asking for like fighter aircraft and battle tanks, the Russian government has nonetheless described them as a provocation that could have unpredictable consequences and has said they will be a legitimate target for Russian strikes.

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President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin have reportedly not signed off on the plan, but some officials say an official announcement could come as soon as this week.

Assuming the reports are true, what may have changed America’s mind on Patriots? And what difference could this system make in the war?

Legacy system

Built by defense contractor Raytheon, the Patriot (a backronym for “Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept of Target”) uses advanced radar to detect incoming threats, mainly very large and significant ones: ballistic missiles, advanced cruise missiles, and aircraft. And it carries its own missiles that are then used to intercept the incoming firepower.

The Patriot was first developed in the late 1970s as an anti-aircraft system and deployed in Europe in the waning days of the Cold War. It first gained public attention during the first Gulf War, when Patriots were adapted to intercept Scud missiles fired by Iraq at Israel and at U.S. military bases. It later saw combat during the United States’ post-2003 Iraq War, and has been used by Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to intercept incoming projectiles, drones, and aircraft. Eighteen countries currently use the system and it is also deployed to protect U.S. military bases across the world.

A typical Patriot battery is a large and complex weapons system, including eight launchers that each hold four missiles. The missiles can fly as high as 79,000 feet and, depending on the type of munition used, they have a range of up to 100 miles, substantially greater than other air defense systems, such as the NASAMS, which the U.S. has provided to Ukraine.

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Given the limited number of Patriots that Ukraine is likely to receive, and the fact that they’re less mobile than newer systems like the NASAMS, it may be that the Ukrainians have some very specific area of defense in mind. Ian Williams, deputy director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Grid, “I would expect them to set these up protecting some important piece of critical infrastructure.” They could do this either by setting up the system next to the target, or along a route where incoming missiles have been traveling in order to block them.

Right weapon, wrong task?

For all its capabilities, the Patriot system has had its critics, almost from the beginning. While the Army initially claimed that Patriots had successfully intercepted 45 or 47 Scud missiles during the Gulf War, it later cut that estimate by about half. A congressional investigation later concluded that there was “little evidence to prove that the Patriot hit more than a few Scud missiles launched by Iraq.”

The range, maneuverability, and lethality of Patriot missiles have gone through several upgrades since then, but they still have their drawbacks. Notably, in 2019, Patriot batteries deployed in Saudi Arabia failed to prevent a drone and cruise missile barrage from hitting Saudi Aramco oil refineries and knocking half the kingdom’s oil output offline.

Even when the Patriots do work, some question whether it’s the best use of resources in a world of low-budget drones, rockets, and cruise missiles. In 2017, U.S. Army General David Perkins told reporters that a U.S. ally — likely Israel — had used a $3 million Patriot missile to shoot down an off-the-shelf drone: “The Patriot won,” Perkins said, but then he added: “That quadcopter that cost 200 bucks from Amazon.com did not stand a chance against the Patriot.”

In Ukraine, the Patriot will be entering an environment where the Russian are firing the kitchen sink at the country’s cities and critical infrastructure: everything from hypersonic missiles to Iranian “kamikaze” drones to retrofitted Soviet missiles from the 1970s to — yes — off-the-shelf quadcopters. The challenge for the Ukrainians will not just involve figuring out how to use the Patriots but what to use them against.

“Patriot interceptors are quite expensive. It’s not really sustainable to be shooting down little Shahed-136 drones with advanced Patriot missiles,” Williams said, referring to one of the most common and deadly Iranian drones being used in the war. He added that the Patriots are likely to be used as part of layered air defense system; in other words, they will likely be deployed against more advanced incoming threats while other systems handle the rest — a complex battle management task.

Finally, Patriot systems are a big ask of the U.S. military, which is already starting to feel the strain of supplying Ukraine with ammunition, spare parts, and equipment for a draining war with no end in sight. Even after several Patriot units were withdrawn from the Middle East last year, these were among the most frequently deployed and in-demand units in the U.S. Army. Austin and Biden’s approval for the plan reportedly rests on the question of what impact sending a Patriot battery to Ukraine would have on U.S. readiness.

Closing the skies, no matter the cost

So why, given the various drawbacks American officials have been pointing to for months, has the calculus around Patriots apparently changed?

One possible clue comes from recent claims by Western governments that Iran is considering sending hundreds of ballistic missiles to Ukraine. Given that Russia’s own stocks of these missiles are thought to be dwindling, this is a potential game-changer for the conflict; and if that volume and caliber of weaponry is coming to the Russian side, then Ukraine’s existing air defense systems would struggle to cope. Providing Patriots now may be a hedge against that possibility.

Ukraine’s performance in the war has also answered some concerns about training and personnel. Early on in the conflict, some U.S. officials suggested that the only way for Patriots to be used in Ukraine would be for American troops to be sent in with them, since it would take too long to train the Ukrainians. Depending on their role, troops in a Patriot battery typically receive between five weeks and five months of training. Ukrainians have proven with other complex systems — the HIMARS rocket launchers are a prime example — that they’re able to quickly put advanced Western weapons systems to use on highly abbreviated training schedules. The Washington Post reports that a training program for the Ukrainian Patriot operators is taking shape now and will likely take place in Germany.


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The Ukrainians have also proven surprisingly adept at integrating a host of weapons systems from different countries — such as Soviet S-300s, German Gephards, Britain’s portable Starstreak, Spain’s Aspide and America’s NASAMS — to work together. Ukrainian officials sometimes jokingly refer to this international mix as a “petting zoo,” but it’s been surprisingly effective as a coherent air defense system. (The French government also announced this week that Ukraine will be receiving the French-Italian “Mamba” air defense system.) On Wednesday alone, Kyiv’s air defense systems successfully intercepted a barrage of 13 incoming drones.

Lately, however, for all the largesse of the West and the ingenuity of the Ukrainians, that system has simply been overwhelmed. The missile and drone barrage Russia has unleashed since October is likely aimed not only at terrorizing civilians and destroying Ukraine’s infrastructure and economy, but at sapping and degrading its air defense capabilities before the next phase of the war.

And this, as much as any technical or military questions, may be what is driving the push to dispatch the Patriot system to Ukraine. U.S. officials may still have doubts about whether Patriots are the right system for this war, and whether the training and logistics will work. But then another Russian strike pulverizes another Ukrainian electrical hub, or railway station, leaving millions without power and no easy way to leave. Given Ukraine’s air defense needs at this stage in the war, it’s getting very hard to say no.

Thanks to Dave Tepps for copy editing this article.

  • Joshua Keating
    Joshua Keating

    Global Security Reporter

    Joshua Keating is a global security reporter for Grid focused on conflict, diplomacy and foreign policy.