The US finally appears ready to deliver a Patriot anti-aircraft system to Ukraine. Ukraine has been begging for months for better weapons against Russia’s missile attacks aimed at leaving Ukrainians in the dark and out in the cold. Why is it taking so long for the West to deliver the necessary weapons, and does the Patriot make a difference? We asked an air force expert Peter Wijninga.
Firing a Patriot PAC-2 missile. Photo Ministry of Defence
by Hella Rottenberg
In the same week that news broke that Washington had turned against the Patriots, Ukrainian President Zelensky argued vigorously for better air defense. During a video conference with the major industrialized nations of the G7, he called for long-range missiles, modern tanks, artillery, missile installations and other advanced systems to defend against Russia’s massive attacks on his country’s electricity and water supplies. “It’s about protecting all of Europe, because with these attacks, Russia is causing a humanitarian and migration disaster not only for Ukraine, but for the entire EU,” Zelensky said.
The situation is harsh, but not desperate, says Peter Wijninga. “The big cities are already being defended at the moment. Ukraine manages to intercept 60 to 80 percent of the projectiles,’ he says. “The Patriot has a longer range. It is capable of tracking a hundred targets at a time and engaging nine targets at a time. The system works well against larger attacks. It can take out aircraft, helicopters, cruise missiles and missiles.”
For the time being, it concerns a Patriot system that the US has at its disposal, but does not use itself. It will help Ukraine, but it will not be enough. ‘No system is watertight. The Russian tactic is to saturate the air force. Sends so many projectiles that defense systems cannot keep up. No matter how full you can fill Ukraine, you will never achieve 100 percent defense’, explains Wijninga.
Israel’s Iron Dome is known to provide almost total defense against missiles. It’s not true. According to Wijninga, it is an image that the Israelis like to advertise. They do not face mass attacks and for Israel the system is a success. Iron Dome is not much different from similar anti-aircraft systems, except that it is suitable for eliminating small projectiles, such as mortar shells and short-range missiles. “Israel cares deeply about protecting its commercial and military secrets. That is why it has not accepted Zelensky’s request to provide Ukraine with an Iron Dome.’
“You can fill Ukraine as much as you want, you will never achieve 100 percent defense”
Why wasn’t Patriot delivered sooner?
Wijninga: ‘Confidence in the skills of the Ukrainian military has increased. Ukrainians are used to Russian systems. It was not known whether they would be able to work with Western techniques. There are HIMARS [Amerikaans mobiel raketartilleriesysteem] and NASAMS [Noors luchtraketafweersysteem] sent, which are less complex than Patriot. There were also fears that more complex systems would fall into enemy hands. You don’t want that. The reason for supplying Patriot now is the waves of attacks on the utility companies.’
Russia has asked Iran to provide ballistic missiles that are faster than the cruise missiles and drones it has deployed so far. Does it play a role?
‘Yes of course. They are Fateh 110 with a range of 300 kilometers and Zolfaghar with a range of 700 kilometers. Patriot is a suitable weapon against these kinds of missiles. The question is how many missiles Iran can deliver. There are probably not large stocks, so it is a challenge for their production. Maybe they can be made in Russia, but Russian weapons factories already have little capacity. They make no more than forty cruise missiles a year.’
The fear of escalation seems to have disappeared
The Americans and Europeans feared escalation if they supplied heavier weapons. Is that fear gone now?
“Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure are already escalating. The conviction grew that we need to make Ukraine better able to defend itself. The US regularly hit the brakes. They tuned HIMARS so that it cannot launch missiles with a range of 300 kilometers, because it was feared that Ukraine could attack targets deep inside Russia.’
On December 5, Ukraine proved that it could do it without American weapons. With unmanned drones, Ukraine caused explosions at the Russian air bases Ryazan (160 km from Moscow) and Engels (500 km from the border with Ukraine), where Russia has strategic bombers. “It was a turning point. The Americans then announced that they would no longer stand in the way”, says Wijninga.
