Can the United States Do More for Ukrainian Air Defense?
As Russian missiles pummel Ukrainian cities, the Ukrainian government has pleaded for additional air defense systems to protect its people. The United States and NATO have responded positively, with Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin citing the need in his NATO press conference. That need is growing as the Russians increasingly use Iranian-supplied kamikaze drones to attack military and civilian targets.
Unfortunately, turning good intentions into battlefield realities will be difficult. The United States has already provided many air defense systems, including Stingers, the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS), and S-300s, but is nearly out of equipment to provide. Recent DOD statements on air defense recognize the problem but do not announce any new U.S. actions. Austin pointed to the Europeans as the primary source of help in this area.
The Europeans are stepping up, but they can provide only small numbers of systems in the near term. In the longer term, the United States and Europe will provide systems from new production, but those will take years to arrive.
Here's a rundown of air defense systems that the United States and NATO might provide, and a description of the practical challenges involved.
Stinger is a short-range portable air defense system that uses infrared (heat) to find a target. There are many videos online showing Stingers striking Russian aircraft. The United States has provided Ukraine with over 1,400 Stingers, but the last commitment came in the spring. As an earlier CSIS paper discussed, the U.S. inventory is limited and production rates are low. The United States might squeeze out a few more by taking additional risk, but military planners have reduced inventories as much as they are comfortable, given the inability to replace losses. The United States might acquire a few from foreign countries that currently field the system. The Netherlands, Germany, and Lithuania provided some Stingers in the past.
Avenger is a truck-mounted Stinger that is widely fielded with U.S. forces. The United States will likely give some to Ukraine by squeezing training pools and maintenance overhead. However, numbers will be small because U.S. units need the system for their own use, and the low Stinger inventory would limit resupply.
NASAMS is a medium-range air defense system jointly produced by Raytheon and Norway’s Kongsberg. For its interceptor, it uses the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), a widely available U.S. missile, though the newest version can also use the AIM-9X Sidewinder (a shorter-ranged missile with a different seeker). The United States has a handful to protect the White House from a 9/11-type attack, but does not field them to the regular armed forces. The United States has committed to providing eight, but only two will come from existing stocks. The other six will come from new production and take years to arrive. About four other countries have the system, with a few others awaiting deliveries. Because of the production backlogs and limited fielding to date, few systems will be available for transfer to Ukraine.
The S-300 is a Soviet/Russian medium-range air defense system used by over a dozen countries. According to the IISS Military Balance, the Ukrainians had about 250 S-300s before the war. The United States and NATO have sent additional systems scrounged up from Eastern European allies. S-300s are an easy system for the Ukrainians to incorporate since they have used it for years, but finding more will be difficult because the United States has already sent the easily acquired systems.
This medium- to long-range U.S. system is the gold standard for air and missile defense. Used by a dozen countries, it has been continuously upgraded since first introduced in the 1960s and proven successful in multiple combat operations. Because it is currently in production and with over a thousand launchers produced for the United States and global customers, it would be a natural system for Ukrainian air defense. The obstacle is that Patriot is highly complex, with a sophisticated radar and command center in addition to the launcher. To give a sense of the complexity, the Patriot system repairer course is 53 weeks. Patriot would be well-suited for postwar reconstruction of the Ukrainian military. However, because training operators and establishing a maintenance system would take years, it would not be suitable for near-term transfer.
Spain is providing Ukraine with four HAWK medium-range air defense systems, and Ukrainians are already training on it. Produced by the United States, HAWK was widely distributed among U.S. allies and is still used by a dozen countries. It has been upgraded continuously, with the current version being called Improved HAWK (or I-HAWK). In its day, it was considered to be highly effective. However, that day was long ago. The United States retired its last HAWK system in 2002, replacing it with Patriot. Nevertheless, although HAWK is considered obsolete in NATO, it may still be effective against Russian aircraft and missiles, both of which have shown themselves to be vulnerable. Further good news is that many countries may be willing to transfer their systems so they can buy something more modern.
