Let’s Have Some Fun with Patriot Air-Defense Math, Shall we!

Sectoral Air-Denial is within reach

Shankar Narayan
7 min readJun 22, 2024

It took a little while for the shock of June 20th to fade away. Now, it is time to take our scalpel and dig into one specific part of the allies’ decision to aid Ukraine: air defense.

Last year, the allies supplied four Patriot air-defense batteries to Ukraine and one French-made long-range SAMP-T system. This year, Germany, the United States, Romania, and the Netherlands, in cooperation with an yet to be identified partner, will each send a Patriot unit. Italy will be sending one SAMP-T system.

A total of 10 long-range systems will soon be in Ukraine. They won’t take long to arrive since most are already in Europe; they just need packing and transfer. I anticipate their arrival in Ukraine within the next two to three months.

While twelve units would have been preferable, ten is still significant. It’s enough to effectively deny operational space for the Russian air force across much of Ukrainian airspace.

Let’s break it down:

The current line of contact between Russian and Ukrainian troops spans approximately 800 kilometers.

Screenshot from DeepstateMAP. Sketch added by me

For the sake of our discussion, let’s consider the two long-range SAMP-T units supplied by France/Italy as Patriot air-defense units. In terms of range, both systems have a similar reach of 160 kilometers.

Operational Range: Each Patriot has an operational range of 160 km.

Coverage Requirement: Each Patriot (except those at the flanks) should be within the range of another Patriot.

For each Patriot to be covered by another, the maximum distance between them should be 160 km.

For a 800 km front, if we place 1 Patriot every 160 km, we need:

However, this placement assumes that Patriots are spaced at exactly 160 km intervals, which is an ideal scenario. To ensure full coverage and the requirement that each Patriot (except the flank ones) is within range of another, we might need to adjust the intervals slightly inward.

Let us get a little more practical.

  • We place the first Patriot at 0 kms. This one will cover from 0 to 160 kms.
  • The second one will be kept at 160 kms. This one will cover from 0 kms to 320kms. This Patriot will also keep the first patriot protected, as the first one will fall within its range.
  • If we place the rest of the units the same way, we will get this: 6 units

This straight line arrangement ensures that each Patriot unit, except for those at the flanks, is within the operational range of two Patriots. However, from a Russian perspective, it presents vulnerabilities as the flanks can be targeted with a massive missile barrage, allowing them to potentially breach the defense line by chipping away at the edges one by one. Additionally, this predictable pattern limits Ukraine’s flexibility to adjust defenses dynamically.

While the straight line pattern provides basic coverage, it lacks redundant protection. To address this weakness, let’s explore a zig-zag pattern.

The Zig-Zag

In this we arrange the Patriot units in two rows.

First Row (forward positions): Place Patriots at intervals of 200 km.

  • Positions: 0 km, 200 km, 400 km, 600 km, 800 km

Second Row (rear positions): Place Patriots in between the forward positions but slightly offset (zig-zag).

  • Positions: 100 km, 300 km, 500 km, 700 kms

This deployment ensures overlapping coverage both along the frontline and in depth, offering superior protection against penetrations or attacks aimed at disrupting the defense line. Each segment along the frontline is within the 160 km range of at least two Patriots, ensuring comprehensive coverage and redundancy.

It will look like this:

9 units

The zig-zag pattern will be extremely difficult to breach, but it will require at least nine systems to cover the entire front. The extra system that Ukraine has can be stationed in Kyiv, while the others can be positioned closer to the frontline to maintain full control over the skies. (Ukraine has a total of ten systems. One for Kyiv. 9 for the frontline)

The only viable method for Russia to disrupt this setup would be a large-scale missile attack aimed at the flanks or at a singular point of the zig-zag pattern. Continual attacks could deplete Ukraine’s air-defense missile stocks, eventually compromising their defensive capabilities.

This is why I found the Biden administration’s decision to send all future Patriot interceptors directly to Ukraine surprising. This strategic move ensures Ukraine does not deplete its stocks and can sustain its defensive posture effectively. It reflects a well-considered decision by the American administration.

