Ukraine’s Patriot Defenses at Work: Shuddering Booms and Bursts of Light

The first warning was a blip, a small anomaly picked up by radar scanning the skies over Ukraine. Within seconds, it became clear that the blip was a Russian ballistic missile streaking in Kyiv’s direction at several times the speed of sound.

It was just before 4 a.m. on Dec. 11, and there was no time to sound air-raid alarms in the city. While millions of civilians slept, Ukrainian forces fired off several American-supplied Patriot missiles as the deadly battle in the sky commenced.

Missile-on-missile battles like this play out in a matter of minutes, said a Ukrainian major, Volodymyr, the commander of a Patriot air-defense battery who insisted that only his first name be used because of the sensitivity of his unit’s operations.

From a mobile control room near Kyiv, his team tracked the salvo of incoming Russian missiles as the Patriot’s algorithms calculated their speed, altitude and intended course. With shuddering booms and bursts of light, its interceptor missiles knocked down one Russian missile after another.

“Given that the Patriot is one of the few systems that can effectively shoot down ballistic missiles, and ballistic missiles cause the most casualties, I think the number of lives saved during the war is in the thousands,” Major Volodymyr said.

Major Volodymyr, the commander of a Ukrainian Patriot air-defense battery, last month in Kyiv.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

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