WASHINGTON — After eight continuous months of combat, Ukraine is running low on the missiles that its Soviet-era air defense systems use to shoot down Russian drones and warplanes. But on Monday, according to U.S. and Ukrainian officials, the country received its first shipment of an advanced weapon whose design helps solve the supply problem.
The weapon is an air defense system known as the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System, or NASAMS, that is jointly produced by the United States and Norway. It includes a radar, sensors, launchers that can be loaded with six missiles each and a mobile command center where soldiers can monitor airborne threats. Every component can be towed or placed on the back of a truck and moved quickly.
“It does provide a significant air defense capability,” Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday. He added that NASAMS can defend against “basically any type of advanced aerial threat that Russia may try to employ against Ukrainian targets or civilians.”
“So it does add an extra arrow to the quiver, so to speak, for Ukrainian air defense,” the general added.
According to the Norwegian defense firm Kongsberg, which produces the weapons system with the American defense company Raytheon Technologies, NASAMS was first fielded by Norway’s armed forces in 1998. It was later adopted for use by the Pentagon in 2005 to defend the Washington area, according to Raytheon.
U.S. military planners decided that it would be especially useful for Ukraine given that the ground-based launcher can fire relatively inexpensive missiles that were built for fighter jets in aerial combat, which Kyiv’s allies have in large numbers.
General Ryder declined to say which countries have been supplying missiles for Ukraine’s new launchers.
“It’s from a variety of sources, to include U.S. stocks, and those of various allies and partners,” he said.
Dozens of Ukrainian troops recently completed training in Norway on how to operate and maintain the system. The first two NASAMS delivered to Kyiv are now in use, but the number of launchers included in each of them is unclear.
This weapon generally falls into what militaries call a medium-range air defense system, able to hit targets at greater distances than weapons like the shoulder-fired Stinger missile the Pentagon has provided Ukraine, but with less range than larger and more expensive ones like the Patriot missile system.
So while NASAMS can shoot down drones, helicopters, jets and cruise missiles, it is not considered effective against ballistic missiles of the type Russia is reportedly trying to purchase from Iran.
“It’s an advanced system, more modern than what Ukraine has now,” said Ian Williams, the deputy director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington.
“It will allow them to defend larger sites, places like critical infrastructure, and the batteries — the launchers themselves — can be spread out over quite a big area,” he said. “A single battery can’t defend everywhere, but it will allow them to beef up defenses at certain critical sites that need protection,” including around electrical infrastructure.
The launcher is capable of firing four different American-made missiles, Mr. Williams said, including the heat-seeking AIM-9X Sidewinder and the AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile, which has a radar that can home in on airborne threats about 30 miles away. Additionally, it can identify targets approaching from any direction, Mr. Williams said.
These missiles are among the most commonly purchased by the air forces of the United States, NATO countries and other partners, with tens of thousands of each in circulation.
The NASAMS system is among those being considered for the European Sky Shield, a group of 15 nations led by Germany that will be purchasing a variety of missiles to protect against any military incursion by Moscow.
The launchers that arrived in Ukraine are part of a $770 million aid package announced by the Pentagon on July 1. The Pentagon announced in August that it would provide money for Ukraine to buy six more and additional missiles for them to fire.
The value of having NASAMS goes beyond the ability to shoot down Russian warplanes and drones, Mr. Williams said, in that it offers Ukrainian civilians a sense of safety and security.
“While the Ukrainians are fighting a war and trying to get the Russians out of their country, they’re also trying to get Ukrainian refugees to come back,” Mr. Williams said. “These are people who are going to be vital to the Ukrainian economy moving forward.”
“NASAMS won’t provide a dome of protection over all of Ukraine, but it will significantly augment their ability to protect key areas,” he said. “And Ukraine needs more than the two units they have right now.”