Ukraine can enhance its Patriot setup by integrating various short and medium-range systems within the zig-zag configuration. This layered approach will create multiple tiers of protection, forming an impenetrable wall of air defense. If one unit fails to intercept a threat, another unit will be ready to respond.

Germany’s provision of four IRIS-T short to medium-range air-defense systems, along with a collection of NASAMS short-range air-defense systems, significantly bolsters Ukraine’s defensive capabilities.

Behind this robust air-defense network, Ukraine can strategically position its F-16 runways, further enhancing their air-defense coverage and operational readiness.

The F-16 can effectively perform air-defense functions using a variety of missiles.

  • For long-range engagements, it utilizes the AIM-120 AMRAAM, which has a range of up to 160 km.
  • For short-range combat, the AIM-9 Sidewinder, with a range of up to 35 km, is commonly used.
  • The AIM-7 Sparrow offers a medium-range option with a range of up to 70 km.

These capabilities make the F-16 a formidable platform for maintaining air superiority and defending against aerial threats.

How will this impact the war?

While ten long-range systems provide substantial coverage, they may not completely saturate the sky, leaving potential gaps that Russia could exploit, especially from the north.

However, this deployment significantly restricts the Russian Air Force’s operations. They’ll likely rely on stand-off weapons rather than risk entering Ukrainian airspace from the north. This air-defense strategy shifts the dynamics of the conflict, compelling Russia to adapt its aerial tactics while bolstering Ukraine’s defensive capabilities.

Screenshot from DeepstateMAP. Sketch added by me

Even if Russia attempts to breach from the north, Ukraine’s solitary Patriot system, standing guard over Kyiv for almost a year, will play a crucial defensive role. To reinforce their northern defenses, Ukraine could deploy additional short and medium-range air-defense units or maintain troops equipped with portable air-defense systems. These measures are essential to safeguard against potential incursions and protect critical areas in northern Ukraine.

There are numerous measures Ukraine can take to prevent Russian breaches in the north. Once secured, Ukraine can focus on fortifying the frontline with an air-defense wall that effectively denies operational space to the Russian Air Force. This strategy aims to push Russian air operations further away, preventing devastating attacks like glide bombs that have impacted the frontline.

Control of the sky is crucial for both sides in this conflict. Without it, neither Ukraine nor Russia can decisively win the war.

Let us take the northeast for example. If Russia gains control of the sky, Ukraine will struggle. If Ukraine gains control of the sky, Russia will struggle. Achieving and maintaining air superiority is pivotal for both sides’ military strategies and territorial objectives.

Under these circumstances, I would recommend that Ukraine consider delaying the introduction of the F-16s. It would be prudent to first position the ten long-range defense units effectively and then gradually introduce the F-16 squadron. Given the reported shortage of trained Ukrainian pilots, estimated to be in the low double digits, introducing just one squadron may be the most feasible option in the near term.

While there are pros and cons to both approaches, introducing the F16s immediately vs a delayed introduction, the short timelines necessitate careful planning. Ukraine has flexibility in how they proceed, but ensuring the strategic positioning of air-defense systems should take precedence due to the immediate security needs.

Will Russians be able to hit civilian infrastructure?

Unfortunately, yes, Russia may still be able to launch missiles and successfully target Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure despite Ukraine more than doubling its air-defense capacity. The plan outlined earlier focuses on securing the frontline but leaves vulnerabilities in the north, where Russia could exploit gaps to launch missile barrages.

Since the Biden administration has already decided to intervene in the order queue to assist Ukraine with Patriot interceptors, they can also do so for Patriot batteries. Europe could allocate two billion dollars to order two more Patriot batteries to be delivered to Ukraine. Moreover, if Europe can clear the $50 billion loan backed by frozen Russian assets and allocate it to Ukraine, they could then use two billion dollars to order two additional systems and position them in the north before the end of the year.

Ukraine is inching its way towards taking control of the sky. It took two and half years to get here. We are still not there yet. But the pieces are in place to get there.

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Shankar Narayan

He didn't care what he had or what he had left, he cared only about what he must do.