Will America Send Patriot Air Defence Systems to Ukraine? Deliveries May Bring Major Risks For Modest Gain

The United States is reportedly considering transferring Patriot missile systems to the Ukrainian Military, which would mark an unprecedented provision of long range air defence assets to the war torn country as its ability to sustain a war effort against Russian is increasingly brought to question. Indications of such a delivery have been given by both U.S. officials and by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Broadly analogous to the Russian S-300 system, the Patriot has a 200km engagement range and is capable of engaging aircraft and both ballistic and cruise missiles, with its capabilities being entirely unique among Western ground based systems. Should plans for delivery be confirmed, it would come as Ukrainian cities see their critical infrastructure devastated by precise Russian drone and missile strikes, which has resulted in a very real prospect of Kiev and other major population centres needing to be abandoned entirely creating a tremendous refugee burden for the country’s European supporters. Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council and former president Dmitry Medvedev stated on November 30 that “If, as Stoltenberg has hinted, NATO supplies Patriot systems with NATO personnel to Kiev fanatics, they will immediately become a legitimate target for our armed forces.” 

Russia’s air defence suppression capabilities have been shown to be largely lacking since the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian War in February, with no comparable assets to the U.S. Navy EA-18G Growler or Chinese J-16D aircraft which were designed specifically for such a role. The viability of Patriot deployments nevertheless remains questionable for a number of reasons. Ukraine deployed the largest arsenal of high altitude air defence systems in Europe before the outbreak of the war, having inherited massive stockpiles of S-300 systems from the Soviet Union, with these having been steadily worn out by Russian air strikes despite new S-300s being delivered from across much of Eastern Europe. Although these are older S-300 variants, the Patriot is not expected to fare significantly better with its performance record having left much to be desired both against Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, and more recently over Saudi Arabia against Yemeni insurgents. The missiles the Patriots failed against in both cases were decades behind those fielded by the Russian Military today.

Against Russian cruise and ballistic missile strikes which use advanced decoys the Patriot is not expected to make a significant difference to Ukraine’s defences, particularly due to the high cost and small production run of the system meaning large scale supplies to Ukraine to replace even a fraction of lost S-300s remains far from viable. The possibility of heavy losses among Patriot batteries provides a strong incentive for the U.S. to refrain from deliveries, since this would do much to shake allies trust in American missile defences and potentially seriously curb foreign interest in further acquisitions. The risks inherent to providing Russia with an opportunity to test its assets against NATO’s prime dual use anti aircraft and anti missile system has further strengthened arguments against providing the Patriot. Other than provision of further short ranged systems, however, such as the Cold War era MIM-23 Hawk already allocated for delivery, options to shield Ukrainian targets from further Russian precision strikes remain very limited.