Over the course of the war, Ukraine’s military has shot down at least 55 Russian warplanes, mostly using its Soviet-era SA-10 and SA-11 surface-to-air missiles (SAM), said an American general on September 19.
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These enormous aircraft losses also cut off the Russian ground troops from the air support required to capture and hold territory, said US Air Forces in Europe and Africa commander Gen. James Hecker, during the annual Air Force Association conference.
Hecker also noted that during the Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, one of Ukraine’s biggest requests was for additional SA-10 and SA-11 missiles, but these weapons are Soviet-made, and the US does not have them in its inventory.
“They’re hard to take down. They really are. They’d be hard for us to take down with fifth-generation stealth aircraft and better aviation,” Hecker said about the SA-10 and SA-11 air defense systems while noting that Russia failed to make a concentrated effort” to take down Ukrainian air defenses at the beginning of the conflict.
“That would have been our first priority.”
The SA-11 Gadfly And The SA-10 Grumble
The SA-11 Gadfly (or the Buk-M1) and the SA-10 Grumble (or the S-300P) are medium- to long-range air defense systems, respectively, that threaten the operations of Russian aircraft at medium altitudes or above.
The S-300 system is capable of firing various types of interceptor missiles, but the main type available to Ukraine is the 5V55R missile, which is equipped with a semi-active radar homing terminal guidance and has a stated maximum range of around 90 kilometers with the capability to hit targets at high altitudes.
Buk-M1 can fire 9M38 and 9M38M1 missiles with a maximum range of around 32 and 35 kilometers and maximum altitudes of 20 and 22 kilometers, respectively.
Prior to the Russian invasion, Ukraine had around 300 launchers of the S-300 system and 72 Buk-M1 systems. Apart from that, Ukraine also had some units of Buk-M1 given by Finland that have reportedly been in storage for some time but kept ready for possible use during conflict.
Ukraine appears to have lost around 24 S-300 launchers and six Buk-M1 launch vehicles more than six months into the war, according to the figures compiled by the military tracking blog Oryx based on visual confirmations.
The actual number of losses may be higher, however, the slow and steady loss of Ukraine’s air defense systems, particularly the long-range S-300 systems, could be of great concern for officials in Kyiv.
#Ukraine: The Russian forces claimed to hit a Ukrainian S-300 battery, consisting of what appears to be a 5P85S launcher and 5N63S engagement radar, with a cluster munitions fired from a Smerch MRL- causing a massive explosion. It is unknown when or where precisely this occurred. pic.twitter.com/Vp62VR9OAM
— 🇺🇦 Ukraine Weapons Tracker (@UAWeapons) May 6, 2022
According to a previous EurAsian Times report, Ukraine is losing S-300 launchers at a rate of at least three or four a week.
The presence of medium-to higher altitude air defense systems is also needed to force the Russian aircraft to operate below 4.5 kilometers, right into the range of the man-portable air defense systems (MANPADs) that have played a significant role in the ongoing Ukraine war.
#Ukraine: A Russian Su-25SM air support jet was shot down by the Ukrainian army using a MANPADS over Volokhiv Yar, #Kharkiv Oblast. According to the Russian side, the jet crashed, but the pilot was evacuated. pic.twitter.com/r5fielrtXR
— 🇺🇦 Ukraine Weapons Tracker (@UAWeapons) September 7, 2022
Since the onset of war in February, thousands of MANPADS of different types from several countries have been supplied to the Ukrainian forces across the country, with more on their way.
However, these MANPADS will be rendered useless without the S-300s and Buk-M1s that are needed to create the opportunities to engage the enemy aircraft at lower altitudes. Therefore, Ukraine needs to have high-tier SAMs to deny the Russian military aerial supremacy in the conflict.
Several Sources Of S-300 Systems
In March, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky sought help from the US Congress to acquire more S-300 systems, highlighting its importance and possibly indicating that the Ukrainian military may suffer a grave shortage of SAM batteries.
There are several potential sources of additional S-300s within NATO that could replenish Ukraine’s defense systems inventory.
Bulgaria has one complete S-300PMU system, while Greece has 12 S-300PMU-1 systems, which is an improved version with an updated 30N6E radar and can fire 48N6 interceptor missiles.
The 48N6 missile uses a track-via-missile (TBM) guidance system that combines radio command guidance with semi-active radar homing in the terminal phase of flight. The missile variants are known to have maximum ranges between 144 and 258 kilometers.
Slovakia also inherited a single S-300PMU battery after the breakup of Czechoslovakia, which is the only system known to have been provided to Ukraine so far.
However, the Russian Ministry of Defense has already claimed to have destroyed the S-300 air defense system delivered to Ukraine by Slovakia near the city of Dnipro using sea-based Kalibr cruise missiles.
However, Slovakian Prime Minister Eduard Heger’s office denied Russia’s claims saying, “Our S-300 system has not been destroyed,” in a statement sent to the Associated Press (AP).