FrankenSAM Project: Ukraine’s Unique Solution to Bolster Air Defenses

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In a bid to bolster its air defense capabilities, Ukraine has turned to the United States for an unconventional solution, resulting in the creation of what’s now known as the ‘FrankenSAM’ weapons program. The Ukrainian officials are urgently seeking additional air defenses to safeguard their power grids as the winter months approach, with concerns of Russian strikes that could potentially leave the nation in the grip of freezing darkness.

The FrankenSAM program combines advanced, Western-caliber surface-to-air missiles with repurposed Soviet-era launchers or radars already in the Ukrainian stockpiles. Two variants of these innovative air defense systems have been rigorously tested on U.S. military bases over the past several months and are slated for delivery to Ukraine this fall. 

One variant pairs Soviet Buk launchers with American Sea Sparrow missiles, while the other combines Soviet-era radars with American Sidewinder missiles. In an unexpected twist, a Cold War-era Hawk missile system, described as a “FrankenSAM in terms of resurrection,” debuted on Ukraine’s battlefield this week.

Laura K. Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia policy, noted that the FrankenSAMs are “contributing to filling critical gaps in Ukraine’s air defenses, and this is the most important challenge that Ukraine faces today.”

Ukraine has a history of resourcefulness in integrating offensive weapons from its aging Soviet-era stockpiles with those obtained from Western sources, earning praise from American military officials who have likened Ukraine’s approach to the inventive problem-solving of the fictional character MacGyver.

As winter draws near, there is growing concern among Ukrainian civilians and officials that Russia may target its power systems as it did in 2022. Despite the shifting dynamics of the conflict in Ukraine, which remains Europe’s deadliest war in generations, Ukraine is resolute in its pursuit of innovative solutions for self-defense.

Over the past 20 months, Ukraine has received a substantial amount of military aid from its allies, including state-of-the-art Patriot and IRIS-T air defense systems, tanks equipped with antiaircraft guns, and thousands of shoulder-fired Stinger missiles. This week, Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that Germany would provide Ukraine with additional sophisticated air defenses, further fortifying Ukraine’s capabilities.

The FrankenSAMs project was born out of Ukraine’s request for missiles to match approximately 60 Soviet-era Buk launchers and radars from its arsenal. Given the challenges of obtaining Russian-manufactured munitions for these systems, the Ukrainians proposed adapting the launchers to use NATO-caliber antiaircraft missiles donated by the United States. American engineers took up the task and spent over seven months testing and approving the amalgamation of Soviet-era launchers and Western missiles. The first refurbished Buk launchers and missiles arrived in Ukraine recently, with more to come.

Spain initially pledged the introduction of the older Hawk systems in October 2022. However, the necessary radar equipment took nine months to arrive after delivering the missiles to Ukraine. Despite these challenges, the Hawk systems are fully operational, complementing Ukraine’s air defense capabilities.

The FrankenSAM program is not limited to refurbished launchers. It also includes an improvised ground launcher that employs Soviet-era radars to fire old American Sidewinder missiles typically used on fighter jets. This innovation, part of a $200 million security assistance package announced by the Pentagon, is designed to expedite air defenses to Ukraine.

Furthermore, American defense officials and engineers are actively testing a Patriot missile and launching station designed to operate with Ukraine’s older domestically made radar systems. A successful test flight of the system, which took place at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, is paving the way for its deployment to Ukraine this winter.

Can Kasapoglu, a defense analyst for the Hudson Institute in Washington, commended the integration of Soviet-era equipment with advanced Western missiles as a strategic move to help Ukraine “maintain its arsenal for the long war ahead” and put underutilized weapons into practical use.