Extending Air Defense East

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This series—featuring scholars from the Futures Lab, the International Security Program, and across CSIS—explores emerging challenges and opportunities that NATO is likely to confront after its 75th anniversary.

In the future, NATO will employ a novel mix of unmanned aircraft and networked launchers to create an air defense umbrella along its eastern and southern flank that denies Russia the ability to hold greater Europe hostage.

Russia is producing long-range attack munitions—from cruise missiles and drones to glide bombs and ballistic missiles—faster than Ukraine can respond. Despite NATO’s best efforts, Moscow is on a war economy footing and bending production rates to compel Kyiv through military coercion in lieu of battlefield breakthroughs. The punishment campaign reinforces other defeat mechanisms to seek strategic advantage not just in Ukraine, but as a signal to the West. As a result, the future of the war and deterrence in Europe rests as much on securing the skies over Ukraine and along NATO’s eastern flank as it does on the ground.

Russia is using long-range strikes in Ukraine in a manner consistent with its concept of sixth-generation warfare. The larger idea, similar to joint firepower strikes, is to hold the enemy at risk across the depth of their battlespace. In Moscow’s case, this goes beyond changing the correlation of forces on the battlefield and includes targeting what Putin and his inner circle see as Ukraine’s Achilles’ heel: critical infrastructure required to support basic human needs in Ukraine. In other words, Moscow’s punishment campaign has reverted to countervalue targeting and using the suffering of Ukrainian people as a crude form of political leverage.

This coercive campaign relies on illicit networks of electronics from third-party states and arms transfers from other authoritarian states. To date, efforts to stem that flow through sanctions have failed. Russia is destroying Ukraine and signaling NATO that even weakened it has a playbook for the next war. A mix of Russian front companies and businesses comfortable operating in the shadows sustain munitions factories across the country. Furthermore, there have been no meaningful penalties on rogue states like Iran and North Korea for openly supplying Putin the weapons he needs to terrorize Ukrainian cities and destroy their critical infrastructure.

Russia is also taking advantage of the seams between NATO’s frontline states and Kyiv to attack targets in Ukraine and signal its resolve to the West. In May 2024, Poland scrambled F-16 fighter jets as Russian missiles used Polish airspace to attack targets in Ukraine. This followed other high-profile incidents, including a November 2022 episode in which Russian missiles headed into Ukraine traveled over 40 kilometers into Polish airspace. These incidents are not restricted to Poland. Russia has violated NATO airspace numerous times since the war started. Moscow’s use of loitering munitions to attack critical transportation infrastructure on the Danube River spilled over into Romania in March 2024.

Russia’s coercive air campaign presents a dual threat to Ukraine’s ability to stay in the fight and to NATO itself that must be addressed. There are promising signs. First, the Air Defense Coalition supporting Ukraine now has 15 members, and key countries like the United States are fast-tracking the transfer of equipment. Yet, Russia still produces and fires more missiles and drones than Ukraine can shoot down. There is a need to develop novel concepts for changing the equation that increase warning time for Ukraine and improve intercept rates.

Second, Europe is investing in a new ground-based air defense network known as Sky Shield that can complement existing NATO air policing missions. Yet, Sky Shield currently lacks a concept of operations, information-sharing networks, and interoperability exercises required to make the idea a reality.

NATO can address both issues by experimenting with new air defense battle groups that integrate novel solutions for using unmanned aircraft to support a new air defense umbrella. First, NATO should create rotational air defense battle groups. These multinational formations would be built around a multitiered, in-depth air defense concept. Active defenses would be built around a rotational tactical air defense formation from a NATO member. Passive defenses would include novel sensor networks using unmanned systems like MQ-9s employing SOAR pods—a signal intelligence capability capable of scanning the horizon and supporting early warning and decoys to enhance survivability. For example, multiple NATO countries field SAMP/T, a mobile platform that operates at the battery level. A SAMP/T battery could integrate with a detachment of MQ-9s, creating a battle network that enables long-range detection and passing target quality data between partners.

Second, the alliance should publicly declare a zone up to 50 kilometers into Ukraine in which it will intercept any Russian missile. This new buffer zone would both protect NATO states along Ukraine’s border and signal to Moscow that the alliance has the capability and credibility to deny its ability to coerce member states and partners. Of note, the new air defense battle groups could support the buffer zone and ensure that NATO has a mechanism for passing additional air threat data to Ukraine that could enable Kyiv to intercept Russian missiles.

Third, this rotational air defense group should experiment with new concepts for increasing the effectiveness of air defenses in NATO and in Ukraine. The concepts should adapt legacy unmanned aircraft like the MQ-9 to use SOAR pods—an intelligence capability—to support detecting Russian missiles. Passing this early warning information to Ukrainian air defenders will help them prioritize intercepts and more efficiently use limited inventories of air defense missiles. This process will also help NATO experiment with building new battle networks that enable deterrence by denial and undermine Moscow’s confidence in its sixth-generation warfare concept.

Ukraine is a tragedy likely to continue and spread unless NATO finds a way to deny Russian long-range missile strikes. Deploying new air defense groups and establishing a buffer zone in Ukraine are viable ways of checking Russia’s war aims and long-term effort to destabilize Europe.

Benjamin Jensen is a senior fellow for Futures Lab in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and the Petersen Chair of Emerging Technology and professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps University School of Advanced Warfighting.

Benjamin Jensen
Senior Fellow, Futures Lab, International Security Program