Patriot to Ukraine: What Does It Mean?

Press reports indicate that the United States is in the final stages of planning to send a Patriot battery to Ukraine. This would constitute both a strong statement of U.S. commitment to defend Ukraine and a modest improvement in Ukrainian air defense capability and capacity. At the same time, the move raises several questions, including the need for extensive training, the prospects for long-term sustainment of the unit, and the short- and long-term effects of the effort on U.S. air defense capacity and readiness. Furthermore, Patriot will not be a game changer, being limited by the area it can cover, the single unit being deployed, and the high cost of its interceptors. 

Q1: What is Patriot?

A1: First deployed in the 1980s, Patriot has become the U.S. Army’s air and missile defense workhorse, a key element of U.S. power projection, and a premier symbol of U.S. commitment to allies and partners. More than a particular missile interceptor, Patriot comprises a family of elements, including command and control units, radars, a family of interceptors, and other support equipment. Today, 18 nations currently operate or plan to soon acquire Patriot. Ukraine would grow that number to 19.

The word Patriot is an acronym for Phased Array Tracking Radar for Intercept on Target, the name given during the 1976 bicentennial to what was formerly known as SAM-D. That program’s genesis dates back to the 1960s, as part of efforts to replace or supplement the HAWK and Nike-Hercules air defense systems.

Older Patriot missiles designed for air defense were rushed into combat in Desert Storm as a strategic asset, although the effectiveness against Iraq’s Scud missiles has been the object of considerable dispute. The follow-on efforts in the 1990s resulted in the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC) to better defeat theater ballistic missiles. PAC-1 and PAC-2 interceptors used a blast fragmentation kill mechanism. The newer PAC-3 missiles employ a hit-to-kill device. 

In contrast with the experience of Desert Storm, Patriot interceptors defeated every ballistic missile they engaged during the 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom. Since 2015, Patriot has successfully engaged scores of missiles and drones in the Yemen Missile War. Israel has likewise used it on a number of occasions to defeat drones, aircraft, and other threats.

The system has had numerous upgrades in recent years, including greater interoperability with the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile defenses. The U.S. Army will soon replace the legacy Patriot radar, which has a field of view limited to about 120 degrees, with the Lower Tier Air and Missile Defense Sensor (LTAMDS), which has 360-degree coverage and multimission applications for countering unmanned aerial systems, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, as well as other advanced threats. At least for the U.S. Army and Poland, the command and control elements of the Patriot system are slated to be replaced by the system-agnostic program known as IBCS, or Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System.

Q2: Why is the United States sending Patriot?

A2: The United States is sending Patriot to Ukraine for three reasons: to help defend against Russian missile attacks, which are pounding Ukrainian cities and disrupting utilities; to strongly convey political support; and because the United States has few other air defenses to send.

Russia has attacked Ukraine with drones and missiles since the beginning of the conflict. Those attacks had tapered off during the summer as Russian missile inventories declined, then increased again in October when Russia received large numbers of the Iranian drones. These recent attacks have targeted the electrical grid and other utilities, so they have had a major effect on the Ukrainian population. This spurred increasingly urgent requests for improved air defense capabilities. Recent news reports suggest that Russia could also be acquiring Iranian ballistic missiles for use in the conflict.

A previous CSIS commentary laid out the problems with providing more air defense assets to Ukraine. The fundamental reason is that the United States and NATO nations have little to send. During the Cold War, the U.S. Army and other NATO militaries built strong ground-based air defenses to counter the large Soviet Air Force and helicopter fleet. With the end of the Cold War, those ground-based air defense units were no longer needed. Prospective adversaries like Iran, Iraq, or North Korea had weak air forces, which could be dealt with by the U.S. Air Force and the air forces of allies and partners. Thus, the United States and NATO deactivated most air defense units. Although the United States is rebuilding its air defense capabilities, the new systems are just now emerging from development and are not ready for deployment.

From its already diminished stocks, the United States has sent 1,600 Stingers, four Avengers (Stinger missiles on a truck), and two NASAMS (with six more under contract). There was little more to send without taking systems from existing units or causing risk to other war plans.

Q3: How will this affect other U.S. operations?

A3: Patriot is a low-density, high-demand asset to the U.S. air defense efforts and has one of the highest operational tempos of the joint force. Every battalion, battery, and firing unit is therefore a valuable commodity. The Ukraine war has further heightened this tempo, with additional U.S. units deployed in eastern Europe. How sending a Patriot battery to Ukraine will affect operations depends on where the equipment comes from. If it is withdrawn from other operational forces, such as U.S. Central Command or U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, that may create opportunity costs and potential risks in those theaters. If they are withdrawn from the U.S. homeland, that could impede training or modernization cycles. Out of the 15 Patriot battalions currently available, one is usually being modernized as part of a relatively slow, 15-or-so-year modernization cycle. The decision to send a battery to Ukraine is therefore as much an expression of political commitment as it is a boost to Ukraine’s air defense capability.

