Stocks For Ukraine’s Key Air Defences Critically Low: S-300 and BuK Shield Set to Soon Expire

The Ukrainian Military is reportedly seeing its supplies of key parts and munitions for its air defence network run critically low. The Soviet build S-300 and BuK systems formed the core of one of the densest surface to air missile networks in the world before the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian War in February, and were supplemented by a range of handheld air defence systems such as Igla and Stinger missiles the latter which have been provided in considerable numbers by the United States and other NATO allies. Without the much larger and longer ranged radar guided missiles, however, not only will Russian fighter, drones and helicopters be able to operate much more freely in Ukrainian airspace, but Russian missile and drone strikes on key targets such as power stations would face far less credible resistance.

Ukrainian Air Force chief spokesperson Colonel Yury Ignat told the London based Financial Times reported on November 13 that the inability to procure additional missiles for the S-300 and BuK systems posed a major threat, indicating that the service’s ability to continue to fire two missiles at each incoming Russian projectile as is standard practice for many countries’ air defence units could be seriously undermined in future. Models of the S-300 Ukraine operates have been out of production for decades, while modern S-300 variants are produced solely in Russia. The BuK system, too, is produced only in more modern variants and only in Russia and Belarus. Ukraine has benefited from supplies of such systems from former Warsaw Pact states such as Slovakia, although these have been very limited. Its air defence network has more recently been forced to rely on ageing S-125 systems supplied from Poland – which also received them during the Soviet era. 

The options for Ukraine’s supporters in the West to bolster its air defences remain limited, and while very short ranged systems such as German IRIS-T SLM infrared guided missiles and Gepard mobile air defence guns have been supplied, nothing comparable to the S-300 and BuK are expected to become available in even a fraction of the numbers required. Although the possibility of supplying American Patriot missile systems has been raised, such deliveries remain unlikely – and deliveries in meaningful numbers even less so. The Patriot is not expected to perform significantly better than the S-300s which have already taken significant losses, with its performance record having left much to be desired both against Iraq during the  Gulf War, and more recently over Saudi Arabia against Yemeni insurgents, in both cases against targets that were decades behind in sophistication compared to what the Russian Military fields today.

With the Patriot being heavily relied on by NATO member states, having no other equivalent systems in the Western alliance, and being produced at a relatively low rate, the risks of it being compromised and discredited in the conflict seriously limit the possibility of the system being supplied. Although more S-300s may be procured from elsewhere, such as the more advanced S-300PMU operated by NATO member Greece, and the U.S. is set to supply short ranged MIM-23 Hawk radar guided air defence systems, ultimately the depletion of Ukraine’s air defence network without replacement appears increasingly inevitable. The possibility simultaneously looms that Russian strikes will force the country to abandon many of its key cities due to the loss of vital infrastructure.