Israel has used this short-range air and missile defense systems extensively to defeat rocket attacks. Iron Dome would be particularly effective against the artillery rockets and kamikaze drones striking Ukrainian cities near the front line. However, Israel has taken a neutral stance in the conflict and says it will not provide the systems to Ukraine. The United States might transfer some systems through a third country to get around this restriction. The United States acquired two systems for testing and might provide these to Ukraine since they are now orphans, with testing mostly complete but no plans for further procurement.
U.S. Developmental Systems
U.S. short- and medium-ranged air defense became moribund with the end of the Cold War. Patriot and the Air Force could take care of air and missile defense in the post-Cold War world where the United States had air dominance, so there was little need for other systems. Both the U.S. Army and Marine Corps reduced or eliminated their short-range systems.
With the rise of great power competition, both are now investigating new systems. The army recently let a contract for 16 prototypes of what it calls Indirect Fire Protection Capability Increment 2. However, these have not yet been delivered. The Marine Corps is acquiring its own short-range system, the Marine Air Defense Integrated System (MADIS), but none have been delivered.
Air Defense Enablers
The United States might supply enablers that do not, themselves, destroy enemy missiles were aircraft but help systems that do. For example, the United States has sent 10 air surveillance radars that spot intruders and queue either aircraft or air defense missiles. The United States has sent command-and-control systems to coordinate responses. It might do more of both. The United States might adapt Ukrainian aircraft to use NATO air-to-air missiles like the AIM 9X that could shoot down cruise missiles. It showed that such adaptations could be done with the HARM anti-radar missile, which the United States supplied over the summer, so it might be done with air-to-air missiles.
Officially referred to as counter unmanned aerial systems, these would respond to the Iranian drones that Russia is using. The United States is putting tremendous effort into developing these systems, but few are fielded yet. Last summer, the United States supplied the developmental Vampire system, which uses small rockets to take out drones. It has also supplied some electronic systems to interfere with drone guidance. The United States might scrounge up a few more systems from the development community, but there is no large inventory to draw from.
Potential European Systems
As Austin noted in his comments to NATO, Europe is stepping up where the United States cannot.
France is providing some systems, reportedly the short-range vehicle-mounted Crotale. Previously it provided some portable Mistral systems, the French equivalent to Stinger.
Germany is sending four IRIS-T SLs (surface-launched), a truck-mounted system that uses the infrared air-to-air IRIS missile. Germany developed the missile as a successor to the U.S. Sidewinder AIM-9. Most IRIS missiles are mounted on aircraft, but Germany also developed a ground-launched version. Unfortunately, the ground-based system is relatively new, with the first delivered in 2015, so there are not many available for transfer. Ukraine is buying 11 new production systems, but those will not be available until next year.
The United Kingdom will provide AMRAAMS to supply the NASAMS being provided by the United States and Norway. Last spring, it provided some Starstreak systems, the UK equivalent to Stinger. It might send more.
NATO has launched a European Sky Shield Initiative to upgrade its own air defenses, but that will not produce results for many years, and its implications for Ukraine are unclear.
Ballistic Missile Defense
Most of Russia’s attacks have used cruise missiles or kamikaze drones, which are vulnerable to air defenses. Unfortunately, a few have used ballistic missiles, which are difficult to intercept because they rise high into the atmosphere and descend at great speed. Some U.S. systems like the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) and Patriot can intercept short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, but THAAD and Patriot are complex and, as discussed earlier, difficult to transfer. Fortunately, the Russians have few ballistic missiles left. They fired some in the latest round of attacks but are retaining most of their remaining inventory for a notional conflict with NATO.
The bottom line: NATO will provide a few systems to enhance Ukrainian air defenses, but numbers will be limited. There will be orders for new production, but it will take years for these systems to arrive in Ukraine.
The one piece of good news is that the Russian inventory of long-range missiles may be as limited as NATO’s ability to provide air defenses against them. Russia launches periodic attacks against cities to retaliate against political developments and battlefield reverses, like the attack on the Kerch bridge. However, Russia no longer has enough missiles for a sustained campaign. That means periodic suffering for the Ukrainian people but no prolonged attacks and no change to the course of the war.
Mark F. Cancian is a retired Marine colonel and senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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