NEAR KIEV, Ukraine, June 20 (Reuters) – At one glance on a clear summer afternoon, the US-made Avenger air defense system could barely be seen in the shade of trees at the end of a dirt track outside Kiev.
The short-range unit is an important part of a three-layered air defense network that Ukraine is trying to develop with an array of highly sophisticated Western systems to thwart Russian air strikes.
Russia has unleashed regular attacks with long-range missiles and drones since October, but seriously ramped up strikes in May as Ukraine prepares to counterattack this month.
Officials in Kiev say the strikes, which regularly kill civilians, are intended at least in part to deplete air defense stocks so that fewer systems can be used to protect forces trying to advance under Russian air superiority.
“The hardest attack is by various types of air targets,” said the commander of the Avenger unit walking with the call sign “architect,” his pre-war profession.
“When they arrive in one night, both[the drones]and the cruise missiles are flying, that’s the hardest.”
He leads a team of six who took over two weeks ago after being trained by US military instructors in Europe. They haven’t shot down any missiles or drones yet.
They join an air battle that began over several weeks during which Ukraine reported an extraordinary rate of drones and missiles, including hypersonic aircraft.
On Friday, Ukraine said it had shot down all six cruise missiles and six hypersonic missiles fired at targets in and around the capital.
But strikes still regularly slip past defenses. Last Wednesday, three civilians were killed in a rocket attack in Odessa. The day before, 11 people had died in a raid on the hometown of President Volodymyr Zelensky.
A race against time
Yury Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister, said that although it has not made headlines with Kiev pressing for F-16 fighter jets from the West, Ukraine still regularly orders – and receives – air defense missiles for replenishment. its stock.
“Russia’s tactic is to use cheap drones in order to deplete our air defenses. It’s like a race against time. Who will run out first? The Russians with their missiles or the ones we get from our allies?” He said.
Washington has provided at least 12 Avenger systems to Ukraine. The Avenger is a rotating turret with eight missiles mounted on the back of the Humvee, making it highly mobile.
“One of our top priorities, when it comes to transforming our armed forces and building our air defense capabilities, is to create a three-tiered air defense system,” said Sack.
The Avenger, like the Stinger hand-held missiles, is located in the short range of the three classes. American-made Patriot systems are at the long-range end. The range of the Avengers is up to 5 kilometers. Patriot missiles have a minimum range of 3 km and a maximum range of 80 km.
There’s more mobility at short range to engage targets, Sack said, and it’s much cheaper than firing expensive Patriot barrages.
He added that the Avenger is effective near the battlefield, but there are very few systems to get around.
In an effort to build short-range capabilities, Ukraine is pressuring Australia to supply Hawkei four-wheel drive vehicles that can be mounted to air defenses and used in the same way as the Avengers, Sack said.
In May alone, the Air Force reported shooting down 149 cruise missiles, 399 drones, seven Kinzhal hypersonic missiles, three ballistic missiles, as well as 11 missiles of two different types.
By contrast in April, the Air Force said it had shot down 73 drones and 21 cruise missiles.
The commander of the unit near Kiev said he was always aware of his responsibility to do everything he could to protect the nearly 3.5 million people living in Kiev, and that they were on duty around the clock and ready to respond.
(cover) By Tom Palmforth and Sergey Krazee; Editing by Angus McSwan
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