By Shawn Rostker
The war in Ukraine has been marked by a Russian reliance on air strikes in the face of its failure to capture decisive victory on the ground. The use of drones and missiles against military and civilian targets has been one of the main pillars of a Russian strategy to drain Ukraine’s willingness to fight by putting its population and infrastructure at risk. A patchwork of Ukrainian air defense measures has been markedly successful at stopping incoming missile threats and limiting the damage of the Russian air assault.
While the success of missile defense in Ukraine demonstrates the limits of reliance on stand-off strike as a primary means of warfare, it is important not to equate all types of missile defense or treat warfare as uniform and predictable. The success of missile defenses in Ukraine can inform U.S. investments into its own missile defenses but should not be seen as an indicator that missile defense capabilities can negate all missile threats nor provide more than one tool against a limited set of threats – threats that would present differently if the United States were under attack instead of Ukraine.
Russia has prosecuted its air campaign primarily through a combination of cruise missiles and kamikaze drones, but has also launched a number of ballistic missiles. Early in the conflict, Russia targeted Ukrainian military bases, air defenses and munitions depots, but has increasingly used its arsenal to target civilians and critical infrastructure indiscriminately. The result has been a terror campaign to grind down the Ukrainian people’s support for the war and force the Ukrainian military to ration its limited air defense assets. The backbone of these defenses has been the Soviet-origin SA-8, SA-10 (S-300), and SA-11 platforms. These units have been effective at preventing deep penetration into Ukrainian airspace by Russian aircraft and countering cruise missile salvos. These are mobile platforms designed to intercept short- and medium-range missile threats and have been used to down incoming swarms of drones as well.
Western-supplied platforms have been crucial to the sustained Ukrainian air defense effort, including the IRIS-T, NASAMS, Aspide and Gepard systems. The defining feature of theater systems such as these is that they are designed to identify and intercept threats within only a proximate area. The Aspide, for instance, features radar-homing that can effectively detect and engage threats up to 15 miles out, while the IRIS-T has an engagement zone of approximately 20 miles. Ukraine’s creative use of mobile air defense units has also enabled it to neutralize cruise missile threats that it otherwise would struggle against. Ukraine has used mobile fire groups armed with man-portable air defense weapons (MANPADS) such as the Igla and Stinger missile platforms to respond to changing battlefield dynamics. When the Russians shift attacks from one contested area to another, Ukraine quickly dispatches these surface-to-air mobile units to counter the missile threat sooner. This is possible because the incoming threats, primarily cruise missiles and drones, are relatively slow moving.
The most important platform being used to defend Ukrainian civilians and troops is undoubtedly the Patriot missile system. It is the most agile of the various air defenses and the only system designed specifically to counter the faster moving ballistic missile threat. Ukraine has only two of these systems, with one reportedly stationed around Kyiv. Depending on the interceptors it’s stocked with, it is capable of defending up to 100 miles out. Since delivery of the Patriot batteries, Ukraine has had greater success in neutralizing the more challenging ballistic missile threat to civilian centers. The Ukrainians have also been provided the Spanish-donated Homing All the Way Killer, or HAWK, a ground-based medium-range air defense system. Although antiquated, it’s proven capable of defending against aircraft, cruise missiles and the short-range tactical ballistic missiles that Russia has lobbed continuously.
These all constitute what are known as theater defense capabilities. When used together, they have had relative success in limiting the damage from Russian strikes. In the limited context of the Ukraine war, missile defense can be said to be a useful tool. In a possible future conflict, U.S. forces should expect to be targeted in much the same way as Ukraine, and the lessons learned from its defense should prove valuable.
There is, however, a clear distinction to be made. The missile threats in Ukraine are of an entirely different category from the intercontinental ballistic missiles that Russia and China employ. Strategic defense against more than a stray missile or two is not possible, nor is it even in development. It seems unlikely that the obstacles to complete defense of North America can be overcome, whatever Ukraine’s success at defending against smaller and slower threats. In the event of anything short of a limited nuclear attack, strategic systems such as the Ground-based Midcourse Defense program would be easy to overwhelm with volume. Missile defenses, particularly in the theater context, can save the lives of soldiers and civilians, as the fighting in Ukraine has demonstrated, but the lesson should be that future investments in missile defense would be better made in an area that has proven to be effective.