IRIS-T training in Germany: How Ukrainians train on the anti-aircraft system


Status: 03/03/2023 06:00 a.m

In Germany, Ukrainian soldiers are currently being trained on the IRIS-T air defense system. The location is kept secret, as are details of the training. For the first time, the Bundeswehr has now provided insights into the training.

By Kai Küstner, ARD Capital Studio

When it comes to IRIS-T, the German Air Force leaves nothing to chance: films, photos or sound recordings of training on the air defense system? Strictly forbidden. The identities of German trainers and Ukrainian trainees? Hush-hush. The place of training? “Somewhere in Germany” – no more details please.

The few media representatives – there are exactly three – whom the Bundeswehr is now allowing an insight for the first time have to hand in their mobile phones. In CIA Thriller fashion, the devices are locked away in a silver, aluminum-coated, foam-lined briefcase. No locatable GPS signal should penetrate to the outside, the smartphone data should not be able to be tapped.

Moscow’s ardent interest in IRIS-T

But why is there so much secrecy here, when a few days ago dozens of journalists were allowed to watch the Ukrainians practicing with the “Leopard” battle tank in Munster without strict conditions? “IRIS-T-SLM is a ‘game changer’ in air defense. The Russian invasion can only be stopped if Ukraine can keep its airspace clear,” was the reply from an air force representative. That is why there is a burning interest in this device in Moscow. In Germany, there are fears that trainers and trainees could be threatened by the Russians.

The Ukrainian soldiers who are being trained at this place, which must not be named, are completely unimpressed. Around 40 men complete an IRIS-T crash course here for six to seven weeks. She’s less worried about herself than about her homeland: “It’s a strange feeling to be here in a peaceful environment while our comrades and our families are left behind,” reports Anatolii, whose real name may not be revealed .

Every day he follows the news, calls his family. Incidentally, the Ukrainians use mobile phones provided by the Bundeswehr. The burly Myckhailo (name also changed) says with a serious expression that he has problems getting used to the almost idyllic surroundings. And then adds with a smile: “A few days ago the siren went off here. It sounded like our warning signal for air raids. But it was only the fire alarm.”

Ukrainian soldiers with a great desire to learn

It is noticeable that the Ukrainian soldiers have one goal in mind: to learn as much as possible in the shortest possible time – in order to then return home and fight. They got down to business with great concentration, as one of the German trainers acknowledged appreciatively: “They go back to their computers in the evenings after training.”

The first visible sign on the Bundeswehr site of the IRIS-T system, which is embedded in a piece of forest, is its radar: It rotates and – mounted on a truck and placed on a hill – protrudes just above the treetops. In the operational area, it ensures that approaching flying objects – kamikaze drones, cruise missiles, airplanes – can be detected at all.

A few meters away is the heart of the IRIS-T, the command center built into a spartan container. Six touchscreen screens showing everything that’s moving in the airspace. Below: A somewhat inconspicuous-looking ‘Fire’ (i.e. fire) button. A single push – and in an emergency, at least one rocket will rise from the launch pads not far away, which will use an infrared sensor to find its target in the sky and destroy it.

IRIS-T is considered a “game changer” for Ukrainian air defense.

Image: Bundeswehr

So far a German IRIS-T system has been delivered

The problem: These missiles are often more expensive than what they hit – after all, Russia has recently used inexpensive Iranian drones in its attacks. However, there is no doubt that the German anti-aircraft system can protect particularly vulnerable places in Ukraine extremely effectively: civilian targets, cities and critical infrastructure such as power plants.

One of his commanders recently reported a 100 percent hit rate, says soldier Anatolii. However, in the same breath he warns: “We need more of it”. So far, Germany has delivered one IRIS-T system, and three more have been promised. “We need twelve,” says Anatolii.

Pistorius gives top priority to anti-aircraft defense

“The number one priority is air defence, air defence, air defence,” announced the new Defense Minister, Boris Pistorius, back in January. He outlined what the Ukrainians need most at the moment. IRIS-T is a building block, the “Patriot” system is also promised, the “Gepard” anti-aircraft tank has been in use for a long time.

Precisely because both the manufacturer and the Air Force know how effective IRIS-T can be, the flow of information is limited to what is absolutely necessary. The fact that the Ukrainian soldiers could attract attention simply by being in Germany is an unfounded concern. They live on the training ground and would never leave it anyway, not even for a coffee or a visit to a pub, reports one of the German air defense experts. What soldier Myckhailo confirms and adds: “Relaxation is for peacetime – for the time after the war.”

Exclusive: Top secret IRIS-T training of Ukrainians

Kai Küstner, ARD Berlin, 03/03/2023 06:07 a.m

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