July 10, 2023 | Townhall

Keep Air Defense at the Top of NATO’s Agenda in Vilnius

Despite reports that Russia’s missile supplies might be running low, Ukraine faces a renewed aerial bombardment from the Russian military. According to the BBC, the month of May saw Ukraine receive a higher number of drone and missile strikes than it did in the previous four months this year. As NATO leaders prepare to gather for their annual summit in Vilnius, air defense must remain at the top of the alliance’s agenda. 

NATO’s air defense posture at the commencement of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was inadequate. NATO’s most geographically vulnerable member states lacked sophisticated air defense radars and ground-based interceptors, and relied heavily on Baltic Air Policing deployments, where fighter jets from NATO’s better-equipped Western militaries patrol the skies of their ex-Soviet allies. Had the Russian military advanced toward Tallin and Riga instead of Kyiv, the hodgepodge of air defense systems on NATO’s eastern flank would have failed to protect allied territory.

Given the vast resources available to its member states, NATO should be able to develop the air defense capability and capacity to deter or withstand any conventional Russian aerial assault. 

For this reason, in the early stages of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we made a number of concrete proposals to improve NATO’s ability to defend itself against a concerted Russian attack from the sky. To their credit, NATO allies made several important decisions consistent with these recommendations to improve air defense capacity, but more action is needed at Vilnius. 

In April, Italy announced that its SAMP/T air defense system, capable of defending critical military targets such as airfields against a variety of missile threats, was fully operational in Slovakia. Less than two weeks later, Spain deployed a National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System (NASAMS), which can reliably identify, target, and destroy Russian airborne threats, along with 100 soldiers to Lielvarde Air Base, situated less than 40 miles from the Latvian capital.

Germany and the Netherlands jointly deployed a Patriot missile system to Slovakia, and Germany independently sent a Patriot system to Poland following the explosion of a missile near Poland’s border with Ukraine. France sent its MAMBA air defense system to Romania. For their part, the United Kingdom reinforced Poland with its Sky Sabre air defense system and the United States relocated Patriot batteries from Germany to both Poland and Slovakia. These deployments have filled critical gaps as allies like Poland scramble to modernize their own capabilities. 

NATO has further enhanced its air defense posture with the deployment of additional aircraft in Eastern Europe. Earlier this year, NATO Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) surveillance planes deployed to Romania to conduct reconnaissance flights. U.S. long-range tankers including KC-135s and KC-46s began operating out of Powidz, Poland, in March. NATO fighter and bomber aircraft — including American B-1B Lancers, Italian Eurofighter Typhoons paired with Spanish F-18s in Romania, and French Rafales in Lithuania — have patrolled the skies of NATO allies since Russia’s invasion began. According to NATO’s Allied Air Command, within two months of the invasion, one could expect that about 30 NATO surveillance and fighter jets to be airborne at any given time.

Further tilting the odds in NATO’s favor, a wide array of advanced air defense systems were delivered to Ukraine, where they have proven their worth against Russia’s missile and drone arsenal. This includes U.S. Patriot systems for ballistic and cruise missile defense; joint U.S.-Norwegian NASAMS for anti-air and cruise missile defense; German IRIS-T anti-air cruise missile defense systems; Spanish provided U.S. I-HAWK air defense systems, and German Geppard guns and other cannons for drone defense. Additionally, NATO members who still held former Soviet or Warsaw Pact air defense systems, such as S-300 air defense missiles, transferred them to Ukraine. 

Unfortunately, the news isn’t all positive. 

Reporting from The Washington Post suggests NATO member states are beginning to waver on the need for extended deployments in NATO’s most vulnerable nations. NATO allies in Eastern Europe are reportedly worried their Western European counterparts are “eager to return to the status quo ante.” 

This is worrisome. 

Rather than doubling down on what has amounted to a successful deterrence strategy against Russia’s seemingly most effective tools (cruise and ballistic missiles), some of America’s European allies continue to be concerned that they are somehow provoking the Russians. But Vladmir Putin has clearly shown he does not need to be provoked to launch an invasion. 

Unmerited as these arguments are, air defense deployments to Eastern Europe ought to be excluded from such considerations. This problem is right around the corner from the NATO Vilnius summit, as reports have emerged that Germany’s air defense deployments were originally scheduled to end in Poland this summer and Slovakia by the close of the year. 

At the Vilnius summit, NATO leaders, who will themselves be protected by German Patriot batteries, need to tackle the challenges that Russian cruise and ballistic missiles present both to Ukraine and to NATO’s eastern flank. A number of steps are required.

First, NATO should ensure that Germany and other NATO contributing states do not remove their air defense systems from the countries they are protecting in Eastern Europe. 

Second, NATO should agree to develop a common air defense acquisition road map that ensures the defenses of the Eastern European flank are resilient enough to defeat Russian missile attacks. These acquisition programs will need to include both sensors and engagement systems that support a long-term alliance commitment to forward station air defense systems in Eastern Europe, as these smaller states can’t afford the air defense capacities involved on their own. 

Additionally, the alliance will need to consider permanent deployments of air defense systems at key NATO air bases and logistics/pre-positioned gear facilities spread throughout Western Europe and Poland, as these facilities are insufficiently protected against a surprise missile attack. The road map should also include investments in passive defense systems such as hardening, deception, catalogue and dispersal. This road map must also ensure that systems are easily integrated, and utilize approved alliance data sharing systems like LINK-16 and LINK-22. Many countries are looking at Israeli systems, which are notoriously hard to integrate with U.S. and European systems due to Israel’s unwillingness to share source code, so systems should be procured only if the supplier submits to alliance data sharing requirements. 

Third, the alliance needs to consider modernization of its AWACS aircraft. The U.S. Air Force has joined its Australian and U.K partners in procuring the E-7A Wedgetail aircraft to replace the E-3 Sentry aircraft. NATO should start planning to do the same, as the modernized Wedgetail aircraft can be critical to integrating air defense and fighter aircraft in combatting large-force air and missile attacks.

Fourth, NATO should determine what to do with its European Phased Adaptive Approach, or Aegis Ashore, ballistic missile defense systems in Poland and Romania. Originally designed to counter Iranian ballistic missile threats to Europe, these two massive radars and associated missile defense systems could play a critical role in detecting, assessing, and engaging cruise and ballistic missile attacks from Russia. Any sense of obligation to Russia to not repurpose these systems has surely been muted by Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine — compounded by the war crimes committed during the invasion, including the alleged use of cruise and ballistic missiles against civilian targets.

Finally, the alliance must continue to scrape together as many air defense assets — including full systems, missiles, gun ammunition, and more — for transfer to Ukraine. Russia has few systems that can impose both military and civilian costs on Ukraine — ballistic and cruise missiles are one of them — that need to be aggressively countered.

Convincing financially challenged, war-weary NATO allies to stand up to the continued Russian militarily threat will be the central task at the Vilnius summit. A failure to specifically address the air defense issue could mean the difference between future Russian missile strikes on targets in alliance territory and tracking, engaging, and neutralizing the missiles in the sky. 

RADM Mark Montgomery (U.S. Navy Ret.) is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). He previously served as policy director of the Senate Armed Services Committee under Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. and as Director for Plans and Policy at US European Command. Jack Sullivan is a research associate at FDD. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkCMontgomery. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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