Ukraine’s FrankenSAM That Uses RIM-7 Sea Sparrow Missiles Breaks Cover

The first official photos have appeared showing a Soviet-era ground-based air defense system upgraded with Western surface-to-air missiles — a so-called ‘FrankenSAM.’ The images, published by Ukraine’s Operational Command East, show a tracked self-propelled Buk-M1 system — known in the West as SA-11 Gadfly — which is said to have been adapted to fire the RIM-7 Sea Sparrow, a missile that previously provided point defense for numerous NATO and allied warships.

It’s worth noting that the Buk/Sea Sparrow complex is not the only such FrankenSAM to have been developed, but it’s the first one that has been officially unveiled as such.

A photo of the Buk/Sea Sparrow FrankenSAM and its crew, published on the Facebook page of Ukraine’s Operational Command East. Operational Command East

Covered by camouflage netting, it nonetheless appears as though the RIM-7 missiles (likely four in total) are loaded in box-type launchers. A previous video, taken from a Russian drone, and embedded below, claimed to show the destruction of one of the Buk FrankenSAMs and seemed to reveal a similar four-missile arrangement, but its precise identity cannot be confirmed.

The use of container launchers for the missiles would mean that only the navalized RIM-7 can be loaded. These missiles feature folding fins, unlike their air-launched AIM-7 counterparts. It is possible we could see an external carriage version that utilizes the AIM-7, as well.

Back in January 2023, TWZ reported on how Ukraine was set to receive an undisclosed number of radar-guided RIM-7 missiles, to be integrated onto the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ existing Buk air defense systems. The missiles were part of the same U.S. aid package for Kyiv that also included M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles.

Even then, however, there were reports that Ukraine had already succeeded in integrating the U.S.-made missiles into its Buk system. No further details of this “bit of battlefield innovation” were provided. There is a possibility, however, that the integration was informed by previous efforts to create a hybrid system of this kind.

Past initiatives have been made to convert the Buk’s predecessor, the 2K12 Kub (SA-6 Gainful) to fire the original Sparrow and/or Sea Sparrow missiles. Around 2008, the Polish defense contractor Wojskowe Zakłady Uzbrojenia, or WZU, displayed a Kub system that had been adapted to fire RIM-7 missiles. The system is not known to have found any customers, but Warsaw and Kyiv have a close military relationship that has included the supply of Soviet-era Polish air defense systems to Ukraine.

In the Czech Republic, the Retia defense company developed a Kub upgrade that added three Aspide 2000 missiles in launch containers. The Aspide 2000 is an Italian-made SAM derived from the same AIM-7E that was used as the basis for the original RIM-7 Sea Sparrow. One Aspide 2000 battery has also been supplied to Ukraine by Spain for the defense of static objectives, and it’s possible that there could be some crossover between this and the adapted Buk.

The U.S. has direct experience with Soviet air defense systems, which also could have played a key role in clandestinely adapting the RIM-7 to the SA-11.

The RIM-7 has meanwhile seen operational service in earlier ground-based applications, including with Egypt, Greece, and Taiwan, although these have been for defending fixed installations, not like the highly mobile Buk or Kub.

You can read our previous analysis of the implications of the Buk/Sea Sparrow combination here, suffice it to say that the system will share many of the same disadvantages of the original naval point-defense system, including relatively short range and a limited capacity to deal with fast and agile targets.

A RIM-7 Sea Sparrow missile is launched from the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) during an exercise in August 1997. U.S. Navy

In maritime use, the range of the basic Sea Sparrow is limited to around 12 miles, although most engagements would be at a shorter range. In a land-based adaptation, it’s likely that the Buk/Sea Sparrow is being used to provide localized defense against subsonic cruise missiles and drones, as well as battlefield helicopters and low-flying manned aircraft. Photos published by Operational Command East, alongside those of the Buk/Sea Sparrow, show the wreckage of a Russian drone, apparently an Orlan type, but it’s not clear whether this system was responsible for bringing it down.

An air defense operator from Operational Command East, posing with the wreckage of a Russian drone. Operational Command East
Operational Command East

We also don’t know exactly how many Buk-M1 systems are still available to Ukraine out of the reported 72 examples available when Ukraine entered the war. But with no more examples available for transfer from NATO nations, the Sea Sparrow — which should exist in plentiful numbers — is a good way to mitigate the depleting stocks of the original 9M38 missiles. These missiles offer a greater range than the RIM-7 — around 22 miles — and improved high-altitude performance.

A Ukrainian Buk surface-to-air missile system. Ukrainian Ministry of Defense

Despite its likely limitations, with Ukraine in dire need of additional ground-based air defense capacity, every little helps. At this stage, there is no official comment on how the Buk/Sea Sparrow is being used and how effective it’s been. But this is a highly intriguing program and one that we’ll continue to watch with interest.

Contact the author: thomas@thewarzone.com