As a result of Russian aggression, the Ukrainian hinterland is very likely to face another severe winter. For the first time, special “hybrids”, systems that combine Western and Soviet technology, should limit the impact of Russian bombing and shelling.
US officials officially call the program “FrankenSAM”. The title, which first appeared in a NY Times article, is a portmanteau of the words Frankenstein and the English acronym “SAM,” which stands for surface-to-air missiles, which are ground-launched missiles against aircraft, drones and other missiles.
Doctor Frankenstein was able to revive a creature made up of disparate parts – and a project for Ukraine is trying to do something very similar. “Frankenstrels” are supposed to contribute to filling critical gaps in Ukrainian air defense.
Two variants of this improvised air defense — one combining Soviet Buk launchers and American Sea Sparrow missiles, the other Soviet-made radars and American Sidewinder missiles — have been tested at military bases in the United States in the past few months and are expected to be delivered to Ukraine this year, according to officials. autumn.
Old and new
It was clear from the beginning of the war that the Russian Air Force would have a clear upper hand in this conflict. But his role was never very big, especially from the edge of the conflict. The Russian Air Force did not suffer too many losses, but it also did not contribute much to the fighting.
Ukrainian air defenses, which in the Soviet tradition were much more numerous than is customary with Western armies, were able to keep him out of their airspace. In recent years, the role of Russian aircraft has been growing, but only because they finally have weapons that allow them to operate from behind the battle lines. Otherwise, the Russians must rely on cruise missile strikes and, increasingly, kamikaze drones.
However, it has been clear for a long time that the Ukrainian defense cannot withstand the enemy without a fundamental renewal. Above all, after Russia launched a large-scale campaign last year to decimate Ukraine’s key civilian infrastructure, Western countries gradually began sending their own and mostly modern anti-aircraft systems to Ukraine.
Thanks to this, Kiev has anti-aircraft systems such as SAMP/T, Iris-T, NASAMS, Patriot, Avenger or Gepard machines with radar-controlled cannons, which are especially suitable for combating drones. The Allies also delivered more than 2,000 shoulder-launched Stinger missiles to Ukraine.
The Ukrainians state that they use a multi-layer air defense system. On the outer layers, they use cheaper defensive elements with a shorter range, i.e. anti-aircraft missiles launched from the shoulder and generally systems with a shorter range and cheaper ammunition. Expensive long-range anti-aircraft systems are then deployed in other layers.
However, the primary problem of Ukrainian air defense is not quality, but quantity.
What are we going to shoot?
A number of systems are proving themselves very well in their role in Ukraine, from the Gepards, which were originally retired by the German army, to new and as yet untested systems such as NASAMS and Iris-T, to the already relatively tested Patriots.
However, Western countries never expected that their air defenses would lead a years-long air war, so their stocks of ammunition and the devices themselves are only small. Western doctrine generally assumes that NATO will have complete air superiority, and the adversary will soon have nothing to launch.
The original Ukrainian systems of Soviet origin (some modernized, some not) are still quite numerous, but they are also gradually decreasing. And missiles for them are no longer produced at all, or are produced mainly in Russia.
At the same time, no one has much doubt that Russia will resume attacks on the energy, water and heating infrastructure of Ukraine. Among other things, the attacks ensured that Ukraine could not be a producer of electricity at a time when Europe was struggling with high energy prices. They did not cost Moscow that much, they drained the forces (mainly air defense) from the front and kept the Ukrainians in tension and nervousness.
From the Russian point of view, it was probably not a failure, and there is no reason not to continue them – especially since the people of Ukraine will undoubtedly be more tired of the war this year than a year ago.
In this regard, by the way, it is not good news at all that Russia significantly reduced the number of munitions fired at Ukrainian targets during October. Most likely, it means nothing more than that he is preparing a stockpile of missiles for the winter campaign. The protection of Ukrainian airspace is thus a key priority in the coming months.
