JUST IN: Ukrainians a ‘Quick Study’ on Patriot System; U.S. Army Taking Notes
FORT SILL, Oklahoma — A low rumble gradually replaces the howl of the wind battering the golden grass and brush of the Oklahoma plains. A convoy of nine hulking Army vehicles emerges from a dirt road and speeds by into an expanse. Five trailered missile launchers fan out as radar and command vehicles stop about 100 yards behind. Then, 65 Ukrainian soldiers set the legs to anchor the launchers and start running cables to the command vehicles.
This was one of the final exercises in the 10-week training course on the Patriot missile defense system the U.S. Army has been conducting at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. And as the Ukrainian soldiers — who will soon return to the battlefield — were learning how to use the system, the U.S. Army was learning from the Ukrainians about real-world missile defense applications that could shape Army training and system requirements going forward.
For the first time since the training began in January, the Army brought a group of reporters to Fort Sill to witness the Ukrainians undergoing training on a Patriot battery. Under the ground rules, the media could not film, shoot video or speak with the Ukrainians for the safety of the soldiers and their families.
Brig. Gen. Shane Morgan, commander of Fort Sill, said the training focused on operator and maintainer tasks, and differed from the typical training course because the Ukrainians came in with more experience than most of the 5,000 U.S. and international students who come to Fort Sill for Patriot training each year.
Under the instruction of the 30th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, the Ukrainians went through a conditions-based program of concurrent courses on Patriot operations — or air battle management — launching station operations and radar, engagement control system and launcher maintenance, Morgan said.
“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,” he added, saying that the Ukrainians had been hand-picked and were some of the most educated Ukrainian soldiers.
According to Col. Martin O’Donnell, public affairs director for Army Europe and Africa, the Ukrainian soldiers would complete the training in the coming days and then travel to another location in Europe.
“There they will marry up with other Ukrainian air defenders” and the two donated Patriot batteries from the United States, Germany and the Netherlands “in order to validate their systems, ensure that they are interoperable before both the equipment and the men and women who will operate it go to Ukraine in the coming weeks,” he said.
Some 20 U.S. instructors and nearly as many interpreters — which the Army brought in from around the country — conducted the accelerated and highly tailored training for the cohort of 65 Ukrainian soldiers, a senior Fort Sill leader told reporters on background.
“We did include realistic threats and conditions that the Ukrainians will face, so we were able to have dialogue and we were able to implement some of those aspects into the training here at Fort Sill, which normally we don't do that,” the leader said.
Key to accelerating the training and focusing on advanced threats was the fact that the Ukrainians were not starting from scratch.
“So, they understand all the basics of overlapping coverage [and] layered defense based on the different threats that the Russians have — cruise missiles, [unmanned aircraft systems], ballistic missiles, fixed wing and rotary,” the leader said. And the Ukrainians have long operated systems like the Russian-made S-300 missile system, giving them a solid understanding of systems like the Patriot.
One advantage of the U.S. system over what the Ukrainians have been using is the level of automation, the leader said.
“Our systems provide a lot more assistance in determining when to engage and how to engage than what they were used to,” the leader said. “So, where they may have had to do a lot more manual computations or manual determinations, our systems are more automated and provide information to the operators to make faster decisions.”
The Ukrainians also appreciated having fewer cables to connect, the leader said.
“What they told us is many of their systems that they have there — obviously Russian systems — have 10 times the number of cables that they have to connect to make sure the system operates,” the leader said.
While the training program began with a standard script, it quickly changed as the Ukrainians provided input based on their experiences over the last year, the leader said.
“They in effect took over part of their training,” the leader continued. “They began to design their scenarios based on the tactics, techniques and procedures that they know the Russians are employing.”
And the real-world experiences the Ukrainians are facing could inform how the U.S. Army trains on the Patriot and other systems, and could impact modernization requirements, the leader noted.
“Some of it is as simple as when we talked about how we operate versus how they operate, they've already modified some of the crew positions. They're like, ‘We don't need to do that, we'll do this,’” the leader said.
“We'll be very interested to see how they implement operations to protect this system, because you can see how big it is, it's hard to hide it,” the leader said, noting that so far, the Ukrainians have been very successful with the survivability of their other equipment. “How do they protect the system? And this is what will be … very interesting to observe as they progress with the system [going] forward.”
The training at Fort Sill was out in the open with no threats. The Ukrainians will be operating their two donated Patriot batteries in urban and contested environments.
The system takes about 45 minutes to deploy once parked, and how and where the Ukrainians decide to operate the batteries will provide more feedback for Army personnel, many of whom have never operated an air defense system in combat.
One takeaway from training the Ukrainians was that when a soldier has a solid foundation in missile defense operations, it is not that difficult to transfer from one system to another, which means that as the Army modernizes its systems, “maybe we can train a little quicker going forward and save time and resources on the U.S. side,” the leader said.
The United States continues analyzing the various missiles being launched by Russia, and “when the analysis is done, and we'll be able to … run simulations to determine performance, and then, hey, maybe we need to make some advancements based on [what] we observed with the characteristics of that missile system,” the leader said.
All of which could inform Army programs like the Future Interceptor, which is slated to replace the Patriot system that first launched in the early 1980s.
Another area where the Ukrainians have shown the Army there is room for change is in maintenance. One of the soldiers training the Ukrainians recounted an anecdote from early in the training process when one of the Patriot vehicles was sidelined because of a coolant leak.
“And they go, ‘Oh, we'll go fix it.’ And I was like, ‘Well, it would take me three weeks to get this fixed, you guys probably won't fix it.’ 20 minutes later, they come back, and they go, ‘It's fixed,’” the trainer said.
“I wish it would get faster,” the trainer said of the Army’s maintenance system. “But for us, it just shows what can be done with dedication.”
Ukrainian soldiers have a sense of urgency and can’t wait weeks — they have minutes to address problems on the battlefield, the trainer said. “And so, their sense of urgency is what has driven this training.”