The State of Ukrainian Air Defense (Part Three)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 101

(Source: Ukrainian World Congress)

Executive Summary:

  • Ukrainian forces require more assistance in repairing, maintaining, and training for Western-made air defense systems. They also need additional air defense assets, especially surface-to-air missiles and corresponding systems, drone interceptors, and infrared search and track capabilities.
  •  Ukraine’s Western partners can temporarily fill these gaps with Soviet-era systems with the follow-on of more advanced systems providing a longer-term, more effective solution. 
  • On the eve of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Washington, air defense is set to be a central point in discussions as alliance members consider options for more effectively supporting Kyiv

(Part One)

(Part Two)

On June 30, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that Russia had dropped over 800 glide bombs on targets within Ukraine, including civilian infrastructure. He declared, “Ukraine needs necessary forces and means to destroy the carriers of these bombs, mainly the Russian attack aircraft. … Launching attacks from a long distance and advanced air defense is the foundation for stopping daily Russian terror. I am grateful to all partners who realize this” (Ukrainska Pravda, June 30). Zelenskyy’s plea is the latest from the Ukrainian side for more air defense and long-range support against Russian air superiority (see Part One and Part Two). On the eve of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Washington, the Ukrainian president’s words will be a central point in discussions as alliance members consider options for more effectively supporting Kyiv.

After World War II, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and their corresponding systems gradually took the central position in ground-based air defense (, accessed July 2). This resulted from the emergence and development of jet aircraft, which has remained the case for decades. Russia’s war against Ukraine has changed the rules of the game dramatically. Small, cheap, and mass-produced drones have now become key elements for army air defense (see Part Two). It is important to consider these new challenges when determining Ukraine’s most critical needs.

Kyiv’s Western partners have several options to supply Ukrainian forces with the air defense assets they need:

  • Direct Transfer of Ready-Made Soviet Air Defense Systems and Munitions—This temporary solution will prolong the agony of using Soviet equipment. It can serve as a quick stopgap, however, while waiting on more advanced systems and the proper training of Ukrainian units (see Part One; Defense Post, March 22, 2022; Kyiv Independent, April 11).
  • “FrankenSAM” Program—This US-led effort seeks to “cobble together” a variety of air defense assets for Ukraine from sources throughout the world (Kyiv Post, December 28, 2023, January 9, 17). The program is also a temporary solution but will allow for an increase in the combat capability of Ukrainian units over the medium term, avoid overreliance on Soviet systems, and mitigate the problems with the low production rates of SAMs in the West.
  • Direct Transfer of Ready-Made Western Air Defense Systems and Munitions—This would focus on more advanced short—and medium-range systems. These include the German-made IRIS-T medium-range system and the US-made National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAM), as well as the French-made Crotale, British-made Stormer HMV, and US-made AN/TWQ-1 Avenger short-range air defense systems (see Part Two).
  • Establish Repair Centers and Assist With Maintenance—Assistance is primarily needed on Western equipment with the prospect of at least partial localization of these efforts in Ukraine (Euromaidan Press, December 13, 2022, October 24, 2023, May 25). Numerous air defense and multiple launch rocket systems are being lost or damaged, and missiles are being consumed extremely quickly. Strengthening the infrastructure network for the maintenance and repair of existing Western equipment, with the gradual transition to producing individual components in Ukraine, would be an effective support method. Restoring and modernizing some Western systems, including the US-made Phalanx and German-made MANTIS systems, is a good place to start.
  • Increased Investment and Cooperation on Development—Organizing the production of advanced air defense systems and anti-aircraft missiles directly on Ukrainian territory is a critical need (Ukrainska Pravda, October 30, December 7, 2023, May 6). Beyond gradually localizing the production of Western systems, there is also the option of developing new Ukrainian products. The Ukrainian defense industry, however, suffers from a chronic shortage of funds and technical expertise. More technological cooperation with Western companies and increased Western investments in Ukrainian defense production will be key to solving these problems.