It is not only the Ukrainian representatives who have been aware for a long time that it is necessary to find some kind of solution. Ukraine will not have an air force strong enough to stop missiles with fighters in the foreseeable future. So the only solution is to strengthen ground air defense.
Give us your “scrap”
In the end, the Ukrainians proposed another logical solution. In late 2022, they asked the Allies to help them find missiles for around 60 Soviet-era Buk anti-aircraft systems lying idle in Kyiv’s arsenal. At the same time, they knew that it would not be possible to obtain Russian-made ammunition that would fit into the Buk systems. And so they proposed to convert the launcher to NATO standard missiles.
Ukraine reportedly offered to construct the weapons themselves in the interests of time, as they felt the time crunch. American engineers insisted on doing the work themselves, according to NY Times sources. In January 2023, the Pentagon agreed to use RIM-7 Sea Sparrow missiles for this project.
These are missiles that date back to the 1960s. They are intended for battleships, on which they were primarily used as protection against guided missiles with a flat flight path. They do not have a long range (approx. 20 km), but they can also hit fast-moving targets. In addition, they use the same guidance principle as the original Buk missiles: that is, they are guided by a radar located directly on the launcher. The missiles themselves do not have their own radar.
From the words of Ukrainian officials, it appears that Ukraine has sent 22 of these devices to the United States so far. Five of them have already returned to Ukraine after renovation, the rest should hopefully be modified by the end of the year. It is not clear from the official statements how big the changes are (so what is changing). Since the Buk and Sea Sparrow are so similar in principle, perhaps they would not have to be large, and it could be primarily about how to ensure safe communication of the missile with the Soviet-made guidance radar.
The second “Franken missile”, which should probably be in Ukraine by now, is a combination of an unspecified radar of Soviet origin with the American Sidewinder air missile, specifically the AIM-9M version. This is already a relatively outdated version of a missile that is still widely used today and was originally developed for American fighter jets. Similarly already they use in Ukraine originally ASRAAM air missiles.
In this case, it will be a short-range weapon, probably of the order of a few kilometers, where the ammunition guides itself to the thermal trace of the target. All the system operator has to do with this missile is to point the missile correctly, have its warhead aimed and press the button to fire.
Interestingly, Ukrainian officials are talking about linking to Soviet radar. Although the missile does not need it for guidance, it can help to easily detect the target and better “show” the target to the Sidewinder itself.
The third “Frankenstrel” mentioned is still reportedly in the testing phase. So far, according to the NY Times, it has passed the first harsh test of destroying a practice target. We know the least about its technical form, only that it combines missiles for the Patriot system “with older Ukrainian domestically produced radar systems.”
It would therefore clearly be the most powerful of the developed systems. The first should arrive in Ukraine this winter, along with other missiles “and other components of the Patriot system.” But we can only speculate about exactly how it works.
A system is being tested for Patriot missiles (the so-called RIG-360), which allows them to be connected to basically any type of modern radar. However, it is not known to have actually been tested with any tracking device other than the one used by the Patriot. However, Ukraine has suitable self-made radars that are fully digitized, for example 80K6KS1 Feniks.
Such a solution could help solve one thorny problem: moving every Patriot is a very difficult decision for Western countries, because there are few systems available. Currently, the US armed forces have only 60 systems.
But Patriot batteries always consist of several different devices with different tasks. The basis of the entire system are radars, but in addition to them, there are launchers and various support vehicles in each battery. If Ukraine had its own radars, the Allies could “cut” from their systems without completely losing them (and above all their capabilities). No one else (perhaps) will need as much ammunition for the Patriots in the foreseeable future as Ukraine.
Ukraine’s air defense has recently been strengthened by another new weapon, which, of course, is not completely “hybrid”, although the Pentagon includes it in the FrankenSAM project. It is an older American Hawk system, the first combat footage of which appeared on October 23. Its delivery has been talked about for months, from several countries that have used or are using it in the past.
Several systems were donated to Ukraine by Spain. However, at least some of them reached Ukraine without radars, which were obtained in the following months (perhaps from Sweden).