The early years of the 20th century saw dizzying progress in aviation. The Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903 barely made it off the ground for 12 seconds. A little more than a decade later, planes would be conducting dogfights over Europe and launching bombing raids during World War I.
In the years between World War I and the start of World War II, military experts like American Billy Mitchell and Italian Giulio Douhet began theorizing about a new form of strategic warfare: making use of air power’s ability to strike civilian sectors of the enemy to destroy public morale. It was a concept that would see use by both sides of the conflict in what would become known as “terror bombing.”
The development of international law and firmer restrictions on deliberate targeting of civilians has seen this tactic recede into the past, at least on any large scale.
That was until the fall and winter of 2022-23 in Ukraine, when the Russian military launched a coordinated and sustained series of attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure and citizenry. The methods had changed, though; Russia relied on the use of massed volleys of cruise missiles and Iranian Shahed suicide drones rather than conventional bombers. The aims—terrorize the citizenry and cripple the economy—had not.
What has increasingly become clear is that this winter, Russia will almost certainly repeat this strategy. These coming attacks will represent a significant test of Ukrainian air defense capabilities. There are good reasons to think Ukraine is far readier than it had been in December 2022.
The Russian commander in December 2022, Sergey Surovikin, developed a series of tactics aimed to penetrate Ukrainian air defenses.
Surovikin’s primary target appeared to be Ukrainian energy infrastructure. The highest-cost and highest-capability missiles in the Russian arsenal, the supersonic Kalibr cruise missiles, were predominantly directed at civilian Ukrainian power plants.
However, Surovikin apparently lacked sufficient numbers of advanced cruise missiles to launch attacks capable of overwhelming Ukrainian air defenses while dealing sufficient amounts of damage to his primary targets. If all Surovikin launched were his Kalibr missiles, Ukraine’s air defenses could focus all their efforts on the small numbers of incoming missiles.
To confuse and overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses, Surovikin began mixing S-300 anti-air missiles, as well as other anti-ship missiles, into the cruise missile barrages. Repurposed and unmodified anti-air and anti-ship missiles lack the proper guidance systems to conduct a precision strike against a ground target and would have difficulty conducting anything other than simply landing in the general vicinity of a city-sized target.
However, these missiles landing in Ukrainian cities deal horrific damage.
As such, these missiles require a response from Ukrainian anti-air defenses, and thus divert attention away from the strikes on Ukrainian electrical infrastructure. The destruction of civilian homes and the killing of Ukrainian civilians also serves to accentuate the concept of “terror bombing” strategies of the 1930s and ‘40s.
Surovikin added additional stresses to Ukraine’s air defense by employing Iranian Shahed drones in the mix of air attacks on civilians. Western security think tanks like the Institute for the Study of War noted that the Shahed drones were inexpensive but unsophisticated and thus were likely deemed to be primarily suited to strike poorly protected civilian targets rather than military targets.
A major advantage of the Shahed drones is their inexpensive nature. They cost only $20,000 a piece, compared with around $6.5 million for a single Kalibr cruise missile. It is simple to understand why Russia can afford to send swarms of as many as 60-70 Shahed drones on strikes; their combined cost falls well short of a single Russian cruise missile.
Modern ground-launched air defense missiles, such as those fired from the NASAMS or the IRIS-T systems, are many times the cost of a Shahed drone. For example, an IRIS-T system’s missile costs around $500,000 per unit, thus they are not cost-effective solutions to the type of low-cost threat posed by Shahed drones.
The German Gepard 35 millimeter anti-air gun has proved to be an incredibly effective counter to drone threats, but Ukraine has received only 67 Gepards. Between drone defense for its artillery and other key military assets and the need to defend numerous large cities and towns, Ukraine’s air defense needs are very heavy.
To counter these drone threats, Ukraine’s allies have moved toward an improvised system employing lost-cost, older anti-air missiles. In particular, that’s the British ASRAAM missile and the American AIM-9M Sidewinder missile.
I previously wrote about the British innovation of strapping a basic radar system and the heat-seeking ASRAAM missile to the flatbed of a Supacat truck.
The ASRAAM is not radar-based, but is instead a heat-seeking missile, making it more autonomous than a radar-based anti-air missile. Thus it’s well suited to be used as an improvised SAM missile.
The system does appear highly improvised, with a simple launcher welded onto the rear of the high-mobility vehicle. It’s unclear if it has its own radar, but it’s likely a very inexpensive and weak system if so. the ASRAAM normally has a range of 25 km, but this assumes being fired from a fighter jet flying at Mach 1 or greater, and at high altitudes. But when the 50 km-ranged AIM-120A AMRAAM is fired from a NASAMS, its range drops to under half to around 25km. Thus, the 25km ASRAAM will likely only sport a horizontal range of 10-15km at most.