An important area for development involves devising new means for countering air threats, especially drone interceptors, or drones designed to destroy other drones (, April 3). Such products are less versatile than SAMs. They struggle to hit high-speed and high-altitude targets and have a narrower range and longer reaction time. Even so, these drone interceptors’ relative simplicity and low cost are significant advantages that lend themselves to mass production. The effectiveness of these drones will need to be tested, but they seem to provide a solution for dealing with reconnaissance drones. In 2020, the United States successfully tested the Coyote Block 2 interceptor and is now reportedly working on a large order (Defense Post, February 12).

The US-made drone has not been battle-tested, however. One option would be to test the interceptor in Ukraine to inform future development—and not just in the United States. Providing for the localized production of similar drones in Ukraine would go a long way to disrupting the constant swarms of Russian reconnaissance, strike, and strategic drones (Kyiv Post, December 19, 2023, March 6). Cooperation between Western and Ukrainian companies will be key, as will sourcing the proper financing.

Stronger detection mechanisms are needed to more accurately and consistently identify Russian air threats. Radars are a key element of any air defense system, allowing for detection, tracking, and identification of targets. They emit very specific radio waves, however, that are difficult to mask. Consequently, they are quite vulnerable to enemy strikes. The provision of more advanced infrared search and track (IRST) capabilities to Ukraine could significantly increase the effectiveness of its air defense. Although IRST systems have a shorter range, the stations do not emit anything, making them extremely challenging to detect and target.

Kyiv is constantly looking for ways to neutralize new air threats. One focus has been improving Ukraine’s electronic warfare capabilities. A striking example of this is the “Zvook” project, a hardware and software system that uses acoustic detection to identify enemy targets, including cruise missiles, helicopters, and drones at low and medium altitudes (Ukrainska Pravda, March 1, 2023; Euromaidan Press, March 3, 2023). The system consists of sets of mirrors, highly sensitive microphones, and an automated data processing and analysis system. The price for development has been low, providing another opportunity for mass production.

Effective air defense requires qualified and highly trained personnel. While Ukraine has made strides in this area, there is still room for improvement. The Ukrainian military can address the remaining deficiencies in several ways:

  • Improved Training and Education—All Ukrainian personnel need to undergo comprehensive air defense training. Officers need to understand the principles of command and control and the strengths and weaknesses of the various air defense assets at their disposal. The rank-and-file, and not just those assigned directly to air defense units, will need to have command of all air defense equipment. While Ukrainian units are being trained in several European countries, more can be down to provide better localized training as well (see Part One and Part Two).
  • International Partnerships—Increased cooperation with international partners will help facilitate an exchange of experience and specialists, as well as mutual modernization. In the case of Ukraine, the involvement of foreign experts, the creation of joint platforms for training, and the exchange of experience could not only make the training of future anti-aircraft gunners more in-depth and effective but also speed up the process. The experience of Kyiv’s Western partners could also help establish modern training infrastructure (New Voice of Ukraine; Euromaidan Press, April 5).
  • Creation of Specialized Units—Another possible solution is the creation of specialized units where recently trained soldiers would perform secondary combat tasks under the supervision of more experienced instructors. This approach would allow for better verification of preliminary training and would likely increase the effectiveness of newly trained gunners. This will require more resources, however, especially manpower (see EDM, July 26, 2023). The West could step in and help with instructors, who would replace some Ukrainian specialists now at training centers and embed them in the specialized units.

The integration of all these measures will serve to create a more effective air defense system for Ukraine that will be able to better counter the most critical and dangerous Russian air threats. Time is of the essence. As the Russian offensive in the Kharkiv direction has all but stalled and domestic pressures mount for Moscow, Kyiv and the West have been given a window of opportunity to retake the initiative on the battlefield. Disrupting Russia’s air superiority will go a long way to achieving that goal.