What’s next for Ukraine air defence as Russia ramps-up civilian strikes and its fight for the skies?


Eyes are on the skies in Ukraine with the country’s air defences becoming all the more critical as Russia continues to hammer cities and energy infrastructure with a barrage of missile strikes.

Over the last two weeks, Moscow has unleashed its largest wave of missile and kamikaze drone attacks since the start of the nine-month war.

A senior Pentagon official has cautioned that Moscow is attempting to deplete Ukrainian air defences which have so far prevented the Russian military from establishing dominance of the skies above the country.

Western allies, particularly across Europe, have been clearing out old warehouses and sending air defence systems still lying around from the Cold War to boost Ukraine’s coverage. 

And earlier this month, the country received its first delivery of the long-awaited National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems, or NASAMS, from the US.

“Look who’s here! NASAMS and Aspide air defence systems arrived in Ukraine!” Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov tweeted.

“These weapons will significantly strengthen #UAarmy and will make our skies safer.”

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said NASAMS were responsible for shooting down “more than 70 missiles and 10 attack drones” in a volley of strikes that resulted in the deadly spillover into Poland. 

But experts say the invasion has become a game of numbers in the “defensive-offensive tango”, and there are looming issues arising as the war stretches on. 

Even sophisticated systems like NASAMS are proving to have supply and capability limitations.

So where does Ukraine’s air defence stand, and what more can actually be done?

NASAMS a ‘step up’, but they’re not enough

The US sped up delivery of the first two NASAMS and has promised six more. 

Jointly produced by the US and Norway, the medium-range air defence system uses a combination of sensors and radars to detect and defend against cruise missiles, aircraft and drones.

It includes a mobile radar system, a control-and-command centre where soldiers can monitor threats, and a separate launcher.

The trailer-based system can be easily moved to different locations. 

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has claimed that NASAMS have a 100 per cent success rate in intercepting Russian missiles.

Graphic showing how a NASAM system works and the types of targets it can hit.
NASAMS consist of a trailer-based radar system, command centre and launchers which fire missiles that reach targets up to 30 km. (Graphic: ABC News)

Although they only have a maximum target range of around 30 kilometres, Michael Shoebridge, director of defence, strategy and national security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), said they are already having a “pretty decisive effect on the battlefield”.

“For Ukrainians, this is an absolute step up in their defensive capability,” he said. 

A big advantage of NASAMS is that they use standard air defence missiles, including the Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM)

Professor Stephan Fruehling from the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre says there is no risk NASAMS will run out of missile supplies.  

“The advantage here is that there’s literally thousands of those sitting in stores,” he told the ABC.

“Most ground-based air defence use specialised, dedicated new interceptors.”

NASAM air defence systems test fire missiles.
NASAMS are proving effective, but a lot are needed to defend large areas. (KDS Kongsberg Defence Systems ©KONGSBERG)

The downside is that they were not intended as a wide-area defence system, so what Ukraine can defend is limited. 

They were originally designed to defend air bases and are currently used to protect sensitive airspace, including around the White House.  

“They’re like footprints around various locations,” Mr Shoebridge said.

Only sites at major cities, and key targets such as energy infrastructure, are being protected. 

Graphic showing how NASAMS work over cities.
NASAMS were not intended to defend large areas and can only be used in Ukraine to protect certain areas across cities and key targets.(Graphic: ABC News)

“Ukraine is a huge country, you need an awful lot of those kinds of systems,” Professor Fruehling said.

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