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Interview

Ukrainian expert: Air defenses withheld by Israel would be an ‘outstanding’ solution

Colonel Viktor Kevliuk says David’s Sling, Barak, and Iron Dome systems would be a great fit for emerging array as Russia leans on Iranian-made weapons

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

A test of the David's Sling missile defense system (Defense Ministry)
A test of the David's Sling missile defense system (Defense Ministry)

Amid an announcement by Ukraine that it would formally ask Israel for assistance in its defense against Russia’s missiles and drones, a Ukrainian military expert highlighted how some Israeli systems could fit into Kyiv’s emerging integrated air defense system.

Colonel Viktor Kevliuk, who retired in 2020 from Ukraine’s Joint Forces Operational HQ and is now a scholar at Kyiv’s Centre for Defence Strategies, told The Times of Israel on Sunday that “technologies developed by Israeli companies in the area of anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense are certainly outstanding design solutions.”

Israel operates a multi-tiered air defense array, made up of the short-range Iron Dome, the medium-range David’s Sling, and the long-range Arrow and Patriot systems. It is also hoping to deploy a short-range laser system in the near future.

On Tuesday, a day after Moscow attacked energy and infrastructure sites across Ukraine with “suicide” drones — believed to be the Iranian-made Shahed-136 — Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said his country plans to submit a formal request to Israel asking for immediate air defense assistance.

Israel has repeatedly rebuffed Kyiv’s previous requests for defensive weapons, specifically the missile defense systems that could be used to fend off Russian airstrikes, despite expressing sympathy for the country’s plight.

On Wednesday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz reiterated that Israel would not send weapons to Ukraine, but said Jerusalem could build the embattled country a civilian early warning system to warn of incoming strikes, like the one used in Israel.

Iran is Israel’s arch-enemy, and Ukrainian officials have expressed dismay that Israel’s stance has not changed even as Iranian weapons play a growing role in the fight. “Iran is our mutual enemy,” Ukraine’s Ambassador to Israel Yevgen  Korniychuk told The Times of Israel, “but Israel is providing only very limited intelligence cooperation.”

Iran agreed to sell Moscow Fateh 110 and Zolfaghar short-range surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, Reuters reported on Tuesday.

Col. (ret.) Viktor Kevliuk (courtesy)

Kevliuk said that the mid-range David’s Sling system “could significantly strengthen Ukraine’s anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense.”

The system, designed to intercept rockets and missiles at a range of 40-300 kilometers, would be especially effective against the Russian Iskander ballistic missile, said Kevliuk.

Ukraine is currently looking to the US-Norwegian NASAMS system to improve its defenses against Iskanders and cruise missiles. After massive Russian missile attacks last week, the US announced it was rushing batteries to Ukraine. Germany is also sending vehicle-mounted Iris-T batteries.

Kevliuk added that the Israeli-Indian Barak 8 system could improve the defense of Ukraine’s 1,300-plus kilometers of coastline.

Much of Moscow’s success in the conflict has been along the coast, where Russian forces have captured a swath of territory stretching from the border near Mariupol to the outskirts of Mykolaiv. Russian ships in the Black Sea have used Kalibr cruise missiles in attacks on Odesa’s port and in a July strike in Vinnytsia that killed over 20 civilians.

The Barak-8, also known as the Long Range Surface-to-Air Missile (LRSAM), has a maritime version used by Israel’s Saar-6 Corvette warships and by the Indian navy. It can protect against a range of threats, including ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and enemy aircraft.

Korniychuk also pointed at the Barak-8 as a desired medium-range solution.

A screenshot of an Iranian Shahed-129 combat drone. (YouTube/Future Technology of Military)

Israel’s laser systems, currently under development, would be only partially relevant for Ukraine because of its weather, Kevliuk said.

“Every year 15-30 days are fog — up to 130 days a year in the mountains — and only 217 sunny days, so laser complexes would be an auxiliary means to support the main anti-missile array,” he said.

The downside of a laser system is that it does not function well in times of low visibility, including heavy cloud cover or other inclement weather.

The Defense Ministry has been testing the laser-based defense system for several years, shooting down drones, unguided rockets and anti-tank guided missiles in a series of tests in March.

The ministry’s research and development department initially planned to deploy the anti-missile system by 2024, but the military has pushed for an earlier deployment. Then-prime minister Naftali Bennett announced in February that Israel would deploy the system within the year.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, presents US President Joe Biden with the wing of a drone intercepted by the Iron Beam laser defense system, as Prime Minister Yair Lapid (L) looks on at the Ben Gurion Airport, July 13, 2022. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

But in March, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said: “It will take time, it isn’t a short process, but we will get it done in the shortest amount of time possible.”

