Ukraine’s air defences are crucial, and Israel can help

In his address to the UK House of Commons last month, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky declared: ‘We built a coalition of air defence, which allows us to save the lives of our children, of our people, of our civilians, our women, our elderly, and our cities from atrocious Russian occupation and missile terror.’

As Russia has stepped up its missile and drone attacks on Ukrainian population centres, much attention has focused on the role of missile-defence systems. Anti-missile shields are designed to undermine an adversary’s confidence by heightening uncertainty and degrading its missile capabilities while strengthening the morale of those attacked. Their effectiveness is studied closely by military establishments including in Israel, which has contended with regular rocket and missile attacks for decades.

In the early months of Russia’s invasion, Ukraine’s population and infrastructure were exposed and vulnerable to missile attacks. Between February and May, Moscow fired more than 2,000 cruise and ballistic  missiles in an attempt to destroy Ukrainian air defences. During March and April, Ukrainian defenders intercepted 20–30% of them.

Russia began targeting sites such as government buildings and telecommunications infrastructure in an attempt to damage resistance and morale. By June, targets included critical energy facilities and railway lines. Ukrainian air defences were reorganised and redeployed to protect cities and important infrastructure, and interception rates reaches 50–60%. Ukraine’s S-300 systems have been effective against Russian cruise missiles, particularly when they received early warning of launches.

Ukraine’s growing ability to intercept missiles was a factor in Moscow turning to Iran for large numbers of Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 uncrewed aerial vehicles, which have become an integral part of Russia’s missile war. They have been used alongside cruise missiles, targeting critical infrastructure in key cities. The UAVs are small, have pinpoint precision and are very effective. They fly low, which creates problems for air defences. By the time they’re detected, it’s often too late to shoot them down.

Yet Ukraine now claims to have intercepted close to 90% of them, reflecting the growing effectiveness of its defences. While Ukraine is exhausting its ammunition supplies at an alarming rate, Russia’s stock of Iranian drones is also diminishing because it uses vast swarms to penetrate Ukrainian air defences. Moscow is being forced to ramp up its own arms production at great cost to its economy.

According to Mykhailo Samus, a military expert in Kyiv, Moscow can’t afford to exhaust its missiles because of the adverse implications for its forces. As Ukraine receives more support for its air and missile defences, Russia’s stocks will be degraded. To sustain the war, Russia is likely to shift the costs of replacing degraded stocks to its population and businesses.

Uzi Rubin, a leading Israeli missile expert, says air and missile defences can’t provide hermetic protection anywhere. While Ukraine has intercepted many missiles, Rubin maintains that it’s a quantity game and one battery does nothing. ‘If you manage to shoot down nine out of 10 missiles, then the damage and casualties are limited. This gives Ukraine the staying power to keep fighting. Defence matters.’

The US announced in December that Ukraine would receive a Patriot system, one of the world’s most advanced long-range air-defence systems, which can intercept cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and aircraft with great accuracy. Germany and the Netherlands have also offered to send Patriots. France and Italy will supply Ukraine with the SAMP/T air-defence system, which is unique as a European system that can intercept ballistic missiles. Samus says these additions will significantly improve Ukraine’s defences. These developments are crucial for Ukraine to resist Russia’s onslaught, but US officials say there’s ‘no silver bullet‘ and their goal is to help Ukraine ‘strengthen a layered, integrated approach to air defence’.

Ukraine’s capabilities have dramatically improved and Western air-defence systems such as NASAMS and IRIS-T have bolstered its ability to intercept missile barrages. The Patriots are intended to strengthen Ukrainian fortitude in the face of this onslaught and the multi-layered approach mirrors that of Israel in confronting the threat posed by Iran and Hezbollah.

Israel is under growing pressure to supply missile defences to Ukraine but has refrained from doing so for fear of angering Russia, which could constrain its freedom of action in striking Iran’s forces in Syria. The US has made its annoyance over Israel’s position clear. However, it will be increasingly difficult for Israel to sit on the fence given Russia’s ever closer military cooperation with Iran.

Israel’s foreign minister, Eli Cohen, visited Ukraine in February and told Zelensky that Israel would supply Ukraine with an aerial threat early warning system. More recently, Israeli and Ukrainian officials announced that Israel has approved export licences for anti-drone systems for Ukraine. This will allow Israel to assess how effective its systems are against Iran’s drones. Zelensky told Cohen that Iran is a ‘common enemy’. Samus maintains that every bit of support Ukraine receives is significant and hopes that this will presage Israel’s delivery of the David’s Sling or Arrow 3 system.

There’s no room for complacency about Russia’s missile threat. The Conflict Armament Research group says that while Russia has likely used a significant portion of its stockpile, the production of guided cruise missiles such as the Kh-101 and the stockpiling of critical electronic components have continued in spite of Western sanctions.

Critically, the US has long viewed missile defences as a means to strengthen the morale of allies exposed to missile attack, including Israel. The White House’s 2022 missile defence review says that ‘missile defence capabilities add resilience and undermine adversary confidence in missile use by introducing doubt and uncertainty into strike planning and execution’. The supply of Patriot missiles reassures the Ukrainian people, cements Washington’s political commitment to their defence and strengthens their resolve. As Samus points out: ‘Missile defence is a part of resilience. For Ukrainians, even electricity depends on missile defence. Protecting houses depends on missile defence.’

Israel knows from its own experience of missile warfare how essential air defences are to sustain fortitude and resilience. Yet it’s likely that Iran’s close support for Russia, rather than US pressure, will shift Israel’s calculus on military support for Ukraine.