Ukraine Needs Ground-Based Air Defenses Way More Than MiGs. Here Are The Best Options
Rushing highly mobile and familiar air defense systems to Ukraine is the key to keeping Russian aircraft at bay and under threat.
When it comes to helping Ukraine continue to keep Russia from gaining air superiority over its skies — a miraculous achievement thus far in the conflict that is now in its third week — all the focus has been on providing the embattled country with a couple of dozen decades-old MiG-29 Fulcrums. This has been an unfortunate distraction. What Ukraine really needs more than anything else are ground-based air defense systems — surface-to-air missiles, or SAMs — especially the kind with medium or greater altitude engagement capabilities that are optimized for high mobility. And not just any SAM systems that fulfill the requirements, but Soviet-era systems that the Ukrainian military is fully trained on employing in combat and supporting in the field.
While providing additional fighters for Ukraine's air arm, which remains under great pressure from Russia's war machine, is one potential facet of bolstering its air defenses, it is far from the most important or convenient one. Fighters are the least of the Russian military's counter-air worries at the moment. The presence of medium to higher-tier SAM threats keeps Russia's combat aircraft from operating at medium altitudes or above, in effect pressing them right into the shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile (man-portable air defense systems or MANPADS) engagement envelope, which is roughly defined as anything under 15,000 feet. Thousands of MANPADS of different types have flooded into Ukraine and have been dispersed among troops across the country — and more are on the way. They have been brutally effective so far, but without the threat presented by more capable air defense systems, the opportunities to engage the enemy at lower altitudes will decline. In other words, the presence of one enables the other.
Highly unpredictable ground-mobile SAMs complicate the tactical threat picture even more for Russia. They are far more survivable than their less agile, largely static counterparts. They can appear out of virtually nowhere and then disappear before traditional counterattacks are possible. Leveraging radar guidance, they are also effective in any weather, day or night.
It has become abundantly clear in recent days that these more robust air defense assets remain a major issue for Russia, which you can read all about in this recent feature of ours. Regardless, according to the U.K. Ministry of Defense, a significant reduction in Russian air activity in recent days is likely due to this reason.
When it comes to fighters over SAMs, the U.S. government appears to have come to a similar conclusion. Speaking yesterday, John Kirby, the U.S. military’s top spokesperson, said that instead of the MiG-29s, the Ukrainian forces would benefit more from additional deliveries of ground-based air defense systems. While the Fulcrum became a signature weapon for the Ukrainian side early on in the conflict, and a rallying point for the country’s population, Kirby is right that transferring more of these jets would not necessarily have made the most sense from a military or a risk of escalation perspective. After all, while the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense has made big claims about the aerial kills achieved by its fighters, the country’s ground-based air defense systems have certainly played a far bigger role in depriving Russia of air superiority — a surprise for many analysts, who had expected Russian aerial dominance to quickly show through. They have also limited Russia's ability to supply close air support to its own troops, giving Ukraine an additional advantage.
The U.S. decision is not one made on the fly either. A specialized team was sent to Ukraine in the months leading up to the war to closely evaluate the country's air defense capabilities and its projected needs should an invasion occur. In other words, the U.S. has an intimate and up-to-date knowledge of how best to help Ukraine keep Russia's airpower at bay.
What's even stranger is that somehow, as part of the MiG transfer drama, some in the media and on Capitol Hill reimagined the utility of the decades-old MiG-29 variants in question. While these aircraft do have an austere ground attack capability, somehow they have morphed into being a pivotal air-to-ground platform capable of unilaterally wiping out massive columns of Russian heavy armor that sit under their own anti-air umbrella. This is pure fantasy that has been created by people who have no idea what the MiG-29's capabilities actually are and think it is just an analog to a late-block F-16. And even then, their understanding of what an F-16 is actually capable of would also have to be of Hollywood action film level and outright divorced from reality. So no, a MiG-29 armed with a couple of rocket pods or a few dumb bombs is not going to repulse Russia's northern advance to Kyiv. And any mission of that sort has a high probability of being a one-way trip, regardless.
