Ukraine is scrambling to shoot down Russian missiles and drones. Here are the weapons other countries are sending in to help.

Ukraine soldier anti-aircraft missile
An anti-aircraft missile near Lyman in eastern Ukraine on April 28.YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images
  • Russia's military has stepped up its air attacks in Ukraine, using missiles and drones.

  • Defending against those increasing aerial attacks is now a top priority for Ukraine's military.

  • Here are some of the air-defense systems that countries are sending Ukraine to take on that threat.

As Russian missiles and drones damage Ukraine's power grid and other infrastructure, the Ukrainian people face a cold, dark winter. But they will not have to face it alone.

The US, Britain, and several other countries are sending Ukraine a variety of air-defense systems. Some of these weapons are useful against aircraft, helicopters, and cruise missiles. Others are meant for shooting down drones.

But what's crucial is that beefed-up air defenses will help even the odds for Ukraine's air force.

In the days after Russia launched its attack on February 24, Ukrainian aircraft "inflicted some losses" on Russia's air force, but the Ukrainians "also took serious casualties due to being totally technologically outmatched and badly outnumbered," researchers at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank, said in a recent report.

However, by March 2022, Russian aircraft "lost the ability to operate in Ukrainian-controlled airspace except at very low altitudes" because of Ukrainian anti-aircraft missiles, according to the report.

Western powers have been reluctant to provide jet fighters to replace Ukraine's dwindling fleet of Soviet-era aircraft, and replenishing Ukraine's existing Soviet-era air defense weapons, like the S-300, will be difficult given how few are available outside of Russia.

Thus, Western-made anti-aircraft weapons have become vital. Here are some that are being supplied to Ukraine:

NASAMS

NASAMS
The National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System.Courtesy of Raytheon Technologies

With Ukraine's capital. Kyiv, being hit by Russian missiles, it seems appropriate that the US is sending an anti-aircraft missile system that has protected Washington DC since 2005.

The National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System is a medium-range air-defense weapon that is effective against aircraft, helicopters, drones, and even slow-flying cruise missiles.

NASAMS was developed as a joint project between Norwegian defense firm Kongsberg and US firm Raytheon and originally fielded by Norway's military in the 1990s. It has a range of about 25 miles and an altitude of 50,000 feet.

A NASAMS battery consists of an MPQ-64 Sentinel surveillance radar and three launchers armed with six missiles apiece. The later NASAMS II has a more advanced radar and four launchers with three missiles apiece. The system is highly mobile, with trailers hauled by Humvees or medium-size trucks.

Norway soldiers troops Arctic air defense missile
Norwegian soldiers load missiles into a NASAMS launcher during an exercise in northern Norway in March 2017.Norwegian Ministry of Defense

Particularly significant is that rather than custom-designed surface-to-air missiles, NASAMS fires existing air-to-air missiles that are modified to be launched from the ground.

The system can fire the AIM-120 AMRAAM radar-guided missile as well as the AIM-9X heat-seeker, the latest version of the Sidewinder, which has been deployed since the 1950s.

That made it particularly attractive to Ukraine, or at least to Pentagon officials determining what equipment to send.

According to The New York Times, US military planners decided that NASAMS "would be especially useful for Ukraine given that the ground-based launcher can fire relatively inexpensive missiles that were built for fighter jets in aerial combat, which Kyiv's allies have in large numbers."

Avenger

Avenger air defense Stinger missile
An Avenger fires a Stinger missile during a NATO live-fire exercise in Crete in November 2017.US Army/Sgt. 1st Class Jason Epperson

On November 10, the US announced it is sending four Avenger short-range air-defense systems to help Ukraine protect its "troops and critical infrastructure" against drones and helicopters.

The Avenger consists of a Humvee with a rotating turret mounted in the rear. The turret contains two pods, each with four Stinger missiles. The Avenger isn't particularly sophisticated: Its heat-seeking Stingers only have a range of about 3 miles, and it lacks radar (though it does have short-range laser and infrared sensors).

But it's self-contained, highly automated, and mobile enough to operate in rough or muddy terrain, which should make it useful for Ukrainian troops.

Aspide

Aspide anti-air missile system
An Aspide anti-air missile system in September 1988.Patrick AVENTURIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Aspide is an Italian missile — with surface-to-air and air-to-air versions — based on the US-designed AIM-7 Sparrow and Sea Sparrow radar-guided missiles.

The original Aspide dates to the 1970s, but there have been several upgraded versions, including the Aspide 2000 variant.

Spain is sending an Aspide battery to Ukraine. Spain has older and newer versions and it isn't clear which is being sent, but Ukraine will most likely receive one of Spain's 13 recently decommissioned Skyguard systems armed with Aspide 2000 missiles that have a range of 15.5 miles.

IRIS-T

IRIS-T SLM air-defense system
An IRIS-T SLM air-defense system at the ILA Berlin Air Show in June.Shan Yuqi/Xinhua via Getty Images

Ukraine has already received the first of four German IRIS-T short-range anti-aircraft missile systems.

A short-range infrared-homing missile intended to replace the AIM-9 Sidewinder, the IRIS-T can be launched by aircraft and ground batteries. It has a range of about 25 miles and can reach a speed of Mach 3.

Germany has been criticized for slow delivery of weapons to Ukraine, but the IRIS-T only completed testing in late 2021, and even the German military hasn't even acquired any yet.

The RUSI report called the provision of additional launchers and ammunition for IRIS-T and NASAMS "critical" to Ukraine's ability to defend its electrical infrastructure.

Gepard

A Gepard tank
A Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft gun during an exercise in Munster in June 2009.Joerg Sarbach/Associated Press

Germany is also sending 50 Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft guns to Ukraine.

First deployed by the German military in the 1970s, the Gepard was in service from late in the Cold War until the Bundeswehr retired it in 2010.

Mounted on a tracked and armored chassis equipped with onboard radar, the Gepard's twin 35-mm rapid-fire cannon can engage aircraft and drones — as well as ground troops and vehicles — up to 3.7 miles away.

The RUSI report called the Gepard "highly effective" agains the small, slow, and low-flying Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones that Russia has been using in increasing numbers since mid-September.

Vampire

L3 Harris VAMPIRE air defense system
The Vehicle-Agnostic Modular Palletized ISR Rocket Equipment, or VAMPIRE, an air-defense system designed by L3 Harris.L3 Harris

Even before Russia unleashed hordes of Iranian-made drones against Ukrainian infrastructure this autumn, the Pentagon was planning to send Vampire anti-drone systems to Ukraine.

The Vampire can launch small laser-guided missiles, such as the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System, a laser-guided version of the unguided Hydra 70 air-to-surface rocket launched from AH-64 Apache helicopters.

BAE Systems, which makes the APKWS, recently unveiled an upgrade that extends the weapon's range to nearly 7.5 miles.

Perhaps most important for Ukraine is Vampire's adaptability: The system and its 10-inch rockets can be mounted on the back of a pickup or any flatbed truck.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master's in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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