Recent leaks of secret documents from the U.S. Department of Defence have shown that there are rising concerns within the Pentagon regarding the state of the Ukrainian Air Force’s surface to air missile network. These have played a central role in its ongoing war effort with Russia but are increasingly at risk of becoming depleted beyond hopes of replenishment. While Ukraine’s air defences have successfully achieved air denial, preventing the Russian Air Force from playing a central role in the war effort, documents show that a depletion of these assets could have a pivotal impact on the war effort and allow Russia to massively escalate operations by its fixed wing aircraft deep into its neighbour’s airspace. Pentagon officials assessed that Ukrainian air defences assigned to protect forces on the frontlines would “be completely reduced” by May 23, allowing Russian air power to play a much greater role on the battlefield in support of its ground forces and potentially facilitating major advances by the Russian Army and allied paramilitaries. Ukraine’s air defences are comprised primarily of variants fo the S-300 and BuK systems inherited from the Soviet Union, which provided the country with by far Europe’s greatest surface to air missile network due to the massive concentration of Soviet forces and arsenals on its territory. Although dating back to the 1980s these systems were considered far ahead of their time technologically, and have proven effective in keeping the Russian Air Force at bay. Very limited Russian investments in advanced air defence suppression capabilities have also been a major factor.
Reports that Ukraine’s air defence network could finally be at breaking point come as the United States has reportedly begun to consider options to respond to a major defeat, with Politico reporting that a plan for withdrawing U.S. forces and assistance from the country was being considered. Beyond facilitating a major escalation in air attacks on Ukrainian frontline positions, depletion of air defences could also allow air defence suppression efforts to become much more focused on neutralising the networks protecting major Ukrainian cities. This could also have a pivotal impact on the war effort following warnings that destruction of critical infrastructure could quickly make major population centres unviable. Although Western countries have moved to quickly provide their own air defence assets, with the first Patriot missile batteries from the Netherlands reportedly arriving in Ukraine on April 18, these are available in extremely small numbers compared to S-300 and BuK batteries due primarily to NATO’s much lower emphasis on surface to air capabilities compared to the Soviet Union or Russia. The Patriot also lacks the mobility of even older Soviet systems which could make it much more vulnerable to air defence suppression efforts, and much less well suited to protecting frontline positions meaning it will most likely be reserved for the defence of major cities and arms depots to the rear. The considerable time it takes to train Ukrainian personnel on systems such as the Patriot means they are expected to almost certainly be manned by Western contractors at least until 2024, with the U.S. having assured Russia that active duty American personnel will not be manning the systems in what was widely seen as a green light for strikes on the assets.