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The U.S. will send a Patriot air defense system to Ukraine. How will it help?

A Patriot missile launcher seen in Poland in March.
Evan Vucci
A Patriot missile launcher seen in Poland in March.

Updated December 21, 2022 at 12:46 PM ET

The U.S. will send a Patriot surface-to-air missile system to Ukraine to bolster its air defense capabilities, a move that represents one of the most advanced defense systems that the Americans have so far provided to support Ukraine since Russia invaded last winter.

The transfer is part of a $1.85 billion package of new military assistance to Ukraine announced amid a months-long Russian assault on the country's critical infrastructure as the long, cold winter season sets in.

"Over the past three hundred days, the Kremlin has tried and failed to wipe Ukraine off the map. Now, Russia is trying to weaponize winter by freezing and starving Ukrainian civilians and forcing families from their homes," said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement announcing the aid package.

"In response, President Biden will announce today that the United States is providing critical new and additional military capabilities to help Ukraine defend itself from Russia's ongoing brutal and unprovoked assault," he said.

The announcement was made on a day that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was in Washington, D.C. — his first trip outside of Ukraine since the war began — to plead for additional air defense capabilities as Russian strikes have repeatedly disrupted power and water supply across his country.

"It becomes a real humanitarian issue when you're trying to deprive an entire country of its electrical grid and water and everything else," said Jeffrey Edmonds, a 22-year Army veteran who now works as a Russia analyst at the Center for a New American Security. "I think they see that as a necessary step to help Ukrainians sustain themselves in the fight."

What is a Patriot missile system?

Patriot arrays are used around the world by the U.S. Army and about a dozen U.S. allies. It was originally designed as an anti-aircraft system, and newer variants are used primarily to engage ballistic missiles.

The U.S. will send a single Patriot battery to Ukraine, officials said.

The system has three primary components: a set of launchers, a control center and a sophisticated radar.

Depending on which missiles are used and what is being targeted, a Patriot battery has a strike range of roughly 20 to 100 miles — much too small to cover the entirety of Ukraine, which is about 800 miles from east to west and more than 500 miles from north to south.

"That will do a good job of defending maybe a single city, like Kyiv, against some threats. But it's not putting a bubble over Ukraine," said Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps colonel and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In total, the value of the batteries and accompanying missiles could be about a billion dollars, Cancian estimated.

Ukrainian soldiers will need weeks, if not months, of training

Early in the conflict, U.S. officials had resisted the idea of sending a Patriot system to Ukraine.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle was the question of manpower. About 90 positions are typically assigned to operate one missile battery. And the training needed is substantial; course lengths range from 13 weeks for a launching station operator to 53 weeks for a maintenance role, according to Army recruitment materials.

Ukrainian troops are expected to be trained in Germany by Americans. (Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers already travel to Germany each month for other weapons training. Pentagon officials had recently announced they would increase that number early next year.)

Even on a compressed schedule, the training requirements mean that the Patriot system is unlikely to be operational until late winter or early spring, perhaps in February or March.

The push to get the system up and running as soon as possible could backfire, Cancian said: Ineffective operation caused by hasty training could hamper the system's effectiveness; in a worst case scenario, Ukrainians might be unable to prevent Russians from destroying it. That in turn could damage the political will to send future assistance to Ukraine, he said.

"If the Ukrainians had a year or two to assimilate the system, that wouldn't be any problem. The problem is they don't have a year or two. They want to do this in a couple weeks," Cancian said.

What role the Patriot system could play in the conflict

Over nearly 10 months of conflict, Ukraine has proved successful at keeping Russia from achieving air superiority over its airspace — denying the Russians key firepower and intelligence capabilities.

Under near constant barrage by Russia, Ukraine manages to knock out the bulk of incoming missiles and drones. But stockpiles are dwindling for the defense systems that Ukraine has relied on through this point, analysts said.

Soviet-era S-300 missile systems have been key for Ukraine, but its missiles are difficult to source. The U.S. has regularly delivered air defense assistance, including more than 1,600 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and eight ground-based air missile defense systems called NASAMS. The U.S. has also supplied dozens of mobile rocket launchers called HIMARS, in addition to an array of other military vehicles and arms including Javelin anti-tank missiles, helicopters, howitzers and drones. But those supplies, too, are running low.

The recent Russian airstrike barrages and ongoing assault on Ukraine's critical infrastructure have turned up pressure on the U.S. and its allies to do more.

Zelenskyy had renewed those calls in recent weeks ahead of Wednesday's visit to Washington, including in a phone call to Biden earlier this month. Last week, the Ukrainian leader had pressed the G7 for more assistance; in a statement afterward, the group announced it would set "an immediate focus on providing Ukraine with air defense systems and capabilities."

In addition to the Patriot battery, the new aid package announced Wednesday also includes additional HIMARS ammunition, mortars, artillery rounds and tens of thousands of GRAD rockets and tank ammunition.

Kelly Greico, a defense analyst at the Stimson Center, called the announcement "a sign that there is a real deep concern" among U.S. officials about Ukraine's air defense capability.

A response to a new phase in the war

The Patriot system is one of the most expensive single aid transfers the U.S. has made to Ukraine this year.

At $4 million apiece, the PAC-3 missiles that accompany the Patriot are much more expensive than Stingers or the missiles launched by HIMARS. They are costly enough that Ukrainians must be judicious in how they are used, analysts said. "You can't just let these things fly," said Cancian.

Before October, Ukrainian air defenses had focused on protecting frontline troops in the east and south, along with key government buildings and military sites in Kyiv and a handful of regional hubs.

Now, Ukraine is trying to defend a power grid that reaches every part of the country. In other words, there are more sites to protect, said Edmonds, the Russia analyst at CNAS.

"If you have an Iranian Shahed uncrewed system heading toward critical infrastructure in Ukraine, it may very well be worth the cost of a Patriot missile to take it out," he said. "Given the onslaught that Russia is conducting against Ukrainian critical infrastructure, the move makes sense to me."

Greico of Stimson Center warned of the possibility that Russia is playing a game of attrition — using the cheap Iranian drones to get Ukraine to burn through its expensive missiles before unleashing its air force.

"That's a terrible choice to face, between the natural urge to protect your civilians from these brutal attacks and trying to ensure that you have the long-term military wherewithal to continue to resist the Russian war effort," Greico said.

As the war nears the one-year mark, there has also been a steady escalation in the types of weaponry supplied to Ukraine. Retired Air Force Lt. General Dave Deptula welcomes the addition of the Patriot system, but says that more is required. "Wars aren't won just with good defense," Deptula said, adding that it's time for the US to provide Ukraine with fighter aircraft, advanced precision munitions and longer-range surface to surface missiles.

"It's critical to get more powerful weaponry to Ukraine now to defeat Russia's forces," Deptula said, "Not just keep them in a stalemate."

Additional reporting by NPR's Greg Myre in Kyiv. contributed to this story

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan
Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
Tom Bowman
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.