Sky Shield: An air defense system for Europe

Sky Shield: An air defense system for Europe
Sky Shield: An air defense system for Europe

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - The Sky Shield air defence system initiated by Germany intends to bolster Nato’s protective capacity over Europe. — DW pic

BERLIN, Sept 25 — The Sky Shield air defence system initiated by Germany intends to bolster Nato’s protective capacity over Europe. DW has what you need to know about the plan, which began as a reaction to Russia’s war against Ukraine.

The invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops has brought war back to Europe — and thrown the defensive capabilities of Nato and Europe into the spotlight. Now, rearmament efforts are underway and new defence strategies are being prepared. This includes protection against possible Russian missile attacks in case the war over Ukraine escalates and other European countries could come into confrontation with Moscow.

However, Nato’s protective shield for Europe has some holes. The air defence system, which Germany launched last October, is intended to close them. At that time, on the sidelines of a Nato meeting in Brussels, 15 countries signed a memorandum of understanding to set up a European air defence system. Along with Germany, the signatories were: Belgium, Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, the UK, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Later, Denmark, Sweeden, Austria and Switzerland also joined the initiative.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, of the Social Democrat party (SPD), spoke of an “increase in safety for all of Europe,” and argued that a European air defence system would cost less and be more effective than if every individual country set up their own expensive and complex systems. However, France, Italy and Poland are yet to join the initiative. Paris criticised that technology from the US and Israel would be purchased for the project.

The goal of ESSI is to achieve the most well-coordinated defence system against short, medium and long-range threats from the air. On its website, the German Defence Ministry defined short-range as up to 15 kilometres in distance across land and 6 kilometres in altitude. The medium range is 15-50 kilometres wide and up to 25 kilometres high. Long-range is more than 50 kilometres wide and up to 35 kilometres in altitude.

IRIS-T to protect against drone attacks

“In all three areas, there are gaps in capability which the ESSI would close, or already means available which could be further developed or strengthened,” the German Defence Ministry wrote.

To achieve this, existing protective systems should be replaced by modern ones. An example of a replacement system is the IRIS-T, which can destroy incoming rockets, cruise missiles, drones, aircraft and helicopters at a distance of up to 40 kilometres and an altitude of up to 20 kilometres. The price per unit is about €145 million (RM723 million). In June of this year, the German parliament approved the purchase of 6 IRIS-T fire units in its budget. The German Air Force is already familiar with this system because it has trained Ukrainian soldiers to use it. Germany has so far supplied two of these units to Ukraine.

For long-range air defence, the Bundeswehr uses the Patriot (Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept on Target) weapons system, which is still considered effective but can be modernised. The US-sourced ground-based anti-aircraft missile system can be used against planes, cruise missiles and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Since 1984, the Patriot has been used by a multitude of armed forces, including the Bundeswehr. Germany currently has 12 Patriot launches, far from enough to cover the whole country.

Defences against cruise missiles also need to be readjusted. Because they fly at such low altitudes and are therefore detected very late, defending against them is usually only possible with modern systems such as Patriot or IRIS-T. That is why, according to the Bundeswehr, comprehensive protection of the area is “enormously expensive and only possible with many systems, which illustrates the need for a multinational approach.”

Another gap in defences is when it comes to long-range ballistic missiles, which can also head for their targets from beyond the earth’s atmosphere. “These gaps must be closed quickly, especially since Russia already has these weapons. Germany must be able to protect itself against the threat of missiles with ranges of more than 1000 kilometres more quickly than it had planned,” the German Defence Ministry wrote.

This is intended to be achieved by the US-Israeli missile defence system Arrow 3, which Germany is due to have up and running by the end of 2025. The Bundestag’s budget and defence committee approved the purchase in June. The costs amount to about €4 billion, according to Israeli sources. Arrow 3 can destroy attacking weapons systems at an altitude of more than 100 kilometres, which is at the edge of space, just beyond the earth’s atmosphere, and has a range of up to 2400 kilometres. Like the “Patriot” system, “Arrow 3” is operated with a mobile launching device, a mobile control station, a mobile radar station and guided missiles.

The countries involved in the European Sky Shield Initiative want to work together to procure the weapons systems required to cover a large area in the most cost-effective way. Attention should be paid to the needs of each country. The ESSI members want to support each other with the defense systems and the corresponding ammunition. The intention is that by working together to procure and maintain these systems, they will save on purchase and operating costs. — DW

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