Even in the air-to-air realm, the truth is the generation of MiG-29 in being discussed is at a great disadvantage against its Russian counterparts, especially as Russia learns and adapts to its own failings and further integrates A-50 radar planes and other force-multiplier capabilities into its counter-air battle plans. This era of MiG-29 is also largely airfield and ground radar dependent, some of which remain operational despite Russia's opening blows, but for how long remains a real question.
So, while ground-based air defenses are not as nearly as sexy of a topic as high-performance fighters flown by seemingly supernatural Ukrainian pilots, they are far more relevant to the pressing tactical realities facing the country today.
Once again, the major sticking point here is that Ukraine needs systems it can operate, employ successfully, and maintain in the field immediately, not western designs that will take months or even years to train on, field, and create a logistical train in a war zone to support. Hopefully, the U.S. government and its partners have learned from their abysmal mistakes in furnishing the Afghan Army with advanced western equipment it couldn't sustain on its own even after years of trying and will go another route with Ukraine.
With all this in mind, any additional and familiar air defense systems that could be supplied to Ukraine quickly so that they can continue to sustain and even broaden their successful anti-air campaign would likely have a significant effect on the course of the fighting and on the long-term fate of the country in general. The following rundown provides details of the SAM systems above the threshold of MANPADS that are currently used by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and which would, therefore, be prime candidates to enhance their anti-air capacity in the ongoing air war.
The best candidates:
On paper, among the most capable surface-to-air missiles in the Ukrainian inventory, at least before the outbreak of the war, is the S-300P (SA-10 Grumble), one of the earlier iterations of the Soviet-designed S-300 family of long-range SAM systems.
The earliest examples of this system that the Ukrainian military has operated are S-300PT variants, which first entered service in the late 1970s and use trailer-mounted erector launchers, radars, and command posts. Ukraine's armed forces have also fielded S-300PS systems, which were first introduced in the mid-1980s and integrated the various components onto 8x8 MAZ-7910 truck chassis for much-improved mobility.
It’s unclear how many examples of either of those systems were still in service or in storage in Ukraine before the outbreak of the current conflict, although previous assessments indicate that 250 launchers have remained in inventory.
The current organizational structure of Ukraine's S-300 units is also unknown, but a typical S-300PS battery may include three transporter erector launchers (TELs), two of which are also capable of acting as transloaders to be able to help reload each other, along with two other vehicles, one carrying a 5N63 or 30N6 Flap Lid phased array engagement radar and another configured as a mobile command post. As many as eight firing batteries, combined with other command and control nodes and radars, such as the 36D6 Tin Shield surveillance radar, comprise a single complete S-300PS system.
Though the S-300PS system can fire various different kinds of interceptors, the 5V55R missile, which features semi-active radar homing terminal guidance, is the main type available to Ukraine and has a stated maximum range of 56 miles and can hit targets at high altitudes.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense claims that a least some of its S-300PS systems are still operational. For instance, they reportedly contributed to the destruction of four Russian Su-25 attack aircraft and two helicopters, as well as two cruise missiles during the night of March 8/9. Some elements of these systems may have been destroyed by Russian forces, as well.
There are a number of potential sources of additional S-300s within NATO that might be available for transfer to Ukraine. Bulgaria has one complete S-300PMU system, while Slovakia inherited a single battery after the breakup of Czechoslovakia. Greece has 12 S-300PMU-1 systems, an improved version of the S-300PMU that, among other things, features an updated 30N6E radar and has the ability to fire 48N6 interceptors. The 48N6, variants of which have stated maximum ranges between 90 and 160 miles, uses a so-called track-via-missile (TVM) guidance system that blends radio command guidance with semi-active radar homing in the terminal phase of flight.
Experience with the original S-300P series could make it easier for the Ukrainian military to train personnel to operate examples of the S-300PMU. It’s not immediately clear how much additional instruction might be required for them to be able to use the PMU-1.
