Patriot Missiles: Like The Gulf War, Are America’s ‘Much Touted’ Defense Systems Again Faltering In Ukraine?

By Ritu Sharma

The falling of a part of the Patriot surface-to-air missile on a busy traffic road in Kyiv terrified people. It also brought back the fears of the missile’s failure in the first Gulf War.

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But reports indicate that the mayhem from the sky could have resulted from the ‘lethality enhancer’ in the hybrid PAC-3 series interceptors being used in Ukraine.

Patriots are often described as purely ‘hit-to-kill’ weapons. The upgraded version, however, has an explosive charge that creates a cloud of metal fragments around the missile’s body called ‘cycloids.’

It improves the chance of hitting an air-breathing target like a cruise missile. In other words, it increases the interceptor’s lethality by expanding the engagement’s diameter against the cruise missiles.

A 1996 unclassified report by Army and Lockheed Martin released on PAC-3s affordable integration approach reveals that the PAC-3 has improved range, accuracy, and lethality necessary to effectively defend against tactical missiles with nuclear, conventional high explosive, biological, and chemical warheads.

“Although interceptor to target body contact generates a high destructive energy level against theatre ballistic missiles, a two ring Lethality Enhancer is deployed near intercept to increase further the single shot probability of kill against air-breathing threats,” the report reads.

The air-breathing threats referred to here are cruise missiles or aircraft, which fly at speeds lower than ballistic missiles. The pure hit-to-kill mode is effective while engaging ballistic threats, but in the face of smaller cruise threats, it might not be as effective. Now the lethality enhancer comes into play.

The lethality enhancer has been a feature on all PAC-3 interceptors since the baseline version first entered the US Army service in 1995.

“To further increase the kill probability against air breathing threats (not used against TBM engagement), a low fragment expansion velocity Lethality Enhancer (LE) is included in the PAC-3 missile configuration,” the report adds. The Army conducted further improvements on the missiles to reduce the cost per shot of the running missile type, and this Cost Reduction Initiative Patriot variant was tested in 2017.

The Lethality Enhancer (LE) explosion is strong enough to cause a clean separation between the front and rear ends of PAC-3 missiles. It is difficult to predict where the fragmented part would fall. This could be the reason behind the largely unscathed tail section that fell on the moving traffic over Kyiv.

The footage was captured by the dash camera of a car traveling on the highway, and it depicts a missile part slamming between two cars after falling from the sky and striking a traffic light.

The falling of the missile fragment from the sky also brought back the question of the success rate of Patriot missiles, like during the first Gulf War. Since then, many changes have been made in the system creating the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC)-1 and PAC-2.

Both systems used the technology of bursting near the incoming missile and killing it through blast fragmentation or lethality enhancement.

Patriot Air defense system

The enhanced capability Patriot missiles were also deployed in Saudi Arabia. One day Houthi forces fired seven rockets at Saudi Arabia. The Saudi military claimed that their PAC-2 missiles destroyed all seven rockets sent their way. One man had died after being struck by metal fragments.

Whether the fragments came from a malfunctioning Patriot, a successful intercept, or a Houthi rocket striking the ground remains unclear. Videos surfaced later that showed Patriots exploiting mid-air or veering off course.

While the experts have been skeptical about the inflated claims about the missile kill rate, the advantage it has given the Ukrainians cannot be negated. The recent relentless barrage of missile attacks by Russia has been staved off well by the Patriot Interceptors. It has managed to take the fear of the legendary ‘hypersonic’ Kinzhal missile from the hearts of the Ukrainian troops.

  • Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
  • Article republished with some alterations
  • She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at)