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US presses allies, including Israel, to assemble patchwork air defenses for Ukraine

American military chief cites ‘whole series of Israeli systems that are quite capable’ of countering Russian strikes; Jerusalem has previously rebuffed Kyiv’s request for Iron Dome

Iron Dome anti-missile system fires interception missiles at rockets fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israel, in Ashkelon on August 7, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Iron Dome anti-missile system fires interception missiles at rockets fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israel, in Ashkelon on August 7, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

WASHINGTON — The United States is pressing allies, including Israel, to hastily build for Ukraine a patchwork air defense network using NATO-compatible equipment — some ultra-modern, others older — to protect strategic targets from Russian strikes.

The effort was given added urgency after Moscow pummeled Ukraine with missiles this week, damaging energy facilities nationwide and leaving at least 20 people dead.

“What the (Ukrainian) leadership described that they needed yesterday most was air defense capability,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in Brussels on Thursday, a day after a meeting of 50 allied countries who coordinate their military support for Kyiv.

In order to protect Ukraine from Russia’s varied threats, however, it will be necessary to build air defenses made up of multiple layers, says the top US military officer, General Mark Milley.

“What you’re looking at, really, is short-range, low-altitude systems, then medium-range, medium-altitude, and then long-range and high-altitude systems,” he said Wednesday in Brussels.

These three levels will protect major cities and key infrastructure in Ukraine from Russian ballistic and cruise missiles as well as drones.

“That doesn’t control all the airspace over Ukraine, but they are designed to control priority targets that Ukraine needs to protect,” Milley said during a news conference.

The wreckage of what Kyiv has described as an Iranian Shahed drone downed near Kupiansk, Ukraine, September 13, 2022. (Ukrainian military’s Strategic Communications Directorate via AP)

Washington has promised to provide Ukraine with the short- to medium-range, medium-altitude NASAMS air defense system, with the first two arriving soon.

It has also ordered six more from manufacturer Raytheon, but those deliveries may not occur for two to three years.

Old and new

Germany has delivered the first of the latest-generation Iris-T defense systems, but Kyiv will have to wait until next year for three others that have been promised. The medium-range, high-altitude Iris-T system is designed to protect a small city.

To accelerate the process, the United States urged its allies on Wednesday to provide their available anti-aircraft equipment — even if it is older — as long as it meets NATO standards.

Spain was the first to respond positively to that call: it will send Ukraine four medium-range Hawk surface-to-air systems, which first went into service during the Cold War but have been modernized over the years.

They are no longer used by the US military, which has replaced them with more modern Patriot units, but Spain has refurbished some in recent years to extend their life.

An Israeli soldier operates a Hawk surface-to-air missile system during the 1991 First Gulf War. (Asaf Topaz/Defense Ministry Archive)

French President Emmanuel Macron announced Wednesday that France would provide “radars, systems and missiles to protect (the Ukrainians) from these attacks.”

He did not specify the type of anti-aircraft defenses planned, but a US military official mentioned the SAMP/T high-altitude system known as “Mamba,” which is in service in France, Italy and Singapore and is a European competitor to the US Patriot.

The French-Italian-designed system is currently part of NATO’s air defenses.

“The Italians are apparently willing to see what can be given in terms of SAMP-T, but all this is very complex,” the French presidency said Thursday, adding that it is “a work in progress.”

Paris has also provided the short-range Crotale system, it added.

‘Complicated’

Britain announced Wednesday that it was sending AMRAAM missiles, which are launched by the US-supplied NASAMS.

According to a US military official speaking on condition of anonymity, Washington is also interested in the option of the Spada 2000 system, which like Mamba is manufactured by Europe’s MBDA.

It is a modernized version of a medium-altitude and range system in service since the 1980s in Italy. It has also been sold to Kuwait, Spain and Pakistan.

A Patriot missile defense battery sits in the desert in the Ovda air base in southern Israel during the international Blue Flag exercise on November 9, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

To defend against ballistic missiles, Washington is also considering providing Patriot missile batteries to Ukraine.

The US military does not have enough to supply them to Kyiv, but Washington is lobbying other countries that have them to participate in the effort and is also trying to convince Israel to provide parts of its Iron Dome system.

Israel has previously rebuffed Ukrainian requests to supply air defense systems such as the Iron Dome, for which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky slammed the Jewish state last month.

Though it has sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine, Israel has repeatedly rebuffed Kyiv’s requests for defense weapons, specifically missile defense systems that could be used to fend off Russian airstrikes, despite expressing sympathy for the country’s plight.

The refusal is seen as an attempt by Jerusalem to maintain working ties with Moscow, due to Russia’s control of Syrian air space, where Israel’s air force has carried out hundreds of sorties against alleged Iranian arms shipments and in order to keep groups backed by Tehran from establishing a foothold.

“Many countries have Patriot. Many countries have other systems,” Milley said in Brussels. “There’s a whole series of Israeli systems that are quite capable.”

From left, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and Israeli Air Force chief Amikam Norkin stand in front of an Iron Dome missile defense system at the Nevatim Air Base in southern Israel on April 12, 2021. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Once the systems are provided, Ukrainian forces will need to be trained on their use, and will have to “make sure that they can link together with the command-and-control and communication systems and make sure they have radars that can talk to each other so that they can acquire targets,” he said.

“It’s quite complicated from a technical standpoint,” Milley added. “It’ll take a little bit of time.”

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