On the ground, Ukraine’s military has been clawing back swathes of territory from Russia in a series of blistering counteroffensives in recent months. It has demonstrated an ability to strike far behind enemy lines, most notably when it hit the Kerch Strait Bridge linking Crimea to the mainland.
But despite those successes, it has remained vulnerable to attacks from the air. Russia’s response to the strike on the strategically important bridge was fierce and swift: it rained a flurry of more than 75 missiles on Ukrainian cities across the country, hitting both civilian and military targets. Although not all the missiles hit their mark, it was a painful reminder of that vulnerability.
Speaking after the strikes, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky asked allies to step up their deliveries of advanced air defence systems.
“When Ukraine receives a sufficient quantity of modern and effective air defence systems, the key element of Russia’s terror — rocket strikes — will cease to work,” he told Zelensky told Group of Seven leaders this week.
Now, Kyiv’s allies are doing just that.
In the days since the missile barrage, which left energy infrastructure damaged and killed at least 14 civilians, the United States and its Nato allies have pledged deliveries of advanced air defence systems.
At the top of that list was a pledge by the White House to speed up the delivery of sophisticated National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System, or NASAMS — a short to medium range ground-based air defence.
The US had approved the delivery of eight NASAMS in August, following repeated requests from Zelensky. The first two of which were due to arrive in November, and the rest at a later date. But that order has been expedited following the Russian missile attacks, the White House said, and Ukraine’s defence minister now expects the first two to arrive before the end of October.
The systems cost around $23m per unit, according to the Department of Defence.
"Systems will be provided as fast as we can physically get them there," Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters on Tuesday. "We’re going to do everything we can, as fast as we can, to help the Ukrainian forces get the capability they need to protect the Ukrainian people.”
So what are NASAMS? And will they be enough to protect Ukraine against further missile attacks?
The NASAMS is a mobile, mid-range air defence system capable of identifying, engaging and destroying “current and evolving enemy aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicle and emerging cruise missile threats,” according to manufacturer Raytheon Missiles and Defense, which developed the system with Norwegian defence and aerospace firm Kongsberg.
The systems have been used to protect the airspace around Washington DC and the wider Capitol region since around 2005.
The system is armed with three launchers, each of which can carry up to six missiles, and can identify targets up to 25 miles away. Those launchers are capable of engaging “72 targets simultaneously in active and passive modes and, using active seeker missiles, can intercept targets beyond visual range,” according to the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, a missile defence lobby group.
Currently, Ukraine is using an existing stock of Soviet-made air defence systems, such as the S-300 long-range surface-to-air missile system. It has also made use of the SA-11 Buk mid-range system near front lines, according to the Financial Times.
But most of those systems were designed nearly 40 years ago and have failed to fully protect Ukraine’s airspace, as the latest Russian missile strikes showed.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday after the US agreed to expedite the delivery of its NASAMS, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen Mark Milley said Ukrainians has used their current systems “very effectively,” but that they have been asking for more comprehensive protection in the form of an “integrated air missile defence system” — that is a mix of systems with different ranges.
“That doesn’t control all the airspace over Ukraine, but they’re designed to control priority targets that Ukraine needs to protect,” Gen Milley said.
It is not just the US that is bolstering Ukraine’s air defences. The NASAMS will be supported by Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) sent by the United Kingdom, the UK Ministry of Defence announced on Thursday. The rockets, which cost around $1.2m each, will be the “first donated by the UK which are capable of shooting down cruise missiles,” the MoD said in a statement.
“These weapons will help Ukraine defend its skies from attacks and strengthen their overall missile defence alongside the US NASAMS,” Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said.
In addition, the UK will send “hundreds of additional air defence missiles, of other types previously provided, will also be donated as part of the package, along with hundreds of additional aerial drones to support Ukraine’s information gathering and logistics capabilities,” the MoD said in its statement.
Some Nato allies have moved even faster than the United States. Four German-made IRIS-T Surface-Launched-Missile (SLM) systems, which can defend against missiles at a range of 25 miles, have already arrived in Ukraine this week. Like the NASAMS, their delivery was sped up following the Russian missile strikes.
German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht told reporters in Brussels that a further three air defence systems would be delivered to Ukraine next year.
“Ukraine urgently needs air defence systems and artillery and this is exactly what Germany delivers,” she said.
Ukraine’s minister of defence Oleksii Reznikov heralded the arrival of the German systems and impending US delivery as a “new era of air defence” in Ukraine.
“A new era of air defence has begun in [Ukraine]. IRIS-Ts from [Germany] are already here. [American] NASAMS are coming. This is only the beginning. And we need more. No doubt that Russia is a terrorist state,” he wrote on Twitter.
“There is a moral imperative to protect the sky over [Ukraine] in order to save our people,” he added.
The question that now remains is whether the new air defence systems will be enough to stop future Russian missile attacks. Some military analysts have suggested that even the most comprehensive defence systems in the world could not fully protect Ukraine — and that its military leaders will still have to make critical choices about how to distribute the systems it has been given between civilian and military targets.
But Tyler Rogoway, an aviation and defence writer, argued that the most important aspect of the NASAMS is the widespread availability of the ammunition needed to fire it.
“NASAMS’ primary armament is the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM). Yes, the exact same missile used around the world by fighter aircraft in air-to-air applications,” he wrote in The Drive.
“This means NATO alone, which sits on an inventory of many thousands of AMRAAMs, can provide Ukraine with the ammo it needs to maximize the system’s impact. There are few modern SAM systems that have enough ammunition sitting on the shelf to last over a sustained high-intensity conflict like the one in Ukraine,” he wrote, describing it as “an absolutely critical advantage.”
The most urgent task now for Ukraine will be learning how to coordinate the various different systems on the way to its armed forces, Gen Milley said in his briefing.
“The task will be to bring those together, get them deployed, get them trained — because each of these systems is different — make sure that they can link together with the command-and-control and communication systems and make sure they have radars that can talk to each other so that they can acquire targets on the inbound flights,” he said.
“So it’s quite complicated from a technical standpoint. It is achievable, and that’s what we’re aiming at,” he said.
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