Stray missile hit in Poland casts spotlight on NATO air defense gaps

By Sabine Siebold and Joanna Plucinska
Explosion kills two in Poland near Ukraine border
Police officers work at the site after explosions in Przewodow, a village in eastern Poland near the border with Ukraine, November 16, 2022. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel Photo: Reuters/KACPER PEMPEL

Poland had started to bolster its air defenses long before a stray missile landed just inside its border on Tuesday, but a robust shield for the skies along NATO's eastern flank is still a long way off after decades of neglect following the Cold War.

The missile that hit Poland appears to have been fired by Ukraine's air defenses rather than a Russian strike, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said.

But while it may have been a technical error that can happen in any conflict, the incident underlines the urgent need for NATO to plug gaps in its defenses because even mistakes like this could lead to a dangerous escalation.

"It was only a question of time for such an accident to happen," an air defense expert from a NATO country, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters. "It could also have been a stray Russian missile flying the wrong way, due to a technical or human error."

While more advanced Western air defense missiles are designed to destroy themselves if they miss their target, older Soviet missiles do not have such a mechanism, the military source said.

"If they miss their target, they simply fly on until they have burned up all fuel - and then plunge down," he said, adding that the older missiles also had a higher error rate.

Ground-based air defense systems such as Raytheon's Patriot are built to intercept incoming missiles.

But after the Cold War, many NATO allies scaled down the number of air defense units to reflect the assessment that they would, from now on, only have to deal with a limited missile threat coming from countries such as Iran.

This perception changed drastically with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which sent NATO allies scrambling to increase stocks of ammunition and tackle air defense system shortfalls.

Germany had 36 Patriot units when it was NATO's frontline state during the Cold War and even then it relied on support from NATO allies. Today, the German forces are down to 12 Patriot units, two of which are deployed to Slovakia.

"It used to be a real belt of air defense systems, and this is what people have in mind if the speak of protecting NATO's eastern flank," the military expert said. "But we are far away from such a scenario."

Realizing the need to plug the gap, more than a dozen NATO allies led by Germany in October kicked off an initiative to jointly procure air defense systems for several layers of threats, eyeing Israel's Arrow 3, Patriot and the German IRIS-T among other systems.

The initiative comes as Ukraine, under heavy Russian attacks, desperately needs more air defense units, potentially exacerbating existing shortfalls in Western nations that are handing Kyiv some of their systems.

Poland, which together with the three Baltic states builds NATO's new eastern frontier, has invested for years in bolstering its air defense capabilities which still partly rely on Soviet-era systems like the OSA and Kub air defense missiles.

"In the next decade, we are talking about Poland having a really state-of-the-art and very large air defense system," Marek Swierczynski, a defense analyst for Polish think tank Polityka Insight said.

The implementation of these systems is slow, however, and they could still take years to become fully operational.

Poland has received additional support from Washington in recent months, but these systems, such as Patriot fire units stationed in Rzeszow, are not reactive and far-reaching enough to monitor every single gap in protection on the eastern flank, Swierczynski said.

However, even more air defense systems could not guarantee that another stray missile like the one on Tuesday is intercepted.

"This is the paradox: no matter how much money you spend on such an air defense system, you will never build something that is 100% impenetrable, so to speak, so there is always the possibility of such a situation arising," Swierczynski said.

© Thomson Reuters 2022.

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Interesting and informative article, it is sad but the conflict has made it so huge spending on air defense will be inevitable in the near future, this at a time where other priorities are still present.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

long story short.

best-in-the-world Patriot could not stop and shoot down outdated soviet S300.

best-in-the-world US soldiers could not protect territory of NATO/PL/member.


Patriot is worthless and US army in PL is worthless as well.

3 ( +6 / -3 )

Considering that they are now boycotted with IC chip supply, those missiles , also newer ones from now on, will have less of such self-destruction mechanisms in the future and then just fly until the fuel is burned up as written above. So the paradox just is, one has to give the Russians the missile chips for that they then don’t hit unintentionally something else farther away with their missiles. Nice strategic mind puzzle, isn’t it.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

" will never build something that is 100% impenetrable." That pretty much sums up the whole discussion.

On the question of whether the impactor was Russian or Ukrainian, I suspect that the Nato allies are invested in downplaying any Russian involvement, even if it is real. Putin is successfully causing the self-destruction of the Russian armed forces, and his new "Russian Empire," but in the meantime, we would prefer not to get actively involved in his insane war.

Historically, when Russians were captured in South Korea, or South Vietnam, their presence was covered up. America did not want a war with Russia, at least not one caused by unintentional accidents.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

The missile that hit Poland appears to have been fired by Ukraine's air defenses rather than a Russian strike, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said.

Are all the media outlets who blamed Russia going to publish retractions now? Don't forget Zelensky doubled down on his claim that the Russians were responsible...

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Don't forget Zelensky doubled down on his claim that the Russians were responsible...

Yes, and I hope this latest incident will cast a spotlight on how most of the MSM narrative of this conflict comes from Ukrainian sources. The title of many articles on JT start with "Zelensky says..." So no wonder many have a distorted view of this conflict (e.g. they think the Russian military is self-destructing).

1 ( +2 / -1 )

"Stray [air defense] missile hit in Poland casts spotlight on NATO air defense gaps"

What kind of 'defense' can offer 'protection' when your supposed 'friend' nextdoor CLEARLY false flags you trying to manipulate you into a war for only their own benefit? A good start on a 'defense' would be to no longer consider them a 'friend'... And, regarding 'air defense systems', 1) What kind of missile hit Poland? 2) Where do these missiles go if they miss their targets, evaporate?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

The article seems to ignore the western doctrine of war fighting that the best air defense comes from having a superior air force that is able to dominate the skies over an enemy. In actual combat US, NATO and Israeli air forces have been able to quickly dismantle Soviet or Russian built ground based air defenses in a matter of days and establish air superiority over an enemies territory (Bekaa Valley, Iraq) or forced an enemy to basically shut down their radars for fear they would quickly be targeted and destroyed (Serbia) leaving their air defenses to shoot into the blind and hope they might hit something.

The Russians have not ignored this fact and have improved their systems but the west and in particular the US has stayed ahead with all aspect Low Observable aircraft, both manned and unmanned, and some very stealthy cruise missiles. The west has also been very good at understanding Russian equipment or buying it outright to exploit and developing effective countermeasures.

Training and maintaining the combat effectiveness of an air force isn't cheap. US pilots fly ten times as many hours per year as their Russian counterparts and their training is much more demanding, and thus expensive since it involves expending weapons on expensive to operate instrumented range facilities like those at NAS Fallon or Nellis AFB just to name two, realistic simulated air combat and low level flying (see the many videos of what is called "Star Wars Canyon"). The Russian and many of their allies cannot afford this level of training so they rely instead on air defense missile systems for protection. Historically these have not lasted long in a real shooting war but it is all they can afford. The west chooses to put their money into their combat air forces based on their proven superiority over missile systems.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

long story short.

best-in-the-world Patriot could not stop and shoot down outdated soviet S300.

Bad assumption. The US only sent two batteries of Patriot missiles to Poland. PAC-3, the version optimized for ballistic missile defense, has a range of 30 km. It is designed for short range point defense of specific military sites, not area defense. PAC-2 is an older version designed to engage aircraft and helicopters. It has a range of maybe 160 km but is not optimized for missile defense. It is more of a general purpose air defense system to deal with threats other than ballistic missiles. Since only two Patriot batteries were sent it is likely those Patriot batteries are protecting the airfields and logistics sites being used to re-supply the Ukrainians, and therefore not close enough to that farm to have engaged the missile that hit it.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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