After a meeting at the White House on 21 December between US President Joe Biden and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, the US administration announced that it will send one of the most advanced air defence systems in operation today, the Patriot missile system, to assist in the defence of Ukraine from the Russian invasion. 

In a call on 21 December with reporters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “The supply of weapons continues and the range of supplied weapons is expanding. All of this, of course, leads to an aggravation of the conflict. This does not bode well for Ukraine,” reported Reuters.

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For months Russia has battered Ukraine’s internal infrastructure with waves of Iranian supplied drones and loitering munitions, in addition to the considerable array of missiles it has deployed to interdict Ukrainian water, heating and power supplies. “Russia’s unrelenting and brutal air attacks against critical infrastructure have only reinforced the need to provide Ukraine with sophisticated air defense capabilities,” read the US Department of Defense (DoD) press release announcing the package.

The addition of the Patriot missile system will offer a long-range capability for defending Ukraine from cruise and ballistic missiles, intercepting missiles within a 100-mile radius and at heights up to 79,000ft. Like the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), the Patriot is usually deployed from the flatbed of a lorry, offering similar mobility and the enhanced survivability of ‘shoot-and-scoot’ platforms.

Russia has already said that the Patriot system would be a “legitimate target” for attacks, and warned that the delivery of the system would be seen as an escalation. In strategic terms the addition of the system does not represent a game-changing move in the Ukrainian war, but it will preserve the status quo in terms of air superiority and prevent Russia from imposing more control over the airspace — a crucial objective of Ukrainian troops. Russia has made major efforts in recent weeks to degrade Ukrainian air defences, and although this system will go some way toward mitigating that, Ukraine will also need to make strategically critical decisions to optimise the system’s efficacy.

The delivery of the Patriot Missiles come as part of a $1.85bn package of military aide from the US to assist in the defence of Ukraine, one that includes additional HIMARS ammunition, High-speed Anti-Radiation Missiles, and Claymore anti-personnel munitions, all delivered from DoD stocks through a Presidential Drawdown facility valued at up to $1bn, while $850M in assistance from the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative will supply munitions, services and SATCOM terminal. “In total, the United States has now committed more than $21.9 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since the beginning of the Biden Administration,” continued the DoD press release.

The Patriots in the context of Ukraine’s armory 

The appeal for superior air defences has been a consistent refrain for Zelensky across the duration of the war, with limited success. Donations of man-portable systems including Stingers have made a considerable impact in denying Russia air superiority, but against expendable autonomous systems these were not as effective a deterrent. More advanced contributions have been made recently, including two National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS) delivered last month, an earlier delivery of Homing all the way Killers (HAWKS), and Iris-T systems amongst an array of other air-defence options. 

Compared to alternative systems like NASAMS, which the United States gave in August, Patriots provide a substantially greater range, reaching up to 160km versus the 50km capability of NASAMS. Enhanced range grants enhanced defensive capabilities and airspace control. The Patriot missile offers improvements over the S-300 system, another air defence system already employed by Ukraine by offering a substantially more powerful radar system, resulting in enhanced target recognition capabilities. However, Ukraine is expected to receive only one battery, despite the fact that these systems are generally operated in battalions of four, restricting the applications of the system. 

At $4m for each fire, the Patriot missile defence system is not cost-effective when used against the drones or loitering weapons – costing as little as $50,00 apiece – that have caused much of the recent devastation. Furthermore, the system necessitates up to 90 qualified personnel to maintain regular functioning. While Ukraine’s allies have been able to decrease training periods for other systems, training Ukrainian service members to operate these systems will come with a significant delay.

Though its employment against ballistic missiles and planes will be more cost-effective, the Ukrainians will need to deploy a number of other technologies currently in their control to better safeguard vital resources and battle a wide range of threats. The addition of the Patriot system to existing systems will equip Ukraine with a network of air defences with many layers to cover infrastructure and other civilian targets, but could still benefit from other air defence systems, including the Iron Dome technology that is effective against low altitude and low velocity targets, potentially including Iranian-made drones and loitering munitions. 

As air-launched cruise missiles played a major role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Patriot system could be used to target long-range bombers, posing a new and serious threat to Russian aircraft. According to the Ukrainian Air Force (UAF), Tu-95 and Tu22M3 aircraft have undertaken strikes in recent offensives, launching from the Russian Engels airfield, the focus of Ukrainian drone attacks in recent weeks. According to Ukraine, the missiles employed in the latest strikes were the Kh-55 and the Kalibr, which have ranges of 2,500km and 1,500km respectively, allowing them to be fired from deep inside Russian territory to hit Ukrainian objectives.

Escalation dominance as a goal

Before this announcement, criticism of the US and Western European efforts to arming Ukraine has considered the measured approached governments have taken to avoid deepening the crisis. “Escalation has become a sort of four-letter word in North American and European strategic parlance,” said Dr John Chipman, director general of the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS). 

“Avoiding escalation has been a principal goal. Insufficient attention is being paid to how one would make Mr. Putin fear escalation and in that way deter some of the more extreme elements of his activity,” added Chipman, speaking at the launch of the IISS 2022 Strategic Survey, in London on 5 December

Chipman believes western governments have struggled to have a flexible response strategy to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: “Russia has more often than not been the one maintaining escalation dominance.”

“An element of the Cold War muscle memory has been unsatisfactorily recalled: ‘Don’t if you can avoid it, having a direct conflict with Moscow.’ But then Putin’s Russia is very different from Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. And another part of western Cold War muscle memory hasn’t been sufficiently recalled, which is how do you conduct political-military strategy?”

Following the reports on 9 December from the Times of London that the US DoD had reversed its policy on Ukrainian attacks within the official borders of Russia, it is possible that US administration attitudes to escalation have evolved. Without US condemnation, Ukraine has targeted military sites within Russia that are located further from the Ukrainian border than the city of Moscow itself, indicating tacit approval of a provocative demonstration of offensive capabilities.

One explanation for the change in US attitudes looks at the Iranian involvement in the war. The BBC reported on 17 December that Justin Bronk, senior fellow at the defence think-tank RUSI, links the US decision to supply Patriot batteries to “Western concerns that Iran may supply Russia with longer-range ballistic missiles”. On 21 December, the Financial Times has reported US and UK officials saying Moscow is attempting to procure hundreds of ballistic missiles from Iran in return for military support for Tehran.

A strictly tactical implication of this would be that the enhanced range of Iranian supplied missiles would require the increased capabilities of the Patriot missile system to offer effective defence. From a geopolitical standpoint, offering a counter to this offensive capability deters Iran from widening the conflict with its involvement, and narrow the reciprocal support for Iran from Russia.Any balanced consideration of US temperament to greater escalation in Ukraine should include a regard for the domestic political situation of the US pertaining to the shifting makeup of Congress and the Senate. Analysts have predicted enthusiasm from Washington for the defence of Ukraine will dampen after winter, and the shift in the balance of power in both houses will provide obstacles for further requisitions. The 2022 congress offers more certainty that it will deliver military aide than can be expected when government reconvenes after the holidays, and a shift to US escalation do