Western air-defence systems help Ukraine shoot down more missiles – The Economist – 07.11.22
But if ammunition runs out, Russian warplanes could pose a major threat again.
FLYING FIGHTER jets in Ukraine’s air force is punishing work, says Juice. “You have to be ready to go at any time, in any conditions,” says the pilot, who asked to be identified by his call sign. When the alarm sounds, Juice has only a few minutes to grab his equipment, jump into the cockpit, rev up his MiG-29 and take off. Because the Russians often attack at night, he wears his flight suit to bed. The worst part, however, is spending hours in the sky chasing missiles or drones only for each of them to elude you. “Then after landing you open your smartphone, and you see explosions in Kyiv, or explosions in other cities, and you weren’t able to save these lives,” he says. “Or you land on your base and there is no electricity there, because a Russian cruise missile destroyed a power station.”
On October 31st, as Russia unleashed a swarm of missiles against Ukraine, Juice was in the air once again. Flying near a large city (he cannot say which one), he repeatedly locked onto a Russian cruise missile. There was one problem. The Soviet-era R-27 missiles his plane carries are unable to track their target on their own. Instead, they require the aircraft to keep it in a radar lock until impact. If the lock fails, the R-27 risks looking for other targets, including buildings. “That’s why it’s too dangerous over a city. You’re responsible for all the lives on the ground,” says Juice. He had a few good chances, but he never fired. Juice relayed his target to the nearby ground air defence, landed his plane and hoped for the best.
Over the past month alone, Russian cruise missiles and Iranian-made Shahed-136 loitering munitions, or kamikaze drones, have killed two dozen people and damaged up to 40% of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. The country is getting better at knocking them out of the sky. On October 10th, nearly half of the missiles and drones Russia launched against Ukraine dodged the country’s defences; explosions rocked Kyiv for the first time in months.
Less than a month later, Ukraine claims to be shooting down over 80% of the drones and missiles heading its way. Of the 55 missiles Russia lobbed at Ukraine on October 31st, the day Juice scrambled, 45 were intercepted, according to Ukraine’s air force. But there is a real risk that if Ukraine’s stock of anti-aircraft ammunition runs out, Russian missiles will get through in large numbers, and Russian warplanes, kept at bay since the spring, may return in force.
New weapons from Western allies are helping. In early October, Ukraine received an advanced IRIS-T system from Germany. Three more are on the way. The one deployed has so far shot down every projectile in its path, the Ukrainians say. An S-300 battery delivered earlier this year from Slovakia has been remarkably effective as well. And on November 7th, Ukraine’s defence minister confirmed the country had received two NASAMS systems, developed by Kongsberg, a Norwegian aerospace company, and Raytheon, an American one. Conversations with Ukrainian officials suggest the NASAMS have already been on the ground for some time. America is trying to speed up delivery of six more.
Ukrainian officers say they have learned to predict where the drones and missiles are fired from and which routes they may take, and to reshuffle their own defences accordingly. Sometimes the Russians try to confuse the Ukrainians by launching missiles from different locations or programming them to fly in circles, says Yuriy Ignat, an air force spokesperson. “And we are trying to move our air defences to mislead them,” he adds. “This is also an art, to be in the right place at the right time.” Lives are at stake every time. Outside the café where the interview took place, in the western city of Vinnytsia, a crater and the wreckage of an office building and a concert hall marked the spots where three Russian cruise missiles struck over the summer, killing 28 people.
The newly arrived weapons have made an impact, but they are too few, say Ukrainian officials. Soviet-era equipment makes up the bulk of Ukraine’s defences. “We are fighting with weapons of the last millennium against weapons that were produced two years ago,” says Mr Ignat. Ukraine’s radars have trouble tracking cruise missiles. Its Buk-M1 missile launchers are devilishly tough to operate, and require a lot of manpower. “You have all of these old indicators, monitors, hundreds of buttons and screens,” says Mr Ignat. “The risk of human error is high.”
Not so with the new systems. “The first time I sat in the NASAMS command post, it took just a few minutes to understand how the system works,” says Denis, an air-defence officer who oversaw NASAMS training for a group of Ukrainian operators in Norway. Only a few weeks were needed to train them, which is remarkable for such a programme, he says. But the biggest advantage the new weapons would offer Ukraine is a chance to create a shield over parts of the country. Currently, instead of a single air-defence network, Ukraine has a hodgepodge of systems which cannot exchange data. Systems like the Buk-M1 or the S-300 can only shoot at the target that shows up on their own radar. But NASAMS and IRIS-T are interoperable. A target detected by one can be destroyed by the other, though each launcher can only engage targets out to around 40km.
Even as Ukraine patches up its defences, new threats are surfacing. Ukrainian officials say they are aware of Russian plans to acquire Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar ballistic missiles from Iran, and to ship them by air to Crimea and by sea to Russian ports on the Caspian. “We know arrangements are already made,” says Vadym Skibitskiy, deputy head of Ukrainian military intelligence. He and others acknowledge that Ukraine has no effective protection against the Iranian missiles, which strike targets at much higher speeds than cruise missiles or drones, or against the similar Iskander missiles Russia has already used in Ukraine. Mr Skibitskiy says the Russians launched 25 Iskanders in October. Ukraine was able to intercept only three. The country is equally defenceless against the hypersonic Kinzhal missiles Russia has mounted onto some of its warplanes.
So far Russia’s use of such missiles has been restrained only by scarcity. “The Russians are critically short of munitions,” says a Western official. Mr Skibitskiy estimates that Russia has just 120 Iskanders left. Other sources put the number of Kinzhals at around 40. With its stocks replenished by the Iranians, however, Russia could redouble its attacks. And ammunition is no less a problem for Ukraine. That is evident from a report published on November 7th by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British think-tank whose experts recently interviewed large numbers of air-force officers and intelligence officials in Ukraine. “Eight months of high-intensity combat have consumed unprecedented and unforeseen quantities of interceptor missiles,” concludes the report, “and Western allies have few ways to supply more directly or indirectly.” Now more than ever, say officials in Kyiv, Ukraine needs weapons capable of shooting down ballistic missiles, such as America’s Patriot system.
Juice says there is only so much Ukraine can do with old weapons. The country’s ageing warplanes, including Soviet-made MiG-29 and Su-27 fighters, struggle even against the Shahed drones, which have a low radar cross-section and move about as fast as a passenger car. Without modern jets, Ukraine’s air force can be no match for Russia’s air force or its missiles: “We have a lot of highly trained pilots and ground crews, but our hardware is not good enough.” If surface-to-air ammunition were to run out, warns RUSI, Russian warplanes could “dramatically overmatch” Ukraine at high altitudes. It says that supplying Ukraine with even a “tiny” number of Western fighter jets would have a disproportionate deterrent effect. There is no sign that such jets are on their way. But at least Juice had some good news when he landed after Russia’s Halloween barrage. A ground-based system downed the missile that had eluded him in the sky. ■
Read more of our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis.
Editor’s note: This piece was updated on November 7th following the publication of a new report from the London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)
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