While the S-300PS was developed for the Soviet Union's Air Defense Forces, the S-300V1 (SA-12 Gladiator/Giant) is a related system that was instead tailored for use by Soviet ground forces, being carried on tracked transport-erector-launcher (TEL) vehicles, for improved cross-country mobility. Two primary types of missiles are provided as armament: the 9M83 (SA-12A Gladiator) with a maximum engagement range of around 47 miles and the 9M82 (SA-12B Giant) that can engage targets out to 62 miles. No NATO militaries use the S-300V family of systems, ruling out the possibility of transferring additional such weapons to Ukraine, which was thought to operate only a few examples of the SA-12A version prior to the Russian invasion.
The S-125 Pechora (SA-3 Goa) is a medium-altitude surface-to-air system that uses command-guided interceptors, the first version of which entered Soviet service in the early 1960s. The S-125 system evolved over time with the addition of new interceptors with improved capabilities and updated radars. In general, complete Pechora systems includes some number of truck-mounted or static launchers, along with an array of radars, including P-15 Flat Face/Squad Eye-series target acquisition types, SNR-125 "Low Blow" fire control models, and PRV-11 "Side Nets" for determinate the height at which targets are operating.
It's not clear how many Ukrainian S-125 systems were still in service when Russia's invasion began, but its examples utilize static launchers and therefore are not highly mobile. The country had previously retired its S-125s, but domestic companies continued to develop upgrades and provide support for the system, even testing an improved missile in 2018. Ukrainian troops were observed training with an S-125 system as recently as in 2020.
Within NATO, only Bulgaria and Poland still have some number of S-125 systems in active service. In both cases, these are modernized systems, with Poland having also developed new tracked launchers for the missiles and wheeled radar vehicles.
The 9K37M1 Buk-M1 is an improved variant of the original 9K37 (SA-11 Gadfly) mobile medium-range SAM system developed toward the end of the Soviet era. Each of the tracked TEL vehicles carried four ready-to-fire missiles, as well as the fire control radar. The maximum engagement range of the missile is 22 miles. Apparently heavily utilized in the conflict so far by both Russian and Ukrainian forces, Ukraine entered the war with a reported 72 examples of the system available. Although not fielded by any NATO nations, the Buk system was previously operated by Finland, which has passed military materiel to Ukraine already. The Finnish examples have been in storage for some time now, but are reportedly still kept ready for possible wartime use.
The Buk's high mobility and independence of operation, as well as its ability to hit targets operating as high as 45,000 feet, make it among the most well-suited options to help Ukraine keep Russia from gaining air superiority over the country. It's also worth noting that a Russian SA-11 is what took down Malaysian Airlines flight 17 back in 2014.
The 9K330 Tor (SA-15 Gauntlet) is a highly mobile tracked short-range air defense system (SHORADS) that was originally developed as a replacement for the widely used wheeled 9K33 Osa. The system is in limited use with the Ukrainian Ground Forces, which had six of them active as of 2018 when they appeared in the Ukrainian Military Independence Day Parade, having been refurbished after several years out of service. Within NATO, Greece is the only operator of the Tor, with a reported 25 examples. As it stands, another potential option for Ukraine to increase its inventory of Tor systems might even be through the capture of Russian examples, several of which have been noted either abandoned or in Ukrainian hands.
A captured Russian 9K330 Tor towed by a Ukrainian civilian tractor:
Tor is a shorter-range air defense system that can hit targets up to around 20,000 feet. Its self-contained and highly-mobile nature makes it effective at shoot-and-scoot-like aerial ambushes.
The Cold War-era 9K33 Osa (SA-8 Gecko) is a SHORADS based on a fully amphibious six-wheeled BAZ-5937 transport vehicle. A variety of 9M33 series missiles are available for the Osa, the original variant having a range of 7.5 miles and all of which use radio command guidance. The number of these systems available to Ukraine prior to the start of hostilities is unclear, although various reports state that the particular version in use is the Osa-AKM, or SA-8B Gecko Mod-1, with 9M33M3 missiles with a maximum range of 9.3 miles and maximum altitude to of 40,000 feet. The Osa-AKM carries six missiles in box-type containers, rather than the four exposed missiles found on the original system.
Despite its age, the Osa remains effective and is in use with Bulgaria, Greece, Poland, and Romania. These nations could all potentially be willing to give up their Osa systems, especially if inventories were back-filled with more modern SHORADS systems.
