Following President Biden’s additional $800 million military assistance package to Ukraine announced last week, the US is reportedly sending a number of its Soviet air defense equipment to Ukraine. These were secretly purchased by the US government decades ago for research purposes but were discovered in 1994 by the public and were subsequently kept under wraps.

This report comes after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had requested more weapons from the US and its allies. Ukraine aims to defend itself from Russian airstrikes and the Russian Air Force, which has been bombing both the port city of Mariupol and Kyiv for the past few days. The bombings are inflicting not just the death of Ukrainian soldiers but also countless civilian casualties, which the Russians are allegedly deliberately targeting.

Apparently, the United States had procured several units of Soviet-made air defenses in order to examine and understand the technology behind it. These small number of units were purchased around 1994 when it was reported that a Soviet-made transport plane landed in Huntsville, Alabama. A report by The Wall Street Journal revealed that the plane had originated from Belarus and that the contents of this transport plane were the S-300 air defense system that the US had purchased from the now-Russian allied country. It reportedly cost around $100 million to acquire during that time.

These weapons were subsequently transported to Redstone Arsenal, a historical base typically known for its research on missile weaponry, particularly research and development efforts by German scientists during Operation Paperclip, which is also in Alabama. It was said that a number of the Soviet weapons stored in this base were loaded on a C-17 to be transported to Ukraine.

Despite these reports, the Pentagon and the National Security Council did not comment on the planned weapons shipment.

“They’re fighting for their country, and the Pentagon is not going to be detailing publicly the tools with which they are doing that,” Pentagon Spokesperson John Kirby said.

 A Romanian 9K33 OSA (NATO designation: SA-8 Gecko) surface-to-air missile system during a military exercise at Capu Midia firing range (Wikimedia Commons). Source:
A Romanian 9K33 OSA (NATO designation: SA-8 Gecko) surface-to-air missile system during a military exercise at Capu Midia firing range (Ştefan CiocanCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

However, it was revealed that the S-300 acquired from Belarus was not included in the list of weapons that were going to Ukraine. Instead, units of the 9K33 Osa (SA-8 Gecko) were reportedly included in the weapons to be sent to Ukraine.

The SA-8 Gecko is a surface-to-air missile system that is effective in engaging targets at short-range and at low altitudes— all variants of the 9K33 use a 9A33 transporter launcher. However, the SA-8 utilizes four exposed 9M33 missiles per TELAR 9A33B. It has a reported maximum range of 7.5 miles. Current notable operators include Syria, Poland, Bulgaria, Greece, and the Houthi rebels. Of course, Ukraine also operates the 9K33M2 Osa-AK, thus making it easier for them to operate the SA-8 as there would be a seamless skill and knowledge transfer.

The S-300, on the other hand, is known as the SA-10 Grumble in the Western world. It is a long-range surface-t0-air missile system developed by the Soviet Union (then later Russia) to defend itself against aircraft and cruise missiles. Later versions of the S-300 were upgraded to intercept ballistic missiles. It is less mobile than the Gecko; however, it does provide more air cover as it has a range of 46 miles. Later versions would extend this range up to 93 miles.

3 launchers of the Slovak S-300PMU on 3rd National Airdays in Piešťany (Wikimedia Commons). Source:
Three launchers of the Slovak S-300PMU on 3rd National Airdays in Piešťany (EllsworthSKCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Ukraine operates both of these Russian air defense systems as it inherited them from the former Soviet Union. It also reportedly operates the S-300V, 9K35 Strela-10,  and the 75 2K22 Tunguska. However, it notably needs more of these systems to impose a de-facto no-fly zone so that it may save several of its key cities from bombing and more civilian casualties.

“We are continuing to work with our allies and key partners to surge new assistance, including Soviet- or Russian-origin antiaircraft systems and the necessary ammunition to employ them, every day to Ukraine,” said a US Official to the Wall Street Journal.

It can be remembered that the US and NATO were reserved to the idea of implementing a no-fly zone over Ukrainian air space. Having a no-fly zone could aggravate the situation and possibly start a larger conflict around the world. However, these allied countries have made steps in order to give Ukraine the weapons it needs to possibly implement the no-fly zone themselves.

To supply Ukraine with more weapons means that NATO member countries would have to tap those who still operate such Soviet-era weaponry. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with Slovakian Defense Minister Jaroslav Nad a few days ago and preliminarily agreed to provide their own set of S-300s to Ukraine only if the US and NATO could help them with the vulnerability it would leave them with.

“Well, we’ve been in discussion with the United States, with Ukraine, and also with other allies on the possibility to deploy or to send or to give S-300 system to Ukrainians. And we are willing to do so. We’re willing to do so immediately when we have a proper replacement. The only strategic air defense system that we have in Slovakia is S-300 system,” Nad said.

As for supplying missiles to Ukraine for these systems, it can be assumed that the US was able to replicate them for testing and whatever inventory we have was also shipped to Ukraine as well.

Following this conversation, Nad confirmed the arrival of the first units of the Patriot air defense system on March 20 from Germany and the Netherlands. However, he said that this was not a replacement for the S-300 systems.

The only other NATO countries that operate S-300 systems are Bulgaria and Greece. However, the results of high-level talks to supply their units to Ukraine have not yet been disclosed. However, President Biden is set to travel to Brussels for a NATO summit and possibly use this occasion to discuss further efforts to supply Ukraine with weapons as VP Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have done in the past.