Desperate for air defense, Ukraine pressures US for ‘Franken’ weapons | ET REALITY


With winter approaching, Ukrainian officials are desperate for more air defenses to protect their power grids from Russian attacks 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 the brainchild of Ukraine and is now being pursued by the Pentagon.

U.S. officials call it the FrankenSAM program, which combines 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 over the past few months at military bases in the United States and are prepared to be delivered to Ukraine this fall, officials said.

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

Together, the FrankenSAMs are “contributing to filling critical gaps in Ukraine’s air defenses, and this is the most important challenge facing Ukraine today,” said Ms. Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia policy. .

Almost since the start of the war, Ukraine has tinkered with the mix of offensive weapons – its aging Soviet-era stockpiles and those it obtained from the West – in unexpected but, in many cases, successful ways. U.S. military officials spoke with admiration last year of Ukraine’s ability to “MacGyver” its arsenal, a metaphor for the 1980s television show in which the main character uses simple, improvised gadgets to get out of sticky situations. .

The FrankenSAMs project is now attempting to do the same with Ukraine’s air defenses.

Over the past 20 months, the West has supplied a variety of air defenses to Ukraine, including next-generation Patriot and IRIS-T systems, tanks equipped with anti-aircraft guns, and more than 2,000 shoulder-fired Stinger missiles.

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

“As winter approaches, we are putting up a protective shield against further Russian attacks on energy, water and heating infrastructure,” Scholz said Tuesday. “This is because it is becoming increasingly clear that Russia will once again use the cold and energy shortages as a weapon against civilians.”

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 funds for weapons than any Another nation, is considering donating $60 billion more as part of a new emergency spending plan from the Biden administration.

On Thursday, the administration announced another $150 million in military aid for Ukraine, a weapons package that included additional ammunition 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 strike missiles in its arsenal, and with fighter jets on the way, officials said Ukraine largely needs more of the same weapons it already received, instead of systems they have already received. yet to send.

FrankenSAMs are a mix of both. The program’s origins date back to late last year, when Ukrainian officials asked allies to help them find missiles for about 60 Soviet-era Buk launchers and radars that were lying idle in Kiev’s arsenal. Knowing that it would be difficult for the West to obtain Russian-made munitions suitable for the Buk systems, the Ukrainians suggested retrofitting the launchers to use NATO-caliber anti-aircraft missiles donated by the United States.

“We realized that we needed to find some solutions,” said Oleksandra Ustinova, chair of a committee in Ukraine’s parliament that oversees arms transfers from the West. She said Ukrainian officials offered to prepare the weapons themselves, in the interest of time, “because during the winter period we desperately need air defenses, and this is what is going to be used.”

But American engineers insisted on doing the job and needed more than seven months to test and approve the combination after the Pentagon agreed. in January to provide Sea Sparrow missiles for the project. The first reconditioned Buk launchers and missiles arrived in Ukraine recently, Ustinova said.

He said Ukraine was willing to send 17 more Buk launchers to the United States for overhaul, but that American engineers had only been able to deliver five each month.

Ukraine has also had to wait for older Hawk systems to become operational after being initially committed by Spain in October 2022. A month later, the United States he said he would pay to renew older Hawk missiles for donated Spanish systems. But at least some of them were delivered to Ukraine without the necessary radar equipment. That took another nine months to arrive.

By Monday night, the Hawks were fully operational, shooting down targets alongside more modern air defense systems, Ukrainian air forces commander Lt. Gen. Mykola Oleshchuk said. said on Telegram. Achieving 100 percent of the objectives “is not easy, but every day we will get closer to it, strengthening our air defense,” wrote General Oleshchuk.

Another creation, a makeshift ground launcher that uses Soviet-era radars to fire old American missiles normally used on fighter jets, was revealed along with a $200 million security assistance package which the Pentagon announced on October 11.

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

U.S. defense officials and engineers also continue to test what could be the most powerful FrankenSAM yet: a Patriot missile and launch station that operates Ukraine’s oldest domestically-made radar systems.

A Pentagon official said Wednesday that a test flight of the system this month, conducted at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, successfully hit the drone it was targeting. The system is scheduled to be shipped to Ukraine this winter, the official said, accompanied by donated missiles and other Patriot parts from multiple allies.

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

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

Christopher Schuetze contributed reports from Berlin, and Juan Ismay from Washington.

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