The United States is supplying Ukraine with a modern air defense system. It’s just a Patriot battery at first – but it’s an important signal. Even Chancellor Scholz will no longer be able to duck away.
The Patriot system is the workhorse of US air defense – roughly equivalent in performance to the Russian S-300. The Patriot batteries were also supplied to select allies and have been in service for a long time. This also means that there have been several waves of improvements and modernizations and – again, as with the S-300 – not every Patriot is created equal. After much hesitation, the USA has now decided to deliver a system. That doesn’t sound like much, but it is of great importance.
Consists of several components
Like all long-range air defense systems, a Patriot battery consists of multiple vehicles and modules that only work together. It is not a stand-alone system like the German Gepard anti-aircraft vehicle or the Russian Pantsir S-1, where a single vehicle can fight all by itself (“US captures Putin’s Pantsir S-1 air defense system in Libya”)
The sounding name Patriot is an abbreviation for “Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept On Target”. The system consists of a whole handful of components. The martial rocket launchers usually appear on photos and videos, but they are only the “executive” organ. The whole system consists of a radar, an antenna system, a fire control center, the starters and another module and a command post for exchange with other units. All of these subsystems work together, the failure of one module leads to the failure of the entire system.
The radar is central to performance. With its phased array antenna, it can acquire up to 125 flight targets and guide up to nine missiles to six targets simultaneously. The range of the radar is up to 180 kilometers, it does not work at close range. Each launcher carries four interceptor missiles. Depending on the generation, they differ in their performance. The latest models can destroy a target at a distance of about 70 kilometers, attack air targets at an altitude of 25 kilometers and intercept a ballistic missile at an altitude of up to 34 kilometers.
Little protection for a big country like Ukraine
This is impressive data, but it is clearly put into perspective when used in Ukraine. Ukraine is a large, flat country, with targets for Russian long-range weapons scattered throughout. This already applies to purely military objects, but even more so to the power supply. The impressive range of a Patriot system marks only a small blob on the map. At the same time, the valuable facility must be protected in the vicinity by other anti-aircraft units such as the cheetah. Otherwise, with a bit of bad luck, a low-lying cheap drone could knock out the Patriot.
Swarm attacks can also paralyze the Patriot. For all the performance of the radar, it is only of limited help against low-flying drones. Even a phased array radar cannot see through the earth. The curvature of the earth and the ups and downs of the landscape create a radar shadow that an attacker can exploit. In the Ukraine war, however, it is likely that US surveillance aircraft will provide Kiev’s troops with data.
Replacement of the Soviet systems
A single Patriot system would also be effective as an air defense supplement, or one with three Iris-T batteries if added as additional building blocks. But Kyiv’s problem is broader: in bulk, Ukraine’s air defense is based on Soviet-era Buks and S-300s, and these units are running out of ammunition. Nor should it be possible to procure further missiles from former Warsaw Pact states. If Kiev’s supplies are exhausted, the bulk of the air defense would have to be replaced in one fell swoop, and one or two defense batteries from the West would not suffice for that (“Supplies of anti-aircraft missiles are rapidly depleting – only the Patriots can help”)
But delivering a system is a start. The US has so far used salami tactics on all aid deliveries. They are gradually increasing the scope and type of arms aid, but always avoiding a spectacular surcharge that could provoke further escalation in Moscow. From this point of view, one can say that the USA “first” only delivers a patriot system. This system is also used by allies like Germany. With the “go” from Washington, it is likely that other countries will be able to count on the US agreeing to pass on their Patriots. The ball is now also in the Chancellery.
Berlin is in demand
In addition to their technical capability, the special importance of the Patriots lies in the fact that they are the “workhorse” of the US air defense system. The system is widespread and there are larger stockpiles of ammunition. Here, the West can, if it so chooses, continue to deliver defensive missiles. And on this point, the Patriot is better off than any other Western air defense system. Even the Patriot cannot really solve a core challenge of the Russian air offensive: Moscow is forcing Kyiv to use very expensive and complex defensive weapons in order to shoot down simple cheap weapons. So far, these have mainly been drones of Iranian design. It is conceivable and probable that simple ballistic missiles will also be added.
Conclusion: the delivery is a big step for Kyiv, here a window opens to thwart Russian strategy. So far, Russia has been building on using whole waves of drones to exhaust Kiev’s stocks of anti-missile missiles. Once they are used up, the Russian long-range weapons would have a free rein. With the Patriot, there is now a good chance that Kyiv will be supplied from the West to such an extent that Putin’s calculations will not work out.