The ground-based laser system — dubbed Iron Beam — which is being developed with the Rafael weapons manufacturer, is not meant to replace the Iron Dome or Israel’s other air defense systems, but to supplement and complement them, shooting down smaller projectiles and leaving larger ones for the more robust missile-based batteries.

Uzi Rubin, past head of the Defense Ministry Missile Defense Organization and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, is skeptical that it will be ready anytime soon. “There is in total one prototype that has done tests in the Negev, but it hasn’t ever actually intercepted anything. And there is only one, and it will be years until there are more.”

Iron Dome

Ukrainian officials have been asking for the Iron Dome short-range system since the early days of the invasion.

In the second week of the war, Lviv Oblast governor Maksym Kozytskyy told The Times of Israel that Ukraine was particularly interested in air defense systems like Iron Dome.

“If we had the same opportunity that Israel does, these air defense systems, we would have prevailed in the air,” he said.

Also in March, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky brought up Iron Dome while addressing the Knesset.

Only last month, Zelensky complained in an interview with France’s TV5Monde  that Israel had given his country “nothing” to help it defend itself, indicating that its leaders had been disingenuous in rejecting his requests for air defense systems.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, center, reacts after his press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, September 9, 2022. (AP/Efrem Lukatsky)

“Israel gave us nothing. Nothing, zero,” Zelensky said. “I understand they are in a difficult situation with Syria, with Russia.”

Zelensky, who said he spoke to Lapid and his predecessor Bennett about air defense supplies, indicated that he was told the reason for the refusal was that Israel needed the batteries for its own protection.

“I understand they need to defend their land, but then I got information from my intelligence services that Israel provides [the air defenses] in other countries. They can sell, they can export, which is why I am shocked.”

Iron Dome is most relevant for Ukraine because of the system’s growing anti-UAV capabilities. Since 2021, it has proven its ability to destroy Hamas drones in combat on a number of occasions.

“Today it can intercept UAVs,” said Rubin. “If it can intercept what the Iranians sent there, I don’t know.”

In March 2021, the Defense Ministry and Rafael carried out a series of tests in which Iron Dome successfully simultaneously intercepted four UAVs with dimensions similar to the Iranian drones.

It can also provide defense for cities and military installations against short-range rockets. Kyiv is only 150 kilometers from Russian ally Belarus, and Kharkiv sits only 40 kilometers from the Russian border, well within the range of Iron Dome.

However, there are many drawbacks to the short-range system. Each battery covers an area of 150 square kilometers, and Kyiv alone stretches over 840 square kilometers. The cost of covering Ukraine’s major cities with 18-20 batteries would be prohibitively high.

Kevliuk was also unconvinced that Iron Dome could handle the range of cruise missiles, UAVs, and planes that Russia is employing against Ukraine.

“The potential of terrorist organizations is incomparable to the potential of a terrorist state,” the former colonel said.

Michael Kurilla, head of the United States Central Command (right) meets with the deputy IDF chief Herzi Halevi, next to an Iron Dome air defense system, on July 17, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

What’s more, there are very few Iron Dome batteries in operation. “I don’t think Israel is capable today of sending Iron Dome to anyone. We need them for ourselves,” said Rubin.

Israel has sold components of the system to several countries, including two batteries to the US as an interim anti-cruise missile capability while it develops a homegrown system.

Israel’s short- and medium-range SPYDER system might be a more likely candidate for Ukraine logistically. It has been used in combat by India and likely Georgia, and has been sold by Israel to countries across the globe, including NATO member the Czech Republic.

However, that would still require a political decision to arm Ukraine, which is unlikely to occur.

There would be Israeli concerns over its classified military technology falling into enemy hands. With Russian and Iranian military cooperation growing closer over the course of the war, it is entirely conceivable that Russian intelligence would invest significant effort in stealing secrets or capturing a battery.

A video by Rafael shows off its SPYDER system in action. (Video screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

But Kevliuk said Ukraine’s military counterintelligence is built on the rigid, reliable Soviet system, leaving fewer opportunities for Russia to find agents in the Ukrainian military, as the generation that served in the Red Army retires and officers who have been fighting Russians since 2014 assume leadership roles.

Kyiv’s young counterintelligence officers have also gained significant experience in the eight years of combat against Russia. “Baby tigers have grown not only stripes on their coats, but also sharp fangs,” he said.

Even if Israel’s government did decide to drastically alter its policy toward Ukraine, it will have trouble finding anything to send without compromising its own security.

“We have a sword to our throats,” said Rubin. “I don’t think anyone is going to release weapons systems.

“If someone orders, we will produce it. But that takes years.”

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