Even though Ukraine desperately needs more anti-aircraft systems, the lone S-300 battery is the only long-range anti-aircraft system the Slovak Armed Forces have in inventory.
Earlier this week the CNN published information about potential delivery of S-300 (ASCC/NATO-codename ‘SA-10 Grumble’) anti-aircraft systems to Ukraine from the Slovak Republic, with the Minister of Defense of Slovakia commenting the situation several days afterwards. Even though Ukraine desperately needs more anti-aircraft systems, the lone S-300 battery is the only long-range anti-aircraft system the Slovak Armed Forces have in inventory. The potential delivery, which was brought to light by the US media, is therefore questionable as Slovakia, NATO’s eastern wing member state, needs the system too.
The anti-aircraft system in question is S-300PMU, obtained in 1990 – a modernized version of the Soviet-made excellent system, which at the time was one of best in the World. The Slovak Armed Forces received the lone battery after the split of Czechoslovakia. Together with few batteries of shorter-range 2K12 Kub (SA-6 Gainful) the S-300 has been representing the key defense structure of the nation since the nation gained independence in 1993. Several other anti-aircraft systems Slovakia had in its arsenal (such as SA-2 Guideline or SA-13 Gopher) were withdrawn from the service back in 2000ies. S-300 survived mainly because it was the most modern and the only long-range anti-aircraft system the nation had in its inventory.
Slovakia has about 45 5V55R missiles available for the system. Manufactured in the early 1980s, and refurbished in 2015, they are nearing the end of their useful shelf-life. In combat two missiles are being fired at one target – meaning that sole battery that Slovak Armed Forces has (or could give to Ukraine) can, at most, destroy no more than 20 air targets. Three missiles were fired in 2015 during training in Bulgaria in which the Slovak crew managed to hit a simulated target. The radar systems, with which the S-300PMU in Slovakia cooperates, is ST-68MSK (modernized version of ISKRA 36D6). The modernization was undertaken by two companies – Slovak LOBB and Ukrainian UKRSPETSEXPORT. The main purpose of the modernization was integration of ‘NATO-compatible’ identification friendly-or-foe (IFF) system AN/UPX-37, of US origin. Therefore, the Ukrainians have already experiences and capabilities to operate the modernized version of the system and its radar.
Problems with Delivery
Several questions related to potential heavy military equipment delivery from Slovakia to war-torn Ukraine have been raised since the Russian invasion. Weeks ago, the media began speculating about delivering Slovakia’s MiG-29 fleet to Ukrainian Air Force. The main problem with such an enterprise would be the same as in the case of S-300 anti-aircraft systems: Slovakia does not have a replacement for them. As the NATO’s ‘eastern wing’ member state, directly bordering Ukraine, it would be vulnerable for potential (even accidental) Russian attack. The same answer was given by another NATO member state with SA-10s in its inventory: Greece. The Greek S-300 are stationed on the Island of Creta, where they serve as one of the key defense elements of the island. The sale of military equipment used by Hellenic Armed Forces is a sensitive topic in Greece – as Athens is facing continuous tensions with Turkey.
After meeting the Slovenian Minister of Defence, Matej Tonin, and the US Secretary of Defence, Lloyd Austin, on Wednesday, the Minister of Defense of Slovakia, Jaroslav Naď, stated that he would like to, “get rid of the systems and help Ukraine and the same time”. However he added that Slovakia doesn’t have replacement for the system so far. Moreover, exactly like MiG-29s, Slovakian S-300s were kept in operational condition with help from Russia: unsurprisingly, the Minister previously observed that he would prefer to, “send them back to Russia.” If both would be donated to Ukraine, two crucial elements of the Slovak air defence capability would be removed with a single blow.
However, with the planned formation of new NATO’s eFP (Enhanced Forward Presence) in Slovakia the NATO allies come with the help. While, probably, Polish F-16s will guard Slovakian skies (even though it was previously speculated that Czech Saab JAS-39 Gripens will participate in this task), German and Dutch armed forces are in the process of deploying PAC-2/3 Patriot air defence systems, supported by US-operated Sentinel radars to Slovakia. The final verdict of who will become responsible for air policing Slovakia’s skies is not answered yet; however, the first German Patriot systems (from Flugabwehrraketengruppe 26/1st Fliegerabwehrraketenregiment, home-based in Husum in northern Germany) began its deployment in the country on Wednesday, 16 March.
Minister Naď hasn’t specified if he, by replacing S-300 systems, means: 1), direct purchase of comparable systems or, 2), the systems from other nation’s armed forces which would be stationed in Slovakia. If the first option is being the ‘right one’ Slovakia will keep its S-300 battery for one more decade. According to modernization plans the nation’s defense, a new system was to be purchased only in 2030 (after new combat aircraft and infantry fighting vehicles). If the second option – a withdrawal (and potential shipment of the systems to Ukraine) – would be realized, the S-300 battery is certain to be sent to Ukraine once the Germans have completed their re-deployment to Slovakia; a process unlikely to take longer than a week. .
Even though Ukraine definitely needs more anti-aircraft systems, Slovakia as NATO member needs them too. One of the main problems lays in Uzhhorod – Ukrainian city that lay on the borders with Slovakia –, or, more precisely: its airfield. Several sources claim that the next Russian missile attack could be directed on this airfield. With this airport being located only 80 meters from the border with the Slovak republic, this is a potentially dangerous situation: after all, there is no guarantee that one or another of Russian missiles might malfunction and hit the territory of Slovakia, a member of the NATO.
The main questions therefore lay in dilemma if the S-300 system should serve in Ukraine or in a NATO’ member state and how to find a replacement for the long-range anti-aircraft systems. With conflict in Ukraine being held at NATO’s ‘doorstep’, and with the possibility of Russian attack on Uzhhorod airstrip the NATO and member governments still must act quickly and fast in two ways: in form of developing air-defences of its member states and providing urgently necessary help to Ukraine.
Special thanks to Tom Cooper for the help with this article.
Photo credit: EllsworthSK Own work via Wikipedia, Ministry of Defence of Slovakia, TASR (Slovak Press Agency) and Google Maps