Secretive American Stocks Of Soviet Air Defense Systems Are Headed To Ukraine: Report

The U.S. government is sending Soviet-era air defense systems in its possession to Ukraine, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal. These systems will reportedly come from stocks of foreign materiel that elements of the U.S. military and Intelligence Community have obtained in various ways over the years for intelligence analysis and training purposes. The possibility that these so-called foreign materiel exploitation, or FME, programs could offer a useful source of additional air defense capabilities that Ukraine badly needs is exactly what that The War Zone

laid out just recently.

It’s not entirely clear from The Wall Street Journal‘s story, which was published earlier today, which entity or entities within the U.S. government is managing this effort. The story indicates that an arm of the U.S. military, broadly, is managing this military assistance project, but says that Pentagon declined to comment one way or the other.

The Journal‘s piece did say that the U.S. government has already shipped a number of systems to Ukraine that had been in storage at the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III cargo planes reportedly picked them up at an unspecified airfield in the Huntsville area. The story notes that Redstone is home to the Army’s Aviation and Missile Command (AMCOM), but it also hosts the Defense Intelligence Agency‘s (DIA) Missile and Space Intelligence Center (MSIC), which has an FME role. DIA serves as the focal point for the Department of Defense’s entire FME enterprise, as well.

The U.S. military has been very active in delivering and otherwise facilitating the shipment of military aid to Ukraine, even before Russia launched its invasion. This includes various air defense systems, especially different types of shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, also known as man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS). In addition, American officials have made clear that there is a heavy emphasis on sending weapons and equipment that Ukrainian forces are already familiar with, an idea The War Zone

had earlier explained the merits of. The core idea behind that philosophy is that this will make it faster and easier for Ukraine’s military to actively put what it receives to use in combat. Ukraine’s ground-based air defenses have been essential in preventing Russian forces from gaining air superiority over the country after more than three weeks of fighting.

Beyond all this, it’s still unclear what systems specifically may ultimately be transferred to Ukraine. The SA-8 Gecko is the only specific system that the Journal‘s sources named as being among the planned deliveries to Ukrainian forces. The SA-8, also known by the Russian nomenclature 9K33 Osa, is a wheeled short-range surface-to-air missile system. DIA’s MSIC is known to have at least one example of this system in its inventory.

A US military-owned SA-8 Gecko., USAF
An SA-8 Gecko belonging to the US Air Force’s 547th Intelligence Squadron., USAF

An anonymous source also stressed to the Journal that an S-300 long-range surface-to-air missile system, also referred to by NATO as the SA-10 Grumble, which the U.S. government quietly acquired from Belarus in 1994, would remain in the United States.

It’s hard to say for sure what other options there might be in the U.S. military’s stockpile when it comes to Soviet-era and/or Russian-made air defense systems that the Ukrainian military has existing experience with. Much about the U.S. military’s FME ecosystem, which is one component of a larger one within the U.S. Intelligence Community, is highly classified owing in no small part to the often covert or clandestine methods by which foreign military systems are obtained.

Still, it seems plausible, if not probable that if the U.S. government has decided to dig into its FME stocks to help Ukraine and that it will consider transferring relevant systems from across the entire enterprise, not just from within DIA or the Army. The U.S. Air Force alone is known to have additional examples of the SA-8, as well as other types that are currently in Ukrainian service, like the SA-13 and the SA-15 Gauntlet. The latter two systems, also known by the Russian nomenclature 9K35 Strela-10 and 9K332 Tor-M2E, are both tracked short-range air defense systems.

An SA-15B Gauntlet arrives at the US Air Force’s Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska for an exercise in 2011., USAF

The videos below show members of the Air Force’s 547th Intelligence Squadron conducting familiarization training on a Soviet-era SA-13 Gopher that belongs to the unit. This squadron operates the Threat Training Facility at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, nicknamed the “Petting Zoo,” which contains examples of various foreign systems. 

These are just some examples of the wide array of Soviet-era and/or Russian-made mobile air defense systems that U.S. FME programs are known to possess. There are others that could be of use to Ukrainian forces, too such as variants of the Buk series. You can read more about the Buk’s general capabilities, as well as the SA-8, SA-13, SA-15B, and the S-300, in our recent feature on the best possible ways to bolster Ukraine’s air and missile defense capabilities here.

There are various types of MANPADS in the U.S. military’s stockpiles of foreign equipment that could potentially be transferred to Ukraine, as well.

The CNN segment from 2015 seen below includes a demonstration of a Soviet-era SA-7 Strela MANPADS trainer at DIA’s MSIC.

As was discussed in The War Zone‘s recent feature about Ukraine’s air and missile defense needs, there are certainly questions about the functionality of these systems, including whether there are any stocks of actual missiles to go with them, and the general utility of sending what could be relatively small numbers of them to Ukraine. U.S. military training and developmental activities that demand threat-representative systems could be negatively impacted by these transfers, too. 

At the same time, the Ukrainian armed forces are in an all-hands-on-deck situation where they can hardly afford to turn down military assistance of any kind, let alone additional air defense capacity in the form of familiar systems that could be put into action quickly. Some of the systems that the U.S. military might transfer could have even originally come to the United States via the Ukrainian government. Ukraine has been a huge source of FME assets in the past, from fighter jets to radar systems.

Even if the U.S. military has no missiles to send along with some or all of these systems, the Ukrainians could use their own stocks of missiles to make them operational or simply use them as sources of spare parts to help keep other examples running.

For the U.S. government, the FME stockpiles present the additional benefit of being entirely at America’s discretion to transfer to Ukraine. U.S. officials have been actively working with other allies and partners to try to find more stocks of Soviet-era and Russian-made air defense systems, among other things, that could go to Ukraine. However, those third-party countries have often been wary of such deals for political reasons or have had stipulations of their own that could be complicated to meet.

The US government has been in discussions with Slovakia about the potential transfer of its S-300 systems, components of which are seen here, to Ukraine. , EllsworthSK via Wikimedia

When it comes to the U.S. military’s own requirements for real-world threat systems, American officials may believe that they can now effectively recreate many of them, especially older types, through a combination of simulators and surrogates. In addition, Russia’s losses in Ukraine could eventually present a very real opportunity for the U.S. military’s FME enterprise to get its hands on much newer Russian air defense systems, as well as other weapons and materiel of interest, if U.S. officials haven’t been arranging those kinds of transfers out of the country already.

With at least some transfers of Soviet-era and Russian-made air defense systems from the U.S. military’s FME programs already reportedly in the process of being gifted to the Ukrainian military, it may not be long before we start learning more about what is being provided and how is it being employed. No matter what, Ukraine’s armed forces remain in desperate need of additional air defense capacity to help keep the skies above the country contested.

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