Ukraine’s Frontline Air Defences Stretched Thin After Loss of Donbas Patriots and S-300s

The Ukrainian Armed Forces’ frontline positions in the disputed Donbas regions have been left increasingly vulnerable to Russian air strikes following the loss of MIM-104 Patriot and S-300 surface to air missile systems near the town of Pokrovsk, 67 kilometres northwest of the Donetsk regional capital. Both systems were destroyed on March 8 in precision strikes by Russian Iskander-M ballistic missile systems. A surge in production of 9K720 missiles for the Iskander-M to several times pre-war rates has made them highly available for engagements in the theatre, while growing drone surveillance capabilities has made it more difficult for Ukrainian forces to conceal their assets. The S-300 and Patriot are the longest ranged air defence systems in Ukrainian service, and were already few and far between in the country’s inventory. Ageing S-300s from the 1980s inherited when the USSR disintegrated still have much greater mobility and much wider arcs of fire than newly built Patriots, while the Patriots built much more recently and delivered in 2023 have much more modern electronics and sensors. The strain which the loss of these systems has incurred was highlighted by a number of Western and Ukrainian sources. The losses comes as sources on the ground have widely the growing effectiveness of Russian precision bombing, supplementing its increasingly vast superiority in artillery on the frontlines, with the diminishing of Ukrainian air defences further reducing the risks to Russian aircraft providing such support. 

Concerns regarding growing shortages of air defence systems in Ukraine have been raised since late 2022, and continued to worsen since. In November 2022 Ukrainian Air Force chief spokesperson Colonel Yury Ignat informed the London based Financial Times that an inability to procure additional missiles for the S-300 and shorter range BuK systems posed a major threat, with the service’s ability to continue to fire two missiles at each incoming Russian target, as was standard practice for many countries’ air defence units, set to be seriously undermined in future. Leaks of secret documents from the U.S. Department of Defence five months later in April 2023 showed that there were rising concerns within the Pentagon regarding the state of the Ukrainian Air Force’s surface to air missile network, with Pentagon officials assessing that Ukraine’s ability to protect forces on the frontlines would soon be “completely reduced.”

With Ukraine unable to procure new S-300s, which are produced exclusively in Russia, supplies of more Patriots remains unlikely as the U.S. Military faces serious shortages for its own use, which was highlighted by the sudden increase in requirements for such systems from October 2023 following an escalation of attacks on American facilities across the Middle East. Russia by contrast has an extremely large and fast growing arsenal of modern ground based air defence systems, having invested several times as much into acquiring these than it has in acquiring new fighters or interceptors. The country in the 2010s expanded its productive capacities for surface to air missiles very considerably to not only keep up with wartime demand in Ukraine, but also continue to expand its arsenal and to maintain exports to states such as India and Belarus.