NATO has only 5% of the air defenses needed to protect the eastern flank.

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Europe has only a fraction of the air defense capabilities needed to protect its eastern flank, according to NATO’s own internal calculations, exposing the magnitude of the continent’s vulnerabilities.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has underlined the importance of air defense, as kyiv begs the West for additional systems and rockets to protect its cities, troops and energy grid against daily bombing.

But according to people familiar with confidential defense plans drawn up last year, NATO states can provide less than 5 percent of the air defense capabilities considered necessary to protect their members in central and eastern Europe against attack. on a large scale.

A senior NATO diplomat said the ability to defend against missiles and airstrikes was “an important part of the plan to defend Eastern Europe from invasion,” adding: “And right now, we don’t have that.”

NATO foreign ministers will meet in Prague on Thursday for two days of talks aimed at preparing for a summit of the alliance’s leaders in Washington in July, where strengthening European defense will be a central theme.

Some European leaders and military officials have said Russia could have the ability to attack a NATO member state by the end of the decade.

In a major defense review last year, the UK government outlined the “challenge of protecting. . . against attacks from the sky” as “the most serious in more than 30 years.”

Russia’s intensive use of highly destructive Soviet-era missiles, drones and “glide bombs” in Ukraine has added urgency to NATO members’ efforts to increase defense spending after decades of military budget cuts.

“(Air defense) is one of the biggest holes we have,” said a second NATO diplomat. “We can’t deny it.”

The failure of European NATO states in recent months to provide additional air defense equipment to Ukraine has highlighted the continent’s limited stocks of expensive and slow-to-manufacture systems.

It has also promoted a series of overlapping initiatives to try to find long-term solutions. Last year, Germany launched its Sky Shield initiative with more than a dozen other EU countries to develop a shared air defense system using technology developed by the United States and Israel.

However, France publicly criticized the proposal and offered a rival concept backed by a smaller number of allies.

Last week, Poland and Greece asked the European Commission to help develop and potentially help finance a pan-European air defense system, a proposal that Commission President Ursula von der Leyen indicated she would support.

Some EU capitals have suggested increasing common debt to finance defense projects.

In a letter sent to von der Leyen, the Greek and Polish prime ministers, Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Donald Tusk, described air defense as a “major vulnerability in our security,” adding that the war in Ukraine “has taught us lessons that already we can’t learn.” ignore”.

The proliferation of cheap, long-range attack drones, such as those used by Russia against Ukraine, has added to these concerns.

“Long-range strikes are no longer a superpower capability,” a Western defense official said.

A NATO official said that “capability objectives and defense plans are classified,” but added that air and missile defenses “are top priorities” and that “stockpiles have been reduced.”

“NATO’s new defense plans also significantly increase air and missile defense needs in quantity and readiness,” the official said, adding that countries were investing in new air defense capabilities, including fighter jets.

“That is why we are confident that NATO’s deterrence against Russia remains strong,” they added.

Immediately after the large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the United States deployed a Patriot battery air defense system to protect an airport in southern Poland that became a hub for Western weapons shipments to kyiv. .

But officials say NATO members have so few such systems to spare that their ability to deploy more beyond their own territories is severely limited.

In the United Kingdom, the Royal Navy’s six Type 45 destroyers are equipped with ballistic missile defense systems, but the ships have been plagued by design flaws.

The British military also has six state-of-the-art Sky Saber ground-based air defense systems, but their missile interceptors only have a range of about 40 kilometers, and two of the systems are overseas.

“The UK’s air defense capability is totally inadequate,” said Jack Watling, a senior researcher at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London.

Full integration of Europe’s various air defense systems could help make up for the shortfall by creating a dense network of sensors and interceptors across the continent.

But “attempts to upgrade NATO’s command and control infrastructure for air defense have never gotten off the ground,” Watling said.

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