As winter approaches, Ukrainian officials are desperate for more air defenses to protect their power grids from Russian attacks that could plunge the country into freezing darkness.
So desperate, in fact, that they are willing to experiment with a monster of a weapons system that was the brainchild of Ukraine and is now being pursued by the Pentagon.
U.S. officials call it the FrankenSAM program, which combines advanced Western-caliber surface-to-air missiles with converted Soviet-era launchers or radars that Ukrainian forces already have on hand. Two variants of this improvised air defense – one that pairs Soviet Buk launchers with American Sea Sparrow missiles, the other that combines Soviet-era radars with American Sidewinder missiles – have been tested in the past few months at military bases in the United States and are due to be delivered to Ukraine this fall, officials said.
A third, a Cold War-era Hawk missile system, was displayed on a Ukrainian battlefield this week for the first time, as an example of what Laura K. Cooper, a senior U.S. defense official, described this month as FrankenSAM “in the sense of resurrection” — a relic of the anti-aircraft defenses brought back to life.
Together, the FrankenSAMs “help fill critical gaps in Ukraine’s air defenses, which is the most important challenge facing Ukraine today,” said Ms. Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia Policy.
Almost since the start of the war, Ukraine has tinkered with mixing offensive weapons—its outdated Soviet-era stockpiles and those obtained from the West—in unexpected but, in many cases, successful ways. US military officials last year spoke admiringly of Ukraine’s ability to “MacGyver” its arsenal, a metaphor for the 1980s TV show in which the main character uses simple, improvised devices to get out of sticky situations.
The FrankenSAM project is now trying to do the same for Ukraine’s air defenses.
Over the past 20 months, the West has supplied Ukraine with a range of air defenses, including state-of-the-art Patriot and IRIS-T systems, tanks equipped with anti-aircraft guns and more than 2,000 shoulder-fired Stinger missiles.
Last week, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that his government would provide Ukraine with three more sophisticated air defense batteries, including another Patriot system, as part of what he called a nearly $1.5 billion “winter package.”
“As winter approaches, we are putting up a protective shield against new Russian attacks on energy, water and heating infrastructure,” Scholz said on Tuesday. “This is because it is becoming apparent that Russia will once again use the cold and energy shortages as a weapon against the civilian population.”
The air defense is part of nearly $100 billion in military aid Ukraine has received from allies since the Russian invasion in February 2022. The United States, which has already sent more weapons than any other country, is considering donating another $60 billion as part of a new of the Biden administration’s emergency spending plan.
On Thursday, the administration announced another $150 million in military aid to Ukraine, a weapons package that included additional ammunition for three types of air defense systems — including Sidewinder missiles for one of the FrankenSAMS.
Now that it has Western tanks, armored vehicles, air defenses and long-range missiles in its arsenal, and with fighter jets on the way, officials say Ukraine largely needs more of the same weapons it already has as opposed to systems that have yet to be to send.
FrankenSAMs are a mix of both. The beginnings of the program date back to late last year, when Ukrainian officials asked allies to help them find missiles for about 60 Soviet-era Buk launchers and radars sitting idle in a Kiev arsenal. Knowing that it would be difficult for the West to obtain Russian-made ammunition to match the Buk systems, the Ukrainians instead proposed that the launchers be converted to use NATO-caliber anti-aircraft missiles donated by the United States.
“We realized that we have to find some solutions,” said Oleksandra Ustinova, chairwoman of the commission in the Ukrainian parliament that oversees arms transfers from the West. She said that Ukrainian officials offered to mount the weapons themselves, in the interest of time, “because we desperately need air defense for the winter period, and that is what will be used.”
But American engineers insisted on doing the job and took more than seven months to test and approve the mix after the Pentagon agreed in January to provide Sea Sparrow missiles for the project. The first few refurbished Buk launchers and missiles arrived in Ukraine only recently, Ms. Ustinova said.
She said Ukraine was ready to send 17 more Buk launchers to the United States to be overhauled, but American engineers were only able to turn five around each month.
Ukraine also had to wait for the older Hawk systems to be up and running after they were originally promised by Spain in October 2022. One month later, the United States said it would be worth it to refurbish older Hawk missiles for donated Spanish systems. But at least some of them were delivered to Ukraine without the necessary radar equipment. It took another nine months to arrive.
By Monday evening, the Hawks were fully operational, shooting down targets with more modern air defense systems, Ukrainian Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. Mykola Oleshchuk said. it was said on Telegram. Hitting 100 percent of the targets “is not easy, but we will get closer to it every day, strengthening our air defense,” General Oleschuk wrote.
Another creation – an improvised ground launcher that uses Soviet-era radars to fire old American missiles normally used on fighter jets – was unveiled in tandem with Security aid package worth $200 million which the Pentagon announced on October 11.
That FrankenSAM uses the American-made AIM-9M Sidewinder supersonic missiles, which were developed in the 1950s and are used on F-16 and F-18 fighter jets. They are now part of an improvised ground-launch system, which Ms Cooper hailed in Brussels as a “real innovation” that she said would help speed up Ukraine’s air defenses, “rather than it being, you know, years and years of development time .” It is not clear when exactly it will arrive in Ukraine.
U.S. defense officials and engineers are also still testing what may be the most powerful FrankenSAM to date: a Patriot missile and launch pad that works with Ukraine’s older domestically-made radar systems.
A Pentagon official said Wednesday that a test flight of the system this month, conducted at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, successfully hit the target drone. The system is scheduled to be sent to Ukraine this winter, the official said, accompanied by donated missiles and other Patriot parts from several allies.
Can Kasapoglu, a defense analyst at the Hudson Institute in Washington, praised the idea of integrating Soviet-era equipment with more sophisticated Western missiles as a way to help Ukraine “maintain its arsenal for the long war ahead.”
It also “provides an opportunity to put weapons gathering dust on the shelves of NATO capitals to practical use,” Kasapoglu said.
Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from Berlin, and John Ismay from Washington.