On May 16 as part of a broad spectrum of attacks on targets in the Ukrainian capital Kiev Russian Air Force MiG-31K strike fighters launched Kh-47M2 Kinzhal ballistic missiles to target Ukraine’s Patriot air defence systems. Recently delivered from Germany and the United States, Patriots are considered by far the most costly and high end weapons systems in Ukrainian service, and are very widely deployed both by seven NATO members and by key overseas strategic partners such as Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Israel. The strikes on the Patriots followed warnings form Russian officials, as well as from several analysts in the West, that any systems delivered to Ukraine would very quickly be targeted and destroyed after becoming operational. The reputational loss the Patriot was expected to suffer was thus reportedly a major factor leading Washington to hesitate to approve transfers of the assets. While a radar system and five missile batteries from the Patriot system were reported to have been destroyed in the MiG-31K strike, reportedly after firing 32 surface to air missiles as part of unsuccessful attempts to intercept the Kinzhal missiles, little remains known regarding casualties among the system’s crew or the nature of the personnel which were manning it when it was struck.
Washington’s decision to deliver Patriot systems announced in December was largely motivated by an urgent need to strengthen the defences of major Ukrainian cities. Not only were cities such as Kiev considered at serious risk of needing to be abandoned due to the rapid destruction of infrastructure in Russian strikes, but Ukraine’s existing air defence network reliant on massive arsenals inherited from the Soviet era had also been very seriously depleted limiting their ability to defend either cities or frontline forces. Nevertheless the Patriot as a highly complex weapons system was considered far too advanced for Ukrainian personnel to be able to train to operate in time for the assets to have an impact on the war, meaning when the systems were deployed as early as April 2023 there was widespread speculation that military contractors from Western countries were responsible for manning and maintaining them. Western personnel on the ground have played a very large role in the Russian-Ukrainian War, from British Royal Marines deployed to the frontlines and massive ‘stealth networks’ of CIA and other personnel performing roles such as organising logistics, to contractors usually formerly members of Western militaries who have deployed in an unofficial capacity often in full frontline units.
The presence of Western contractors already trained in operating a range of Western weapons systems has according to multiple reports played a key role in Ukraine’s seemingly seamless integration of new military hardware from its supporters in Europe and the United States, where non-Soviet equipment was previously used only in very limited roles before February 2022. Regarding the need for contractors to operate Patriot systems in Ukraine, the U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS) advisory body was among many sources to issue reports that Ukrainian personnel would be unable to operate Patriot missile systems before 2024 at the earliest. “There is a lot of learning to do before Ukraine will have a functioning Patriot system on the ground,” it emphasised, highlighting taking local repair crews as an example that this would take approximately 53 weeks. With Ukrainian personnel thus unlikely to have been manning the Patriot systems deployed in April and attacked in May, less than five months after the decision was taken to supply the systems, it is likely that contractors from NATO member states with experience operating the Patriots were the ones targeted. The scale of the destruction caused by the strikes means casualties among these personnel are likely, although they are unlikely to be disclosed at least until many years after the war’s conclusion.