Germany has announced it will supply Ukraine with its latest air-defense system. This might help the Ukrainians ward off carpet-bombing raids by Russian bombers as Russia’s wider war on Ukraine enters its bloody fourth month.
But who knows how long delivery might take.
German chancellor Olaf Scholz on Wednesday said his government would donate to Kyiv a batch of IRIS-T SL missile-launchers. Scholz described the IRIS-T SL as “the most modern air-defense system that Germany has.”
An IRIS-T SL battery includes several eight-round launchers plus a command post and a radar, all mounted on heavy-duty trucks. The Ukrainian government requested 10 of the launchers, German media reported. That’s enough for one very big battery, or several batteries.
Diehl BGT Defense manufactures the IRIS-T SL system. Each missile—to say nothing of the launchers and other components—sells for around half a million dollars.
There are different models of the IRIS-T SL. A short-range version firing missiles out to eight miles. A medium-range model with a 25-mile reach. There also is a new, longer-range version in development. Ukraine apparently wants the medium model.
The need is obvious. The Ukrainian armed forces began the war with substantial air-defenses left over from the Soviet era. But ammunition is limited and Russian attacks have destroyed dozens of launchers and radars.
Foreign donations of short-range, man-portable surface-to-air missiles have helped the Ukrainians to continue plunking away at Russian helicopters and warplanes. But just one country so far has stepped up to provide longer-range SAMs: Slovakia back in April gave Ukraine its sole battery of Soviet-made S-300s.
The S-300 is the backbone of Ukraine’s long-range air-defense. Pre-war, the army and air force between them fielded around 300 S-300 launchers in around 100 batteries. An S-300 launcher can lob a missile as far as 125 miles, depending on the model.
After nearly 100 days of bombardment, the Russians have destroyed a couple dozen of Ukraine’s original S-300 launchers.
Kyiv still possesses enough longer-range air-defenses to deny its deep air space to direct overflight by Russian aircraft. Moscow’s helicopters and planes have stuck close to the front lines. For deeper strikes, Russian bombers, ships and ground launchers fire cruise missiles and ballistic missiles from hundreds of miles away.
But those missiles are expensive and Russian industry, which depends on Western-made electronics that now are under sanction, can’t easily replace them. The Kremlin clearly is eager to deploy bombers for direct attacks using cheap gravity bombs.
Note that, at the height of the fighting in mid-April in the Azovstal industrial site in Russian-occupied Mariupol in southern Ukraine, the Russian air force sortied Tu-22M swing-wing bombers for devastating carpet-bombing raids.
Azovstal was a rare opportunity for the big, lumbering bombers. As Mariupol lies deep inside Russian-held territory, Ukraine’s S-300s couldn’t easily target the Tu-22Ms are they flew slow and level over the industrial site.
By contrast, flying bombers over, say, Kharkiv or Odesa—where the Ukrainians are in control and their air-defenses are intact—would be aerial suicide. But that might change if Ukraine runs out of S-300s.
Hence the urgency of the IRIS-T SL deal. Ukraine must constantly replenish its air-defenses or risk Russia widening its bombing campaign.
The problem, for Kyiv, is that the IRIS-T SLs Germany is donating are coming straight from the manufacturer. It’s a brand-new system, after all, and the German military doesn’t have many of them just lying around.
It’s unclear how quickly Diehl might be able to assemble Ukraine’s IRIS-T SL systems. Weeks? Months? If there’s reason for the Ukrainians to fret, it’s that Germany certainly hasn’t been in a hurry to ship any of the other major weapons it has pledged to Ukraine’s defense.
And time is of the essence.