The United States intends to supply Ukraine with its Patriot anti-missile defence system. CNN’s Barbara Starr reported in “Exclusive: US finalising plans to send Patriot missile defence system to Ukraine,” citing two US officials and a senior representative of the US government, that the administration of US President Joe Biden is finalising plans to supply Ukraine with US Patriot anti-aircraft missile systems, which could be announced as soon as this week.
The report has not indicated the model of the Patriot missile system Washington may send. Few assume that it would involve the deployment of a single Patriot battery mounted on a truck equipped with four launchers that can carry up to eight PAC-3 interceptors.
The Patriot missile system is an intricate piece of hardware. In addition to its launchers, the system included AN/MPQ-65 phased array radar designed to search for targets, an “Operations Center/Engagement Control,” optional 31-meter-tall antenna masts, and an optional Mobile EPP-III Electric Power Plant with two 150-kilowatt diesel engines.
The Patriot is road-mobile and can be deployed and ready to fire in approximately thirty minutes.
The United States Army considers the Patriot to be its “premier” guided air and missile defence system. The weapon, which entered service in the 1980s and has since been delivered to more than a dozen US allies, is designed to engage a wide variety of aerial targets, including drones, ballistic and cruise missiles, planes, and helicopters. The operational range of its missiles ranges from 90 kilometres for the PAC-1 to 160 kilometres for the PAC-2 to between 60 and 30 kilometres for the PAC-3 and PAC-3MSE, respectively. The interceptors have a maximum height of nearly 24 kilometres and travel between Mach 2.8 and Mach 4 — sufficient to intercept most of the incoming projectile – in theory.
Despite its extensive deployment, the US Army alone has roughly 1,100 launchers and a hefty price tag, $1-6 million per missile and $1 billion for a PAC-2 battery comprising of eight launchers, the Patriot’s operational history has not exactly demonstrated that it was a wise investment.
Barely facing antiquated Scuds in Iraq
In February 1991, during the Gulf War, a Patriot missile failed to detect and intercept an Iraqi Scud missile aimed at an American installation in Saudi Arabia, resulting in the deaths of 28 Pennsylvania National Guardsmen and the injury of 100 more. Raytheon and the United States Department of Defense attributed the failure to a software glitch and classed the system as a “wonder” weapon that had shown its efficacy.
Throughout the duration of the Gulf War, the Patriot successfully intercepted and destroyed Iraqi Scuds, as reported by the military and the media. The Army initially stated that the Patriot achieved a success rate of 80% in Saudi Arabia and 50% in Israel. These claims were then reduced to 70 per cent and 40 per cent.
In a report to the Government Appropriations Committee of the House of Representatives in October 1992, it was revealed that using the Army’s own methodology, Patriots hit only 9 per cent of the Scud missile warheads engaged due to the speed of the Scuds, limitations of the Patriot missile system, and confusion and targeting difficulties caused by the fragmentation of the Scud missiles as they re-entered the atmosphere.
Facing Iranian drones in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is a significant user of Patriot systems, holding dozens of units and hundreds of PAC-3 missiles. Despite this vast arsenal, supplemented by the Raytheon Improved Hawk and Lockheed Martin THAAD ABM systems, Riyadh has been subjected to repeated missile and drone attacks by Houthi militants from neighbouring Yemen, with Saudi Arabia’s predominantly U.S.-purchased air defence equipment unable to stop the attacks. Houthi militants mostly use drones and missiles of Iranian origin.
In 2019, the Houthis temporarily halted about half of Saudi Arabia’s oil output by launching a massive drone and missile attack deep into the country’s oil-producing heartland while its Patriot defences were absent. A year ago, a Houthi attack on Riyadh resulted in the death of one person and the injury of two others. Despite launching at least five interceptors, a Patriot system deployed to defend against attack failed to intercept the incoming missiles. In March of this year, Saudi Aramco’s vast Jeddah oil stockpile was again attacked by a militia, with Patriots once again missing in action.
Following the 2018 Riyadh incident, Theodore Postol, an MIT physicist noted for his criticism of the Patriot, stated that the weapon system has a history of tragedies.
In August and September of 2017, North Korea conducted test launches of two long-range ballistic missiles, which flew over Hokkaido before landing in the Pacific Ocean. After the tests, then-US President Donald Trump asked then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in private why Tokyo’s robust air defences, including six battalions of Patriot systems and seven warships equipped with Aegis ballistic missile defences, were unable to destroy the missiles. Trump reportedly “could not comprehend why a nation of samurai fighters did not intercept the missiles.”
The US media have provided a straightforward reason why Japan did not employ its American-made weapons against North Korean missiles: they were flying outside the intercept range of air and missile defence forces.
Patriot Missile System drawback
However, unlike independent, mobile short-range air defence systems or artillery, which may fire their entire supply of missiles or rockets within one to three minutes and then depart (a strategy known as “shot and scoot”), Patriots are not as agile. Moreover, due to their clustering in groups of vehicles, the systems are easily detected by enemy satellites, making them an easy target for opponents armed with missiles that can bypass conventional missile defences or with enough conventional missiles or drones to confuse the system.
Consequently, if the United States agrees to deliver the Patriots to Ukraine, it will become an opportunity for Russia to test the efficacy of its Kinzhal hypersonic missile against the missile defence system. Only time will tell if the Patriots will prove effective or continue to be a tragedy.