Patriot Missiles Won’t Save Ukraine

Patriot Missiles Won’t Save Ukraine

Tactical means cannot achieve these strategic ends; weapons systems will not prove decisive, but diplomatic power might.


Patriot missiles have finally arrived in Ukraine, but the reality may not live up to the hype. Ukrainian air defense operators have been lauded in training, but the threat environment that Ukraine faces poses challenges that are daunting for the Patriot system.

Ukraine faces threats that run the span of Russia’s missile and drone arsenal. Russia’s unmanned aerial systems range from consumer-grade reconnaissance drones to more sophisticated Iranian-made kamikaze drones. Several classes of drones are interceptable by Patriot, but then it becomes both a tactical and economic issue: Drones can use their maneuverability and terrain-hugging flight patterns to remain undetected by Patriot radars. Moreover, it’s questionable to use $3 million interceptors to take out drones that cost orders of magnitude less. 


This is particularly the case when Ukraine’s supply of Soviet-era interceptors is slated to run out soon, and U.S. resupply of Stinger missiles remains similarly strained. This would leave Patriot as the sole defense Ukraine has against Russian air supremacy. The United States can’t just throw more Patriot interceptors at Ukraine, either. For one, they’re a precious commodity; Washington only bought 252 PAC-3 MSE interceptors this year for the entire U.S. Army, and many of these will be used to phase out more antiquated interceptors.

Patriot operating on its lonesome is a tenuous proposition at best; while a first-rate system technologically, the Patriot cannot be used to full effect if it is divorced from air defense doctrine. Patriot systems are limited to pinpoint defense of major assets and are designed to operate in tandem with air defenses engaging targets at higher and lower altitudes. Without these additions, Patriot will have too many threats to engage and the result will either be porous coverage that doesn’t protect its defended assets, or coverage that quickly subsides when Patriot runs out of interceptors.

Moreover, Patriot systems are themselves vulnerable. Operating a Patriot radar system gives away its location, making it an open target for Russian attacks. This means that Patriot is not a one-stop-shop for defending Ukraine’s military assets or its people.

The “do-somethingism” of handing over this advanced weapons system is also divorced from the strategic ends that the United States could reasonably achieve from doing so. Patriot coverage, or lack thereof, will not bring the war in Ukraine to an end. The air war in general is a means of shaping operations for maneuver forces, and on this front Ukrainian and Russian forces remain stalemated. Insulating Ukraine against air attack also discourages negotiation by providing a false impression that the air threat can be mitigated indefinitely. The longer the negotiation process is delayed, the more Ukrainians are killed and the more damage is done to Ukraine’s infrastructure in the long term. 

Given these tactical and operational flaws, there is dubious strategic value for the United States in sending further systems to Ukraine. Patriot systems are not going to bring the war in Ukraine to an end or enable Kyiv to negotiate for or reclaim Crimea or the Donbas. What they do signal is a false American commitment that may prolong Ukraine’s carnage.

The ideological framing of the sanctity of territorial integrity needs to end, as it exacerbates Kyiv’s more maximalist—and unachievable—aims of retaking Crimea. The end state of the Russia-Ukraine War will likely not look like the status quo ante, and Washington should recognize this. Ukraine managed to make gains in the Donbas in 2022, but both sides’ long-anticipated spring offensives have yet to materialize, with a Stalingrad-esque deadlock in Bakhmut preventing any territorial gains.

The United States can follow a different model, namely one of mediation and deescalation. The United States cedes initiative and influence when it allows others to be the dealmakers, such as China’s recent brokering of the Iranian-Saudi rapprochement or Turkey’s facilitation of Ukraine and Russia’s grain export deal during the war. France’s President Emmanuel Macron has begun undertaking the groundwork along with China for a negotiated end to the war. Germany likewise has not done much to decouple or rearm as its rhetoric suggested early in the war. The United States can take advantage of a stagnant front line to bring about a negotiated end, or at least a ceasefire. Waiting to do so limits what Washington can accomplish when Ukraine’s military means are exhausted.

Washington has misstepped by giving Ukraine Patriot systems that will likely produce few benefits. However, there is an opportunity for Washington to still play a needed role in concluding the war. Tactical means cannot achieve these strategic ends; weapons systems will not prove decisive, but diplomatic power might. Washington can still achieve much by doing less. The path to peace in Ukraine may not be paved with weapons but with diplomatic finesse.

Geoff LaMear is a Fellow at Defense Priorities.

Image: DVIDS.