Ukrainian Patriot Air Defense Crew Finishes Training Ahead of Schedule
By Ostap Yarysh March 23, 2023
Since January, 65 Ukrainian soldiers have been training at Fort Sill, a U.S. Army base in Oklahoma, to operate a Patriot air defense system. The troops expect to graduate in March and return to Ukraine to begin deploying the mobile air defense system.
Given the sensitivity around the advanced training, the Pentagon has forbidden photographs of the participating soldiers and declined to allow VOA to name them. But Voice of America journalist Ostap Yarysh traveled to Fort Sill and observed the group firsthand.
Rapid field training
An American instructor watches Ukrainian soldiers deploy a big radar in the field.
"Our military deploys a Patriot battery in 40 to 45 minutes," he said. "Ukrainians manage it in 25. They do a great job. They are very optimistic, considering the situation at home."
Among the Ukrainian men and women who traveled to Oklahoma, the youngest is 19, the oldest is 67. For the past 10 weeks, using an accelerated program developed by the Pentagon that has them training at least 10 hours a day, six days a week, they have worked to master the Patriot air defense system.
Tuesday was one of the final training sessions in the field. In a few days, the team will be ready to graduate.
Strong winds, like Tuesday's, are typical on the plains of southern Oklahoma. They do not obstruct the training: A group of Ukrainian soldiers smoothly deploys a Patriot battery in the middle of the field and brings it to combat readiness. In addition to several launchers, the battery includes a radar, an electric power plant and a control station â€” all of which are on wheels.
"I think of those components as the body parts," said one instructor at Fort Sill who has been involved in the training but asked not to be named.
The "control station is kind of like the brains of the operation," he said. "Radar, I like to call it the eyes. It's what sees everything. Power plant is what gives the body all the nutrients, because it throws all the power out. And then launchers are what I call my arms and legs, because that's what does all the actual fighting. That's how I explained it to a lot of my unit students."
The training program was designed so Ukrainians can master each of the components separately and then learn how to maintain them together. Some exercises take place outdoors, while others take place in classrooms or on simulators.
The Ukrainian training differs from the Pentagon's usual course because it was tailored specifically for the war in Ukraine. Instead of classic air combat scenarios, this course is based on battle experience fighting Russia's invasion.
"They are the best of the best in what they do in air defense for Ukraine," said Brigadier General Shane Morgan, who is the commanding general of the Fires Center of Excellence and Fort Sill. "Our assessment is that the Ukrainian soldiers are impressive, and absolutely a quick study due to their extensive air defense knowledge and experience in a combat zone. It was easier, though never easy, for them to grasp the Patriot system operations and maintenance concepts."
For the U.S. Patriot training, Ukraine handpicked military personnel who had significant experience in intercepting air attacks. That allowed the Pentagon to shrink the course length from its usual six months to 10 weeks.
American instructors say one of the challenges of the training was the language barrier, because not all of the Ukrainian soldiers were proficient in English. However, the Pentagon quickly found a solution: They brought interpreters and translators to Fort Sill.
In the end, it turned out to be beneficial for both parties.
"We have learned as much from them as what we have taught them," said one of the Fort Sill senior leaders, who declined to provide his name.
"Ukrainians had real combat experience. Many of the Ukrainian armed forces have engaged and destroyed Russian threats," he said. "I would say thankfully, most of our soldiers have not had to actually do that. That's provided us some thoughts on tactics, techniques and procedures that we may not have thought about."
The Patriot is one of the most advanced air defense systems in the world. It can detect a threat within a radius of 150 km and intercept cruise and ballistic missiles as well as aircraft and other targets at an altitude of 20 km.
Patriots are also highly mobile, can intercept several targets simultaneously and are resistant to electronic jamming.
Launchers come in different configurations, with four PAC-2 missiles, or with 16 PAC-3 missiles. At Fort Sill, the Ukrainians trained on both.
U.S. defense officials say that the Patriot will be an addition to other short- and medium-range air defense systems provided to Ukraine by the U.S. and allies. Together, this should create a multilayered system of protection of the Ukrainian sky and help defend against various attacks from ballistic missiles to kamikaze drones.
"Patriot is not going be able to defend the entire city like Kyiv," said one of the Fort Sill senior leaders. "The area that Patriot can defend varies based on the threat. If it's a cruise missile, it may be able to defend a little large area, but with more advanced ballistic missiles, it may be a little smaller."
Despite the compressed timetable, the American trainers say the Ukrainian crews are fully prepared.
"I'm very proud of the training we've done here," said an instructor at Fort Sill. "I have full confidence in the Patriot systems and in Ukrainian soldiers who are operating them."
The U.S. will transfer one Patriot battery to Ukraine. Another will come from Germany and the Netherlands. These countries also organized training for other Ukrainian air defense teams.
When they graduate from Fort Sill, the Ukrainian soldiers will receive a final stage of training in Europe on combat coordination with their colleagues. The Pentagon said it expects that Patriot systems will be working in Ukraine in the coming weeks.
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