Antique Air Defense Weapons in Ukrainian War: How Often S-300 Needs Repairs and S-125's First Downed Kalibr Missile

S-125 in service with the Armed Forces of Ukraine, July 2023 / Still image credit: Serhii Naiev, Commander of the Joint Forces the Armed Forces of Ukraine
S-125 in service with the Armed Forces of Ukraine, July 2023 / Still image credit: Serhii Naiev, Commander of the Joint Forces the Armed Forces of Ukraine

Ukrainian air defense troops tell about the conditions they work in while operating old Soviet anti-aircraft missile systems

Recent report by ArmyInform provides insight into the combat duty and experience of one of air defense division commanders serving at the Operative Command "South," i.e. protecting the southern regions of Ukraine from russian missiles and explosive drones.

Since the beginning of the russian full-scale invasion, this anonymous commander operated both S-300 long-range and S-125 short-range surface-to-air missile systems. The article is interesting in that it gives answers to at least two questions: how often the S-300 needs repairs and how difficult it is to shoot down a target with an obsolete S-125 in modern war.

Read more: ​Bulgaria Transfers S-300 Missiles to Ukraine, But There Are Nuances There
Ukrainian S-300 surface-to-air missile systems
Ukrainian S-300 surface-to-air missile systems / Open source archive photo

First, a brief flashback of the past events. On the first day of the invasion in 2022, on February 24th morning, the officer had to swiftly relocate 300 km deeper into the country so his S-300 division wouldn't get surrounded by russian forces coming from Crimea. After the initial retreat to the Dnipro region, his unit was redeployed for combat duty in the city of Kyiv.

In April 2022, the officer arrived in the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, where his group was assigned a peculiar but important task: 20 km from a battery of two S-300 systems, they were repairing various vehicles and equipment, damaged in battles, turned them back in to the frontline.

"You must be realizing that an S-300 is a Soviet system, created back in the 1980s. Often something malfunctions not because of damage caused by the enemy but simply due to the long time in service," the commander says, as quoted.

S-300P battery
Ukrainian S-300P battery / Open source archive photo

This detail points out an important nuance: the equipment of Soviet air defense systems can suffer breakdowns so regularly that in some cases, establishment of special repair teams including air defense operators was in order.

Next, ArmyInform retells, in November 2022 this officer was appointed a commander of an S-125 division. This unit was created basically from scratch, all staff was drafted by him personally, and the equipment was delivered straight from repairs.

The division marked its first destroyed target, a Kalibr cruise missile, in January 2023. Then, the unit was redeployed to a new location and shortly eliminated five more aerial threats. As noted, the level of effectiveness of the S-125 depends not only on the specifications of the system but also on the operational readiness of the equipment, the environment, and other factors.

S-125 in service with the Armed Forces of Ukraine
S-125 in service with the Armed Forces of Ukraine / Open source archive photo

"If an aerial target is detected, I give an order to the launch preparation officer* to set the azimuth and load the missiles onto the launcher. Using the specialized equipment, the fire control officer determines the distance to the target and its speed and locks on it. The operators meanwhile keep an eye on the angular coordinates of targets.

When I see that the enemy target is locked on and is within the interception range according to the system's specifications, I give an order to launch the missile. We look at the monitor to see whether the target was hit. If not, I order to launch another missile," the commander describes the complex process of operating the S-125.

*a close analog to U.S. Army's Patriot launching station enhanced operator/maintainer – Defense Express note.

Illustrative photo: S-125 deployment position, 2021
Illustrative photo: S-125 deployment position, 2021 / Photo credit: General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine

Considering his words, the fact Ukrainian air defense forces still manage to consistently show a high level of effectiveness against russian aerial weapons while operating such obsolete systems (S-125 entered service in 1961) is a significant achievement on the part of Ukrainians.

It also shows how crucial the supplies of modern air defense systems are for Ukraine, as they have to showcase the skill of manual operation while lacking in modern automated air defense systems.

Read more: ​From S-300 Switched Over to Patriot: Ukrainian Operators of American Air Defense Systems About the Differences and Training in Germany