United States has already supplied Patriot missiles to Ukraine, while authorities in Kyiv have considered it as one of the most effective military hardware of countering Russian offensives. But in reality, it may not meet Ukraine’s expectations. While Ukrainian air defense operators have been lauded in training, the threat environment that Kyiv faces poses challenges that are daunting for the Patriot system, because Ukraine faces threats that run the span of Russia’s missile and drone arsenal.
According to media reports, Russia’s unmanned aerial systems range from consumer-grade reconnaissance drones to more sophisticated Iranian-made kamikaze drones. Several classes of drones though can be intercepted by Patriot, it may not be viable in terms of tactical and economic issues. Drones can use their maneuverability and terrain-hugging flight patterns to remain undetected by Patriot radars. Moreover, it’s questionable to use US$3 million interceptors to take out drones that cost orders of magnitude less. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s supply of Soviet-era interceptors is slated to run out soon whereas US resupply of Stringer missiles remains strained. Under such circumstances, Patriot may ultimately become the only defense for Ukraine to combat Russian air supremacy. Meanwhile, the United States may not be able to send more Patriot interceptors to Ukraine, although its demand would significantly increase. One of the key reasons behind Washington’s inability of supplying Patriot as per demand of Kyiv is – Patriot missiles are expensive, whereas the US purchased only 252 PAC-3 MSE interceptors during 2023 for its entire army and many of these will be used to phase out more antiquated interceptors.
According to defense experts, Patriot missiles have few limitations. For example, its operating on lonesome is a tenuous proposition at best; while a first-rate system technologically, the Patriot cannot be used to full effect if it is divorced from air defense doctrine. Patriot systems are limited to pinpoint defense of major assets and are designed to operate in tandem with air defenses engaging targets at higher and lower altitudes. Without these additions, Patriot will have too many threats to engage and the result will either be porous coverage that doesn’t protect its defended assets, or coverage that quickly subsides when Patriot runs out of interceptors.
Moreover, Patriot systems are themselves vulnerable. Operating a Patriot radar system gives away its location, making it an open target for Russian attacks. This means that Patriot is not a one-stop-shop for defending Ukraine’s military assets or its people and Patriot coverage, or lack thereof, will not bring the war in Ukraine to an end.
The air war in general is a means of shaping operations for maneuver forces, and on this front Ukrainian and Russian forces remain stalemated. Insulating Ukraine against air attack also discourages negotiation by providing a false impression that the air threat can be mitigated indefinitely. The longer the negotiation process is delayed, the more Ukrainians are killed and the more damage is done to Ukraine’s infrastructure in the long term.
Given these tactical and operational flaws, there is dubious strategic value for the United States in sending further systems to Ukraine. Patriot systems are not going to bring the war in Ukraine to an end or enable Kyiv to negotiate for or reclaim Crimea or the Donbas. What they do signal is a false American commitment that may prolong Ukraine’s carnage.
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