Under the radar, Germany trains Ukrainians on advanced air defence weapon
- First reporters allowed to visit secret training site
- IRIS-T system "has hit 51 out of 51 targets" in Ukraine
- Tight security around weapon called a "game changer"
SOMEWHERE IN GERMANY, March 3 (Reuters) - In a remote German wood away from prying eyes, around 40 Ukrainians are taking a crash course on one of the West's most advanced air defence systems, already confident it will enable them to better ward off Russian strikes once they return home.
Boasting a range of some 40 kilometres (25 miles) and a 360 degree view, the IRIS-T SLM system is one of the most coveted of the weapons that Berlin has supplied to Kyiv.
"Our main task is to learn as quickly as possible so we can get back and continue to fight," Myckhailo, a 45 year-old who has been a soldier for 27 years, told the first few reporters granted access to the training sessions on Wednesday.
So far, the single IRIS-T unit already deployed in Ukraine has been used to shoot down cruise missiles that Moscow has attacked power stations with, and aircraft including Iranian-made Shahed drones - with stunning success.
"A few days ago, our air force commander said IRIS-T has hit 51 out of 51 targets, that's a 100% quota for Shahed drones and cruise missiles," said 36 year-old Anatolii, adding Kyiv needed at least 12 of the systems.
Berlin has promised to send four in total, with the second due to arrive within weeks - two years before Germany's own air force can expect its first.
The German military has organised big media events showcasing how Ukrainian troops are learning the ropes operating Leopard 2 tanks, but it has been wary of granting access to the training on the IRIS-T system built by German arms maker Diehl.
"The Russians see IRIS-T as a game changer. It is a modern system, whereas they have known the potential of the Leopard tanks for a while," said a German air force officer by way of explanation.
The first three reporters to visit the training site were asked not to disclose the location, and hand in cell phones and smart watches to prevent conversations from being tapped.
When they arrived, a truck-mounted radar was slowly turning on a small hill, while around a dozen Ukrainian soldiers were crowded into the IRIS-T command post, a sand-coloured container on another truck.
Using live radar pictures as well as a simulator, the Ukrainians learn how to pick their targets and shoot them down by pressing a silver "FIRE" button under a set of touch-screens.
Asked about the main differences to older Soviet-built air defences such as the S-300 or Buk, the Ukrainians cited greater effectiveness but also greater complexity.
A German trainer said IRIS-T, built by German arms maker Diehl, could not be operated by "turning a switch on and off. Here you have buttons with eight submenus on a touch-screen".
It takes only a third of the time to set up its radar compared with the decades-old Patriot system - a critical factor, as any air defence system gives away its position once the radar is turned on.
Asked how being in a peaceful country felt after a year of war, Dmytro and Myckhailo described their situation as strange.
"It is unusual to see and hear aircraft in the sky. In Ukraine, the air space is closed - if anything flies there, it can be dangerous," said Dmytro.
"Physically, it is very comfortable here. Mentally, we cannot enjoy the situation because our family and comrades are in Ukraine and some of them have died," he added.
Myckhailo said his main concern was for the safety of his family at home.
"The nicest thing is being able to sleep for eight hours at a stretch," he noted, while rejecting any notion he might enjoy any creature comforts such as a beer outside the compound.
"We are not here as tourists, this is a business trip. We will come back after the war to relax, when there is peace. But not now, we are soldiers."
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