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Why the US Is Giving Ukraine a Patriot Air-Defense System

Russia has been pounding Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure with missiles and drones, leaving large swaths of the population without power as winter temperatures dropped. Now the US has decided to supply Ukraine with one of its signature forms of air defense, a Patriot missile system. The missiles are unlikely to end the attacks, but both Ukraine and Russia made clear they viewed the decision as important — as a symbol of Western engagement in the conflict, at the least.

1. What is the Patriot missile system?

Along with missiles, a Patriot battery includes radars and control stations to identify, track and target enemy weapons, missile launchers and support vehicles. Lockheed Martin Corp. manufactures the missiles, while Raytheon Technologies Corp. makes the radar and ground-control elements of the system. The name Patriot is an acronym for Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept on Target. 

2. What’s its history?

Planning for what would become the Patriot system began in the early 1960s. Since its initial fielding in the 1980s, the Patriot system has undergone significant upgrades, from more precise radars to more lethal missiles. The system was deployed to Europe and used in the 1990-91 Gulf War in Iraq. Globally, Patriot systems have intercepted more than 150 ballistic missiles in combat since January 2015, according to Raytheon. In addition to the US, 16 countries have purchased or deployed the Patriot, which is used in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s air defenses. The US Army has 15 Patriot battalions, some of which were deployed to Europe in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

3. What is the US giving Ukraine? 

The US is planning to transfer a single Patriot battery. A new battery costs an estimated $1 billion; used systems such as the one expected to be transferred to Ukraine could be valued at significantly less.

4. How much will this help?

That’s not clear. A single battery would provide protection in its vicinity, such as the capital Kyiv, but fall well short of protecting all of Ukraine. Ukraine has been pushing the international community to bolster its air defenses and to provide more potent offensive weapons such as the Army Tactical Missile System, known as ATACMS, which has the range to hit targets inside Russia. The US has rebuffed the ATACMS request, with officials saying they’re not enabling or encouraging Ukraine to strike targets in Russia. A limited supply of Patriot equipment would present Ukraine with tough choices in prioritizing which areas to protect. But given the reputation of Patriot missiles as best in class, some argue that the transfer of even one Patriot battery could have a symbolic effect.

5. What is Russia saying? 

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said that the planned transfer of Patriots constitutes an escalation and would essentially make the US a party to the war. She repeated Moscow’s claim that “Western weapons supplied to Ukraine are legitimate targets for the Russian armed forces and that they will be either destroyed or seized.”

6. Will Ukraine be ready to use it? 

The Defense Department is expected to conduct training for Ukrainian forces outside the country in anticipation of delivery of the systems, according to persons with knowledge of the plans. According to the US Army, roughly 90 soldiers are assigned to each Patriot battery. Training on various elements of the Patriot system can take several months, though experts indicate that the timeline could be compressed for experienced Ukrainian air defenders, who are familiar with non-US systems. 

• An overview of the Patriot system by the Missile Defense Project.

• An analysis by Mark Cancian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies of the impact of the Patriot shipment on the war.

• The US Army Weapons Systems Handbook has a section on the Patriot on page 310.

• A PBS-Frontline documentary on the history of the Patriot missile system, dating back to the Gulf War. The US Army provides a timeline of the early phases of Patriot development and deployment, from 1964 through 1995.

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