Ukraine is getting new air defense systems that won’t make things easier for Russia: August 24 was the 31st anniversary of Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union—and Moscow did not let the day pass without yet another vicious attack, peppering the town of Chaplyne with a lethal hail of Smerch rockets, and Iskander and S-300 missiles. Hits to residential areas, the train station and a passenger train killed 25 civilians and wounded 50.
Fortunately, Russia’s ability to inflict such terror attack appears likely to decline over time. One reason is depletion of missile stocks and inability to rapidly build them back up. Another factor is that Ukraine’s ground-based air defenses are strengthening, not weakening,
This trend was discernible in the $2.98 billion military aid package the U.S. announced the same day, the largest given by Washington to Ukraine yet. (Technically, the money is coming out of a total of $13.7 billion already authorized by Congress in the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative.)
This package, which focused on “long-term…multi-years investments” included no less than six NASAMS air defense batteries to supplement two already donated to Ukraine, with delivery unrolling over the next year or two.
Factoring in that Ukraine is also set to receive four compatible IRIS-T air defense batteries from Germany, that means Kyiv will eventually have a dozen, networkable modern air defense batteries.
Ukraine’s older ground-based Soviet-era air defenses systems, supplemented by Western short-range missiles, have performed beyond expectations, shooting down a large share of cruise missiles and accounting for most of the 100 confirmed Russian jet and helicopters losses in the war as of late August, confining Russian tactical jets to attacking frontline targets rather than Ukrainian supply lines.
But benefiting from sensors and missiles decades more modern than those used by Ukraine, medium-range NASAMS batteries could reduce cruise missile threats to Ukrainian cities, or closer to the frontline, make even hit-and-run airstrikes far more risky. The systems are apparently new production, meaning they’re likely the latest NASAMS-3 model which can fire both medium-range AIM-120 radar-guided missiles and short-range AIM-9X Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles.
Ukraine’s dated but powerful S-300P batteries will continue to handle wider-area defense. But, depending on the AIM-120 variant, NASAMS batteries can defend a 15.5, 18.5 or even 28.5-miles radius—enough to protect a city-sized ‘bubble’. And they can engage aircraft flying up to 65,000 feet, the maximum practical ceiling of manned combat aircraft.
Each battery includes multiple launchers and MPQ-64F1 Sentinel radars effective at detecting even low-flying aircraft/missiles; and a stealthier MSP-500 optical sensor for relatively close threats. The battery’s fire control system is designed to network with other batteries, including the IRIS-Ts Germany will eventually supply. However, Ukraine will likely need to devise workarounds to coordinate with its Soviet-technology defenses.
Kyiv will need to choose between enhancing defense of cities like Dnipro, Lviv and Kyiv from cruise missiles, or deploying near the frontline at Kharkiv, Kramatorsk or Mykolaiv where threats are denser, and there’s greater risk of losses to Russian artillery and air defense suppression strikes. Fortunately, with twelve NASAMS and IRIS-T batteries, Kyiv may be able to do both to a degree.
Ukraine is getting VAMPIREs—but were they lurking there all along?
The U.S. will also purchase a counter-drone system called VAMPIRE for Ukraine, which stands for Vehicle-Agnostic Modular Palletized ISR Rocket Equipment. This is actually a boxy four-round rocket-launcher pod mated to an independent 24-volt generator and a WESCAM MX-10 stabilized electro optical/infrared sensor turret with target-tracking capabilities.
This package can be easily fitted both onto military vehicles and civilian pickup trucks and launch 70-millimeter laser guided AGR-20 Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System (APKWS) rockets, an especially affordable form of guided weapon.
APKWS rockets can actually be used against ground targets and manned aircraft or missiles too. Nonetheless, the counter-drone application is evident: Ukrainian troops are compelled to expend costly anti-aircraft missiles designed to intercept supersonic fighters on cheap Russian surveillance drones because of the risk these may call down very lethal artillery bombardments. APKWS thus offers a lower-cost guided weapon for disabling smaller, lower-flying drones.
The Pentagon prior announced transfer of APKWS rockets to Ukraine in May without explaining their launch platform. It’s not clear if they have been employed as part of a different system than VAMPIRE, or if VAMPIREs have in fact been in use all along.
