“Look who’s here!” a triumphant Oleksii Reznikov, the defense minister of Ukraine, tweeted on Monday. “NASAMS and Aspide air defence systems arrived in Ukraine! These weapons will significantly strengthen #UAarmy and will make our skies safer. We will continue to shoot down the enemy targets attacking us.”
Reznikov’s excitement was understandable, if a little cryptic to the uninitiated. Not everyone will know what “NASAMS” stands for, but some hope it may soon be a household name.
From the beginning of the war, air defense has been a key component of Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion. It has taken on an even greater significance since early October, when Russia stepped up its campaign of missiles and drone strikes targeting Ukraine’s cities and infrastructure.
The National (sometimes written as Norwegian) Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System, or NASAMS, has gotten the most attention. (Aspide, the other system Reznikov referred to, is a similar Spanish-produced model.) The U.S. has provided two of these systems, produced jointly by the American contractor Raytheon and Norwegian firm Kongsberg, with six more due to arrive later. Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, spokesman for the Pentagon, said this week that the system will help Ukraine defend itself against any “type of direct aerial threat that Russians may try to employ against various targets or civilians” — including the drones and cruise missiles that have been doing most of the damage lately.
Experts say it’s a better air defense system than anything the Ukrainians have had to date, and it comes at a moment when there is great need to bring down Russian missiles before they land.
CNN first reported that the NASAMS were on their way to Ukraine in June, but officials did not publicly acknowledge the plan until September. These weapons are being provided under the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which provides funding to Ukraine to buy weapons systems directly from contractors, as opposed to the president’s “drawdown” authority which provides them directly out of the U.S. military’s own stocks. Several dozen Ukrainian troops have already completed training in Norway on how to operate the system.
So what exactly are these systems? And how much of a difference will they make in the war?
From D.C. to the Dnieper
Developed in the 1990s, the NASAMS is in operational use in Norway, the U.S., Spain, the Netherlands, Finland, Oman, Lithuania, Indonesia and one undisclosed customer, according to Kongsberg. The NASAMS history is veiled in secrecy; it’s not publicly known if it’s ever actually been used in combat, and a company spokesman did not respond to a query from Grid. Its most famous deployment is in Washington, D.C., where NASAMS systems have been deployed at strategic locations around the capital since 2005. In other words, Ukraine is getting the systems that guard the U.S. government from aerial attack.
The NASAMS is a modular system consisting of three main components: a radar for detecting incoming aircraft missiles or drones, a missile launcher for firing on them and a command-and-control center. According to the Congressional Research Service, it has an estimated firing range of around 25 miles. While this is shorter than the Soviet-era S-300 systems currently in use in Ukraine, the NASAMS is a more modern system with more up-to-date technology, including an identification system to avoid firing on friendly targets.
Ian Williams, deputy director of the missile defense program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), noted another advantage: mobility.
“You can move them quickly to where they need to be and also move them quickly so you don’t get blasted,” he said. “Those are the kind of air defenses that have really excelled in this war.” In this respect, it has some similarity to HIMARS, the mobile rocket launcher system that has become one of the most celebrated weapons in the Ukrainian arsenal. Another advantage: the NASAMS fires missiles known as the Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile, which are used by many fighter jets and which Western countries have in great quantities. That’s a key consideration for a war in which ammunition supplies have been a key variable.
How would it be used? The system affords protection for larger areas and could therefore be deployed to protect key government buildings or electricity substations from missile or drone attack. The latter have been hit often in recent weeks.
The threat from above
As a recent report from Britain’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) notes, Russia’s air campaign in Ukraine has gone through several phases. In the opening days of the war, missile strikes focused on Ukraine’s air defense capabilities and stockpiles. After that, they shifted to the Ukrainian defense industry and communications infrastructure. After Russian forces withdrew from Kyiv to focus on the eastern Donbas region, the emphasis was on hitting Ukraine’s fuel storage and railway facilities.
“In each of these cases, Russia was unable to generate a critical concentration of strikes to have decisive effects on Ukraine’s ability to continue fighting,” the report notes.
A new phase began on Oct. 10, two days after Ukraine’s successful strike on the Kerch Bridge in Crimea and one day after Gen. Sergei Surovikin, who previously oversaw a brutal air campaign in Syria, was appointed the new commander of the Russian military campaign. This campaign began with a cruise and missile barrage targeting Ukrainian cities and has continued since then with regular barrages of Iranian-supplied Shahed-136 drones against electricity substations and other infrastructure targets — the apparent goal being to plunge Ukraine into cold and darkness as winter approaches. It’s this that has lent urgency to Ukraine’s global lobbying for more air defense systems of all kinds.
The RUSI report argues, “With rolling blackouts already affecting much of the country and the weather already getting cold, the urgency of these requirements is hard to overstate.”
Wanted: more ways to shoot down Russian missiles
The Ukrainians have been surprisingly effective in using the air defense systems they have, and they’ve been getting more effective over time. The RUSI report found that Ukraine’s use of the S-300 and Buk systems had an interception rate of around 20 to 30 percent in March and April but were up to 50 to 60 percent by mid-June. But Ukraine has also lost a significant number of these systems: as many as 64 Ukrainian surface-to-air missile systems have been destroyed, according to the open-source tracking blog, Oryx.
Which is why, for all the technological advantages the NASAMS may have, in the end it’s also a numbers game. “What they need is more volume,” Williams said. “You need to be able to cover greater amounts of territory when you’re defending against cruise missiles, and you’re limited by how far your sensors can see.”
With those limits in mind, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked the U.S. and President Joe Biden for the systems — which Ukrainian officials had reportedly been lobbying the U.S. for months — he also added, “Believe me, it’s not even nearly enough to cover the civilian infrastructure, schools, hospitals, universities, homes of Ukrainians.”
Could other systems be on the way? Since the beginning of the war, Ukraine has lobbied for Patriot missiles, the U.S. Army’s highly advanced anti-ballistic missile system, but to no avail. CSIS’s Williams told Grid, “I don’t see us providing Patriots missiles to Ukraine any time soon, just because of the availability of them is so low. Most of them are spoken for already. They’re one of the highest-need assets in the U.S. military.” U.S. officials have already raised concerns about the number of troops needed to operate the system: About 90 soldiers are attached to a single Patriot missile battery in the U.S. Army.
Another system Ukraine has requested is Israel’s vaunted Iron Dome, which successfully intercepted 90 percent of the more than 4,000 rockets fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad during last year’s brief Gaza conflict. While Iron Dome is not designed to counteract some of the faster and more advanced cruise missiles Russia is firing, experts say it could be useful at counteracting the rockets and small Iranian drones used against Ukraine’s cities in recent weeks.
“Everybody knows that your missile defense systems are the best,” Zelenskyy said, while pleading to Israel’s parliament for aid last spring. So far, however, Israel has refrained from giving any weaponry or weapons systems to Ukraine, likely hoping to avoiding a clash with Russia that could impact its own security interests in Syria.
Even as Russia faces setbacks on the battlefield like this week’s apparent withdrawal from the city of Kherson, the need for air defenses is unlikely to decrease any time soon. Ukraine’s air force warned this week that Russia is probably stockpiling missiles for massive new strikes, and Western officials believe Iran is preparing to supply Russia with hundreds more missiles and attack drones.
The skies over Ukraine are still far from safe.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.