Ukraine’s air defense woes can’t be fixed by American aid

Ukraine’s air defense woes can’t be fixed by American aid

Ukraine’s air defenses are succumbing to myriad air threats that cannot be held off, despite the passage of a recent aid bill that provided an additional $61 billion in military aid. Ukraine’s dire military situation cannot be remedied by a blank check, or as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently requested, more Patriot batteries.

The problem is not a resourcing issue, at least not in the short term. The air threats Ukraine faces pose a quantitative overmatch that simply make countering this unachievable.

Ukraine’s air defenses are already facing an untenable situation, one which additional Patriot batteries simply cannot remedy. Ukraine currently possesses just three Patriot batteries, one of which recently lost two launchers to a Russian air attack while convoying.

By President Zelenskyy’s own reckoning, Ukraine’s patchwork of Soviet, European and American air defense systems is only about 25% of what Ukraine would need to adequately defend itself. Zelenskyy went on to state that providing full coverage would entail a full 25 Patriot systems — nearly eight times Ukraine’s current arsenal and more than twice what Raytheon can produce in a full year.

Ukraine’s vulnerability is going to worsen with time, and new Patriot systems are likely to become expensive liabilities if introduced. Russia is exploiting Ukraine’s lack of air defense to both gather timely intelligence and to take out strategic targets behind the front line, such as air defenses and power plants. This in turn makes each Patriot system vulnerable, as the system is designed to operate within a larger ecosystem of air defenses operating at higher and lower altitudes. On its lonesome, it would be vulnerable to Russia’s increasingly sophisticated and low-altitude capable drones.

Ukraine would also face operational limitations both in its theater coverage and in magazine depth. The Patriot can either support Ukraine’s front-line defense or protect its rear infrastructure, but not both. And even overlooking these trade-offs, the fight itself is unsustainable. As Zelenskyy bluntly admitted last month in response to a successful Russian strike on a power plant, “We ran out of all missiles.”

Ukraine recently received additional American Patriot interceptors to replenish its inventory. But this will only delay, not stop, the painful battlefield realities. The U.S. industrial base simply cannot churn out these expensive interceptors in large quantities; by contrast, Russia can continuously procure Shahed drones, churn out Iskander or Kinzhal missiles, and refit its planes with abundant Soviet-era glide bombs.

While Patriot systems are inherently defensive and cannot be employed in a kinetically offensive manner, this only describes their tactical effect. These systems can still be employed in such a way that they create an escalatory effect at the strategic level, namely striking Russian warplanes within Russian airspace.

Up to this point, Washington has been conditioning the use of American weapon systems on their use within Ukraine itself. But given that previous restrictions on cluster munitions, Abrams tanks, F-16 fighter jets and more have been lifted when expedient, there is reason to suspect these Patriots will end up employed in precisely this manner. While it does seem fair to allow Ukraine every advantage, the Russians have signaled that NATO weapons attacking Russia will invite direct retaliation.

Ukrainian civilians are likely to be unaffected by the presence of additional Patriot batteries. Ukrainian civilians have primarily been targeted by means of the power plants and infrastructure they rely on. The limiting factor to protecting these are not the number of Patriot platforms but the interceptors on hand, as seen last month, and this is not fixable in the short term.

Furthermore, the harsh reality is that Ukrainian Patriot operators will likely have an asset list that prioritizes Patriot protection for strategic targets, but the civilian population centers likely won’t meet this threshold. This means the best measures for civilian protection are going to be a mix of lower-altitude defense platforms, electronic warfare systems, and passive measures like air raid shelters and sirens, all of which Ukraine has already employed to positive effect.

European allies are not going to plug the gap, either. Germany is sending additional TRML-4D radar systems to detect low-altitude threats as well as a Skynex system to intercept drones. This is on top of the IRIS-T, Patriot and Stinger systems Germany had provided previously. But this aid, though helpful, is not at the scale needed to actually alleviate the overmatch Ukraine faces in the air.

The United States simply does not have the physical capabilities to fix the magazine depth issue in the near term. This is being remedied with nearly $30 billion being spent on air defense across the joint force in fiscal 2024, with a similar amount in the budget proposal for fiscal 2025.

But turning on the assembly lines to increase interceptor production is not a function of flipping a switch once funding is secured; the lackluster air defense-industrial base is a result of putting this on the backburner during the war on terrorism. To fill a gap decades in the making will take years.

What is to be done? Washington needs to recognize the gaps in its approach to intervening thus far.

Just as Ukraine requested Abrams tanks and then recognized that they were not survivable on this battlefield, Patriot systems are not a panacea for solving the extreme vulnerability Ukraine faces. Washington cannot change the outcome of this conflict with military aid, nor can it enter the conflict directly without risking nuclear war — an unacceptable prospect.

Washington should instead leverage its diplomatic power to push for a ceasefire or at least initiate the groundwork for bringing Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table. The alternative to this is wishful thinking.

In addition to the dire air defense situation, Ukraine faces between a 1-to-5 and 1-to-10 artillery disadvantage; is facing manpower shortages so severe that it is retaining amputees; and is facing localized Russian superiority near Kharkiv that is thinning out the rest of its front line.

Ukraine today is likely in the best position it will ever be in for negotiations; every day erodes its relative strength and bargaining power. If Washington wants what’s best for Ukraine, it shouldn’t encourage its destruction.

Geoff LaMear is a fellow at the Defense Priorities think tank.

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