Western Defense Systems Help Ukraine Shoot Down More Missiles

Flying fighter jets in the Ukrainian air force is exhausting work, says Juice. “You have to be prepared to fly at any time, in any weather situation,” explains the pilot, who asked to be identified by his code name. When the alarm sounds, he only has a few minutes to pack up all the equipment, climb into the cockpit, rev up his MIG-29 and take off. Since the Russians often attack at night, he sleeps in his flight suit. However, the worst thing is spending hours in the sky chasing missiles or drones and in the end they end up escaping you. “Then after landing, you turn on your phone and you see explosions in Kyiv or other cities, and you haven’t been able to save those lives,” he says. “Or you land at your base and find out there’s no power, because a Russian cruise missile has destroyed a power plant.”

On October 31, when Russia fired a barrage of missiles at Ukraine, Juice had to take off again. In the vicinity of a large city (she can’t say which one), she repeatedly locked on her radar with a Russian cruise missile. There was a problem. The Soviet-era R-27 missiles carried by his plane cannot track the target on their own. They require the aircraft to keep it locked on the radar sight until impact. If the blockade fails, there is a risk that the R-27 will search for other targets, including buildings. “That’s why it’s too dangerous over a city. You’re responsible for all life on earth,” says Juice. Juice had several good opportunities, but he didn’t get to shoot. He passed the target to the nearest ground flak, landed, and hoped for the best.

Ukraine shoots down more than 80% of drones and missiles

In the past month alone, Russian cruise missiles and Iranian-made Shahed-136 loitering munitions or suicide drones have killed two dozen people and damaged up to 40% of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. However, the country is improving its capabilities to shoot them down in the air. On October 10, almost half of the missiles and drones launched by Russia against Ukraine evaded Ukrainian anti-aircraft defenses; explosions rocked Kyiv for the first time in months. Less than a month later, Ukraine claims to shoot down more than 80% of the drones and missiles directed at it. Of the 55 missiles launched by Russia on October 31, the day Juice had to take off in a hurry, 45 were intercepted, according to the Ukrainian air force.

The new weapons of the western allies are one of the reasons. In early October, Ukraine received an advanced IRIS-T system from Germany. Another three are on the way. The one that is deployed has so far shot down all the projectiles that have been put in its path, the Ukrainians claim. An S-300 battery delivered earlier in the year from Slovakia has also proven very effective. According to the United States, Ukraine is about to receive two NASAMS systems, developed by a Norwegian aerospace company Kongsberg and the American Raytheon; and tries to accelerate the delivery of six more systems. Some Ukrainian officials have hinted that the former may already be on the ground. “Who knows? They may be here,” says Denis, an air defense officer who oversaw the NASAMS training of a group of Ukrainian operators in Norway.

The volunteer unit of the Khartiia Territorial Community tests military intelligence drones in the Kharkiv Region of northeastern Ukraine.

Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy / EP

Ukrainian officials say they have learned to predict where drones and missiles are being fired from and the routes they may take, as well as to reorganize defenses based on that data. Sometimes the Russians try to confuse the Ukrainians by launching missiles from different places or programming them to fly in circles, says Yuri Ignat, a spokesman for the air force. “And we try to move our air defenses to confuse them,” he adds. “That’s also an art, being in the right place at the right time.” And there are always lives at stake. Outside the café where the interview took place, in the western city of Vinnitsia, a crater and the debris of an office building and a concert hall mark the places where three Russian cruise missiles struck during the summer. and killed 28 people.

Newly arrived weapons have made their presence known, but they are few and far between, Ukrainian officials say. Soviet-era equipment makes up the bulk of Ukraine’s defenses. “We are fighting with weapons from the last millennium against weapons that were made two years ago,” Ignat says. Ukrainian radars have trouble tracking cruise missiles. Its BUK-M1 missile launchers are extremely unwieldy and require many operators. “They have a lot of old-fashioned gauges and monitors, hundreds of buttons and screens,” Ignat continues. “The risk of human error is high.”


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Luis Amiguet

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This is not the case with the new systems. “The first time I sat in the NASAMS command post, it only took me a few minutes to understand how the system works,” says Denis, the air defense officer. It took only a few weeks to train the Ukrainian operators in Norway, which is remarkable for such a program, he says. However, the biggest advantage the new weapons would offer is the ability to create a shield over parts of the country. Today, instead of a single air defense network, Ukraine has a hodgepodge of systems unable to exchange data. Systems like the BUK-M1 or the S-300 can only fire at the target that appears on their radar. However, NASAMS and IRIS-T are interoperable. A target detected by one can be destroyed by the other, although each launcher can only attack targets within a radius of about 40 km.

As Ukraine tightens its defenses, new threats are emerging. Ukrainian officials say they are aware of Russian plans to acquire Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar ballistic missiles from Iran and send them by air to Crimea and by sea to Russian Caspian ports. “We know that agreements have already been concluded,” says Vadim Skibitski, deputy head of Ukrainian military intelligence. Skibitski and others acknowledge that Ukraine does not possess effective protection against Iranian missiles, which strike targets at speeds much faster than cruise missiles or drones, nor against similar Iskander missiles that Russia has already used in Ukraine. According to Skibitski, the Russians launched 25 Iskanders in October. Ukraine could only intercept three. The country is also defenseless against the Kinzhal hypersonic missiles that Russia has mounted on some of its warplanes.

Russia mobilizes Iskander missiles 50 kilometers from Ukraine border

Russia mobilizes Iskander missiles 50 kilometers from the Ukrainian border.

For now, Russia’s use of such missiles has only been limited by scarcity. “The Russians are critically short of ammunition,” says a Western official. Skibitski estimates that Russia only has 120 Iskander left. Other sources put Kinzhal’s number at around 40. However, if the Iranians replenish its reserves, Russia could redouble its attacks. Now more than ever, Kyiv officials say, Ukraine needs weapons capable of shooting down ballistic missiles, such as the US Patriot system. They also want longer-range rockets, like the US ATACMS, which they hope to use to hit command centers hundreds of miles behind enemy lines. “The best protection against these missiles is to destroy them where they are launched,” says Ignat. The United States has refused to provide ATACMS, given the possibility that they will be used against targets inside Russian territory.

Juice says there isn’t much the Ukraine can do with obsolete weaponry. The country’s antiquated fighter jets, including Soviet-made MIG-29 and SU-27 fighters, struggle even against Shahed drones, which have a low radar cross-section and move no faster than a passenger car. Without modern jets, the Ukrainian air force will not be able to beat the Russian air force and its missiles: “We have many highly trained pilots and ground personnel, but our equipment is not good enough.” Still, at least Juice got some good news when he landed after the Russian missile barrage on Halloween. A ground system shot down the missile that had escaped from the sky.

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