The recently leaked Pentagon documents were yet another embarrassment for the USA and its allies, revealing as they do much secret and otherwise classified material on the progress of the Russo-Ukraine war. Much of this has been gathered by clandestine means which may now be compromised.
Some of the stand-out pieces of information released concern the state of the air war and more specifically the state of Ukrainian air defences. One of the documents reportedly indicates that the UkrAF could run out of missiles for its S-300 system as early as 2nd May at current usage rates, and those for its Buk air defence system might even be exhausted even earlier, by mid-April.
The S-300 is a series of long-range surface-to-air missile systems developed by the former Soviet Union. It was produced to defend against air raids and cruise missiles. Despite its age it is still regarded as one of the most potent anti-aircraft missile systems in active use, with a missile range up to 400 km.
The Buk is a self-propelled, medium-range surface-to-air missile system developed by the Soviet Union and its successor state, the Russian Federation, and designed to counter cruise missiles, smart bombs, fixed-and rotary-wing aircraft, and unmanned aerial vehicles. Buk range is 140 km.
Much of the success on the Ukrainian defence against Russian attacks is due to these systems, as they prevented – and continue to prevent – the Russian air force (the VVS) dominating the battlefields as it had done in, for example, Syria.
The Ukrainian air force had a part to play in this also, but is vastly outnumbered by its opponent, and so the continued capability of the ground-based Ukrainian air defence systems is crucially important. However, as both the S-300 and Buk are Soviet and Russian designed and produced, there is no chance of missile replacement from that source for obvious reasons.
The gap will be filled when the Russian legacy systems are gradually replaced by new equipments supplied from the west. Indeed, the process has already started. The US Patriot missile system (which I personally saw in action in the Gulf War in 1991) is currently on its way to Ukraine, with training of Ukrainian servicemen in its operation in the USA already completed and more being undertaken in Europe under Dutch and German auspices.
First introduced in 1984, the Patriot is the US Army’s primary High to Medium Air Defence System (HIMAD) and has been widely exported to multiple countries since. More importantly, it has been continuously upgraded during its service to counter new and more sophisticated threats, including ballistic missiles.
In addition, other countries have pledged air defence missiles to Ukraine, including the UK which is sending its AMRAAM and Germany with its IRIS-T missiles, as well as many shorter range missile and cannon based weaponry which has been supplied to Ukraine since the beginning of the war.
So we have the threat that the UkrAF Russian designed S-300 and Buk equipments may run out of ammunition, balanced by the promise of replacement weapons from various countries in the west. The question now is clearly whether sufficient western weapons will arrive in time to compensate for the decline in availability of the current ones. Squeaky bum time.
How might this affect the future conduct of the war? Well, we’re all waiting for the long-promised Ukrainian counter-offensive and expect it to be launched in the next few weeks when the ground has hardened up after the spring mud.
Successful offensive ground manoeuvre at scale is dependent on control of the skies, even if limited in time and space. Without it ground forces are vulnerable to air interdiction. Sufficient mobile and adaptable air defence systems are vital to gain and maintain that necessary air superiority. Without them the counter-offensive may be less successful or possibly fail altogether.
All of this will be well known to military staff on both sides, and no doubt both armies are scrambling to ensure they have sufficient resources available for whatever comes next. Who will win the race? I suspect we will find out very soon.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his podcasts and newsletters at www.DefenceReview.uk
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