NATO eyes boosting air defenses to repel drone, missile strikes in future

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NATO is weighing how to bolster its air and missile defenses to combat threats like the commercially available drones and cruise missiles Russia has used in Ukraine.

The range of challenges the North Atlantic Treaty Organization faces has increased over the past decade, with the ability for both state actors like Russia but also terrorist groups to procure and weaponize drones in the thousands, Air Marshal Johnny Stringer, the deputy commander of NATO’s Allied Air Command said in an interview. The proliferation of cruise missiles and the first operational uses of hypersonic missiles are also a concern, he said.

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The military alliance needs to ensure its air defense capabilities, from radars and shared early warning systems through to missiles, are “reflective of the threat we face,” Stringer said. He added it would continue to be an important area of focus as Russia resorts to cruise missile attacks against key national infrastructure in Ukraine amid failures on the battle field.

“NATO will now, and are already, looking at what that future posture and what a future raft of capabilities will need to be,” he said, declining to provide more details.

Iranian drones

Russian missile and drone attacks in Ukraine in recent weeks have hit vast parts of the country’s critical infrastructure, leaving millions without reliable electricity and water in winter. Russia has likely received a resupply of drones from Iran and is attempting to obtain more weapons, including hundreds of ballistic missiles, according to the UK’s Ministry of Defense.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the alliance has already beefed up its air defenses along the eastern flank, with German and Dutch Patriots in Slovakia and France’s ground-to-air MAMBA system in Romania. Germany is also sending Patriot missiles to Poland after an errant Ukrainian air defense missile landed in a border village in November, killing two.

Around 15 countries, including the UK and the Netherlands, are signing up to a German-led project to jointly acquire air defense equipment and missiles to create a European anti-missile shield that would boost protection for much of the continent.

Bolstering air and missile systems fits into a broader overhaul of the alliance’s defenses prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukriane. NATO leaders agreed at a summit in Madrid last June to establish a new force model that would put about 300,000 troops on high alert to deal with any future threats.

Space-based services

Drones in particular can be a challenge for air defense systems as they typically fly low and are hard to detect. And the ammunition to shoot them down can often cost more than the drones themselves are worth, raising the costs of warfare although this depends on the defense systems that are used, Stringer said.

The war in Ukraine has also shown how readily available access to space-based services like GPS and other encrypted communications could change the nature of warfare. The increasing number of commercial providers with satellite constellations in the hundreds, like Elon Musk’s Starlink, “allows people to harness that domain, which was previously a closed book,” according to Stringer.

While it could create more threats, it could also create more opportunities as militaries are no longer tethered to specific systems, Stringer said.

Read more: European countries urge UN probe of Iran drones in Ukraine

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