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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Ukraine’s Patriot defenses at work: Shuddering booms and bursts of light

Major Volodymyr, the commander of a Ukrainian Patriot air defense battery who did not want his face or last name revealed, in Kyiv on Dec. 8, 2023. The Patriot air defense systems have probably saved thousands of lives. If U.S. military support stops, bombardments by Russia could become even more deadly. (Brendan Hoffman/The New York Times)

By Marc Santora

The first warning was a blip, a small anomaly picked up by radar scanning the skies over Ukraine. Within seconds, it became clear that the blip was a Russian ballistic missile streaking in Kyiv’s direction at several times the speed of sound.

It was just before 4 a.m. on Dec. 11, and there was no time to sound air-raid alarms in the country’s capital. While millions of civilians slept, Ukrainian forces fired off several U.S.-supplied Patriot missiles as the deadly battle in the sky commenced.

Missile-on-missile battles like this play out in a matter of minutes, said a Ukrainian major, Volodymyr, commander of a Patriot air-defense battery who insisted that only his first name be used because of the sensitivity of his unit’s operations.

From a mobile control room near Kyiv, his team tracked the salvo of incoming Russian missiles as the Patriot’s algorithms calculated their speed, altitude and intended course. With shuddering booms and bursts of light, its interceptor missiles knocked down one Russian missile after another.

“Given that the Patriot is one of the few systems that can effectively shoot down ballistic missiles, and ballistic missiles cause the most casualties, I think the number of lives saved during the war is in the thousands,” Volodymyr said.

That night was a success, but more recent missile barrages have done more damage as Russia steps up its assaults, searching for new combinations of weapons and trajectories to evade Ukrainian defenses. Those attacks have underscored even more acutely Ukraine’s urgent need for air defense.

On Dec. 29, Russia fired more than 120 missiles at cities across Ukraine, killing at least 44 people, including 30 in Kyiv. On New Year’s Eve, Ukraine’s forces said they had shot down 87 of 90 drones aimed at targets around the country. And on Tuesday, according to the Ukrainian military, Russia fired at least 99 missiles and 35 drones at Kyiv and other cities, killing at least five people and injuring dozens.

In aerial assaults in just that five-day span, United Nations observers documented 90 civilian deaths, including two children, and 421 civilian injuries. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Tuesday that Russia had fired more than 500 missiles and drones at targets across the country in that time.

“There is no reason to believe that the enemy will stop here,” Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s top commander, said on social media after Tuesday’s attack. “Therefore, we need more systems and munitions for them.”

But White House and Pentagon officials have warned that the United States will soon be unable to keep Ukraine’s Patriot batteries supplied with interceptor missiles, which can cost $2 million to $4 million apiece.

Since the start of the war in February 2022, Russia has directed more than 3,800 drones and 7,400 missiles at Ukrainian towns and cities. At the same time, Ukraine has become a testing ground for an array of air-defense systems, according to the Ukrainian military.

They range in sophistication from truck-mounted Stingers and short-range anti-aircraft guns, such as German-made Gepards, to complex systems with longer ranges, such as the French-designed SAMP/T, which can hit a target 60 miles away. There is also the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System, or NASAMS, which is jointly produced by the United States and Norway.

Only the Patriots are designed to counter ballistic missiles, and from the moment the first Patriot battery entered the combat space, they reshaped the battle for the skies. But surface-to-air missiles, including Patriot missiles, are not perfect and have been known to misfire and fail.

Volodymyr, 32, was manning a Soviet-era S-300 system when Russia launched its invasion nearly two years ago. Yet although Ukrainian air-defense teams managed to keep Russian fighter jets from gaining dominance in the air and put up an agile defense against cruise missiles, they had nothing designed to shoot down ballistic missiles.

As Russian strikes ravaged critical infrastructure across Ukraine, officials contemplated evacuating Kyiv that November, and the U.S. Congress approved the first Patriot battery for Ukraine a month later.

Volodymyr was part of a team dispatched to Fort Sill, a former frontier cavalry post in southwestern Oklahoma, for a 10-week course on how to operate and maintain the system.

“We quickly found a common language with the Americans,” he said in a recent interview. “We are constantly in touch with them. If something happens, they worry, write, congratulate us.”

After two further weeks of training in Poland, he traveled to Ukraine with the first Patriot system. Within days, his team was put to the test in combat.

On May 4, Russian forces fired a hypersonic missile at Kyiv. And although Russian President Vladimir Putin had deemed the weapon “unbeatable,” a Patriot interceptor missile shot it down.

“It was quite unexpected,” Volodymyr said. “We had just arrived from training and did not fully understand what exactly we had destroyed.”

“Later, when we found out, our confidence in the equipment that our partners provided us grew,” he said.

In May and June, during some of the most complex attacks involving drones, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and hypersonic missiles, Ukraine’s two Patriot batteries shot down all 34 ballistic missiles that Russia had fired at Kyiv, according to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based research organization.

“There were days when the guys barely had time to reload the launchers,” Volodymyr said.

The protection provided by the Patriots is limited, like a blanket that covers only a fraction of a bed. “We were able to defend Kyiv, but at the same time, Odesa was being destroyed,” Volodymyr said.

Ukrainian commanders are now trying to plan for a future without knowing what weapons they may have at their disposal.

“We managed to create a shield over the state thanks to our foreign partners,” Volodymyr said. “But if our foreign partners turn their backs on us, we will return to the beginning of the war, when people simply did not come out of their shelters and the Russians tried to turn our cities into complete ruins.”

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