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Ukraine: No More Air Defenses

Russia dominates Ukraine's Airspace

3 mins read
An HAWK launcher (US Army)

By their own admission, Ukraine desperately needs air defenses.  Most of the high end systems previously delivered from the US and Europe have either been destroyed or run out of interceptor missiles.  NATO is searching for replacement missiles and parts for the Patriot air defense system.  Germany, along with others in Europe, say there are no available interceptor missiles for the Patriot systems in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Norway has promised more NASAMS, but they need to be built.  Europe has handed over its stock of IRIS-T missiles and new ones won’t be available at least until 2025.  Now the US has announced it will provide $138 million in an emergency sale to maintain and repair HAWK air defense systems previously delivered to Ukraine.

An emergency sale will probably be on credit loan with little chance Ukraine will ever pay for the transaction. It is likely to eventually be paid for by the gargantuan $60 billion Ukraine air program awaiting approval by the House of Representatives.

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Ukraine has the Improved HAWK Phase III.  The US approached Taiwan and Israel for IHAWK.  Taiwan decided to scrap its HAWKS.  Israel said its HAWKS were in very bad repair and not operational.  Spain first provided its HAWK Phase III system to Ukraine and later agreed to provide six more systems.

Reading between the lines, either the Spanish-origin HAWKS sent to Ukraine have been damaged or destroyed, or most of them are no longer operational.  Otherwise the State Department would not be urging an “emergency” sale of repairs, components and missiles to Ukraine. (Keep in mind that “used” parts will be billed at bargain basement prices.)

The HAWK is a semi-mobile air defense system that dates back to the 1950s.  The original HAWK used vacuum tubes and analog computers.  Modernized HAWKS have digital computers and partially digitized radars.  

HAWK requires three radars: a surveillance radar to locate incoming threats, an illumination radar to lock onto a specific threat, and an onboard semi-active radar in each missile to guide it to its target.  Each interceptor has a large fragmentation warhead.

The US retired its last IHAWK, used by the Marines, in 2003.  Taiwan decommissioned its HAWK Phase III system a few years ago, replacing the HAWK with an indigenous air defense system called Sky Bow III (Tien Kung).  Israel is replacing HAWK with David’s Sling.

The State Department says that the HAWK systems in Ukraine need repairs and refurbishment.  The Department also says that parts and replacement missiles either will come from old stocks in the US and abroad, or new parts will need to be manufactured.

Many of the semiconductor components in HAWK date back to the 1980s, meaning that most of the parts are medium-scale integrated circuits that are mostly out of production.  There is little chance any foundry would be willing to make handfuls of these parts, so the computers, guidance components, fire control system, radars and onboard electronics could make it problematic in restoring these old systems to service.  It may be that some parts can be scavenged from non-functioning systems.

The US never actually fired a HAWK or IHAWK system in combat.  However, key allies and friends have used them.  Even Iran, which has HAWK (sent there during the time of the Shah) and has built its own version, has used them.  Kuwait also used them against Iraq, but the Kuwaiti systems were destroyed or captured by Iraq.  Israel also has used HAWK in combat.

Exactly how good HAWK is against modern threats isn’t clear.  The Pentagon says the HAWK is needed against low flying threats such as drones. While HAWK’s radars were improved to make them less susceptible to ground clutter (thus obscuring a low flying drone’s radar signature), no one can say whether the system can accurately detect and track “plastic” drones.  

Beyond the problem of dealing with singular threats, HAWK’s capability against swarms of drones, or mixed threats that include drones, cruise missiles, glide bombs and ultra-fast missile threats is not clear.

HAWK’s kill ability against aircraft is generally thought to be better than 85% if fired in tandem (two missiles per target).  However, how HAWK would perform against tactical ballistic missiles or drones is unclear.

Modernized HAWK missiles have a range of between 28 to 31 miles making it a “medium range” system.  Russian guided glide bombs (UMPK) have a range of around 25 miles (40km), so Russian can launch these bombs in multiples against HAWK batteries with some hope of success.  If Russia uses a hypersonic missile HAWK is unlikely to survive.

The Ukrainians are mostly worried about protecting key cities, especially Kiev.  If Russian aerial attacks on other cities are any guide (Odessa, Kherson), there are no effective air defenses at those locations.  Kiev used Patriots in their counter-offensive last summer, but according to reports at least one, if not two, of the Patriots was destroyed.  More recently, at least one Patriot system was knocked out around Kiev.

Air defenses are needed to protect critical infrastructure and on the battlefield to stop air attacks. Even if the HAWK system in Ukraine is refurbished in the coming months, it is not enough to secure vital installations and battlefield fortifications.  

The bottom line is that Ukraine no longer has effective air defenses that can protect critical infrastructure or stop Russian aircraft on or near the battlefield.  Ukraine will be getting old, used F-16s by July, but whether these can really make a difference or evade Russian air defense systems is open to doubt.  Without effective air defenses, Russia dominates Ukraine’s airspace.

Stephen Bryen

Stephen Bryen is a former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense and is a leading expert in security strategy and technology. Bryen writes for Asia Times, American Thinker, Epoch Times, Newsweek, Washington Times, the Jewish Policy Center and others.

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