Iran could soon provide the Russian military with even deadlier weapons than the Iranian drones it has been using to target Ukrainian civilian infrastructure: ballistic missiles. The United States should not wait for Iran to supply, and Russia to start launching, these devastating munitions at Ukrainian cities before it sends essential military equipment to deal with this threat. Instead, Washington should preemptively provide Ukraine with the necessary offensive and defensive weaponry against Iranian ballistic missiles.
The acquisition of Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles has enabled Russia to expand operations against front-line and increasingly interior civilian areas in Ukraine. Russia has rapidly become the largest operator of the systems, vastly surpassing any previous recorded use of them, according to the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s Iran Projectile Tracker, which details Iranian-linked attacks. September 2021 held the record for the most Iran-linked UAVs used in attacks at 66; but Russia reportedly launched over 70 in September this year and more than 230 in October.
Russia could now be turning to Iranian ballistic missiles as a more effective weapon, with Iranian UAVs providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support. Additional munitions are unlikely to reverse Russia’s recent retreats, but acquiring Iranian ballistic missiles would enable Moscow to wreak even greater destruction as well as more effectively strike larger and better protected military installations. The respective 500-kilogram and 600-kilogram payloads of Iran’s Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar short-range ballistic missiles are significantly larger than the 40-kilogram capacity of the Iranian-made Shahed-136 UAV that Russia has been using for the past three months.
While Ukraine claims to have downed up to 85% of Russian-launched Iranian UAVs — a staggering figure given the large number of sites it must protect — it would not likely have the same success against ballistic missiles. The United States has focused on bolstering Ukrainian capabilities to destroy aircraft, cruise missiles and drones, for example, by delivering two National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems and recently announcing a $400 million security package with Avenger short-range air defense systems, HAWK interceptors, and additional Stinger missiles.
Yet, according to Yuriy Ihnat, a Ukrainian Air Force spokesperson, the country has “no effective defense against [ballistic] missiles,” and that “it is theoretically possible to shoot them down, but in fact, it is very difficult to do it with the means we have at our disposal. We have anti-air defense, but not anti-missile defense.”
Given this deficiency, America must prepare a package that further bolsters Ukrainian offensive and defensive capabilities to neutralize or degrade the effectiveness of UAVs and ballistic missiles. The Pentagon, working with other NATO partners, should explore options to provide Ukraine with Patriot PAC-2 or PAC-3 surface-to-air missiles, which are highly effective at destroying short-range ballistic missiles, as well as provide the MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System, a surface-to-surface weapon that can strike targets about 190 miles away with a 370-pound explosive.
Contractors could operate PAC-2 missiles, or they can run in fully automatic mode, minimizing the long training time it would take to learn how to use them. Ukraine could use ATACMS with the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems that the United States has already provided to enhance its “left of launch” options by hitting Russian targets before they fire missiles or drones.
The Ukrainian military already operates American-made Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems; however, ATACMS can strike targets three times as far and with a warhead that is at least double the size, enabling Ukraine to more capably strike Russian drone and missile launch or storage sites in Crimea, compared to the GMLRS with its 15- to 70-kilometer range and 200-pound payload.
President Joe Biden has been reluctant to supply the system, claiming in September that “we’re not going to send to Ukraine rocket systems that strike into Russia.” If Russia acquires Iranian ballistic missiles, this cost-benefit analysis would shift in favor of providing ATACMS that can destroy targets deeper into Crimea on the condition that Ukraine not use the weapons to strike Russia as Biden fears.
Ukraine’s inability to protect against Iranian short-range ballistic missiles should tip the balance in favor of providing Ukraine with ATACMS with strict end-use restrictions that limit their operation to illegally occupied Ukrainian territory. Ukraine’s need for further American-made weaponry and the provision of air defenses capable of neutralizing launches originating in Russia will incentivize it to follow these rules. If Moscow chooses to strike Ukraine from within its own territory, air defenses like Patriot missiles will be critical to enabling Ukraine to protect itself without launching an escalatory strike on Russia.
Less potentially escalatory options include expanding its provision of NASAMS, Avenger, HAWK and Stinger systems that could enable Ukraine to neutralize drones conducting ISR, thus decreasing Russia’s precision targeting.
Meanwhile, Washington should push Greece to sell its Russian S-300 air defense system to Ukraine, and then provide Greece with American-made air defenses to replace it. At the same time, the United States can also work with its partners to interdict or thwart the transportation of Iranian components or weaponry and provide any necessary intelligence for Ukrainian attacks on Russian locations.
Moscow has already caused death and destruction with Iranian drones, even with Ukraine reportedly intercepting most of them. The United States must not sit by while Russia acquires even more damaging Iranian ballistic missiles that Ukraine is not currently prepared to stop. If it moves quickly, Washington can demonstrate to Moscow that its hopes for an Iranian-made solution for its disastrous invasion will fail.
Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering III served as the director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency and is now a member of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s U.S.-Israel Security and Iran Policy projects. Ari Cicurel is a senior policy analyst at JINSA.