Netherlands to Bolster Ukraine’s Air Defences with Patriot Missiles: How Much Protection Can They Provide?

The Netherlands is reportedly considering providing one of its MIM-104 Patriot surface to air missile batteries to Ukraine, following a decision by the United States in December to provide the same system by mid 2023. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky claimed on January 18 that the decision to supply the system had already been made, stating: “Very important news came from Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte today. One more Patriot battery will be provided to Ukraine.” The president elaborated regarding the delivery’s implications: “Therefore, we are already having three guaranteed batteries at our disposal. But this is just the beginning. We are working on new solutions to enhance our air defences.” Germany is reportedly also considering providing Patriots to Ukraine, and is already set to deploy its batteries to guard the airspace of neighbouring Poland within days. Ukraine’s air defence network inherited from the Soviet Union was formerly considered the most capable in Europe, and was built around the highly mobile S-300 and BuK systems of which it was the largest operator other than Russia itself. This network was critically depleted by the end of the year, however, albeit primarily through expenditure of missiles rather than destruction due to Russia’s air defence suppression efforts falling short of expectations. 

Despite the urgent necessity of bolstering Ukraine’s air defences, the suitability of the Patriot system for the country’s defence needs has repeatedly been called to question by prominent experts in the United States. The U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS) advisory body, for one, warned that Ukrainian forces would only be ready to operate Patriots by early 2024 at the earliest, and that the “battery and associated interceptors being sent to Ukraine could be taken from existing army units and stockpiles” in the U.S. Military could compromise American defences elsewhere. It added that the “massive price tag” of the Patriot system were also highlighted in the report, stating that “a newly produced Patriot battery costs about $1.1 billion, including about $400 million for the system and about $690 million for the missiles,” with an “estimated to cost about $4 million per missile,” would result in “restrictions… on what types of hostile systems can be engaged by” Ukrainian-operated Patriots.

The small number of Patriots set to be deployed, and the limited capabilities of of complementary shorter ranged systems such as the early Cold War era MIM-23 Hawks being supplied, has also raised questions regarding their survivability particularly as Russian forces have invested in improving air defence suppression capabilities and are likely to prioritise neutralising any Patriots deployed. The destruction of Patriot systems, which have lower mobility than the S-300s and BuKs currently in service, could go a long way towards depleting Ukrainian morale and bolstering that of the Russian Military itself. While the systems are too scarce and too costly to be able to replace even a fraction of the S-300 network, whether they can be delivered before the destruction of Ukraine’s critical infrastructure forces the abandonment of major cities also remains in question. Deliveries nevertheless accompany very large quantities of armaments being supplied by NATO members ranging from main battle tanks to satellite guided artillery rounds, with the sheer weight of the combined new firepower being deployed potentially compensating for the limited effect that Patriot systems alone could have.