Portable anti-aircraft systems are an important part of Ukrainian air defense. Fighters from a mobile task force told Deutsche Welle how they are protecting the airspace over the Kiev region.
It’s a cloudless day on the banks of a reservoir in the Kiev area. A few fishermen are sitting on the shore, several families are enjoying the sun on folding chairs. Suddenly, a black and green Hummer military vehicle with a mounted Stinger anti-aircraft system pulls up. People quickly pack their things and check their cell phones for a missile warning.
Two military men get out of the car and calm the people down. This time it was just an exercise by a mobile anti-aircraft squad. However, Oleksandr, the commander in charge, points out that in the event of an air raid, everyone would have to leave the shore immediately.
“It is life-threatening to be near a body of water in the open because from time to time Russian missiles and Iranian Shahed drones fly by here, which we intercept,” the 36-year-old told DW.
His comrade, 39-year-old Ivan, is walking around the area fully armed, carefully examining everything that is on the water, on the opposite bank and in the surrounding area.
“You need good eyesight and resourcefulness”
The shore of the reservoir is one of many places from which Ukrainian anti-aircraft defenses shoot down targets from time to time. Oleksandr and Ivan’s man-portable anti-aircraft system is called the Dual Mount Stinger. It can shoot down missiles, planes and helicopters from a distance of five kilometers and at an altitude of up to three kilometers. Together with Ivan, Oleksandr recreates a real combat situation that they have been through many times: they quickly pull boxes with rockets out of the vehicle, open them, and put the projectiles in their rocket launcher.
Oleksandr jumps onto the vehicle roof and starts inspecting the airspace. He spins around on a special seat. “I can fire two missiles in five seconds,” he explains. “Our radar signals me a target in the air before I see it, relaying coordinates and telling me where to aim – up, down. When I lock onto the target, I get the signal ‘Fire’.”
“We have learned not to sleep at night”
With the exception of the Russian Kinzhal hypersonic rocket, Oleksandr says he can “actually get everything” out of the sky. He is not allowed to reveal any more details. Suffice it to say: “You need good eyesight and ingenuity. The system can also consider a cloud above a drone as a target. And then I have to think of something to actually get hold of the drone.”
In recent weeks, most Russian missile attacks on Kiev and the region have taken place at night. Oleksandr and Ivan admit that these were very tense nights. It is then much more difficult to identify targets, and there are far too many of them. According to Ivan, the Russian army wants to weaken not only the stocks of the Ukrainian air defense but also its combat morale. But this won’t work. “Because we have enough rockets and because we have also learned not to sleep at night,” says Ivan.
Of course, not everyone can withstand such stress, says Oleksandr, not every soldier either: “But I’ve gotten used to staying up eight hours a night, too. I can also lie down at 3 p.m. and sleep until 6 p.m. because I know that it can start again at night.”
“I am responsible for many lives”
When asked how he feels when he fails to shoot down a target, Oleksandr struggles for words. Mentally, it is very difficult when he realizes that a drone or a rocket has hit a residential building, a kindergarten, a school or a hospital. “I realize then that I didn’t manage to save lives. I am responsible for many lives”.
That’s why the soldiers trained constantly, Ivan adds. For each enemy target shot down, they paint a trident, the national emblem of Ukraine, on their vehicle. Twelve coats of arms adorn the lobster.
The Air Defense Command of the Ukrainian Army has not yet released any information to the press about the work of such mobile squads. Now, after more than a year of war, Oleksandr is allowed to speak about his experiences. In the first months of the war he shot down two Su-25 planes and two K-52 helicopters in the Kiev region. Helicopters are particularly difficult to hit, according to Oleksandr.
The difficulty, he says, is that these helicopters use a laser to deflect missiles. “They said they couldn’t be shot down. But anything is possible if you try. I kept changing positions, came under artillery fire, but finally made it,” he reports. He also intercepted a total of eight drones elsewhere in the Kiev region and in Kharkiv.
Relief thanks to IRIS-T and Patriot system
According to estimates by the Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the Ukrainian air defense is now also successfully repelling massive rocket attacks on the Kiev region.
Success depends precisely on mobile, portable anti-aircraft systems that are difficult to locate and can be set up and dismantled quickly. It was a relief for Oleksandr and Ivan, they say, when Ukraine received the powerful IRIS-T and Patriot missile defense systems from its partners.
Oleksandr learned how to use the Dual Mount Stinger before the war: “Lithuania gave us this portable anti-aircraft system, and we completed a crash course.” Oleksandr was a professional soldier even before the outbreak of war and followed orders to protect the airspace over Ukraine: “I went to war to protect Ukraine, my family – my wife and my child, who I haven’t seen for eight months.” Ivan, on the other hand, received his education only during the war. His motivation for serving in air defense has to do with his job, because before the war he was in civil protection and saved people’s lives: “I’m defending my country and my family.”
The two do not reveal how many such mobile anti-aircraft troops are protecting the Kiev region. Everyone would feel it if there weren’t enough, they say. And they promise to tell everything after the war – how many missions were successful, but also what losses there were.