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Ukraine Needs Missile Defense

NATO can protect Ukrainian civilians from Russian terrorism. Let Putin explain why this would be an escalation.
October 15, 2022
Ukraine Needs Missile Defense
KYIV, UKRAINE - OCTOBER 13: Enlistees receive military training both virtual and in an interactive environment before they are sent to the frontline as Russia-Ukraine war continues in Kyiv, Ukraine on October 13, 2022. Volunteers practice firing with AK-47 infantry rifle and RPG-7 anti-tank gun. (Photo by Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

This past week almost every major Ukrainian city was hit by dozens of Russian missile strikes—on the order of Vladimir Putin. The missile launches were targeted to destroy critical civilian energy infrastructure as winter approaches, but also to terrorize the Ukrainian population at large.

The day of these attacks the Washington Post ran an editorial calling on the West to provide the Ukrainians with more effective, US or European-design air defense systems. I spent some time recently with the Ukrainian air and missile defense forces and most of the world has no idea as to the limited technology and capabilities of the systems the Ukrainians are currently working with.

The senior officers of the air defense command I spoke with were immeasurably grateful for the flow of military aid that Ukraine has been provided. Said one: “Having these modern weapons are a long-term necessity and will be essential to maintaining Ukraine’s security in the aftermath of this war. But, in the meantime there is a more urgent dilemma in that we have to shoot down Russian missiles and combat aircraft every day—not three or four years from now.”

Ukraine’s air defense units are largely 1990s/early 2000s-era surface-to-air missile batteries originally made in Russia; most are a generation (or more) behind the state-of-the-art. Which means that the Russians themselves know the limitations of these systems and how they can be exploited.

Russia’s launches of cruise missiles from Tupolev Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers loitering out of range over Belarus air space (and from other platforms) are planned so that they “flood the zone” of Ukrainian air defense. The Ukrainians are faced with more targets than they have the available assets to shoot at.

Monday’s barrage is a case in point. In addition to the 83 missiles fired, the Russians also employed around two dozen of the Iranian-made HESA Shahed-136 (designated Geran-2 in Russian service) “suicide” drones. Despite these numbers Ukraine’s air defense units still managed to bring down an estimated 43 of missiles and an unspecified number of the drones.

In order to save civilian lives and protect Ukrainian infrastructure and the Ukrainian economy, they need more air defense help.

The U.S.-Norwegian NASAMS systems that are now being delivered to Ukraine are extremely capable and welcome additions to Ukraine’s arsenal. But they are also only capable of engaging at restricted range, what the air defense community calls SHORAD, or “Short Range Air Defense.” This is of limited utility against a wave of missile strikes such as those seen in Kyiv and other cities this week. SHORAD is the air defense equivalent of “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” which can be too late in some circumstances.

In order for the Ukrainian air defense forces to have adequate capability to defend the country they need several batteries of the U.S.-made Raytheon Patriot missile system. This weapon first gained fame in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm against Soviet-made Scud missiles. Its design has been modernized and produced in successively more capable and longer-ranged versions ever since. It is even effective against ballistic missiles such as the Russian-made Iskander system that is already deployed in the region. (The NASAMS are not effective against ballistics.)

The challenge is that deploying a Patriot system is not a just-add-water proposition. Patriots take years to build and deliver and extensive time to train in their operation. Ukraine needs better and more capable longer-range air capability now.

One of LBJ’s favorite lines about the futility of half-hearted measures was, “You cannot fertilize a field by farting through the fence.”

One option for getting long-range missile defense in place on a short timeframe would be for NATO member nations already operating Patriot batteries to deploy them to Ukraine.

It would be a big step. But there are precedents for it. In 2013, America, Germany, and the Netherlands all deployed Patriot batteries along the Turkish-Syrian border to protect against incoming airstrikes. Since all three nations operate some model of the U.S.-made system, they were able to datalink and share targeting coordinates with one another in the event of an attack on Turkey. More than 20 years before that, during the Desert Storm conflict, Patriot batteries were deployed by the U.S. to Israel and operated cooperatively in response to Iraqi Scud strikes.

Deploying Patriots to Ukraine would be more complicated than either of those other cases because it would mean basing NATO-nation personnel on Ukrainian territory. Moscow would treat this as an escalation. They might use it as pretext for an escalation of their own and, as Putin never tires of reminding us, Russia is a nuclear state.

Or at least, Russia is nuclear. It’s not clear that it’s really a “state” right now. The Putin regime is one that resembles a social club of ex-KGB officers and mobsters more than a legitimate government. It has been engaged in increasingly erratic behavior that is both self-destructive and destructive to the wider world. As the mass graves and torture chambers discovered across formerly-occupied Ukraine make clear, Russia is also guilty of committing an ongoing campaign of war crimes. After Monday’s strikes, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky observed, quite reasonably, “We are dealing with terrorists.”

This assessment seems incontrovertibly true. Particularly so when viewing the Russian missile strikes this past week. Russia sent missiles not against legitimate military targets, but against civilian and economic targets. This is terrorism. Plain and simple.

Putting Patriot systems on the ground to protect Ukrainian civilians from terrorist acts would only concern Vladimir Putin if Russia was committing terrorism.

Let him explain to the world why protecting innocent civilians from his war crimes is an “escalation.”

Reuben Johnson

Reuben F. Johnson is a defense technology analyst and correspondent for Breaking Defense and was based in Kyiv for two decades prior to the Russian invasion. He is currently based in Warsaw.