Another air defense asset the United States has not yet transferred to Ukraine is Iron Dome. While Iron Dome is relatively less capable against more advanced missile threats, the United States has two batteries that it acquired from Israel in recent years and that appear to be excess. The U.S. Army does not intend to acquire more of the system or integrate it into the future IBCS architecture. Operating the Iron Dome system has pulled air defenders away from other systems, such as THAAD. Such a transfer would add to Ukrainian capacity to defeat lower-tier aerial threats. Despite the benefits of such a step, Israel has reportedly declined to approve such a third-party transfer.

Q4: When will the Patriot battery arrive?

A4: Reports indicate that the Patriot unit might arrive in February. That is fast. Training courses for Patriot operators and maintainers normally take many months. The PATRIOT system repairer course, for example, takes 53 weeks. Others are not quite so lengthy. The fire control operator course is 20 weeks. The launch system operator course is 13 weeks. Ukraine could save time by sending trained air defenders—for example, troops trained on the S-300 system, which Ukraine has operated for many years. Nevertheless, there is a lot of learning to do before Ukraine will have a functioning Patriot system on the ground. It is possible that the Ukrainians have already begun to train on Patriot in anticipation of a possible future transfer.

Q5: How much do the battery and missiles cost?

A5: Patriot is by far the most expensive single weapon system that the United States has supplied to Ukraine. The total cost is probably around $1.1 billion: $400 million for the system and $690 million for the missiles.

The Patriot production lines are still active, but largely for foreign military sales. The U.S. Army has not added completely new Patriot units for several years, although recent budget documents suggest that plans for a new Patriot battalion in the coming years could be around $1.27 billion. Costs can also be inferred from recent foreign sales. Together these sources suggest that the cost of a single battery without missiles is about $400 million.

Although the U.S. Army is not buying many new launchers, it has been buying missiles. The PAC-3 Missile Segment Enhancement (MSE)―the only version that the United States is currently procuring―costs about $4.1 million apiece. PAC-2s cost about half that. In recent years, the U.S. Army has procured about 180 per year, and in 2023 that increased to 252 missiles for $1.037 billion. The total U.S. inventory of the PAC-3 MSE is about 1,600, with previous PAC-3 and PAC-2 versions also available. The number and type of interceptors that will accompany the battery have not yet been identified. Given the many international operators of Patriot, it is possible that additional interceptors and other related equipment could come from other countries.

Patriot batteries generally deploy with five to eight launchers equipped with a mix of PAC-3 missiles and the older, less expensive PAC-2 missiles. Assuming five launchers with PAC-2s (four per launcher) and three with PAC-3s (16 per launcher), and two reloads for each launcher, the missile costs could be about $700 million.

The high cost per missile and the relatively small number of missiles in a battery means that Patriot operators cannot shoot at every target. High-value Russian aircraft and ballistic missiles would be appropriate targets. Shooting $4 million missiles at $250,000 Russian cruise missiles might be justified if those missiles would hit sensitive targets. Shooting a $4 million missile at a $50,000 Iranian Shahed-136 drone would probably not.

Even with restrictive rules of engagement, Patriot operations must be judicious about what they shoot at. If Russia fires large missile salvos at its defended area, the Patriot battery could quickly run out of interceptors.

Q6: Does Patriot represent an escalation of the war?

A6: Russia has denounced the Patriot transfer as “a provocative move” and threatened “consequences,” but this is not an escalation. Patriot is a defensive system that will mainly engage unmanned systems and perhaps a few aircraft. It represents a non-escalatory approach to the air threat. Furthermore, it does not cross either of the two Russian redlines, introducing NATO soldiers into Ukraine or invasion of the Russian homeland. Patriot will, however, make Russian air operations more difficult.

Q7: Will this be a game changer?

A7: No. Once deployed with a fully trained crew, Patriot will provide a useful capability that will fill some gaps in Ukraine’s air defenses and increase Ukraine’s capability. The reported package of a single battery has a relatively small defended area. It will protect only one piece of the country against certain kinds of threats. It will not put a protective bubble over all or even large parts of Ukraine. Russian officials have already declared that once Patriot is transferred, it will become a prime target.

A large part of the transfer’s value is reassurance of Ukrainian leadership and people. Transferring Patriot shows that the leadership of both countries is doing what they can. The fact that the United States is willing to take the risk of transferring the system expresses a strong political commitment to Ukraine.

Mark F. Cancian is a retired Marine colonel and senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Tom Karako is a senior fellow with the CSIS International Security Program and the director of the CSIS Missile Defense Project.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s). 

© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved. 

Tom Karako
Senior Fellow, International Security Program and Director, Missile Defense Project