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Explainer: Germany's IRIS-T air defense system

October 12, 2022

Germany has delivered the first of four high-tech air-defense missile systems to Ukraine. The IRIS-T is designed to protect cities and armies from air attacks.

Air defense system IRIS-T SLM
The IRIS-T SLM is considered one of the most advanced air defense systems in the worldImage: Shan Yuqi/Xinhua/IMAGO

Ukraine now owns one of the world's most advanced air defense systems to protect it from Russian cruise missiles, after Germany's somewhat delayed delivery of a IRIS-T Surface-Launched-Missile (SLM) system. It is the first of four such systems expected to be delivered to Ukraine by next year.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov hailed the first delivery as "a new era" of air defense on Twitter on Tuesday evening, before adding that similar systems from the US were also on their way.

Rafael Loss, defense expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), said that the new systems were likely to enhance Ukraine's defenses significantly, once more were sent, though they were not necessarily the "game changer" that the Ukrainians have been trumpeting them as.

"As they receive more and more sophisticated systems that they can integrate into their existing systems, [...] mass missile strikes will be more difficult for the Russians to pull off and there is a greater chance that fewer civilians and fewer military targets will be hit," he told DW. But he added that the systems had never been used on the battlefield before.

Loss also said that the delivery was an important signal of NATO's longer-term efforts to equip Ukraine with better, Western-made defenses. 

Though it has been in development since the 1990s and has been through several iterations, the IRIS-T version being delivered to Ukraine, each of which costs about €140 million ($136 million), is extremely new. Final tests were only conducted in late 2021, and the German military, the Bundeswehr, has itself not yet bought any. Older versions of the system have previously been bought by Sweden and Norway.

The system is manufactured by Diehl Defense, based in Überlingen, southern Germany, and is meant to provide medium-range, high-altitude cover for small cities and armies.

Each system comprises three vehicles: a missile launcher, a radar, and a fire-control radar, with integrated logistics and support. The missiles, which use infrared imaging to identify targets, are said to have a range of 40 kilometers (25 miles) and a maximum altitude of 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) and come equipped with a radar with a range of 250 kilometers (155 miles). The missiles are also deployable 360 degrees around the launcher.

According to Diehl, the system is most effective as part of a "layered air defense," in combination, for example, with the US-made Patriot PAC-3 missile defense system, which has a higher maximum altitude.

Delayed delivery

The delivery will appear painfully slow to many Ukrainians, as it comes just days after several Ukrainian cities were hit by dozens of Russian missiles.

According to a report in the Welt am Sonntag newspaper from July, Ukraine asked the German government for permission to buy 11 IRIS-T systems. The country also asked Germany for financial support for the purchase, which would have amounted to around €1.5 billion.

Though German Chancellor Olaf Scholz originally promised at least one IRIS-T in June, the government then said that the first systems would only be delivered at the end of the year. Now the next three IRIS-Ts are expected to be sent next year.

Rafael Loss said that the bottleneck is more likely to have been caused by the industry, rather than a lack of political will, as such systems have to be built to order. "Some of the systems that Ukraine will be receiving from Germany are being diverted from an order that Egypt placed," he said.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

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