The Ukraine Weapons Tracker Twitter account recently spotted a rare Ukrainian S-300V1 long-range air defense system driving toward the eastern Ukrainian city of Lysychansk. While it is not known how many of these SAMs the Ukrainians have in operational status, it is known that they do not have a lot of these units as these are their high-end surface-to-air missiles.
The photo was also reported by Abraxas Spa, crediting photojournalist Marcus Yam for taking the photograph sometime between June 12 and 13. Lysychansk is fairly close to where intense fighting had been reported in the city of Severodonetsk. The Russians currently hold 80% of the city as of writing, with the Ukrainians getting shelled daily while trying to defend their positions.
If the S-300V1 transporter erector and radar (TELAR) vehicle is spotted going to Lysychansk, it is highly possible to become within range of Russia’s long-range artillery. This not only makes the Ukrainian S-300V1 vulnerable to being destroyed, but it also means they are risking their more valuable air defense systems to the front. This indicates that they are, in fact, willing to put their top equipment on the line to defend against Russian air raids, cruise missiles, and perhaps maybe even ballistic missiles that the Russian forces are using to bomb the eastern front.
The problem the Ukrainians are trying to solve is that they have limited ability to protect themselves against Russian aircraft. MANPAD missiles like the Stinger are great at short range, but it would be much better to shoot down Russian aircraft before they hit their targets, not after. The S-300V is able to engage short and intermediate-range ballistic missiles and electronic aircraft. The system uses two different missiles, a smaller 9M83 missile and the larger 9M82 missile.
The smaller 9M83 missiles were designed to be used against aircraft, cruise missiles, and smaller ballistic missiles. It has been reported that one of these 9M83 missiles has a 40% to 65% chance of downing a ballistic missile while having a 50% to 70% chance of drafting a cruise missile. Furthermore, it has a 70% to 90% chance of hitting an enemy aircraft. It reportedly has a range of some 47 miles.
The larger 9M82 missile, on the other hand, is used against intermediate-range ballistic missiles, AWACS, and jamming aircraft up to 50 to 62 miles (100km). Both the 9M83 and the 9M82 are loaded with 330 pounds (150kg) of explosives in their warheads. In Western speak, if an S-300V is loaded with 9M83 missiles, it is called the SA-12A Gladiator. On the contrary, if it’s loaded with the 9M82s, it’s called the SA-12B Giant.
The S-300V’s TELAR transporter can be loaded with four surface-to-air missiles and reportedly uses an integrated tracking and fire control radar. This makes it extremely mobile and relatively easier to use than Ukraine’s S-300P, which needs multiple vehicles for its system. It’s worth noting that the S-300P is an 8×8 wheeled system, while the S-300V is a tracked system.
Open source military analysts have hypothesized that the Ukrainians are using the 9M83 missiles on the S-300V, making it an SA-12A Gladiator. This makes it possible for the Ukrainians to hit Russian targets further out as the available artillery that they operate can only hit targets 15.5 miles away. In effect, the Ukrainians are putting their best air defense systems near the frontline with risk but also with high rewards if it does their job well of contesting the skies over in Severodonetsk. This is done to prevent Russian ground forces from having air support and down some ballistic missiles in the process if the Russians launch more of them. To be fair, the S-300V system is mobile as it can move and hide after it shoots out its missiles.
We’re not sure how many of these systems the Ukrainian Armed Forces have in their inventory, but it has been reported that only a few of them were pulled out from storage after the Russian invaded Crimea.
Furthermore, it has also been determined that some of Ukraine’s SAM systems have been either damaged or destroyed. Oryx reports that 12 5P851A, the launchers for the S-300PT, have been destroyed along with six 5P85S, which are launchers for S-300PS. One 5P85D launcher also for the S-300PS had been destroyed, with one more being captured, and four 5P85D/S S-300 launchers have been destroyed. Additionally, some radars and communication equipment for the S-300PS were also determined to be destroyed.
It was reported that Ukraine had some 100 active batteries of S-300 long-range air defense systems, with as many as 300 launchers prior to the war starting on February 24. With 24 launchers destroyed (maybe even higher), it does hamper the Ukrainians’ ability to clear their skies of Russian aircraft and missiles. Moving them closer to the fighting in Severodonetsk and Lysychansk would probably do two things, first it will make the Russians pause before sending combat aircraft into to support their troops and two, they will expend missiles and other assets trying to take out these launch systems reducing the number of missiles it can fire at other targets in Ukraine.