Costly Defense: Assessing the Effectiveness of Using $4 Million US Patriot Missiles to Counter $20,000 Russian Drones
The United States (US) announced that it will provide Patriot missile system batteries to Ukraine to counter the Russian invasion. Analysts have no doubts about the capabilities of America’s defense weapons. However, they question its effectiveness because operating the Patriot system is too expensive to deal with very cheap Russian drones.
Tom Karako, director of the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told CNN Thursday (22/12/2022), that the Patriot system “is not a game changer” in the Russo-Ukrainian war because it “only retains a piece of relatively small impurities”. Not to mention the significant logistical needs; just one battery is operated by about 90 troops, and includes computers, engagement control systems, phased array radar, power generation equipment, and up to eight launchers.
CSIS recently said in a report that the missile rounds for the Patriots are worth about $4 million each. Retired General Mark Hertling, a former US Army-Europe commander, said the costly rounds from any Patriot system missile would likely not be used to shoot down every missile Russia launches at Ukraine.
“This is not a system that is going to catch up to smaller drones or ballistic missiles,” he said. “Can it do that? Very. But when you’re talking about taking down a $20,000 drone, or a $100,000 Russian-bought ballistic missile, with a $3-5 million rocket, that doesn’t give you much of a return on investment. What it can do is free up low- and mid-range systems to pursue such targets.”
The US State Department on Tuesday announced a new aid package to Ukraine that includes the first-ever transfer of Patriot Air and Missile Defense Systems. “Capable of taking down cruise missiles, short-range ballistic missiles, and aircraft at a much higher ceiling than previously provided air defense systems,” the department said.
Retired Major General James “Spider” Marks tells CNN about the capabilities of the Patriot system. “It improves accuracy, increases kill rate, so it really does what you want it to do which is protection in the field on very specific targets,” he said.
According to the CSIS description, the Patriot radar system combines surveillance, tracking and engagement functions in one unit, which makes it stand out among other air defense systems. System engagement with incoming air threats is “nearly autonomous” in addition to requiring a “final launch decision” from the humans operating it.
Ukraine has repeatedly requested the Patriot system — an acronym for Phased Array Tracking Radar for intercept on Target — as it is considered one of the most capable long-range air defense systems on the market. Although the US did not comply with the request during the first 10 months of the war, a senior Biden administration official told CNN that the realities of what was happening on the ground in Ukraine influenced their decision to do so.
In recent weeks, the Russian military has increasingly attacked Ukraine’s power grid and infrastructure as winter approaches and temperatures drop. Zelensky told Biden that “Russian missile terror” has crippled about half of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. The attacks further fueled Ukraine’s demand for the Patriot system.
The US Army calls the Patriot system its “most advanced air defense system” that can intercept any air threat in any weather condition.