The US and its allies need to help Ukraine build a comprehensive air and missile defense system by combining the different systems the allies operate to help Kyiv defend its airspace against Russian attacks, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said Wednesday after a gathering of military leaders and defense ministers in Brussels.
“What needs to be done here by all the various countries that were at the conference today is chip in and help them rebuild and sustain an integrated air and missile defense system,” Milley said at a press conference after the meeting.
Ukrainian leaders have re-emphasized their urgent need for air defense systems from Western nations after a series of Russian missile attacks targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure across the country over the weekend.
Ministers and Chiefs of Defense from 50 countries participated in the sixth meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group hosted by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the sixth meeting of the group since April. Ukrainian Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov and Major General Eduard Moskaliov, Ukraine’s joint forces commander, attended the meeting and briefed the ministers on the “latest battlefield dynamics” in Ukraine, Austin said in the press conference.
Milley emphasized the US cannot protect Ukraine’s skies from incoming missile and air attacks on its own. In order to protect the skies above the country, the US and its allies should contribute air defense systems they have and then help Ukraine use the systems together to create a defense, Milley said.
“Many countries have other systems, there’s a whole series of Israeli systems that are quite capable. The Germans have systems as we mentioned, so a lot of the countries that were here today have a wide variety of systems,” Milley said.
Milley suggested if multiple countries send the air defense systems they have, Ukrainians can “link” them together “with a command and control and communication systems.”
The top US general’s remarks represent a possible change in approach from Ukraine’s allies to help them counter the recent incoming attacks from Russian forces. While the US has provided billions of dollars worth of military assistance since Russia invaded in February, Putin’s recent aerial attacks on civilian infrastructure highlight how vulnerable Ukraine still remains to missile attacks from the air. Pooling together different systems would potentially provide Ukraine the help it needs more quickly, but would likely present a logistical challenge in getting Ukrainians trained on the systems and able to operate them together.
The US has already committed eight National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems to Ukraine, with the first two of the systems arriving by the end of November or early December, according to Pentagon officials. The US first announced it would send two NASAMs to Ukraine on July 1 in a Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative package of military assistance and announced it would send six more on Aug. 24. Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative packages give the Pentagon the ability to source weapons from industry rather than supplying them directly from US stockpiles.
In a call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky Monday, President Joe Biden “pledged to continue providing Ukraine with the support needed to defend itself, including advanced air defense systems,” a readout of the call from the White House said.
Germany delivered its first of four IRIS-T SLM air-to-air missile systems to Ukraine Monday, German defense minister Christine Lambrecht said in a tweet.
‘Complicated’ but ‘achievable’
“The task will be to bring those together, get them deployed, get them trained, cause each of these systems is different, make sure they can link together with a command and control and communication systems and make sure they have radars that can talk to each other so they can acquire targets on the inbound flights,” Milley said.
The execution of this strategy will be “quite complicated from a technical standpoint,” but Milley said it “is achievable.”
Austin said the US would get systems to Ukraine “as fast as we can physically get them there,” after the Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting.
“This is something, as I said at the top, that we remain focused on,” Austin said. “We’re going to provide systems that we have available, that countries like Germany have available. We’re also going to try to provide additional munitions to the existing systems that Ukrainians are using.”
US officials say it is difficult to know how many missiles and drones Russia has left at its disposal. In addition to launching cruise missiles and Iranian kamikaze drones, Russia also used surface-to-air missiles repurposed as ground attack weapons during the recent assault.
“The reliance on systems that were not intended for their current use is indicative of a depletion of [Russian] precision guided munitions,” one US official told CNN. But without knowing how many Russia had before the war, it remains incredibly difficult to estimate how many they have left seven months later.
Ukraine is also having to contend with Russia’s use of Iranian drones. The US does not know how many Moscow has in its possession, but one senior US military official estimated Russia has purchased “hundreds” of them as of October 4.