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Western Nations Rush Defensive Systems to Ukraine to Counter Russian Missiles

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KYIV, Ukraine — In just two days this week, Russian forces fired more than 100 cruise missiles and dozens of exploding drones at cities across Ukraine, far more than the nation’s aging air defenses were ever expected to encounter. And yet fewer than half made it to their targets, Ukrainian officials say.

Ukraine’s success in knocking down those projectiles, and the death and destruction caused wherever missiles slipped through, has reinvigorated calls by officials in Kyiv for Western countries to provide more sophisticated defensive weapons systems. At a meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday, the United States and other allies readily agreed, pledging to rapidly provide the weaponry.

Germany began delivery of four units of a missile defense system so advanced even its own forces have yet to use it. The Netherlands promised millions of dollars in air-defense missiles, and President Emmanuel Macron of France said his country would send “radars, systems and anti-air missiles.”

And a day after the Biden administration said it was working to speed up delivery of two advanced missile systems, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said, “The systems will be provided as fast as we can physically get them there.”

But for all the gaps made clear by the bombardment, which killed at least 19 people and scarred some two dozen Ukrainian cities, Ukrainian patchwork air defenses have proved to be one of the great successes of the war, and among the most unexpected. And Ukraine’s response to the attacks underscored how far the air defense units have come since President Vladimir V. Putin ordered his forces to invade on Feb. 24.

On Monday, the first day of the bombardment, the country’s air defenses took out more than half of the roughly 80 cruise missiles fired, according to Ukraine’s military. And on Day 2 of the attack, only eight missiles were able to hit their targets out of a total of 28 fired, the military said. It said Ukrainian forces had also destroyed nearly 50 explosive drones this week. The figures could not be independently confirmed.

Part of the success relates to better coordination between early warning systems, which detect rocket launches, and air defense units on the ground charged with shooting them down, said Justin Bronk, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute specializing in air power. The Caspian and Black Seas, from which many of Russia’s cruise missiles are launched, are closely monitored by both Ukrainian and Western militaries, giving air defense forces plenty of time to react.

“Ukrainian air defenses have gotten significantly more capable, particularly better coordinated, since the early weeks of the war,” Dr. Bronk said. The 40 to 60 percent interception rates being reported by the Ukrainian military, he said, “are broadly in line with what we’d expect from a much more efficiently organized territorial air defense system.”

Before the war, air defense forces from Ukraine’s military gathered just once a year for live-fire exercises at which they would practice shooting at lumbering Soviet-era drones that mimicked the movements of cruise missiles but not their tremendous speed.

“That was basically all the training,” said Yuri Ignat, the spokesman for the Ukrainian military’s Air Force Command. “No one was prepared for a mass attack against all Ukrainian territory.”

In the first hours of the February invasion, Russian forces concentrated their attacks on Ukraine’s missile defense batteries, air force jets and air-defense radar installations. Through a combination of preparation and quick thinking by Ukrainian commanders — as well as poor intelligence and bad aim by Russian forces — many of the defenses were preserved, ensuring that Russia never gained full control over Ukrainian skies.

In the absence of sufficient weaponry to defend every corner of their territory, Ukraine’s air defense forces are constantly on the move, trying to anticipate the location of future attacks while avoiding detection by Russia’s missile forces, Mr. Ignat said.

“Today, fighting the war requires a lot of maneuvering, constantly moving as the enemy tries to find our weak points and work around those areas where we have our air defenses,” he said. “We are doing these maneuvers, trying to find locations where we can cause the greatest damage and hit the most air targets.”

The condition of Ukraine’s weapons systems makes effective air defense even more of a challenge. Its military relies mostly on Soviet-era systems like the Buk-M1 and S-300, along with its fleet of fighter aircraft, though these are less effective than rocket systems.

Success often comes down to the skill of the troops operating the weapons.

