David Axe

Apr 20, 2023

The Ukrainian air force had around 72 Buk surface-to-air missile systems when Russia widened its war on Ukraine back in February 2022.

While the self-contained Buk—a four-person tracked vehicle with a built-in radar and a launcher for four two-ton missiles, each with a 20-mile range—wasn’t Ukraine’s most numerous air-defense system, it was one of the best.

Individual Buks, roaming just behind the front line, have accounted for many of the roughly 250 fighters, helicopters and drones Russian forces have lost over Ukraine in 14 months of hard fighting.

“The most effective Ukrainian SAMs against Russian fixed-wing aircraft have consistently been Buk systems operating transporter-erector launcher and radar vehicles as individual pop-up threats rather than as formed batteries alongside the usual target-acquisition radar and command vehicles,” Justin Bronk, Nick Reynolds and Jack Watling from the Royal United Services Institute in London wrote in their definitive study of the Ukraine air war’s early months.

The Russians in turn have knocked out around a dozen Ukrainian Buk launchers. But these losses aren’t the biggest threat to Kyiv’s Buk force. Rather, it’s a looming shortage of missiles. The Buk’s 9M38 missile is made in Russia: Ukraine’s stocks date from the Soviet era. After firing several dozen missiles every month for 14 months, Kyiv’s 9M38s are running out.

Which is why, in January, the United States pledged to Ukraine an unspecified number of Raytheon RIM-7 Sea Sparrow missiles. A RIM-7, which normally arms warships, is a quarter the size of an 9M38 and has a slightly shorter range. But the American missile uses the same semi-active radar-guidance that the Soviet-Russian missile does. And with a few tweaks to the launcher, the RIM-7 is compatible with the overall Buk system.

We know this because, as long ago as 2012, a Polish company was pitching a Buk-Sea Sparrow combo to foreign buyers. Polish missile-maker WZU paired a Buk launcher with the latest Sea Sparrow model, the RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile. But there’s no reason the same launcher with the same modifications to its fire-controls wouldn’t also work with the older RIM-7.

A steady supply of surplus American RIM-7s could help to solve one of Ukraine’s most vexing problems—a looming shortage of medium- and long-range air-defenses. The Ukrainian air force’s best and most numerous SAMs—S-300s, Kubs, Buks—all are running out of missiles.

For more than a year, Ukraine’s ex-Soviet SAMs have held off the Russian air force, creating virtual safe zones around major cities in central and western Ukraine. Safe zones where the Ukrainians have been training fresh brigades for their long-planned counteroffensive. If the SAM batteries stop firing, the Russians will be free to strike targets across Ukraine, including those irreplaceable new brigades.

New Western-made air-defense equipment is on the way: long-range Patriots plus medium-range Hawks and IRIS-Ts, among others. But many of those new SAM systems still are weeks or months from deploying. The Sea Sparrows might arrive faster.

It’s not clear how many old RIM-7s the United States has in storage. Hundreds? Thousands? It doesn’t matter, however. If Ukraine fired off every available RIM-7, the U.S. government could supply RIM-162s, instead. That version of the Sea Sparrow still is in production at Raytheon’s factory in Tucson, Arizona.