Fort Sill, Oklahoma
The Ukrainian soldiers waved and honked their horns as they drove along a dirt road at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, moving their vehicles into position to defend against a hypothetical Russian missile barrage.
These were not ordinary trucks, however. The Ukrainians were manning a US Patriot air defense system, which 65 Ukrainian soldiers have been training on intensively for 10 weeks, instructed by US Army trainers at the base.
CNN was invited to witness the training on Tuesday, just days ahead of the Ukrainians’ expected graduation from the expedited course. The training at Fort Sill is the only location on US soil where the US is instructing the Ukrainians on US weapons systems. But video and photographs of the training were prohibited, to protect the identities of the Ukrainians who will be heading home to defend their country against Russian forces within the next month.
The Ukrainians have excelled, officials said. They learned the basics of the Patriot system so quickly that they were given extra, intensive training rarely afforded to their American counterparts completing the same course, the officials added.
“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,” said Brig. Gen. Shane Morgan, acting Fort Sill and Fires Center of Excellence commanding general.
“It was easier, though never easy, for them to grasp the pace and maintenance,” he said. “They are the best of the best in what they do in air defense for Ukraine.”
The system is now set to be deployed in Ukraine in the coming weeks – much sooner than anticipated – giving the country some extra protection against Russian missiles that has been requested since the outset of the war just over a year ago.
On Tuesday, US officials also said Abrams tanks would be deployed quicker than expected, though Ukrainian officials say much more sophisticated weaponry, and lots of it, is needed to force back Russia’s offensive in a meaningful way.
And the US and its allies know that the two Patriot systems going to Ukraine – one provided by the US, the other jointly by Germany and the Netherlands – will not be enough to defend whole Ukrainian cities from complex Russian missile attacks.
“A Patriot is not going to be able to defend the entire city” of Kyiv, for example, one senior defense official said.
But it will be better than the air defense systems that the Ukrainians are currently using, which can’t defend against Russian ballistic missile attacks.
The Ukrainian men and women, ranging in age from 19 to 67, have trained from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days per week, for 10 weeks, officials said. Many were skilled engineers before the war and several have multiple degrees, and all were hand-picked by Ukrainian military leaders to train in the US.
“I think just because of their combat experience back home, they were able to pick up on things really easily – the best I’ve seen so far, and I’ve trained numerous countries,” one US trainer told CNN. “These guys smoke them.”
Underscoring how experienced the Ukrainians already were in air defense when they arrived at Fort Sill, a senior US defense official said that the Ukrainians’ battalion commander had already conducted multiple intercepts of Russian missiles over the course of the war. The US battalion commander, by contrast, has never conducted a real-world missile intercept, the official said.
The Ukrainians also settled in well to life at Fort Sill, which incorporated lots of soups – a Ukrainian staple – into meal plans alongside American cuisine: burgers, BBQ and grilled steaks. One US trainer told CNN that many of them had not had burgers before. They were a crowd favorite.
But the intense, real-world combat awaiting them in Ukraine was constantly top of mind. One Ukrainian soldier was in the middle of a training session when she received a phone call informing her that her husband had been killed in combat. Several of the 18 US military interpreters called in to help translate were born in Ukraine, and deeply impacted by the soldiers’ experiences, officials said.
“It’s been a true honor to meet these warriors,” a senior Fort Sill official said. “Their stories had both been horrific and amazing at the same time. And I think we have learned as much from them as what we have taught them.”
The US trainers worked to incorporate into training the realistic threats and conditions that the Ukrainian troops will face when they get home, that official said. But often the Ukrainians would essentially take over the training themselves, tailoring it to the most realistic types of threats they may face at home.
“Normally we don’t do that,” the trainer said. “But based on what these Ukrainian members are going to do, it was very important that we were able to have that dialogue and incorporate some of those realistic threats.”
“Once in Ukraine, the soldiers will integrate these new systems into their layered air defenses, for one reason and one reason only – to help shield Ukraine from Russia’s wanton attacks on civilian infrastructure in densely populated urban areas,” US Army spokesperson Martin O’Donnell said. “Fort Sill and the Fire Center of Excellence are enabling such protection. I’m certain their actions these past months will save lives.”