It’s worth noting that Germany is also including 20 pickup trucks and 2,000 70-millimeter laser-guided rockets in its arms package for Ukraine. It seems likely these systems may be able to share the same ammunition supply.
Winning the Artillery War: Ammo, Counterbattery Radars and Surveillance Drones
After Moscow’s failed early advances, Russian forces have leaned on overwhelming artillery bombardments to slowly bash away Ukrainian defenses in Eastern Ukraine. By the end of June that strategy seemed to be working, but the following month the tables began to turn as Ukrainian forces used U.S.-delivered HIMARS rocket systems to vaporize Russian ammunition dumps and supply links behind the frontline. By August, that’s estimated to have reduced munitions expended by Russia to 5,000-6,000 shells daily, one-third the previous rate.
Ukraine’s big guns still face daunting odds, so much of the U.S. assistance is aimed at helping them, notably by sending 245,000 more 155-millimeter shells, on top of 75,000 given earlier in August. This NATO-standard caliber is compatible with most of the howitzers given/sold to Ukraine including the German PzH 2000, Czech Zuzana 2, French CAESAR, Polish Krab, and U.S.-built M109 and M777 howitzers. In July Ukraine reportedly expended 3,000 155-millimeter shells daily, at which rate the combined 320,000 shells given by the U.S. might last 3-4 months.
Washington is also sending 65,000 120-millimeter heavy mortar rounds. Heavy mortars are easier to tow than howitzers and have a comparably devastating blast effect but much shorter range (usually 4-5 miles). Ukraine already uses PM38 and 2B11 120-millimeter mortars, and an indigenous M120 Molot system. Kyiv has also received Finnish KRH-92s mortars of this caliber, and in August, Washington donated 20 of its own 120-millimeter systems as well as 20,000 shells.
Even with Western aid, though, Ukraine can’t match Russian numerical superiority in shells and guns. That means it has no choice but to fight smarter with its smaller arsenal.
One tactic is to consistently knock-out Russian batteries with counter-battery fires. Towards that end, Ukraine is receiving an additional 24 counter-battery radars. Radars previously received from the U.S. have allowed Ukrainian batteries to rapidly trace back the origin point of Russian shelling and precisely attack the guns—a procedure Ukrainian gunners are executing many times faster than Russia does.
But a Ukrainian defeat at Pisky linked to absent counterbattery capability highlight that Kyiv’s forces still need additional counterbattery coverage and better communications and organization. Extra radars should at least help the former problem.
Another tactic to overcome Russia’s ammunition advantage is to make a smaller number of shells achieve the same or greater effect. One method is to use expensive GPS-, laser- and even radar-guided shells to guarantee a shot lands on target.
But with assistance from a drone spotter, even cheap unguided artillery shells can be quickly adjusted to land on a point target without need for a massive, ammunition-burning barrage.
Thus Washington is transferring additional hand-launched RQ-20 Puma AE surveillance drones to help Ukraine acquire targets; the short-range Puma will complement 15 longer-range/endurance Boeing-Insitu ScanEagle drones donated to Ukraine earlier in August. The 13-pound RQ-20 has a range of 9 miles, can stay aloft for two hours, and carries a high-quality electro-optical/infrared camera turret.
RQ-20s earlier received by Ukraine reportedly have proven useful spying on Russian artillery around Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia.
#Ukraine: US-supplied RQ-20 Puma reconnaissance drones are already being deployed by Ukrainian forces in #Zaporizhzhia – though Ukraine already has similar recon systems, this one has much better high-quality thermal imaging payload and laser illuminator. pic.twitter.com/n3L1LXf5Yd
— ?? Ukraine Weapons Tracker (@UAWeapons) May 30, 2022
The Pentagon hasn’t listed everything it’s sending in the new package, which likely includes more logistics vehicles retired from U.S. Army stocks—and possibly other pre-used equipment it prefers to keep under wraps for now. The focus on long-term support is wise, though: Russia’s unprovoked war seems liable to drag on; and even in the happy event it doesn’t, the risk of follow-on conflict will remain so high that continued assistance is essential.
Expert Biography: Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, War is Boring and 19FortyFive, where he is Defense-in-Depth editor. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.