‘There is less fear that Putin will use nuclear weapons’
“The fear of escalation was originally motivated by the idea that Russia would not stop at Ukraine and also had the Baltic countries in its sights. People are now convinced that their NATO membership protects them from just that. There is now also less fear that Putin will use nuclear weapons. Regular consultations have taken place in the wings between the Russians and the Americans to prevent such an escalation. Putin has been warned by the Americans and the Chinese. He understands that there would be a devastating counterattack if he went nuclear.
Characteristics of Patriot
The Patriot anti-aircraft system is a mobile launch pad that can be loaded with 16 PAC-3 missiles (weight 312 kg) or 4 PAC-2 missiles (900 kg). The missiles reach a speed of 5,000 km per hour and can destroy projectiles up to a height of 20 kilometers and at a distance of 60 kilometers.
Patriot launcher and radar installation. Photo Wikimedia
The PAC-2 explodes near the target, which is then destroyed by a cloud of shrapnel. The PAC-3 has no explosive charge and destroys the target by flying into it. An installation consists of a radar that scans for enemy targets, a fire control center that relays the information to the missile and guides it to the target, and the launcher itself. About a hundred soldiers are needed to operate a Patriot battery.
The Netherlands has 3 Patriot batteries and simulators to train personnel. After the Russian invasion, a Dutch Patriot system was placed in Slovakia to help defend NATO territory.
Does Russia see the delivery of the Patriot as an escalation?
“Russian rhetoric would put it this way. But the Patriot is a purely defensive weapon. Unlike the Russian S-300, which can also target ground targets, the Patriot is only suitable for removing projectiles from the air. Additionally, only projectiles that come at you. The chance of a missile ending up in Russia is very small. If a Patriot misses its target, the missile self-destructs within seconds. Perhaps the Russians are afraid that Ukraine will use the Patriot at the front to protect its troops from Russian airstrikes.’
Training of soldiers
When can Patriot be operational in Ukraine?
“The Patriot is a complicated system. The training to operate it takes a long time. But you can speed up that process. You can train people on simulators. The Netherlands and Germany have such simulators. You can certainly start with that. And you can learn to adjust a launch installation by training people in Poland, where Patriot is already located.
‘The big challenge is technical staff who can repair and maintain parts. In the field, a limited trained first-line technician can replace certain broken modules of the system with working modules. But he can’t do real deep repairs. The training for this lasts one year. You can overcome this by setting up a second-line maintenance department in Poland, staffed by trained technicians from, for example, the Netherlands and Germany. America may strive that not only the American flag flies over the Patriot.’
“Meanwhile, a sort of proxy war has emerged between America and Russia”
Defense experts talk about more weapons Ukraine needs to optimize its air defense. Such as shoulder-fired Stingers, German Gepard anti-aircraft tanks, ammunition and radars, but also fighter planes.
‘Fighters are a bridge too far for the West. They can crash, and then the Russians can take the wreckage apart and learn from it. They don’t want that. There is now a wide range of anti-aircraft systems in Ukraine. That makes it difficult. The better you can coordinate them, the more effective you are. What they need is a network that they can connect all these systems to see which system is best suited to intercept an incoming projectile. Such a network that provides an overview exists. It’s American Link 16. But whether the US will deliver it, I don’t know.’
Why is the US doing so much more for Ukraine’s defense than Europe?
“The US traditionally spends more on defense, it has many more weapons. A kind of proxy war has also started between America and Russia. It was initially thought that Ukraine would soon be overwhelmed. The support only started when it became clear how strong the Ukrainians resisted and how great their motivation was. Now the United States sees in this war an opportunity to limit Russian power.”
What is the Netherlands doing for Ukraine’s air defense?
“The Netherlands provides rockets for NASAMS. It is missiles for the F-16 that are surplus because the F-16 is being replaced. It’s also about ammunition. The Netherlands is also considering logistical support. This could include, for example, training of Patriot soldiers and technical support. The Netherlands and Europe have cut back on their defenses. Their own war supplies are small. After decades of austerity, they must rebuild their defense and will constantly have to weigh what they can give to Ukraine’.