On Monday, Dmytro Shumskyi, a Ukrainian soldier in an antiaircraft platoon in northern Ukraine, took out two high-velocity cruise missiles using only a shoulder-fired rocket launcher designed to hit helicopters and other low-flying targets at short range. The feat earned special praise from Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

“One person saved dozens of lives,” Mr. Zelensky said in his evening address. “Thank you for that!”

Ukraine’s antiaircraft and missile defense operators have a reputation for skill, though Russia’s military planners have sometimes failed to take this into account. When Russia invaded the Republic of Georgia in 2008, the Kremlin was shocked by the destructiveness of the small country’s air defenses. Only later did Mr. Putin discover to his ire that Ukraine had secretly delivered air defense systems to Georgia before the war and sent advisers to teach the Georgians how to use them.

Ukrainian officials say their current systems are sufficient to counter smaller, slower-moving cruise missiles such as the air-fired X-101 and X-555, as well as sea-based Kalibr missiles, all of which constituted the bulk of the missiles fired this week. Larger missiles like the hypersonic ground-fired Iskander are much harder to intercept.

Iskander missiles do not appear to have been used in the recent widespread attacks, but are thought to have been fired in some of the most devastating attacks in the war, including strikes on two military barracks in the southern city of Mykolaiv that killed dozens of soldiers.

Western officials say that Russia is holding back some of its diminishing supplies of larger and more advanced weaponry, reserving them for the most high-value targets. Some are also used to carry nuclear warheads, so Russia must conserve enough to maintain its deterrent capabilities, officials said.

To counter the more advanced missiles, Ukraine has asked for more sophisticated Western weapons systems like the American-made National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems, known as NASAMS. The systems would provide short- to medium-range coverage over 30 to 50 kilometers (about 18 to 30 miles).

On Tuesday, the White House said that two NASAMS, each equipped with radar-guided missiles powerful enough to take down fighter jets, combat drones and cruise missiles, would be delivered to Ukraine. This comes on top of the delivery of the four German-made IRIS-T air defense systems, which began arriving in Ukraine on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the Netherlands announced that it would send $15 million worth of air defense rockets to Ukraine.

Pressed on why the advanced systems had not been sent to Ukraine sooner, the American ambassador to NATO, Julianne Smith, said that Kyiv’s requests for weapons had “evolved” over the eight-month war and that the Biden administration was working with other allies to keep up.

Douglas Barrie, a military expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said it was unlikely that many countries had many of the advanced air defense systems on hand.

“And at the moment,” he said, “given the current security environment, if you’ve only got a few of these in your own country, there’s going to be a bit of resistance to hand them off to somebody else.”

In the war’s earliest days, Western officials scrambled to shift stockpiles of Russian-style air defenses like the S-300 from Eastern European countries to Ukrainian forces, which had already been trained in their use. But with Ukrainian troops burning through those arsenals faster than they could be replenished from a dwindling global supply, American and NATO officials concluded that Ukraine would need Western defensive systems as the war went on.

The United States has already sent more than 1,400 Stinger missiles, but the barrage of Russian missile attacks on Monday and Tuesday demonstrated the urgent need for more powerful defenses.

Ukraine has asked Israel for air defense systems as well, given the successes of that country’s Iron Dome as well as the longer-range Barak 8. Israel has so far declined, however, reluctant to provoke Russia into obstructing Israeli airstrikes in Syria, where Russia has a military presence. But a senior Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Israel was providing Ukraine with basic intelligence about Iranian drones, which Russia has begun to use on the battlefield, and that a private Israeli firm was providing Ukraine with satellite imagery of Russian troop positions.

On Wednesday, Ukraine shot down at least nine such drones, according to Ukraine’s military, and Britain’s Defense Ministry in its daily assessment of the war assessed that the drones were failing to fulfill Russia’s war needs because they are “slow” and “easy to target.”

Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, praised the pledge of new weapons systems on Wednesday, asserting that “a new era of air defense” had begun in Ukraine. But he urged allies to do more.

“There is a moral imperative to protect the sky over Ukraine in order to save our people,” he said.

Michael Schwirtz reported from Kyiv, Lara Jakes from Rome and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Patrick Kingsley contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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