While an improvised system comes with some obvious limitations, this solution does come with two significant advantages. The UK, and many European allies, have major stockpiles of older ASRAAM missiles it can dispatch to Ukraine without fear of impacting their own stockpiles. The Supacat high mobility vehicles are also ubiquitous and can be delivered in mass quantities. Thus it appears this system can be delivered in quantity as soon as launchers can be affixed to trucks.
Ukraine showed the system in operation, allegedly successfully intercepting a Russian drone, on Oct. 11, 2023.
The other missile bolstering Ukraine’s air defense capabilities is the AIM-9M missile.
The AIM-9 is a venerable modular air-to-air missile, with the first prototypes being fired in 1953 and entering service in 1956. The newest version of the missile, the AIM-9X, remains in service as the standard short-range air-to-air missile of NATO and Western-aligned air forces.
One of the most prescient aspects of the missile’s design—adding to its immense longevity—has been the modular nature of the missile. Nearly any aspect of the missile can be swapped out for a new component, allowing modernization of missiles to be far simpler. The AIM9-X represents the fifth-generation version of the missile, replacing the AIM9-M when the 9-X entered service in 2003.
Using the advanced and expensive AIM-9X to try to combat the Shahed drone threat would represent the same problems as using other expensive air-to-air missiles still in use and needed by the Western allies. However, the AIM-9M is a different story.
The AIM-9M entered service in 1982 in a era of large, Cold War-inflated defense budgets, and it was rapidly and widely adopted by Western militaries. As a result, the AIM-9M and its export variants were built in comparatively huge numbers—more than an estimated 35,000 were produced, many of which remain in Western stockpiles. By way of contrast, the U.S. military stockpiles just 2,500 AIM-9X missiles.
These outdated missiles from the 1980s are unlikely to be needed by modern militaries that still have them in stockpiles, thus making them ideal drone and helicopter interceptors.
The U.S. included an unknown number of AIM-9M missiles in a recent aid package. This led to speculation that the U.S. had created an improvised ground-launch platform for the AIM-9 missiles. This was confirmed by an anonymous Pentagon official to the Associated Press.
For months, the Pentagon had been engaged in a joint effort with Ukraine and her allies to create an effective launch platform for Ukraine to deploy the AIM-9M. This program was called the FrankenSAM Project in the Pentagon. It aimed to create a readily available improvised system that could deploy the AIM-9M effectively.
Jakub Palowski, the deputy editor-in-chief of Polish outlet Defence24, speculated that Ukraine might deploy the AIM-9M from a modified SA-8 Gekko 9K33 “OSA.”
Palowski noted on X (formerly known as Twitter):
[I]t is not impossible that Ukrainian SAMs (SA-8 in particular) could be integrated with AIM-9 in a similar way to that SA-11 was integrated with RIM/AIM-7, I wrote about it for
as the Polish industry had such concepts.
Ukraine was noted to be quickly running out of Soviet-era anti-air systems missiles, and it is almost certain the OSA is no exception.
Repurposing existing Soviet air defense systems to use Western anti-air munitions was already done with the Buk SAM system and the Sea Sparrow missile. Polish defense firms successfully integrated RIM-162 Sea Sparrow missiles onto Buk Missile systems in 2012, which laid the groundwork for Ukrainian engineers to integrate the older RIM-7 Sea Sparrow missiles to its own Buk Launchers in early 2023.
Either alternatively, or in addition, the U.S. may be manufacturing entirely new “FrankenSAM” systems for firing the AIM-9M.
The Pentagon reportedly has been building these “FrankenSAM” launch units and sending them to Ukraine for some time, as of mid-October 2023. Details are sparse; whether these units are modifications applied to Ukrainian OSAs or entirely new launch units is unknown.
If new launch units are being built, The War Zone speculated that the units may be modified or modernized versions of the Cold War-era Chapparal SAM Systems—essentially, an M113 armored personnel carrier with a four-tube AIM-9 launcher and a basic radar.
Ukraine has received over 800 armored vehicles that make use of the M113 chassis. Therefore, it would have the added benefit of having spare parts and technicians trained to repair the vehicle already in ample supply.
Whatever the case may be, finding ways to make use of large stockpiles of older Western equipment carries many benefits. Heading off the drone threat posed by Russian kamikaze drones requires cost-effective solutions that can be implemented rapidly.
Making use of large stockpiles of old Cold War-era missiles that have few uses in modern air-to-air combat is an excellent way to use outdated munitions in a role for which they are overqualified.