A stray missile landed in Poland on Tuesday, killing two people, according to reports. While initial assumptions were that the missile was a Russian cruise missile fired at Ukraine, it increasingly appears it was actually an errant air defense missile fired by Ukraine to stop Russian missile attacks.
The complex war in the skies over Ukraine often pits Ukrainian air defense against barrages of Russian cruise missiles and drone attacks. As Russia seeks to try to disrupt Ukraine's energy grid and terrorize the population, it is not surprising that a missile may stray over the border into Poland.
Poland and other countries bordering Ukraine or within range of air defense missiles and cruise missiles should all be wary of the threat that is posed by these systems. Israel has long had to deal with not only missile threats from terror groups, but also the problem of stray air defense missiles fired by the Syrian regime. It may be worthwhile for countries to learn from Israel's experience or at least to take into account the way this has affected the Middle East.
Air defense systems often use a combination of radar and vehicles with missiles to engage targets. For instance, an S-300 system may have a long range surveillance radar that detects a threat and it will also have a command and control vehicle that will analyze data from the incoming threat. A third vehicle may have another radar that tracks and engages the target to guide missiles against it. A launch vehicle will have a number of missiles in cannisters that can be fired.
In all, an air defense system of this sort may have five or six vehicles, because it may have a battery of missiles that can be deployed against targets and these will be mounted on several trucks. The battery may be able to contend with targets dozens of kilometers away, out to some 150 kilometers. S-200s are thought to have a range of several hundred kilometers.
When air defense missiles go astray: The Syrian example for Israel
Ukraine has a variety of air defense systems. Russia also has a variety of missile and cruise missile systems. Overall, this means that many countries bordering Ukraine are within range of errant missiles. In March 2017, a Syrian surface-to-air missile was intercepted by Israel's Arrow air defense after it apparently strayed off course and was heading toward Israel. Debris from the incident fell in Jordan, according to the BBC report at the time. In July 2019, a Syrian S-200 missile struck Cyprus, some 225 km from Syria. An S-200 also fell in Turkey in July 2018. In September 2018, Syrian air defenders shot down a Russian military plane by mistake. In April 2021 a more serious incident occurred when a Syrian air defense missile strayed into the Negev in Israel.
The long list of Syrian air defense missiles flying off course should be a lesson for what appears to have happened in Poland. S-300s and other types of air defense missiles can fly off course or they can be seeking out a target and the target may be neutralized by another air defense system and the missile may continue on its path. The whole details of how the incident unfolded is unclear.
At the end of the day, Russia's use of missiles to strike at Poland is partly to blame for the incident in Poland, but having better air defenses may also be an issue for Ukraine. Ukraine has been asking for more air defenses over the past year. Ukraine recently received the IRIS-T air defense system from Germany.
Countries in the area will need more radars and perhaps better radars to confront the kind of threats that are being seen today. Russia's use of missiles and drones is just one example of the emerging threat that air defenders need to contend with. Poland and other states will want to make sure that their own air defenses and warning systems are able to detect the kind of threat that happened this week. It's not clear if installing sirens and other systems is helpful across a large frontier.
Israel has successfully used a system of sirens to alert people to threats; and Israel has perfected a level of precision with these warnings so that the country is divided into polygons of warning areas, meaning that only areas under threat are warned.
Unfortunately for countries now on the frontline, or close to the frontline, the US abandoned a decision to put in place a missile defense system in Europe in 2009. At the time the White House was trying to work with Russia and also focusing on Iran. It appears today that 13 years later it would have been better to put in place the kind of air defenses needed to stop the threats that are now emerging.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at the Jerusalem Post.