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An S300 air defense missile system during the final stage of the Keys to the Sky competition among AD missile units at Ashuluk Firing Range as part of the 2016 Army Games
S300s are long-range surface-to-air missile systems developed and operated by the former Soviet UnionImage: Sergei Savostyanov/ITAR/TASS/imago

Soviet-era anti-aircraft system that misfired on Poland

Frank Hofmann
November 17, 2022

The misfired projectile that fell in Przewodow, Poland, probably came from the S-300 defense system. What is the system and why is it error-prone?


The S-300 anti-aircraft system, developed in the Soviet Union, was first put into service by Moscow in the late 1970s. It was used almost everywhere in Eastern Europe until the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War in 1991. According to calculations by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Ukraine alone is said to have had over 250 S-300 systems shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

However, the calculation doesn't yet include the S-300 from NATO stocks that were delivered as part of the military aid to Ukraine. In spring this year, the US had asked allies of Ukraine that are part of the so-called Ukraine contact group to hand over more S-300s from Eastern European NATO holdings to Kyiv. In April, Slovakia — a NATO member since 2004 — delivered a system of four mobile missile launchers and the corresponding radar. In return, Germany transferred Patriot anti-aircraft systems to Slovakia. This was one of the first so-called "ring exchanges" through which western partners made old Soviet equipment available to Ukraine.

"The S-300 is an easy system for Ukrainians to integrate," US think tank, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said in October. The anti-aircraft system has been used by the Ukrainian armed forces for years. However, it will be "difficult to find additional systems" to continue supporting Ukraine with further anti-aircraft defense systems, the CSIS said in an analysis of Western options. The German-produced IRIS-T system, which is probably the most modern land-based mobile air defense system against rocket fire, has long been used in Ukraine. And more are to follow. But anti-aircraft defense in many areas of Ukraine still relies on the old S-300. It's unclear, however, how many of the original Soviet systems have been destroyed by Russian missile attacks since February, 2022. Kyiv is keeping quiet about technical losses.

US deploying Patriot systems in Poland
In March, the US began deploying Patriot systems to strengthen NATO's eastern flank in Rzeszow, in south-eastern Poland on the border with UkraineImage: Agnieszka Majchrowicz/AA/picture alliance

In the past, Russia's defense industry has been in competition on the world market with the Western Patriot anti-aircraft defense systems. The S-400 system – the most recent model of the S-300, which has been repeatedly modernized since the 1970s –– has been constructed in Russia since 2004.

Missile fired into Poland from Ukraine

According to the Polish government, the missile that killed two people on a farm in Przewodow, Poland, on Tuesday was a "very old Russian-made missile." The missile was "most likely" fired by Ukraine, said Polish President Andrzej Duda. The ranges of the various land-based S-300 systems range from 75 to 195 kilometers (47 to 121 miles).

Site of where the missle struck in Przewodow, Poland, near the Ukrainian border on Tuesday
Site of where the missle struck in Przewodow, Poland, near the Ukrainian border on TuesdayImage: UGC via REUTERS

Prior to intense shelling on Tuesday, western Ukraine had repeatedly been attacked by Russia. The Ukrainian Yavoriv military base, as well as energy infrastructure had been targeted. Located around 90 kilometers south of the rocket's impact site in Przewodow, Yavoriv was the westernmost military base in the Soviet Union until the end of the Cold War. It's unclear whether the rocket was launched from there or from another location in western Ukraine, possibly to ward off a Russian attack — and then misfired.

In a press conference on Wednesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he "did not want to go into detail because the investigation is ongoing." Questions over whether shrapnel from a Russian attack missile had also been found in addition to the missile thought to have been fired by Ukraine, or whether the apparently misfired missile from Ukraine was intercepted by the NATO protective shield in south-eastern Poland remain unanswered.

This article was translated from German.

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