The FrankenSAM Program: A Novel Approach in Air Defense on the Ukrainian Front

 11. 11. 2023      Category: Air force

As the harsh winter looms, Ukrainian defenders are increasingly emphasizing the importance of air defense. Recognizing the scarcity of such systems in the West, Ukraine, in collaboration with the United States, has developed an innovative solution: the FrankenSAM program. This program ingeniously combines older Soviet systems, like the Buk, with more modern, albeit less utilized, American missiles such as the AIM-9 Sidewinder, resulting in highly functional and intriguing hybrids.

Picture: Surface-to-air missile (SAM) launcher |
Picture: Surface-to-air missile (SAM) launcher |

The Genesis of FrankenSAM

The FrankenSAM project, named after the legendary creature from Dr. Frankenstein's tale, symbolizes the fusion of previously incompatible parts into a surprisingly effective and versatile whole. The initiative began late last year when Ukraine requested assistance from allies to find missiles for about sixty Soviet-era Buk mobile anti-aircraft systems and outdated mobile radars.

A Marriage of Necessity

Western states have previously donated several advanced air defense units like the Patriot or IRIS-T. However, such aid is logistically and financially demanding, akin to providing modern fighter jets. Consequently, Kyiv and its Western partners needed a quick and efficient solution that would combine the ample stockpiles of semi-functional Soviet machinery lying idle in Ukrainian warehouses with surplus Western munitions that had limited use in supporting Ukraine until now.

The Making of FrankenSAM

The American side insisted on handling the complete modification process, which involved adapting current technology to launch NATO munitions. This adaptation was deemed more suitable than supplying entire new systems. The process required at least seven months for testing and Pentagon approval to use RIM-7 Sea Sparrow missiles, originally sea-to-air missiles with radar guidance for ship defense against aircraft and torpedoes. Ukraine was ready to send 17 Buk launchers at once, but the Americans could only modify five per month. Meanwhile, an adapted version of the MIM-23 HAWK launchers was also in the works, with Spain providing the launchers and the USA equipping them with necessary radar technology.

Operational Success

According to Mykola Oleščuk, commander of the Ukrainian Air Force, the Hawk systems are now fully operational and intercepting targets alongside more modern air defense systems. While achieving a 100% hit rate is challenging, they are making significant progress each day.

Reviving Relics of Air Defense

Another brainchild of American-Ukrainian ingenuity is an improvised launcher using old Soviet radars. FrankenSAM combines the outdated yet mobile and easily repairable chassis of a type of mobile radar, replacing it with a launch system for older American supersonic missiles – the AIM-9 Sidewinder. These missiles, developed since the 1950s and used on F-16 and F-18 fighter jets, are now suitable for redistribution to Ukraine as these jets are gradually phased out.

Laura K. Cooper, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, remarked, "The FrankenSAM project signifies a resurrection for air defense relics, bringing them back to life." She added that it helps fill critical gaps in Ukraine's air defense, a significant challenge the country currently faces.

The Future of FrankenSAM

The most potent FrankenSAM yet is in the works – a Patriot system mounted on a Soviet mobile radar. Currently being tested at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, this product has shown promise, successfully intercepting a training drone during trials. Its deployment in Ukraine is expected this winter, along with other deliveries of missiles and air defense components from several allies.


The FrankenSAM program exemplifies innovation and rapid problem-solving in a time of crisis. By repurposing existing technology and combining it with surplus munitions, this initiative not only addresses immediate defense needs but also demonstrates a novel approach to military collaboration and resourcefulness in modern warfare. As these systems are deployed and tested in combat, they could significantly alter the dynamics of air defense on the Ukrainian front, showcasing a unique blend of American ingenuity and Soviet-era resilience.

 Author: Oliver Jahn