Desperate for air defense, Ukraine pushes the United States to acquire “straight” weapons

As winter approaches, Ukrainian officials desperately need more air defenses to protect their power grids from Russian strikes that could plunge the country into freezing darkness.

So desperate, in fact, that they are willing to experiment with a monstrous weapons system that was designed by Ukraine and is now being pursued by the Pentagon.

U.S. officials call it the FrankenSAM program, combining advanced Western-caliber surface-to-air missiles with repurposed Soviet-era launchers or radars that Ukrainian forces already have on hand. Two variants of these improvised air defenses – one combining Soviet Buk launchers and American Sea Sparrow missiles, the other combining Soviet-era radars and American Sidewinder missiles – have been tested in recent months on military bases in the United States and are expected to be delivered to Ukraine this fall, officials said.

A third, the Cold War-era Hawk missile system, was deployed this week for the first time on the Ukrainian battlefield, in an example of what Laura K. Cooper, a senior U.S. defense official, had described this month as a FrankenSAM “in terms of resurrection” – an air defense relic brought back to life.

Together, the FrankenSAMs “help fill critical gaps in Ukraine’s air defense, and this is the most significant challenge facing Ukraine today,” said Ms. Cooper, deputy assistant secretary at defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasian policy.

Almost since the start of the war, Ukraine has tinkered with mixing its offensive weapons – its aging Soviet-era stockpiles and those it obtained from the West – in unexpected but, in many cases, , with success. Last year, U.S. military officials spoke admiringly of Ukraine’s ability to “MacGyver” its arsenal, a metaphor for the 1980s television series in which the main character uses simple, improvised contraptions to extricate himself delicate situations.

The FrankenSAMs project is now trying to do the same for Ukrainian air defense.

Over the past 20 months, the West has supplied Ukraine with a range of air defense systems, including cutting-edge Patriot and IRIS-T systems, tanks equipped with anti-aircraft guns and more than 2,000 Stinger missiles fired At the shoulder.

Last week, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that his government would provide Ukraine with three additional sophisticated air defense batteries, including another Patriot system, as part of what he called a “winter program.” of nearly $1.5 billion.

“As winter approaches, we are putting in place a protective shield against further Russian attacks on energy, water and heating infrastructure,” Mr. Scholz said on Tuesday. “Indeed, it is becoming clear that Russia will once again use the cold and energy shortages as a weapon against the civilian population. »

The air defenses are part of the nearly $100 billion in military aid Ukraine has received from its allies since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. The United States, which has already sent more arms funds than any other country, are considering donating an additional $60 billion as part of the Biden administration’s new emergency spending plan.

On Thursday, the administration announced an additional $150 million in military aid for Ukraine, a weapons package that included additional munitions for three types of air defense systems – including Sidewinder missiles for one of the FrankenSAMS .

Now that it has Western tanks, armored vehicles, air defenses and long-range attack missiles in its arsenal, and fighter jets are on the way, officials said Ukraine largely needs of the same weapons that it has already received, as opposed to the systems that have already received. not yet sent.

FrankenSAMs are a mix of the two. The program’s origins date back to late last year, when Ukrainian officials asked allies for help finding missiles for about 60 Soviet-era Buk launchers and radars that remained unused in the arsenal from Kiev. Knowing that it would be difficult for the West to obtain Russian-made munitions to equip the Buk systems, the Ukrainians instead suggested re-equipping the launchers to use NATO-caliber anti-aircraft missiles offered by the United States .

“We realized we had to find solutions,” said Oleksandra Ustinova, chair of a Ukrainian parliament committee overseeing arms transfers from the West. She said Ukrainian officials had offered to DIY the weapons themselves, to save time, “because for the winter period we desperately need air defenses, and that’s what’s going to be used.”

But American engineers insisted on doing the work, and it took them more than seven months to test and approve the mash-up after the Pentagon agreed in January to supply Sea Sparrow missiles for the project. The first refurbished Buk launchers and missiles arrived in Ukraine only recently, Ustinova said.

She said Ukraine was prepared to send 17 more Buk launchers to the United States for refitting, but that American engineers had only been able to produce five per month.

Ukraine also had to wait for the older Hawk systems to be operational after initially being promised by Spain in October 2022. A month later, the United States said it would pay to refurbish the older Hawk missiles for given Spanish systems. But at least some of them were delivered to Ukraine without the necessary radar equipment. It took another nine months to arrive.

By Monday evening, the Hawks were fully operational, shooting down targets alongside more modern air defense systems, Ukrainian Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. Mykola Oleshchuk said on Telegram. Hitting 100 percent of targets “is not easy, but we will get closer every day by strengthening our air defense,” Gen. Oleshchuk wrote.

Another creation – an improvised land-based launcher that uses Soviet-era radars to fire old US missiles usually used on fighter jets – has been revealed alongside an announced $200 million security aid package by the Pentagon on October 11.

This FrankenSAM uses American-made AIM-9M Sidewinder supersonic missiles, developed in the 1950s and used on F-16 and F-18 fighter jets. They are now part of the improvised ground launch system, which Ms Cooper presented in Brussels as “a real innovation” that she said would help speed up air defenses towards Ukraine, “instead of being, you know , years and years of development.” time.” It is not clear when exactly he will arrive in Ukraine.

U.S. defense officials and engineers are also still testing what could be the most powerful FrankenSAM yet: a Patriot missile and launch station that works with Ukraine’s older, domestically-made radar systems.

A Pentagon official said Wednesday that a test flight of the system, conducted this month at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, successfully hit the drone it had targeted. The system is expected to be sent to Ukraine this winter, the official said, along with Patriot missiles and other parts donated by several allies.

Can Kasapoglu, a defense analyst at the Hudson Institute in Washington, welcomed the idea of ​​integrating Soviet-era equipment with more sophisticated Western missiles as a way to help Ukraine “maintain its arsenal for the long term.” war to come.”

It also “provides an opportunity to put into practice the weapons that are gathering dust on the shelves of NATO capitals,” Kasapoglu said.

Christopher F. Schuetze contributed to the reporting from Berlin, and John Ismay of Washington.

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