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Meet the Buk: How Ukraine Is Shooting Down Russia’s Air Force

Russian Su-34. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Old Ukrainian Buk Anti-aircraft System Forced to Hold the Line Against Russian Air Force – The Ukrainian military wants Patriot air defense missiles from the United States, but they are likely to still depend on older Soviet surface-to-air missiles such as the Buk. The Buk may be outdated, but the Ukrainians don’t have a choice. Is it effective? The skies over Ukraine are still contested so that is a feather in the cap of Ukrainian air defense forces. But the defenders would rather have a SAM system from the modern era.

What Is the Buk?

So first let’s discuss the Buk. The Buk is infamous for being the suspected anti-aircraft system that was used by Russian separatists to shoot down a Malaysian airliner that killed 298 people in 2014.

This Cold War-era air defender is also known as the “Beech” and dubbed the “Gadfly” by NATO. The Buk is old. Initial work on the system was done in 1972 and was sent to Soviet troops in 1980. However, the Buk is versatile and has ample capabilities to shoot down enemy fighter jets and low-flying helicopters. New versions can also go after drones plus cruise and ballistic missiles.

Strong Interceptor

The Buk is run by a four-soldier crew. The system is transported on a tracked vehicle. It launches a solid-fueled and single-stage missile called the 9M38. This interceptor is 18-feet long and weighs 1,510 pounds while the warhead is 154-pounds. It can engage targets up to 13-miles away.

Quick to Launch  

The launch takes about 30-seconds to execute if the vehicle is already stationary, according to Military Today. If it is on the move to a different location, it takes around five minutes to launch once it stops. Then it can fire up the engine again to travel to a new spot in an additional five minutes depending on the expertise and training level of the crew.

New Versions Are More Accurate

The radar-guided 9M38 missile is supposed to be at least 70-percent accurate. Not bad for a system that is decades old. The improved Buk-M1 system has a fire control system that can engage six targets at once. The Buk-M2 variant further improves range and accuracy.

The Ukrainians Need Some Air Defender that Is State-of-the-art

The Buk system is dated, and the Ukrainians want something more modern, and they aren’t picky on what that would be. Due to some Ukrainian success against the Russian air force, particularly with Stinger shoulder-fired MANPADs (man-portable air-defense systems), Western media, NATO policymakers, and heads of state believe that Ukrainian air defenses are currently sufficient.

But Ukraine Still Needs Help With SAMs

The Ukrainians do not believe this and wish to change that narrative. Russian airplanes are attacking more Ukrainian SAM sites, airplanes, fuel depots, command and control centers and other infrastructure the homeland needs.

Gaston Dubois is the defense editor for Aviacion Online. Dubois is trying to sound the alarm on the advantages the Russian air force still has over the Ukrainians.

He wrote, “It is also claimed that it is FALSE that they have adequate means to defend their airspace from Russian forces, as their (Russian) Air Force is many times larger and possesses better radar and missile technology. The Ukrainian Air Force admits that it cannot gain air superiority, or even contest it with the Russians, given this large disparity in means,” according to Dubois.

The Ukrainians may be stuck with the Buk, so to speak. They need more medium-range SAM systems. This would give them coverage for altitudes the Stingers can’t reach. The West has also focused on the potential transfer of MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine. But the more acute need is ground-based air defense rather than fighters. Some other countries aside from the United States will have to step up because it is not likely the Ukrainians will get the Patriot air defenders they have been requesting. Ukraine will have to continue to plead for new air defense systems.

Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.