During the devastating and horrific times of crisis, areas of vulnerabilities are exposed and exploited. Russia has recognized and taken advantage of integrated air and missile defense vulnerabilities within NATO. With daily attacks, indiscriminate killings and mass destruction in Ukraine, Russia has demonstrated that one its weapons of choice are ballistic and cruise missiles, and so far Ukraine’s Soviet-era missile defense architecture as well as NATO exported manned portable capabilities have been generally ineffective in the face of the Russian onslaught. Furthermore, recent incursions from Russian drones into Allied Airspace reveals another NATO vulnerability in detecting, tracking and eliminating unmanned aerial systems. It is more than a wake up call, it is a make or break call for NATO, which has to rapidly apply lessons learned from integrated missile defense efforts in Ukraine and the recent drone penetrations of allied airspace. This must lead to the development of a fully integrated air and missile defense architecture, otherwise NATO risks accepting the threat of deadly destruction of infrastructure and the indiscriminate killing of civilians.
On March 15, a Russian drone breached NATO airspace after flying into Poland before being shot down in Ukrainian territory. Four days earlier, a drone of unknown origins passed over Romania, Hungary, and Croatia before crashing in Zagreb, the Croatian capital. These two drone incursions, coupled with continuous Russian fighter aircraft aggressiveness encroaching on international boundaries in the Baltic states and Black Sea region are an indictment of the need for Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD) in Europe to prevent future incursions by hostile aircraft, UAVs, and missile strikes from freely entering NATO airspace.
During its most recent invasion of Ukraine, Russia has launched 1500+ ballistic and cruise missiles into Ukrainian territory. These strikes have been ship-launched, air-launched and ground-launched from areas within Russia and Belarus. They have utilized a multitude of missiles including short range ballistic missiles from Iskanders and Kalibr cruise missiles. Accompanied by artillery shelling, the air and missile strikes have often been indiscriminate in the targeting of civilian centers, residential buildings, schools, medical centers, train stations along with traditional targets such as military installations. Most recently, the western city of Lviv was struck by four missiles killing at least seven people and injuring more than a dozen. With the most recent push to take over the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, this indiscriminate bombardment tactic is expected to continue resulting in an increasing amount of civilian death and destruction.
Russia’s action demonstrates a vulnerability in NATO’s defense and failing to address the lack of an integrated air and missile defense architecture poses an existential threat to extended deterrence. A fully integrated and coordinated set of sensors, networked to command and control centers such as NATO air Command, is the first step in building an IAMD system necessary to counter what NATO has witnessed in Ukraine.
In both instances of the UAV incursions and ballistic/cruise missile attacks this past month, zero intercepts were made against the invading drones. In the Croatian case, despite Romania, Hungary, and Croatia all possessing advanced air defense capabilities, fifty minutes passed before the intruding drone crashed. This failure demonstrates to adversaries that NATO airspace is open to exploitation. The ability to detect, track, and take action against such targets as a TU-141 drone is essential to protecting Allied airspace, military forces, and populations. Despite the technology for drone detection and tracking capabilities becoming increasingly advanced, these capabilities are not being deployed in a manner that allows for effective defense in Eastern European border states. Regardless of whether the drone carried explosives, or was intended for collecting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) on Zagreb, this intrusion highlights a weakness that cannot remain.
The Air Force and Space Force must advance their Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Ground Moving Target Indicator (GMTI) sensors and Air Moving Target Indicators (AMTI). The first step would be to replace existing E-3 Sentry (AWACS) currently used by the USAF and NATO through the acquisition of the E-7 Wedgetail that is being utilized similarly in the Indo-Pacific region. The Wedgetail provides enhanced abilities in its 200+ nautical mile range in all weather conditions and its 360-degree view produced by its Multi-Role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radar. The addition of an advanced air battlespace management platforms such as the E-7 Wedgetail, capable of detecting enemy aircraft and cruise missiles, will be an essential to the first stages of NATO’s detection capabilities.
Today, four European NATO members operate NASAM for the air and missile defense of critical assets and their homelands. Similarly, NASAMs make up the critical components of defense of the United States capitol. The French and Italians have similar SAMP-T capabilities and the UK has a similar Sky Sabre capability. Systems such as these should be put on alert and deployed to critical locations to maximize readiness to face Russia’s new weapon of choice, but this will need to be done in an integrated and layered approach. NASAMs-like systems represent one layer of an integrated approach and NATO will need to expand upon its upper tier layered capabilities as well (i.e. THAAD, Aegis Afloat and Ashore) in order to complete this integrated air and missile defense architecture. The acquisition of advanced missile defense systems such as the THAAD, Patriot and expansion of NASAMs and related systems are a possible element for a NATO missile defense architecture.
2022 began as the Year of the Tiger with the US shooting down multiple drones in Iraq with its counter rocket artillery and mortars system and newly developed Counter Unmanned Aircraft System (CUAS) sensing and kinetic capabilities. Highly effective Counter-Unmanned Aerial Systems (CUAS) such as the Centurion Counter-Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar, or C-RAM, deploy rockets at a cost of 26 dollars per round, ensuring that adversaries cannot exploit the cost-curve of drone warfare. The drone threat is not just a concern to our European allies, it is a serious concern and threat to the US homeland. Given their ease of maneuverability, ability to evade detection, and low cost of use for our adversaries, they are becoming a popular weapon of choice. The Joint Counter small-Unmanned Aircraft System office (JCO) has been tasked with establishing doctrine, training and the procurement of counter UAS systems in order to defend deployed forces and civilian populations overseas as well as airspace over the United States. Systems like these can be and should be modeled for European airspace.
In 2014, Russia recognized the vulnerability of NATO airspace and sought to exploit it by violating the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and producing the 9M729 intermediate-range cruise missile. Since then, Russia has incrementally increased the production of intermediate-range missiles to pursue what it views as an asymmetric advantage over NATO Allies. China, which was never part of the INF treaty, has similarly been massing its intermediate-range missile arsenal, with the number of IRBM launchers in China’s arsenal growing from zero in 2015 to 72 in 2020. These exploitations are growing at an alarming rate and highlight the need for the United States, Allies and partners to increase collaboration for the creation of a greater layered air and missile defense architecture.
Russia’s actions in Ukraine have clearly demonstrated a complete commitment to the extensive use of cruise, hypersonic and ballistic missiles. Without the leadership of NATO for the demand of a real, proven and operational integrated air and missile defense architecture, our European allies, partners and forward deployed US forces in Europe remain at great risk, and a higher risk for deterrence against a World War.
It is Make or Break time for NATO.