A British intelligence update on December 10 observed that the Russian Air Force carried out a massive wave of strikes towards Kyiv and central Ukraine using its heavy bomber fleet in what was the first such attack after September 21, 2023.
Without mincing words, the British intelligence assessed: “This was probably the start of a more concerted campaign by Russia aimed at degrading Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. However, initial reports indicate the majority of these missiles were successfully intercepted by Ukrainian air defense.” The latest series of events indicates the assessment was correct.
In a pre-dawn attack on December 11, the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, was bombarded with eight long-range ballistic missiles fired by the Russian forces. The missiles were reportedly shot down by the active air defenses, but the debris of fallen missiles killed over four people.
Ukraine, on its part, likely predicted that Russia would again try overwhelming Ukrainian defenses with a barrage of missiles. This is reflected in the long list of weapons that Kyiv has recently sought from the United States, which includes the cutting-edge THAAD missile defense system, among other things.
The Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system has been under consideration for some time, in contrast to many other items on the list that have surprised military watchers and according to a Ukrainian media outlet, former Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, voiced the need for THAAD as early as September 2022.
However, some netizens asked on social media why Ukraine is making an overreach by asking for THAAD when it already has the Western NASAMS, IRIS-T, and Patriot missile defense systems. The Patriot, on its part, has already established its potency on the battlefield by shooting down several Russian missiles and drones. The Ukrainian military, however, has just two batteries of Patriot missile defense systems.
Earlier, the Ukrainian troops went so far as to claim that the Patriot operated by them had managed to shoot down the Russian Kinzhal hypersonic missiles that have otherwise been projected as invincible by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russia has categorically denied these claims. However, the cutting-edge Patriot did give Russian troops sleepless nights. They started taking aim at the batteries shortly after it became operational to obliterate the most significant and advanced missile defense system operated by Kyiv’s forces.
Besides the shooting down of missiles and kamikaze drones, the Patriot achieved a remarkable victory that even its operators had not anticipated. According to reports, the Patriot shot down five Russian aircraft, including its Su-34 and Su-35 workhorses, deep inside the Russian territory.
However, military analysts and Ukrainian officials have almost said in unison that two Patriot batteries may not be enough to fend off the intensifying threat.
Ukraine has constantly urged its friends in the West to arm it with more air defenses. In October this year, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said his country was considering providing an additional Patriot system to Ukraine in winter.
“This is what is most necessary now – to ensure air defense with this highly efficient system,” Scholz said while emphasizing that Russia would try to threaten Ukraine’s infrastructure and cities again this winter with missile and drone attacks. And the predictions have been more or less proven right.
Although there is no indication that Washington would approve its transfer, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced at the International Summit on Food Security in Kyiv that Ukraine would be deploying “very powerful air defenses” to the area around Odesa, Ukraine’s strategic grain port, which Moscow has constantly targeted.
This Is Why Ukraine Wants THAAD!
THAAD is an anti-ballistic missile defense system designed to shoot down short-, medium–, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in their mid-course stage and terminal phase (descent or re-entry) by intercepting with a hit-to-kill approach. Lockheed Martin produces it.
At a length of 6.1 meters and a launch weight of 900 kg, THAAD’s single-stage anti-missile interceptor can reach astonishing speeds to kill its target. During the terminal phase of target engagement, the interceptor is guided by a thermal imaging sensor. Six launchers, each holding eight missiles, make up a conventional THAAD battery with 48 missiles in total.
Ukraine has a legitimate interest in THAAD because it is a powerful anti-missile defense system that can intercept ballistic missiles at 200 kilometers and altitudes between 100 and 150 kilometers. This is especially important given Russia’s persistent attempts to target Ukrainian infrastructure with ballistic missiles.
In contrast, the Patriot has an operational range of about 40 to 90 kilometers, depending on the variant, and can intercept targets at altitudes of up to 24.2 kilometers. THAAD AN/TPY-2 radar can also detect targets at much farther distances than the PAC-3 system’s AN/MPQ-65 or AN/MPQ-65A radar.
Furthermore, the THAAD system is designed to guard larger areas, including cities or regions, and has a broader coverage area. However, by providing point defense, the Patriot system is frequently employed to protect specific targets, such as military installations or populated areas.
Compared to the Patriot system, the THAAD system uses bigger interceptors with a greater range. The Patriot system has a hit-to-kill strategy, whereas the THAAD interceptors use kinetic energy to neutralize approaching threats.
This is one reason why when South Korea announced that it would deploy the THAAD, China panicked and put up a stiff resistance. The deployment was essentially aimed at strengthening and enhancing Seoul’s defense capabilities against threats from North Korea and China.
China, however, saw the possible deployment of THAAD as a severe national security risk, mainly because of the American system’s radar capabilities, which might reach Chinese territory. Notably, South Korea already had operational Patriot defense systems, which did not attract the same reaction from Beijing.
THAAD is generally perceived as a component of a global anti-missile system erected by the United States that threatens Beijing and Moscow. Thus, its potential transfer to Kyiv’s forces will likely deeply unsettle Russia.
Moreover, a more significant challenge to Moscow could be the integration of THAAD with Patriot. In February last year, the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) successfully demonstrated the interoperability of two critical air defense systems — Patriot and THAAD.
As part of these tests, MDA launched the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 Missile Segment Enhanced — or PAC-3 MSE — from a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.
Integrating these systems poses a more significant threat to the adversary. Combining higher- and lower-tier interceptors into a single battery boosts defensive coverage, broadens the battlespace, and gives combatant commanders more leeway in employing the systems.
Though THAAD was created in the late 1980s, tested in the 1990s, and deployed by the US military in 2008, it has not been fielded extensively worldwide. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are the only two international operators besides the United States.
The THAAD would presumably expand this potential, as the new system would allow intercepting ballistic missiles on approach in the outer atmosphere and covering a larger area.
Conversely, Russia uses the land-fired Iskander tactical battlefield ballistic missile instead of this type of missile. However, the Iskander also travels in a quasi-ballistic manner rather than a completely parabolic one. After crossing a certain distance on a ballistic course, it changes to a flatter trajectory. This makes detecting its flying route more difficult.
Due to the system’s high cost and maintenance and the limited number of units available across US military bases globally, THAAD is an objectively tricky asset for Ukrainians to obtain, whether through donated military aid or self-funded purchase. It does not help Kyiv that US military aid for the Ukrainian military is now hanging by a thread owing to several domestic obstacles.