FORT SILL, Okla. — Several dozen Ukrainian soldiers are finishing their training on the Patriot missile system and within a few weeks will be deployed to the front lines, armed with the most advanced ground-based air defense in the United States to help protect against missile attacks russians. .
The Ukrainian soldiers, all combat veterans with experience in Russian-designed artillery systems, surprised their American instructors by how quickly they mastered the intricacies of operating and maintaining the sophisticated Patriots, which can shoot down Russia’s ballistic missiles, to unlike other Western systems. has provided, and can reach targets much further afield.
Now, at the end of a custom-designed 10-week crash course at this US Army base, the Ukrainians are essentially conducting their own training, the US instructors said, adapting tactics and techniques in real time in response. to Russian attacks on power grids and others. goals back home.
At a cloudy and windswept training ground, the Ukrainians on Tuesday rehearsed installing a Patriot battery: tracking radar, control systems, a generator and launch stations that can fire multiple missiles at once, such as the one The United States agreed to donate in December. . The drill, completed in less than 45 minutes, stopped short of firing actual missiles.
“Our assessment is that the Ukrainian soldiers are impressive, and an absolutely quick study due to their extensive knowledge of air defense and experience in a combat zone,” Brig. Gen. Shane P. Morgan, commander of Fort Sill, told reporters.
The US military has trained, or is training, nearly 4,000 Ukrainian soldiers at firing ranges in Germany. But for the Patriot system, Pentagon officials decided to train the Ukrainians on American soil. Fort Sill, a former cavalry outpost in southwestern Oklahoma, is where 5,100 soldiers a year from the United States and 18 other nations learn to operate and maintain the Patriot system.
Since their arrival in mid-January, the Ukrainian students have been spending 10 hours a day, six days a week, in classroom instruction and exercises, military officials said. Sessions are generally in English, with some translation.
In more informal exchanges, the American trainers say they are taking advice from their Ukrainian students, who have fought against Russian forces that the Americans have not yet fought directly.
The American instructors said they were able to speed up introductory courses and move on to more advanced concepts because the Ukrainians were already familiar with Soviet-era systems, giving them a reference point when working on a more automated platform like Patriot.
“This is lightning-fast Patriot training; it’s quite remarkable,” said Thomas Karako, who directs the missile defense project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and has written extensively about the Patriot system and training.
On Tuesday, the Army, for the first time, gave a group of reporters access to training for 65 Ukrainian soldiers who were handpicked by their commanders to learn how to operate the Patriot system. The Pentagon said in January that 90 to 100 Ukrainians were expected to undergo the training, about the number of US troops needed to operate a US Army Patriot battery, but Ukraine decided to send fewer forces, officials said. americans.
The Pentagon imposed strict guidelines on the three-hour visit. He banned photos or videos of the training and its participants, and banned interviews with the fatigue-clad Ukrainian soldiers who stood just meters from reporters at the training ground.
The restrictions reflect continuing concerns in the White House and Pentagon about stoking Russian anger over the West’s involvement in the war or sparking a broader conflict. At the same time, however, the Biden administration has insisted that US training in itself is not likely to worsen tensions with Russia. Officials repeated Tuesday that the Patriot is a defensive system, not an offensive weapon.
“The Patriot air defense system does not, I repeat, pose any threat to Russia,” said Col. Martin O’Donnell, a spokesman for US Army Forces Europe and Africa, which oversees US training in Germany.
After finishing at Fort Sill in the coming days, the Ukrainians will travel to Poland, where their Patriot system will be waiting for them, US officials said. The troops will then spend a few weeks with other Ukrainian soldiers who have been undergoing similar training in Europe in a Patriot battery donated by Germany and the Netherlands, the officials said.
Once operational issues are resolved, the two Ukrainian-operated Patriot batteries will deploy to the war zone, likely in April, officials said. France and Italy have said they would send air defense systems similar to the Patriot missile.
Where and how the Patriot systems will be deployed will depend on the Ukrainian government, officials said. Since President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia ordered an invasion of Ukraine in February last year, Moscow has unleashed a torrent of missile and airstrikes against civilian and military targets.
Ukraine’s leaders will likely use the Patriots to defend high-priority targets, such as key parts of the country’s power grid and other civilian infrastructure. Those have been hit particularly hard by high-speed Russian ballistic missiles.
The Patriot system works most effectively as part of what the military calls a “layered defense” that includes other air defenses used to shoot down or thwart drones and fighter jets, as well as a variety of cruise and ballistic missiles, they said. The authorities.
Air defense specialists cautioned against viewing the Patriot as a panacea against all threats. “A Patriot battery can’t change the conflict,” Karako said. “But in combination with the German and Dutch battery, it allows Ukraine to design defenses in depth.”
President Biden’s decision in December to send in the Patriot system was a powerful signal of deepening US military engagement with Ukraine. The Pentagon’s active-duty Patriot units are frequently deployed for missions around the world, and experts say the United States doesn’t have the kind of deep stockpiles of Patriot missiles available to transfer that it had with munitions like artillery shells and rockets.
The Patriot is one of the most sought after air defense systems on the American arms market, used by Saudi and Emirati forces in Yemen and across the NATO alliance in Europe.
The Patriot is also by far the most expensive individual weapons system the United States has supplied to Ukraine, at a price total cost of about $1.1 billion: $400 million for the system and $690 million for the missiles.
A single interceptor missile costs about $4 million, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Each pitcher costs about $10 million.