Shorter-range systems that could still be useful:
The tracked 9K35 Strela-10 (SA-13 Gopher) was introduced in the 1970s as the successor to the wheeled 9K31 Strela-1 and fulfills the same low-level air defense role, also using a variant of the same missile used in the widespread Strela MANPADS. Unlike the Strela-1, the Strela-10 uses a more mobile, tracked MT-LB chassis. A variety of infrared-guided missiles, including the 9M37 and 9M333 families, are available and can engage targets out to a range of 3.1 miles. Prior to the start of the latest hostilities, Ukraine was thought to have at least 75 examples of the Strela-10 in service. The Strela-10 is also fairly widespread in NATO service, with examples still fielded by Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and North Macedonia, while there may still be stocks of retired systems held by both Poland and Slovakia.
The original highly mobile low-level air defense system fielded by the Soviet Union and provided to many of its allies was the 9K31 Strela-1 (SA-9 Gaskin), mounted on a variant of the BRDM-2 wheeled amphibious light armored vehicle and armed with two pairs of ready-to-fire infrared-guided 9M31 missiles, which have a range of around 2.6 miles. Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, and Romania are the NATO nations that still possess stocks of Strela-1 systems thought to be in frontline use, and other NATO members in Eastern Europe may still have stocks of retired Strela-1s.
The 2K22 Tunguska (SA-19 Grison) has been seen fairly frequently in the Ukrainian conflict, albeit mainly in Russian hands. Ukraine reportedly has around 70 of the tracked self-propelled systems, which combine 9M311 series surface-to-air missiles with twin 30mm cannons. There are no NATO operators of the system. Beyond Ukraine, Russia and Belarus are the only European countries with these systems in service, so restocking the Ukrainian Tunguska inventory looks unlikely.
These systems represent the most capable ground-based air defense assets available to the Ukrainian Armed Forces ahead of the Russian invasion, supplemented by much larger numbers of MANPADS, as well as anti-aircraft artillery.
Of course, the S-300V1 and the Tunguska are not part of the NATO inventories, so the transfer of additional examples to Ukraine may be more challenging. At the same time, however, NATO has many air defense systems that are not part of the Ukrainian inventory or have since been withdrawn from use by Ukraine. While these could potentially be reintroduced to service, hurdles may still exist in the form of finding qualified operators and maintaining them over time.
It's also worth noting that the United States does have limited stocks of pretty much all of these systems it has acquired via various means under foreign materiel exploitation (FME) programs. Today, operational versions of the S300, Tor, and other systems are used in training against allied forces during major exercises like Red Flag and for other training and developmental evolutions. In other words, the U.S. could potentially rush some of these systems to Ukraine from its own very limited stocks, but doing so would degrade a critical training capability and the Pentagon isn't always up to discussing its FME programs or capabilities. The same can be said for MiG-29s in the U.S. Department of Defense's hands, as we discussed in detail in this recent report.
Also, the question of missile availability for these systems is also relevant. While the U.S. possesses the systems themselves, they do not fire missiles in training, so stocks of actual SAMs for them are likely small if not non-existent. Still, even helping with extra parts to keep them supported in the field could be worthwhile. It's also worth noting that Ukraine itself has been a huge contributor to U.S. FME efforts, sending radars, jets, and other capabilities to the United States for study and training.
Regardless, the big question now is how fast the U.S. and its allies can gather up relevant systems and get them into Ukraine. This is a far simpler task than dealing with the MiG-29s, but the clock is ticking. With every day that goes by that this doesn't happen, Russia has more time to adapt to Ukraine's diminished capabilities and work to degrade them further. But hopefully with the fighter jet drama laid to rest, getting SAM systems that have commonality with those already in Ukrainian hands can become an objective all of NATO can focus on before it is too late.
Update, March 15: Following the publication of this article, it has come to our attention that the Buk-M1 systems previously operated by Finland, and which had been in storage for some years, have apparently now been scrapped. It seems that while there were plans to keep them in storage, the cost of maintaining them and having reserves trained to use them was ultimately judged not worth the effort.
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