AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
Throughout Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian missile attacks have proved a constant terror for the Ukrainian military and civilian population alike. In their efforts to help the Ukrainians turn back Russian aggression, the United States and its allies are learning how absolutely critical it is to maintain a technological advantage in both offensive and defensive missile capabilities.
As part of the most recent aid package, Ukraine has received four new advanced rocket systems from the United States, capable of striking deeper behind the Russian front lines – a desperately needed offensive weapon as the Russian military ramps up missile attacks of their own. For months prior, the Ukrainians had been reliant on 40-year-old combat hardware like Stinger and S-300 missile defense systems. As a result, Russian missile attacks have taken their toll on Ukrainian resistance. According to government estimates, more than 500 Ukrainians are being killed or wounded every day by Russia missile barrages.
These missile attacks are a serious threat to military bases equipped with hardened protections, and are absolutely devastating to skyscrapers, multi-floor residential buildings, and shopping centers in modern cities and towns. According to Ukrainian officials, the Russian military is now increasing its targeting of cities and residential areas, which are located far from military installations. As of last month, 30 percent of Russian missile attacks had been aimed at civilian structures.
The city of Vinnytsia was the target of one such attack last month that left dozens dead and more than 100 wounded – most of them civilians and non-combatants. The city, which is hundreds of miles from the front lines, traces its history all the way back to the 14th century and is home to some 370,000 citizens, but has no sizable military infrastructure.
The Russian military has claimed that it was targeting Ukrainian air force officials who were meeting with arms suppliers. However, Ukrainian officials have denied that any such meeting was taking place. Just hours later, Russian missiles landed in two major universities in the southern city of Mykolaiv, continuing this pattern of Russian attacks targeting civilians.
After the attack against Vinnytsia, NATO provided Ukraine with a critical new tool for missile defense – the National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System, or NASAMS to shield its capital, Kyiv.
Though NASAMS was first envisioned nearly 20 years ago, today it is deployed in 12 different countries, including in the United States to protect the Washington, D.C. area from cruise missile threats. The system, which was developed as part of a joint venture between Raytheon and the Norwegian firm Kongsberg, is a massive upgrade over the Soviet-era S-300 systems that the Ukrainians had been previously using.
The main advantages of the NASAMS system over other systems are its ability to successfully intercept and shoot down everything from drones to cruise missiles and adapt to nearly any warfighting environment. Its software system has also allowed for numerous upgrades since its introduction, allowing the U.S. to outfit the units sent to Ukraine with the latest American radar technology.
Ukraine received two batteries of the system, with each battery consisting of nine to 12 truck-mounted launchers armed with six AIM-120 missiles each. The launchers are in turn supported by six to eight radar vehicles, and command-and-fire direction center vehicles. Over its decades of service, NASAMS has downed dozens of enemy fighter jets, and has even successfully eliminated a dummy cruise missile flying at just 100 feet off the ground in a simulated attack.
U.S. officials should pay careful attention to how Ukraine fares against Russian missile attacks with these new defense systems entering operation in the conflict. While the prospect of Russian missiles flying over the U.S. mainland is highly unlikely, even in a hot war with Russia, the United States protects many of its overseas assets with these same systems – including in the Indo-Pacific region, where the prospect of a Chinese strike is not so far-fetched.
The effectiveness of current U.S. missile defense systems in the South Pacific – many of which are older and more outdated than the latest NASAMS technology, should be a top concern for American military leadership. After all, Ukrainian forces were able to use old weaponry to sink the Russian warship Moskva in the early months of the war – showcasing a glaring weakness of what was believed to be advanced Russian missile defense technology. In potential future hostilities with China, Russia, or a Sino-Russian alliance, how well U.S. military outposts can defend against and respond to missile threats may prove the most critical determining factor in the outcome of the conflict.
In the 21st century, ensuring U.S. national security at home and abroad means being able to deploy a defensive shield against missile attacks at a moment’s notice. The Ukrainians have learned this lesson the hard way in their war with Russia. As the United States and the West continue to fuel the defense of Ukraine, they should look toward future conflicts, learning from this experience how to deter aggression from adversaries like Russia and China, and to be prepared when it occurs.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, and researcher.
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