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National Security ـ Nato has just 5% of air defences needed

May 31, 2024 | Studies & Reports

European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies, Germany & Netherlands – ECCI

Nato has just 5% of air defences needed to protect eastern flank

ft – Europe has only a fraction of the air defence capabilities needed to protect its eastern flank, according to Nato’s own internal calculations, laying bare the scale of the continent’s vulnerabilities.Russia’s war against Ukraine has underscored the importance of air defence, as Kyiv begs the west for additional systems and rockets to protect its cities, troops and energy grid against daily bombing raids.

But according to people familiar with confidential defence plans drawn up last year, Nato states are able to provide less than 5 per cent of air defence capacities deemed necessary to protect its members in central and eastern Europe against a full-scale attack.One senior Nato diplomat said the ability to defend against missiles and air strikes was “a major part of the plan to defend eastern Europe from invasion”, adding: “And right now, we don’t have that.”

Nato foreign ministers will gather in Prague on Thursday for two days of talks aimed at preparing for a summit of the alliance’s leaders in Washington in July, where beefing up European defence will be a central topic.Some European leaders and military officials have said that Russia could have the capability to attack a Nato member state by the end of the decade.

In a major defence review last year, the UK government described the “challenge of protecting . . . against attack from the skies” as being “its most acute for over 30 years”.Russia’s heavy use of missiles, drones and highly destructive Soviet-era “glide bombs” in Ukraine has added urgency to Nato members’ efforts to ramp up defence spending after decades of military budget cuts.

“[Air defence] is one of the biggest holes we have,” said a second Nato diplomat. “We can’t deny it.”The failure of European Nato states in recent months to provide additional air defence equipment to Ukraine has underscored the continent’s limited stocks of the expensive and slow-to-manufacture systems.

It has also prompted a series of overlapping initiatives to try to find long-term solutions. Last year, Germany launched its Sky Shield initiative with more than a dozen other EU countries to develop a shared air defence system using US and Israeli-developed technology.However, France has publicly criticised the proposal and offered a rival concept backed by a smaller number of allies.

Last week, Poland and Greece called on the European Commission to help develop and potentially assist in the financing of a pan-European air defence system, a proposal that commission president Ursula von der Leyen indicated she would support.Some EU capitals have suggested raising common debt to fund defence projects.

In a letter sent to von der Leyen, Greek and Polish prime ministers Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Donald Tusk described air defence as a “major vulnerability in our security”, adding that the war in Ukraine has “[taught] us lessons that we can no longer ignore”.The proliferation of cheap, long-range attack drones, as used by Russia against Ukraine, has added to these concerns.

“Long-range strikes are no longer a superpower capability,” said one western defence official.A Nato official said that “capability targets and defence plans are classified” but added that air and missile defences “are top priorities” and that “stockpiles have been reduced”.“Nato’s new defence plans also significantly increase air and missile defence requirements in quantity and readiness,” the official said, adding that countries were investing in new air defence capabilities including fighter jets.

“So we are confident that Nato’s deterrence against Russia remains strong,” they added.Immediately after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the US deployed a Patriot battery air defence system to protect an airport in southern Poland that became a hub for shipping western weapons to Kyiv.But officials say Nato members have so few such systems to spare that their capacity to deploy any more beyond their own territories is severely limited.

In the UK, the Royal Navy’s six Type 45 destroyers are equipped with ballistic missile defence systems, but the vessels have been dogged by design flaws.The British army also has six state-of-the-art Sky Sabre ground-based air defence systems, but their missile interceptors only have a range of about 40km, and two of the systems are overseas.“The UK’s air defence capability is entirely inadequate,” said Jack Watling, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in London.

Full integration of Europe’s various air defence systems could help compensate for the shortfall by creating a dense mesh of sensors and interceptors across the continent.But “attempts to update Nato’s command and control infrastructure for air defence have never gotten off the ground”, Watling said.

European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies, Germany & Netherlands – ECCI


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