Can Patriots help change the course of the Ukraine war? - analysis

Reports this week that the US is considering sending Patriot air defense systems to Ukraine represent a major and important step.

Patriot missile defense system is seen at Sliac Airport, in Sliac, near Zvolen, Slovakia, May 6, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/RADOVAN STOKLASA/FILE PHOTO)
Patriot missile defense system is seen at Sliac Airport, in Sliac, near Zvolen, Slovakia, May 6, 2022.

Reports this week that the US is considering sending Patriot air-defense systems to Ukraine represent a major and important step.

The “Biden administration is finalizing plans to send the Patriot missile defense system to Ukraine that could be announced as soon as this week, according to two US officials and a senior administration official,” CNN reported.

The Patriot system is one of the crowning achievements of US air defense in recent decades. It had a major, albeit overhyped, role during the Gulf War, and it has since come into its own as an important defense system. It has been deployed around the world, including in Israel and the Gulf, and is being used by more than a dozen countries. The operators are a key part of the US partnership and alliance network, including Japan, Saudi Arabia, Sweden and the Netherlands.

It will still take time to get the Patriots to Ukraine if the administration does go through with this plan. The Patriot “would be the most effective long-range defensive weapons system sent to the country, and officials say it will help secure airspace for NATO nations in Eastern Europe,” CNN reported. “It is not clear how many missile launchers will be sent, but a typical Patriot battery includes a radar set that detects and tracks targets, computers, power generating equipment, an engagement control station and up to eight launchers, each holding four ready-to-fire missiles.”

The ramifications of this report are important. By sending an advanced, expensive system like the Patriot to Ukraine, Washington will be sending a message to other allies that they can also risk sending the beleaguered country more expensive systems. Kyiv has already received air defenses from the West, such as the IRIS-T from Germany.

These systems are very important for helping it down the Russian missiles and drones, which are used to attack Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, such as energy sites, in an attempt to plunge Ukraine into the dark in the cold winter, basically waging a total war on Ukraine’s civilians. This is because Russia’s war in Ukraine is not about strategy, such as defeating Ukraine’s army; it is purely for the sake of harming Ukrainians and their economy and trying to depopulate the post-Soviet state.

 A Patriot anti-missile battery is deployed in the northern city of Haifa August 29, 2013. (credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER) A Patriot anti-missile battery is deployed in the northern city of Haifa August 29, 2013. (credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)

While Moscow claimed it was merely concerned about NATO expansion, or that it wanted to protect Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, the reality of Russia’s war is that it is not about NATO or Russian speakers; it’s about harming Ukraine as much as possible and wreaking havoc on its economy.

Ukraine needs air defenses

To defend against the Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure, Ukraine needs a lot of air defenses. This kind of defense is not usually a good bargain for the defender because interceptors are expensive, and the enemy can use cheap Iranian-supplied drones, as Moscow does, to harass its adversary. If a country wants to protect its civilians, the way Israel does with its multilayered air defenses, it becomes costly to stop every rocket threat.

Ukraine wants to stop the drones and it is already achieving impressive results, downing the majority of the drones in many instances. But even a few drones or missiles getting through these defenses can wreak havoc. 

Examining how the US might send Patriots to Ukraine and how the country weighs using them will be important, and it could spur a new phase of the conflict. Russia is already dropping hints about escalation, something Moscow does every time it feels it is losing.

Another side of the Patriot issue is that Kyiv has often asked Jerusalem for air defenses, specifically the Iron Dome system. It’s not clear how effective the shorter-range defense system would be for Ukraine, but it is symbolically important. According to an article at the news site Al-Monitor this week, “Israel did not receive an invitation to the international solidarity conference for Ukraine held by French authorities in Paris on Tuesday.”

“The conference, which follows two other international meetings on Ukraine’s reconstruction last July and October, is designed to raise funding and support to urgently repair Ukraine’s damaged infrastructure,” the report said. “Alongside the European Union member states, the United States and a host of international organizations, the list of participants includes three Middle East countries – namely Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Israel is not participating in the conference for a simple reason: It was not invited.”

Supplying air defenses is complicated

Israel was reluctant to supply advanced air defenses to Ukraine. The US has supported and worked with the Jewish state on the development of its Arrow and David’s Sling systems and supports Iron Dome financially. Israel is now improving Iron Dome by adding lasers to the system, which are supposed to cut down on interception costs.

A country such as Ukraine would certainly like to see a similar curve in terms of its own experience trying to intercept more, while at the same time reducing the cost of the interceptions and making them more efficient.

Israel has other issues on its doorstep, however, that likely make supplying air defenses complicated. Russia is involved in Syria, and Israel is involved in trying to prevent Iranian entrenchment there. Thus, Israel needs air defenses against Hezbollah or Iranian threats, and it doesn’t want to provoke Russian anger.

Although the US sending Patriots would likely once again put the spotlight on Kyiv’s demands for Israeli support, there are other issues at work. Germany and Israel have been in talks about the Arrow air-defense system. Israel is selling its Spyder system to the UAE. So, Jerusalem has a lot on its plate in terms of air-defense issues.

While the Patriots would be an important symbol for Ukraine, they won’t likely win the war. Countries plagued by drone and missile threats, such as Saudi Arabia, have used Patriots against them. The system isn’t always a game changer in a war, but it can help stop some threats – and with radar systems, it can help a country warn its people about them.

Ultimately, the adversary has to be defeated somehow, or a peace agreement must be signed. Air-defense systems don’t win wars, but they can give countries more options and help civilians live a more normal life while wars are being fought.