Old U.S. HAWK Missiles Could Destroy Russian Drones Bombarding Ukraine

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U.S.-made HAWK anti-aircraft missiles originally fielded in the 1960s are being deployed to shoot down the barrages of kamikaze drones now aimed at Ukraine. Spain has already sent four HAWK launchers to Ukraine, and the U.S. is reportedly preparing to release missiles from its stockpiles.

The ageing veteran called out of retirement to save the day when the young guns need help is a Hollywood cliché. But old HAWKs might be just what Ukraine needs right now in real life.

The Raytheon MIM-23 HAWK – a backronym for “Homing All-the-Way- Killer” — is arguably a museum piece. It really can be found in military museums around the world, with examples at Fort Bliss in the U.S., in Denmark and Greece among others. Once a mainstay of U.S surface-to-air missile, the U.S. Army replaced the HAWK with the more capable Patriot in 1994 and the Marine Corps phased it out in the early 2000s.

Upgraded versions of the HAWK remain in service with more than a dozen countries. The 16-foot, 1,400-pound missile flies at over Mach 2.5 and can hit targets from low to very high altitude out to about 25 miles. It may not have the sophisticated guidance and ability to handle clutter, decoys and jamming of modern missiles, but the challenge here is not advanced jets or stealthy cruise missiles. The targets will be Iranian-made Shahed-136 kamikaze drones, which have the performance of a WW1 aircraft, no on-board countermeasures and no ability to evade. These should not be too difficult a target for a fairly capable basic surface-to-air missile. Though never fired by U.S. forces, Kuwaiti HAWKs brought down at least 20 Iraqi aircraft during the 1990 invasion.

NATO announced that Spain was sending four HAWK launchers to Ukraine on October 13, with an unspecified number of missiles. A HAWK battery typically has several different types of radar for locating and tacking targets, plus one or more command and control vehicles, and a number of launchers. Each launcher packs three missiles ready to fire.

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On Tuesday, Reuters reported that the U.S. was considering sending older HAWK missiles from storage to Ukraine. An official told the news agency that it was not clear whether the U.S. had any combat-ready launchers to send, as they had been in storage for many years.

And old missile might be just what are needed. The problem with the Shahed-136 is not that they are capable, but they are cheap and hence numerous; President Zelensky says Russia has ordered 2,400 Shahed-136s from Iran. Most are being shot down, but some get through. And Ukraine only has so many anti-aircraft missiles.

U.S. NASAMS missiles are already on the way to Ukraine but these are rare and expensive, at around $1.2m a shot, ideal for shooting down cruise and ballistic missiles but wasted on a $20k drone.

HAWK, on the other hand, could be provided in larger numbers. While it is difficult to get estimates of current stocks, we know that at the systems height in the 1980s there were over 27,000 HAWK missiles in the U.S. inventory. The vast majority of these were the basic version. Some may have been transferred to allies, some may have been used in training or otherwise disposed of, but likely there are large numbers of them in a dusty warehouse somewhere. Why not send these ‘obsolete’ missiles into action against low-performance drones?

The Biden administration could send Hawks to Ukraine using the Presidential Drawdown Authority (PDA) which allows the U.S. to transfer defense hardware directly from stocks without the need for congressional approval.

Ukraine is already making use of old TOW anti-tank missiles from U.S. stocks; it is not Javelin, but the older missile is highly effective against the older tanks Russia is now fielding. And, after Ukraine’s surprise move of fielding U.S. HARM missiles on its MiG-29 fighters, using truck-mounted Brimstone missiles and improvised launchers for Neptune anti-ship-missiles, nobody should doubt that they have the technical know-how to make use of HAWKs whatever state the launchers are in.

HAWKs may prove to be the right solution to Ukraine’s immediate problem. But something else will be needed in the future against increasing numbers of increasingly capable cheap drones when the last HAWK is gone.

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