IRIS-T SL surface-to-air guided missile. Photo: Airforce Technology

Germany is set to supply Ukraine its IRIS-T surface to air missile (SAM) system, alongside rocket artillery and counterbattery radars in its latest move to bolster Ukraine’s defenses against Russian attacks.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz promised last Wednesday to send the SAM system to Ukraine, which is among the most advanced of its type in its arsenal. Apart from the IRIS-T, Scholz pledged to send three to five Cobra artillery-locating radars, and four Mars II multiple rocket launchers (MLRs) to bolster Ukraine’s defenses against Russia’s onslaught.

Ukraine has reportedly requested 10 IRIS-T launchers, enough for a single large battery, or several smaller ones.

“Most recently, the government has decided that we will deliver the most modern air defense system that Germany has in the form of the IRIS-T,” Scholz told the Bundestag, without mentioning the specific IRIS-T variant to be sent to Ukraine. However, an anonymous security source told Reuters last month that Germany was considering sending the IRIS-T SLM model.

Previously, Germany had already pledged to send heavy weapons to Ukraine, including PZH 2000 self-propelled howitzers and Leopard 1 tanks. Since the beginning of the war, Germany has sent 15 million rounds of ammunition, 100,000 hand grenades, and 5,000 anti-tank mines.

The IRIS-T SLM was first unveiled in 2014 by German weapons manufacturer Diehl Defense. It is the low-altitude component of NATO’s Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), which is intended to defend static installations and mobile forces against drones, combat aircraft, helicopters, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles.

The system is a ground adaptation of the IRIS air-to-air missile (AAM) and can defend a 40-square-kilometer area and intercept threats at an altitude of 20 kilometers.

The system consists of the missiles, eight-round launcher vehicle, command vehicle, and all-weather 360-degree AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar for surveillance and target detection.

IRIS-T SLM missiles have redundant guidance systems, featuring interference-resistant infrared (IR) seeker heads, radio command guidance, and inertial satellite correction guidance systems, alongside sophisticated digital signal processing to counteract decoy flares and enemy electronic attacks.

Upon launch, the IRIS-T SLM relies on radar guidance, with its IR seeker head activating only during the final approach to the target, homing in on heat sources before detonating.  

Other systems comparable to the IRIS-T SLM are the Israeli SPYDER-MR and the Norwegian NASAMS systems.

Like the IRIS-T SLM, the SPYDER-MR is a low-level, quick-reaction air-defense system. It has a range of 35km and can intercept targets with an altitude of 20 meters to 16km. Unlike the IRIS-T SLM, which combines multiple guidance modes in one missile, the SPYDER uses two types of missiles to engage targets. It uses the short-range IR-guided Python, and medium-ranged radar-guided Derby. As with the IRIS-T, these missiles were originally AAMs that have been repurposed for ground-based air defense.

The Norwegian NASAMS system is a ground adaptation of the radar-guided AIM-120 AAM. It can engage targets at a maximum altitude of 15km, with a range of 33km. It features network-centric, open architecture that increases its survivability against electronic countermeasures, and can engage 72 targets simultaneously in active and passive radar modes. As with the SPYDER, NASAMS can also use AIM-9X IR AAMs for short-range targets.

By combining multiple guidance modes in one missile, the IRIS-T SLM simplifies logistics by eliminating the need to have multiple types of missiles to cover different engagement ranges and provide different modes of engagement.

Ukraine’s request for the IRIS-T is driven by its urgent need to replenish its depleted air defenses. At the outset of the war, Ukraine fielded formidable Soviet-era air defense systems, including around 300 S-300 long-range SAMs organized into 100 batteries. This system is the backbone of Ukraine’s air defense and is responsible for significant Russian aircraft losses.

However, Russia has knocked out scores of these launchers since its invasion, and Ukraine’s missile reserves are running critically low. While Slovakia has donated its sole S-300 battery to Ukraine after being reassured that it will be replaced by the US Patriot system, that arms transfer is hardly enough to replenish Ukraine’s losses.

IRIS-T battery. Photo:

Moreover, the IRIS-T SLM does not address Russia’s huge artillery advantage over Ukraine, which may be the decisive military capability in the ongoing conflict. Also, the impact of the IRIS-T SLM may be curtailed by the limited air operations that Russia has mounted.

Since its invasion, Russia has made the perplexing decision not to commit its air force fully to the fighting. However, in April Russia deployed its Tu-22M heavy bombers in carpet-bombing missions over Azovstal in Mariupol, which is deep inside Russian-controlled territory, and beyond the range of Ukrainian air defenses.

Also, Russia has been launching long-range cruise missiles from strategic bombers flying within Russian airspace, which again puts them out of Ukraine’s reach.

The rationale for this decision may be that Russia aims to prevent uncontrolled escalation, which mirrors China’s decision to withhold its air force during the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War.  In addition, Russia has a limited stock of sophisticated air-launched cruise missiles, which may force it to rely on its abundant artillery for strike missions that would normally be done by aircraft or cruise missiles.

Although the IRIS-T SLM is not designed for counter-rocket and artillery missions, Ukraine has been supplied by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization with anti-artillery systems such as the German Cobra and US AN/TPQ-36 Firefinder counter-battery radars, and long-range HIMARS and Mars II long-range MLRs capable of outranging all but the heaviest Russian artillery.

However, Ukraine is suffering from crippling shortages of Soviet-standard artillery rounds for its Soviet-era artillery pieces and is unable to match the Russian volume of fire. Ukraine uses 5,000 to 6,000 artillery rounds a day, and this rate of expenditure is increasingly unsustainable.

Also, while Ukraine has received substantial amounts of NATO-standard artillery ammunition, it does not have enough NATO artillery pieces to make the most of this significant stockpile. Further, it will take time for Ukraine to train its artillerymen to use NATO-standard artillery and to integrate these systems into its overall doctrine and logistics chains.

Moreover, NATO countries are also increasingly becoming hesitant to send in more of their artillery stockpiles, as they might end up not having enough for their own needs. By then, Russia might have already achieved its military objectives in eastern Ukraine, or perhaps have already cut off Ukraine from the Black Sea.

Thus the IRIS-T SLM may have limited impact on the artillery war of attrition that the Ukraine conflict has become.