Over the past several months, Russia has launched multiple waves of missiles and drone attacks across Ukraine. The heaviest attack so far came on November 15, when more than 100 missiles targeted a dozen cities and districts, as well as the country’s critical energy infrastructure.
Ukraine had relied mostly on Soviet-era defense systems such as the S-300. But now that air defense is Ukraine’s top priority, Western countries have been pushed to provide more sophisticated devices.
Here are some of the systems that are helping to defend Ukrainian skies.
S-300: Old But Still Powerful
The S-300 is a long-range surface-to-air system, originally developed in the Soviet Union during the 1960s and 1970s. It is capable of targeting aircraft, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles.
At least 17 countries -- including Ukraine, Russia, and several NATO members – have the S-300. While it’s technically a defense system, Russia seems to have repurposed it to strike ground targets, too. This is why there was initially some confusion over who was responsible for the missile that hit Poland in November.
Before the invasion, Ukraine had about 250 S-300 systems, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Several more have been delivered since then, as part of military aid. It remains unclear how many have been destroyed by Russian missiles.
IRIS-T: The First Modern System From The West
On October 11, Ukraine received its first modern Western defense system from Germany: IRIS-T, one of the world's most advanced air-defense systems.
Back in June, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz promised that four of these systems would be delivered, and the deal was expected to be finalized by the end of this year. However, Russia’s deadly strikes on Ukrainian cities have sped up the process.
Ukraine now has one battery that consists of a radar, command-and-control system, and three missile launchers, carrying a total of 24 missiles. Three more batteries are expected next year, mostly due to the long manufacturing process.
IRIS-T can purportedly protect an entire city from missiles that are up to 40 kilometers away. It also detects low-flying missiles (such as Kalibr) and drones thanks to its sensitive radar, which integrates data from various sources.
IRIS-T is manufactured in southern Germany and is relatively new. It has been in development since the 1990s, and tests of the latest version were finalized in 2021.
NASAMS: Western Deliveries Continue
On November 7, Ukraine received another delivery of sophisticated air-defense systems: NASAMS, sent from the United States.
NASAMS was developed in the 1990s by U.S. and Norwegian companies, and it is the same system that protects the airspace around Washington, D.C. It is a middle-range defense system, armed with three launchers that can carry a total of 18 missiles (up to six missiles each).
Its radar uses multiple sources of data, which enables it to intercept targets beyond visual range. The system can also engage multiple targets simultaneously, so it is less likely to be overwhelmed by a large number of attack missiles.
The system uses AMRAM missiles with a range of 40 kilometers (the newer version could even reach 100 kilometers), capable of hitting various targets, including unmanned aerial vehicles and cruise missiles. The United Kingdom is set to donate hundreds of these to Ukraine.
Patriot: At Long Last?
For months Ukraine has been requesting another long-range air-defense system, the U.S.-made Patriot. This system can destroy short-range ballistic missiles, advanced aircraft, and cruise missiles. It was first deployed in the 1980s and is considered one of the most advanced U.S. air-defense systems.
The West has been hesitant to provide the Patriot, mostly due to its complicated technology. One battery requires about 90 personnel to operate, so Ukrainian forces would need extensive training. Some governments were also concerned about escalating the conflict further.
When Poland turned down Germany’s offer of two Patriot batteries and suggested sending them to Ukraine instead, the proposal was rejected because the system would have been operated by NATO personnel and would therefore require NATO involvement in Ukraine.
However, the United States has recently announced additional military assistance for Ukraine, including a transfer of the Patriot defense system.
In November, Spain sent a total of six U.S.-made HAWK air-defense systems to Ukraine. The United States is also considering sending a few older HAWK systems from storage, but these would probably need to be refurbished first.
The HAWK was developed in the 1950s by Raytheon Technologies and was mostly phased out during the 2000s. It is a mobile system that provides defense against low-to-medium-altitude aircraft and is expected to be effective against Iranian drones.
The launcher vehicle is typically accompanied by a radar vehicle and a command-and-control vehicle. These vehicles may vary depending on the type of launcher.
Smaller Defense Systems: Avenger, Gepard, And Vampire
The United States also donated four Avenger air-defense systems, which provide short-range protection against drones and helicopters.
This system is mounted on a Humvee vehicle and is equipped with up to eight Stinger missiles and a machine gun. It can destroy targets up to 8 kilometers away.
Avenger is not as sophisticated as some other systems such as NASAMS or IRIS-T. It uses optical sight and short-range laser to detect targets, and the missile range is considerably shorter. However, it is valuable thanks to its high mobility.
In July, Germany supplied 30 decommissioned Gepards. These antiaircraft guns were developed in the 1970s in Germany to counter low-flying, armored attack helicopters, such as the Russian (then-Soviet) Mil Mi-24. They also seem to be effective in engaging small targets, such as Iranian-made kamikaze drones that Russia uses.
The Flakpanzer Gepard (Flakpanzer is a German term for a tank-based antiaircraft vehicle) can spot targets up to 15 kilometers away and engage them within 6 kilometers.
Besides Gepards, Germany has also provided approximately 6,000 rounds of ammunition. On top of that, another 12,000 rounds are currently on hold. Germany bought these from Switzerland some decades ago on the condition that Switzerland would have a veto over future resale or donation. So far, requests to lift the veto have been rejected.
The United States has also committed to providing the Vampire system, a laser-guided missile launcher. It is a portable weapon that can be mounted on most pickup-truck beds, even on nontactical vehicles. According to its U.S. manufacturer, the system is relatively small and can be installed within two hours by two people. Only one person is needed for operation.
The Vampire is effective against unmanned aerial systems but can engage ground targets, too. Delivery is expected in the middle of next year.
Man-Portable Air-Defense Systems
Additionally, portable missiles (also known as MANPADS) have played an important role in Ukrainian defense. The United Kingdom supplied Starstreak missiles while Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States sent Stinger missiles. Poland provided Piorun missiles.
All these systems can be transported by foot or vehicle and are shoulder-fired. They are effective against low-flying aircraft such as helicopters at a range of a few kilometers.
Stinger and Piorun missiles are so-called "heat-seekers". That means they use infrared homing to lock on to the hot engine exhaust that the target produces. Starstreak missiles, on the other hand, are guided by a laser beam.
Deliveries are expected to continue next year, and even more defense systems were promised by other countries, such as France, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Canada, to name a few. However, Ukraine faces a range of Russian threats, and the country will need to be strategic in locating the systems around the country, as it won’t be feasible to cover the entire territory.