Russia’s New Buk-M3 Air Defense Missile System Now Appears To Be In Ukraine (Updated)

The Russian military continues to grapple with the challenge of establishing air superiority over Ukraine against a determined opposition still reportedly possessing a meaningful number of manned fighter jets, as well as ground-based air defense systems, more of which should be on the way soon. There are signs, however, that the Kremlin is now taking this requirement more seriously, or at least is now willing to throw new and high-end surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) into the fray, including the 9K317M Buk-M3, known as the Viking in its export form, the latest iteration of the self-propelled, medium-range Buk system.

Undated footage began to appear on social media channels yesterday showing elements of Buk-M3 systems underway either in Ukraine or in areas close to its borders. The vehicles in question wear the prominent ‘Z’ markings that are by now a familiar feature of Russian hardware involved in the conflict. Unconfirmed reports suggest the videos were taken in Kherson Oblast in southern Ukraine, earlier this month.

If that’s the case, this would likely be the first time that we’ve seen the advanced new Buk-M3 in Ukraine itself, although earlier videos have shown the systems being moved closer to Ukraine’s borders in the run-up to the invasion, which began on February 24.

A radar vehicle associated with the Buk-M3 reportedly underway in the Belgorod region of Russia last month:

The team of researchers at the Oryx blog, who have been compiling photo and video evidence of materiel losses on both sides of the conflict, have also spotted at least one vehicle related to the Buk-M3, namely a 9S18М1-3 acquisition radar vehicle, which has the Western reporting name Snow Drift. This was apparently destroyed by the Ukrainian Armed Forces on March 5. Although reportedly used as part of a Buk-M3 system, it’s possible the radar was being used in conjunction with an earlier Buk system, many more of which have been noted in Ukraine, both in Russian and Ukrainian hands.

As for the latest Buk-M3, this system is significantly different enough from its predecessors to warrant a new U.S. Department of Defense designation — SA-27. In service since around 2016, the Buk-M3 employs new 9M317M missiles and electronic components to provide much-improved capabilities compared with the older Buk systems. According to the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) manual, it “outperforms even the old S-300P long-range air defense system” — the SAM that’s known in the West as the SA-10 Grumble.

Typically, a Buk-M3 brigade would be organized into four battalions, all under the control of a single command and control vehicle, such as the 9S52 Polyana-D4.

Each of the four battalions normally consists of three batteries, plus one command vehicle and one search radar. As for the batteries, each normally fields two launch vehicles: one 9A317M transporter erector launcher and radar (TELAR) and one 9A316M transporter erector launcher (TEL). Alternatively, a battery can consist of two 9A316M TELs supported by a single 9S36M illumination and guidance radar vehicle.

The 9A317M TELAR from the Buk-M3 Viking air defense missile system., Boevaya mashina/Wikimedia Commons

In this configuration, a single Buk-M3 complex, with several launch vehicles, would be able to engage up to 36 different targets simultaneously, with each fire-control radar capable of supporting the engagement of up to six different targets.

TRADOC credits the Buk-M3 with a maximum engagement range of 43 miles, a minimum effective range of 1.5 miles, a maximum altitude of 115,000 feet, and the ability to engage targets traveling at up to 6,700 mph, although that last figure is more academic than operational in nature.

Externally, the major difference between the Buk-M3 and its predecessors concerns the TEL and TELAR vehicles, which carry up to 12 missiles (although six missiles are more common) in launch containers rather than the missiles being mounted directly on launch rails at the top of the launch vehicle.

The system is claimed to have some ability to engage surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, which could mean it’s able to counter the Ukrainian-operated Tochka-U (SS-21 Scarab) missiles that have seen some use in the conflict so far.

Ukrainian Tochka-U battlefield ballistic missiles:

More importantly, however, the Buk-M3 should provide the Russians with a more effective medium-to-high-level air defense system that the earlier versions of the Buk that are otherwise being used. These all lag behind the Buk-M3 in terms of engagement envelope, but the new system is equally mobile, thanks to its armored tracked chassis, meaning it’s suitable for accompanying armored columns or other military vehicles on the move. The appearance of the new model in Ukraine may also signal a level of disappointment with the earlier Buks. Despite extravagant claims of kills of Ukrainian aircraft by Russia, the evidence so far suggests that Buks have suffered heavy losses to the Ukrainian defenders.

Combined with combat air patrols flown by Su-35S and other advanced fighter jets, operating from bases in Russia, Crimea, and Belarus, and with long-range S-400 (SA-21 Growler) SAM systems deployed in the same countries, the Buk-M3 should be able to form part of a sophisticated, multi-layered air defense network to cover Russian advances on the ground and ensure that the Ukrainian Air Force is kept on the ground, at a great distance, or otherwise destroyed in the air.

An export-configured version of the Buk-M3 during the Armiya-2021 defense exhibition., Kirill Borisenko/Wikimedia Commons

That, at least, is the theory, although how realistic that is in practice remains a matter of debate. After all, the Russians began the conflict with considerable numerical and technological advances in terms of fighters and ground-based air defense systems in particular, but these have so far failed to make a decisive mark.

Indeed, two days ago, the U.K. Ministry of Defense was still of the opinion that “The Ukrainian Air Force and Air Defense Forces are continuing to effectively defend Ukrainian airspace,” and that “Russia has failed to gain control of the air and is largely relying on standoff weapons launched from the relative safety of Russian airspace to strike targets within Ukraine.”

Just today, an unnamed senior U.S. defense official confirmed to Aviation Week that there was “Still no Russian air superiority, thanks to a ‘very creative air defense posture’ by Ukraine.” While the previous 24-48 hours has seen increased air activity, including up to 300 Russian sorties in the last 24 hours, “Ukraine [has] picked up pace as well.”

Clearly, the battle for the control of the skies over Ukraine remains fluid, with both sides still very active and with neither enjoying a true superiority, at least not across a wide area. With that in mind, the addition of more modern SAM systems will only help the Russians, especially as Ukraine struggles to source Soviet-era equipment to replenish the older systems it already operates.

However, while the Buk-M3 adds to the variety of threats that now face the Ukrainian Air Force, there remain questions about the maturity of the system, which has not been employed in combat before. The number of systems available to Russia is also unclear. Perhaps most significantly, however, is the fact that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have so far shown themselves more than capable of challenging Russian air defense systems, whether attacking them from the air with TB2 drones or targeting them on the ground using lightweight guided missiles as well as other weapons.

It remains to be seen whether the Buk-M3 will significantly alter the balance of power in the air war and what, if any, other new systems the Russians might introduce to the conflict as they seek to finally gain the initiative in the critical aerial domain.

Update, March 22: An official Russian Ministry of Defense video purports to show a Buk-M3 system in action somewhere in Ukraine and includes an interview with the commander, who describes his battalion shooting down a pair of Ukrainian Air Force Su-25 ground-attack aircraft in quick succession:

“An aerial target was detected, after which we began tracking it, carried out identification and reported to the command post. The senior commander gave the command to destroy the target since it was not friendly — a launch was made, the target was hit. I had to change my launching position, but at about the same azimuth I saw a second target. There was no time to change position, as the covered units would have been left unprotected. I engaged the second aerial target … the second aircraft was also hit,” the commander said.

The same battalion reportedly has already shot down 20 aerial targets, including Bayraktar TB2 attack drones. The video does not include any evidence of any of these shoot-downs, however.

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