FORT SILL, Okla. — Several dozen Ukrainian soldiers are wrapping up their training on the Patriot missile system and within a few weeks will deploy to the war’s front lines, armed with America’s most advanced ground-based air defense to help protect against Russian missile attacks.
The Ukrainian soldiers, all seasoned combat veterans skilled in Russian-designed artillery systems, have surprised their American instructors by how quickly they have mastered the complexities of operating and maintaining the sophisticated Patriots, which can knock down Russia’s ballistic missiles, unlike other systems the West has provided, and can hit targets much farther away.
Now at the end of a 10-week custom-designed crash course at this U.S. Army base, the Ukrainians are essentially running their own training, American instructors said, adapting tactics and techniques in real time in response to Russian strikes on electrical grids and other targets back home.
On a cloudy, windswept training range, the Ukrainians on Tuesday rehearsed setting up a Patriot battery — tracking radar, control systems, a generator and launching stations that can fire multiple missiles at a time — like the one the United States agreed to donate in December. The drill, completed in less than 45 minutes, stopped short of firing live missiles.
“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,” Brig. Gen. Shane P. Morgan, the commander at Fort Sill, told reporters.
The U.S. military has trained, or is in midst of training, nearly 4,000 Ukrainian soldiers at ranges in Germany. But for the Patriot system, Pentagon officials decided to train the Ukrainians on American soil. Fort Sill, a storied former frontier cavalry post in southwestern Oklahoma, is where 5,100 troops a year from the United States and 18 other nations learn how to operate and maintain the Patriot system.
Since arriving in mid-January, the Ukrainian students have spent 10 hours a day, six days a week on classroom instruction and drills, military officials said. The sessions are generally in English, with some translation.
In more informal exchanges, American trainers say they are picking up tips from their Ukrainian students, who have battled Russian forces that the Americans have yet to directly engage in combat.
American instructors said they have been able to speed through introductory coursework and move to more advanced concepts because the Ukrainians were already familiar with Soviet-era systems, giving them a point of reference when working on a more automated platform like the Patriot.
“This is Patriot training done at lightning speed; it’s pretty 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.
The Army on Tuesday, for the first time, provided a group of reporters access to the training of 65 Ukrainian soldiers who were picked by their commanders to learn how to run the Patriot system. The Pentagon said in January that 90 to 100 Ukrainians were expected to undergo the training, roughly the number of American troops it takes to operate a U.S. Army Patriot battery, but Ukraine decided to send fewer forces, American officials said.
The Pentagon imposed strict guidelines on the three-hour visit. It prohibited photos or video of the training and its participants, and barred interviews with the fatigue-clad Ukrainian soldiers standing just a few yards away from the reporters on the training range.
The restrictions reflect continuing concerns at the White House and Pentagon about stoking Russian anger over the West’s involvement in the war or triggering a wider conflict. At the same time, however, the Biden administration has insisted that the U.S.-based training itself is not likely to worsen tensions with Russia. Officials on Tuesday repeated that the Patriot is a defensive system, not an offensive weapon.
“The Patriot air defense system presents no, I say again, no threat to Russia,” said Col. Martin O’Donnell, a spokesman for U.S. Army forces in Europe and Africa, which oversees the U.S. training in Germany.
After finishing up at Fort Sill in the next several days, the Ukrainians will travel to Poland, where their Patriot system will be waiting for them, American officials said. The troops will then spend a few weeks with other Ukrainian soldiers who have been carrying out similar training in Europe on a Patriot battery donated by Germany and the Netherlands, the officials said.
Once any operational kinks are worked out, the two Ukrainian-operated Patriot batteries will deploy to the war zone, mostly likely in April, officials said. France and Italy have said they would send air defense systems that are similar to the Patriot.
Where and how the Patriot systems will be deployed will be up to the Ukrainian government, officials said. Since President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia ordered the invasion of Ukraine in February last year, Moscow has unleashed a torrent of missile and airstrikes on civilian and military targets.
Ukraine’s leaders will probably use the Patriots to defend high-priority targets, like key portions of the country’s electrical grid and other civilian infrastructure. Those have been hit particularly hard by Russian high-speed 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 down or thwart drones and warplanes, as well as a range of cruise and ballistic missiles, officials said. Its ability to counter weapons like Russia’s Kinzhal hypersonic missile is as yet unknown.
Air defense specialists warned against considering the Patriot a silver bullet against all threats. “One Patriot battery cannot turn the conflict,” Mr. 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 the Patriot system was a powerful sign of the United States’ deepening military commitment to Ukraine. The Pentagon’s active-duty Patriot units frequently deploy for missions around the world, and experts say the United States does not have the kind of deep stockpiles of Patriot missiles available for transfer that it did with munitions like artillery shells and rockets.
The Patriot is one of the most sought-after air defense systems on the American weapons market, used by Saudi and Emirati forces in Yemen and throughout the NATO alliance in Europe.
The Patriot is also by far the most expensive single weapon system that the United States has supplied to Ukraine, at a total cost of about $1.1 billion: $400 million for the system and $690 million for the missiles.
One single interceptor missile costs about $4 million, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Each launcher costs around $10 million.