First Inside Look At Ukraine’s HAWK Air Defense Systems

The Ukrainian Air Force has, apparently for the first time, published a video showing in detail its U.S.-made HAWK surface-to-air missile system. As we have discussed in the past, the missile provides a useful boost to Ukraine’s middle-tier air and missile defense capacity and, according to the Ukrainian Air Force, has scored some notable ‘kills.’ Despite being an older system that was rushed to Ukraine when it became clear that additional ground-based air defenses were in dire need, the HAWK appears to have been a notable success.

The video, running just over three and a half minutes long, was published on the Ukrainian Air Force’s official YouTube channel. It shows elements of the HAWK system in Ukrainian service, inside and out, including missile launchers and radars, interspersed with interviews with several of the system’s operating crew, as well as purported combat footage showing actual missile launches at night.

In the original caption to the video, it’s stated that targets of the HAWK include cruise missiles and that Spanish instructors told Ukrainian anti-aircraft operators that “it’s not really designed to fight drones.” The Ukrainians were willing to adapt, however, and the video also shows a HAWK system with multiple Shahed one-way attack drone symbols applied, each denoting a claimed kill. According to the Ukrainian Air Force, even in the HAWK’s first combat engagement in Ukraine, the system brought down six of the Iranian-designed Shaheds.

Shahed symbols among the kill markings on one of the Ukrainian HAWK systems. Ukrainian Air Force/YouTube screencap

One operator — named only as Oleksandr — explains that their HAWK battery is sometimes in action throughout the day, depending on the intensity of the Russian attacks, and that, although very nervous when they first had to engage a hostile target, they are now more than used to the associated adrenaline.

Operators seated in front of a radar screen of a Ukrainian HAWK system. Ukrainian Air Force/YouTube screencap

Oleksandr also says that the toughest target that he has encountered is the Kh-59 series of air-launched standoff missiles. Known to NATO as AS-18 Kazoo (for the most widely used Kh-59M version), this heavyweight tactical missile is designed to destroy small, hardened targets with fixed coordinates. It is powered by a small turbofan engine and uses inertial guidance with TV command guidance for the terminal phase. It has a range of 71 miles and a cruising speed of around 600 mph.

The wreckage of a Russian Kh-59M missile in the Sumy region of northeast Ukraine in March 2024. Main Directorate of the National Police in the Sumy Region

The most difficult engagement recalled by Oleksandr involved a combination of Kh-59s and the more modern Kh-69s. As you can read about here, the Kh-69, in its current form, was developed for internal carriage in the Su-57 Felon next-generation fighter. It has a range of at least 186 miles and other changes compared to the Kh-59M include its inertial navigation system being combined with GPS/GLONASS for mid-course updates and an electro-optical digital scene-matching area correlation (DSMAC) system for the run-in to the target. The revised shape of the weapon — with a boxy, trapezoidal-section body — is said to offer some degree of reduced radar signature.

Oleksandr says the missiles “constantly changed their height” and were heading in the direction of the HAWK battery when they were engaged.

Another operator explains that their HAWK battery has so far successfully intercepted 40 hostile targets, of which 14 were missiles: 13 Kh-59s and one sea-launched Kalibr cruise missile. Based on the multiple Shahed stencils seen on one of the systems, it seems likely most if not all of the remaining targets were drones.

Members of the Ukrainian Air Force load HAWK missiles onto a launcher using a specialized reloading vehicle. Ukrainian Air Force/YouTube screencap

As we have reported in the past, the HAWK — an acronym for Homing All the Way Killer — first entered U.S. Army service back in 1959 but has seen numerous improvements since then. In general, however, the system uses a combination of radars providing high and low-altitude target detection, as well as target tracking and ‘illumination.’ After launch, the missiles use reflected radar energy to zero in on the ‘illuminated’ threat.

The first video of the HAWK published by the Ukrainian Air Force, in October 2023, showed a nighttime engagement but revealed no details of the system itself:

The Ukrainian Air Force video also confirms that Ukraine has received the HAWK in its Phase III version, one of the more advanced iterations of the system.

Overall, the HAWK was modernized three times: Phases I, II, and III.

Three Ukrainian HAWK missiles on their launcher. Ukrainian Air Force/YouTube screencap

The Improved HAWK (I-HAWK) Phase III version was notable for bringing a Low-Altitude Simultaneous Hawk Engagement (LASHE) capability, allowing the system to target multiple low-altitude threats at once — this would be especially useful for tackling drones and cruise missiles. The I-HAWK Phase III was the last version of the system in U.S. military service, remaining in use with the U.S. Marines into the 1990s. More advanced still is the HAWK XXI or HAWK 21, with upgraded radars and other systems, which was developed and is still in use with several countries.

You can read more about the HAWK system and its various interceptors in this past War Zone piece.

While it’s apparently now clear that the Phase III version has been provided to Kyiv, we don’t know which of the earlier systems are used, although the Phase I (at least) would seem likely, since Spain announced it would be transferring some HAWK systems from its inventory, which, at that time, included I-HAWK Phase I and III systems, as well as some HAWK XXI/HAWK 21s.

At least some of the HAWK systems seen in the video have U.S. Army markings, however, indicating they are likely among those that the United States pledged to send to Ukraine.

The High Power Illuminator (HPI) radar used by a Ukrainian HAWK system. Ukrainian Air Force/YouTube screencap

At least some of these were reportedly modernized prior to delivery, but the exact source of the systems remains unknown, with some suggestion that they might include some of Taiwan’s recently retired HAWKs, or at least components from them, as well as examples that remained in long-term storage in the United States.

Regardless of the exact types of HAWK systems delivered and their provenance, the Ukrainian Air Force seems happy with these air defense systems, which provide a badly needed boost in the short-to-medium-range surface-to-air missile segment, especially in defense of less-critical areas. This is especially important as Ukraine continues to burn through the missiles used by its Soviet-era Buk systems, while other examples of the same have been knocked out by Russian strikes. The limited stock of missiles for the Buk has been a major reason for the ‘FrankenSAM’ program that has seen NATO-standard RIM-7 missiles integrated on Buk launchers.

The first official photos have appeared showing a Soviet-era ground-based air defense system upgraded with Western surface-to-air missiles — a so-called ‘FrankenSAM.’ The images, published by Ukraine’s Operational Command East, show a tracked self-propelled Buk-M1 system — known in the West as SA-11 Gadfly — which is said to have been adapted to fire the RIM-7 Sea Sparrow, a missile that previously provided point defense for numerous NATO and allied warships.
A Buk/Sea Sparrow FrankenSAM and one of its crew. Operational Command East

Operational Command East

Most impressive perhaps, is that the Ukrainians have apparently achieved notable success against large-volume Russian kamikaze drone and cruise missile strikes, at least according to the Ukrainian Air Force account.

With the HAWK still in use in a number of countries, including in Europe, and with nations that have already delivered military equipment to Ukraine, the chances of more examples of the system making their way to Ukraine appear good. There are also significant stockpiles of system components and interceptors available for transfer from the United States and many countries that have retired them but still maintain stocks.

Despite its age, therefore, it appears the Ukrainian Air Force is so far more than happy with the HAWK and the effect it’s had so far in helping shore up the country’s air and missile defenses.

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