Ukraine Shows HAWK Air Defense System in Action for First Time

The Ukrainian Air Force commander on Monday shared the first public video of the American-made HAWK air defense system in action in Ukraine. In the video, the system’s MIM-23 surface-to-air missiles streak across the night sky before culminating in fiery explosions, apparently over the Black Sea. “Western weapons have proven and continue to prove their effectiveness on the battlefield!” the commander proclaimed.

As they prepare to defend their cities against Russian missile and drone strikes this winter, Ukrainian forces are short on air defenses. While Western countries have few modern air defense systems to spare, additional HAWKs are on the way — and Kyiv hopes for more.

Beginning in October 2022, Russia launched a strategic air campaign targeting Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, particularly its power grid. Missiles and Iranian-supplied Shahed drones bombarded Ukrainian cities as Moscow sought to freeze the country into submission. Ukraine ultimately withstood the onslaught, but it was a close-run affair.

Now, Ukrainian officials fear that Russia is gearing up for another strike campaign this winter. Moscow is stockpiling missiles, they warn, while Russian industry has increased production of key munitions, such as the Kh-101 air-launched cruise missile. With Iran’s help, Russia has also begun producing Shahed drones itself in an effort to expand its supply. Ukraine, meanwhile, heads into the winter with its power grid still somewhat hobbled from last year.

Ukraine lacks enough air defenses to protect all its vast territory. The capital is well-defended, but other cities less so. Moreover, due to its air defense shortage, Kyiv faces a dilemma between shielding forces near the front line and protecting sites in the rear. The Ukrainians may have to pull more systems back to defend cities this winter, affording Russian aircraft greater latitude near the front line.

To make matters worse, Ukraine is running low on interceptor missiles for its Soviet-made air defense systems. In some cases, efforts to integrate those systems with Western interceptors have achieved success and should come online soon, although Russia has already destroyed a significant portion of Kyiv’s Soviet-made launchers and radars.

The United States and its allies have helped fill the gap by donating a variety of Western-made air defense systems, which have generally performed well. But Western countries do not have many modern systems left to give, and production can’t move fast enough to meet Ukraine’s immediate needs.

This scarcity has forced the West to dust off an older system — the HAWK. Short for “Homing All the Way Killer,” the HAWK is a medium-range surface-to-air missile system. It first entered service with the U.S. military in 1960. The United States and various other countries later fielded upgraded versions, including the Improved HAWK (or I-HAWK) Phase III, which the U.S. military retired over two decades ago. Some countries later fielded a more advanced version, the Hawk XXI. This model incorporates, among other things, the AN/MPQ-64 Sentinel radar, which Ukraine has already received from the United States.

While the HAWK may not be as good as modern systems, it is better than nothing. “We will not say no to any weapons,” the head of the Kyiv City Military Administration stressed on Monday, noting that Russia had launched over 700 missiles and Shahed drones at the Ukrainian capital over the last year. In fact, Ukrainian air defense specialists praise the Hawk and want more, particularly the Phase III version.

The trouble is finding donors who are both willing to part with their HAWKs and kept them in decent condition. Back in October 2022, when the Biden administration was first considering sending the HAWK to Ukraine, an American official indicated that the U.S. military’s HAWK systems were in poor repair. The administration reportedly encountered a similar problem when it asked Israel for its retired HAWKs, which have been left in open-air storage for over a decade.

Washington ended up donating MIM-23 missiles to complement six HAWK launchers pledged by Spain. (A typical HAWK battery includes six launchers plus various radars and fire-control equipment.) At least some of the missiles have required refurbishment before delivery. The United States has been revamping donated HAWK systems for Ukraine under its so-called “FrankenSAM” initiative, per a senior Pentagon official.

Madrid reportedly possesses multiple different HAWK variants, including the Phase III. Ukrainian troops apparently trained on that model in Spain last winter. But according to Foreign Policy, the system arrived in Ukraine without its radars. That could help explain the long delay between the initial delivery and Monday’s video.

In February, Sweden said it would donate unspecified HAWK subsystems to Kyiv. That may be where the radars came from. It is also possible that Ukraine, with Western help, integrated its HAWK launchers with its AN/MPQ-64 Sentinel radars to field the more modern XXI version.

Following the initial pledges, Washington announced it would procure additional HAWK systems and missiles for Ukraine. In July, Taiwanese media reported that the United States had agreed to repurchase systems recently retired by Taiwan, which operated the Phase III version.

More assistance will soon be on the way. Earlier this month, Madrid pledged an additional six Hawk launchers. They will be integrated into a U.S.-provided battery, Spain’s defense minister explained, presumably meaning Washington will provide the other components. In response to a U.S. request, Spain will also provide training for Ukrainian operators and maintainers beginning next month, she added. Kyiv will probably send troops who previously operated Soviet-made air defense systems, as it did for previous HAWK training in Spain.

In addition to the aforementioned countries, at least eight U.S. allies and partners reportedly still operate the HAWK, according to The Military Balance 2023. Others have HAWKs in storage. Notably, Romania and Jordan operate the Phase III version. Ukraine has already received other types of air defense systems from Jordan, probably supplied indirectly via the United States or another Western country.

The HAWK may be old, but it is making a difference for Ukraine. As winter approaches, Kyiv no doubt hopes its Western backers can scrounge up more HAWKs — and soon.

John Hardie is the deputy director of FDD’s Russia Program and a contributor to FDD's Long War Journal.

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