After lending some of its most advanced air defense systems, the United States recently revealed plans to procure new Patriot missile systems.

The US Army awarded American aerospace and defense manufacturing giant Raytheon Technologies a whopping $1.2-billion contract to assemble Patriot Missile System fire units.

The deal was made after the Pentagon vowed to deliver Ukraine with the advanced Patriot air defense system last December to strengthen the latter’s long-range capabilities and air defense against Russian invasion.

The US Department of Defense (DoD) also noted that the contract would include funds for a fiscal 2023 foreign military sale previously made with Switzerland.

It is expected to be completed by December 2032.

PATRIOT: Arguably the World’s Most Advanced Air Defense System

The MIM-104 PATRIOT, shortened for Phased Array Tracking Radar for Intercept on Target, is a surface-to-air missile (SAM) system built by Raytheon Technologies in the 1970s, primarily for the US Army. It has four major operational functions, including wide-range communications, command and control, radar surveillance, power generator, and missile guidance, providing troops with a coordinated, secure, integrated, and mobile air defense system.

The Patriot has a wide range of capabilities depending on the interceptors fired, usually loaded with four PAC-2 or 16 PAC-3 missiles.

PAC-2 interceptor uses a blast-fragmentation payload, which explodes near incoming projectiles, while newer PAC-3s utilize advanced hit-to-kill technology that specifically intercepts and destroys targets by directly hitting them with kinetic energy.

There’s no official publicly available documentation regarding the range capabilities of the Patriot system, but reportedly, it can cover beyond 150 kilometers and hunt up to 100 targets while giving missile guidance data for up to nine missiles. Meanwhile, its interceptors have an estimated flight ceiling of about 20 km, providing defensive coverage of 15 to 20 km for incoming ballistic missiles.

The system was first used in action during the 1991 Gulf War, with powerful batteries protecting Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Israel, and later used to good effect during the US-led coalition in Iraq in 2003.

Capable of intercepting both high-performance aircraft and tactical ballistic missiles, Patriot is one of the most powerful military systems in the US arsenal—and relatively expensive too.

Limited and Expensive

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank, “a newly produced PATRIOT battery costs about $1.1 billion, including about $400 million for the system and about $690 million for the missiles.”

The think tank further suggested that future costs of the sophisticated air defense system could increase up to $1.27 billion per unit, excluding the missiles. Lockheed Martin manufactures the interceptor missiles, estimated to cost about $4 million per piece.

After months of deliberation, the Biden administration announced that it would supply Ukraine with some of the country’s advanced air defense systems, removing units from the Army’s stockpiles.

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“Our goal is to help Ukraine strengthen a layered integrated approach to air defense,” a senior DoD official told reporters last December. “Patriot will complement a range of medium and short-range air defense capabilities [Stinger and National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS)] that we have provided and the allies have provided in prior donation packages.”

Furthermore, as the system is highly-advanced, Ukrainian troops will be required training for them to effectively employ, and this “will take some time,” the official added.

A basic firing unit of a Patriot system requires at least 90 soldiers, though it would only need a crew of three in the engagement control station during combat.

Patriot Missile System operates in Croatia
A Patriot Missile Systems in Croatia (Image source: DVIDS)

Apart from training considerations, the limited supply of the Patriot system has also been a primary concern for many, especially when the Pentagon announced the delivery of units to Ukraine. According to the US Army, there are 15 operational Patriot battalions, each in a strategic area, with one being modernized relatively slowly and can take up to 15 or so years.

CSIS highlighted how withdrawing a unit from its main theater could potentially create risks, explaining that:

“PATRIOT is a low-density, high-demand asset to the US 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… 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 US Central Command or US Indo-Pacific Command, that transferring the system to Ukraine may create opportunity costs and potential risks in those theaters. If they are withdrawn from the US homeland, that could impede training or modernization cycles.”

Since its development, Raytheon has been able to produce around 240 Patriot systems and was spread among the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies—Germany, Greece, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Poland, and Romania—and other non-NATO nations, including Japan, South Korea, Israel, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Taiwan, and Bahrain. Moreover, Raytheon claims that since 2015, the system has intercepted more than 150 ballistic missiles in action.

So far, Germany and the Netherlands have pledged their units, announcing their intent to join the US in sending a Patriot battery to Ukraine earlier this year.

While it may take some time for the Patriot systems to reach the frontlines—considering training, maintenance, and repairs—US officials stated that the air defense system would undoubtedly improve the capabilities of Ukrainian troops, particularly in shooting down the Russian Army’s kamikaze drones. A recent article in Newsweek notes that hypersonic Russian Kinzhal missiles can be shot down with the Patriot defense system, according to Ukrainian reports.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the American missile systems “quite old” and how vowed to destroy them.