Thursday 20 May 2021

Back From The Dead: Ukraine’s Tor SAMs

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
As Ukraine continues to build up its military forces to face the ever present threat of Russian interference in its Eastern regions, it has gradually managed to rejuvenate its battered inventories thanks to much increased funding. This has resulted in acquisitions such as those of Bayraktar TB2 UCAVs and Ada-class corvettes from Turkey, but also in the introduction of numerous indigenous weapon systems and upgrades for equipment already in active service. Together, these introductions have enabled Ukraine to restore the combat readiness of its embattled military to a point where capability gaps with Russia are swiftly decreasing, and actually allow it to outperform its foe in some areas.

These feats are in no small part due to Ukraine's military-industrial complex, which after decades of dedicating itself to improving and selling Ukraine's surplus military equipment abroad, has now shifted focus to restoring various weapon systems that had been decommissioned by the Ukrainian military prior to the 2014 Russo-Ukrainian War. Chronic underfunding had forced the Ukrainian military to retire revered equipment like the T-80 main battle tank (MBT) and 203mm 2S7 Pion self-propelled howitzer (SPH), with acquisitions of newer equipment to replace aging equipment in service a faraway dream.

Evidently, the situation for Ukraine's air defence units was little different from that of the rest of the military. Within the timespan of a mere decade, the Ukrainian Army and Ukrainian Air Force were forced to retire all of their S-125, S-200, S-300V, 2K12 Kub and 9K330 Tor SAM systems, with additional systems such as the S-300PT joining them in storage. As many of them were kept in relatively good condition in the hopes of a sale to a foreign customer – or in the case of the S-300Vs, had only recently been retired – it comes as no surprise that Ukraine looked to these systems to strengthen the ranks of the Ukrainian military once more.
Considering the age of some of these SAMs, and the scarcity of active-duty personnel that still had experience with systems like the 2K12 and 9K330, their refurbishment was certainly no easy task. Furthermore, other equipment like radar systems and the missiles themselves would need to be overhauled as well, provided enough of them were still available. All things considered, one regiment of 9K330s, two 2K12 regiments, two regiments of S-125s and a S-300V1 brigade could be reactivated. [1] The rejuvenation of three S-200 SAM sites was also envisaged, but significant damage caused to the sites' infrastructure during their deactivation in 2013 so far appears to have prevented their return to service. [1]
The 9K330 Tor SAM, the oldest variant in the Tor-lineage of SAM systems, was originally developed in the late 1970s to engage low-flying fast targets with a small radar cross-section such as cruise missiles. First entering service in 1986, the 9M330 missiles of the 9K330 system are capable of destroying targets at ranges of up to 12km, providing ground forces with a highly mobile means of air defence against enemy aircraft. To enable targeting of enemy aircraft and cruise missiles in the face of electronic warfare measures directed against the 9K330's radar, an electro-optical tracker is fitted just right of the engagement radar.
The Tor was also the first system in the world to have its (eight) missiles vertically stored inside the launcher rather than placed on the outside as on contemporary systems, as such offering better protection against shell fragments and allowing for a larger missile load to be carried. Continuous improvements and technological advances have meanwhile led to the Tor-M1 and Tor-M2 variants. During the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war the Tor(-M2KM) system took active part in an armed conflict for the first time, during which the few systems operated by Armenia proved completely unable to effectively counter the UAV threat overhead.

Prior to their re-emergence in 2017, Ukraine's 9K330 Tor SAM systems had only been sighted once before: During the 10th anniversary of the independence of Ukraine parade in August 2001. [2] A total of six 9K330s took part in that parade, likely constituting the entirety of Ukraine's inventory of these systems. During their years of active service in Ukraine, the 9K330s were operated by the 257th Guards Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment stationed in Yavoriv, near the border with Poland. Likely owing to the considerable expenses that operating such a small number of systems brings with it, all six systems were phased out in the early 2000s. [3]

Three of the six 9K330 systems on parade in Kiev in 2001.

The three exact same 9K330s during parade practice in 2018 shortly after their reactivation.

After their retirement in the early 2000s, the 9K330s were placed in long-term storage, awaiting better times that would either allow for their return to active service or, alternatively, their sale to a foreign customer. Ultimately, a decision was made for reactivation somewhere in the mid-2010s, after which they were moved to a military depot in the town of Horodok, Radomyshl district. Here, a contract serviceman placed the overhaul of at least one 9K330 system in peril by dismantling several of its electronic boards with the intention of selling the precious metals they contained in June 2018. [4] The stolen parts were later found and subsequently reinstalled.

Just short of a year before, in August 2017, the first overhauled 9K330 was already showcased during an exhibition in Kiev. Later that month, on the 24th of August 2017, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine recorded five SAM systems, reportedly including two 9K330s, near the Ukrainian-controlled village of Kasyanivka in the Donetsk Region, possibly representing their first operational deployment. [4] Their sighting came some 3.5 years after the first sighting of Tor SAM systems in Eastern Ukraine, which had involved Russian Tor-M1s that were deployed to the Lugansk region in support of pro-Russian separatist forces. [5]
Despite the reports of the Ukrainian deployment of 9K330s to Donbas in August 2017, it would only be in February 2019 when the verification of the rejuvenated 9K330s finally took place at the Yahorlyk missile range in Kherson Oblast. [6] During the live firing exercise, overhauled systems like the S-125, 2K12, 9K330 and upgraded ZSU-23-4M-A self-propelled anti-aicraft guns (SPAAGs) were put to the test before they officially entered service with the Ukrainian military.
The overhaul of the 9K330 systems was carried out indigenously by the Lviv Radio Repair Plant and NPP Aerotechnika-MLT, both specialised in the overhaul of various types of SAM and radar systems. [6] In addition to bringing the systems back to operational condition, a limited number of improvements were carried out, most notably the implementation of new algorithms for processing and displaying information. [3] Future improvements could include the replacement of the analog radio-electronic equipment with digital equivalents, significantly improving the operators' capability to effectively use the equipment at hand.

Although the reactivation of six 9K330 Tor SAM systems is certainly no game-changing capability in and of itself, the significant numbers of rejuvenated military equipment entering service, including numerous SAM systems, do much to increase the capabilities of the Ukrainian military as a whole. Furthermore, the valuable experience gained during the overhaul of these systems could be put to good use for a deeper modernisation project in future, and might be applied to other systems such as the 9K37 Buk and 9K22 Tunguska as well. 
Beyond directly expanding on air defence capabilities though, the 9K330s also hold significant value in potential OPFOR training, during which they could be used as representative examples of enemy air defence systems. Knowledge of enemy air defences is imperative in finding ways of countering them, and access to such systems as the 9K330 is not just of interest to Ukraine, but all parties that may encounter them on the battlefield. For instance, given existing partnerships in place between Turkey and Ukraine (such as Black Sea Shield, between Baykar Savunma and Ukrspecexport) an OPFOR training centre aimed at improving drone operations is not unthinkable; it was after all the same (though more advanced) Tor-M2KM that was touted as the Bayraktar TB2's greatest foe during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. 
As the two countries between them share nearly every type of Russian air defence system that could be encountered in future conflicts, including the ZSU-23, 2K22 Tunguska, Pantsir-S1 (captured in Libya and delivered to Turkey), Strela-10, 9K33 Osa, 9K330 Tor, 2K12 Kub, S-125 and 9K37 Buk mobile air defence systems and the S-300V1, S-300PT, S-300PS and S-400 strategic SAM systems, the potential for mutually beneficial cooperation is truly unlimited. In such a capacity, the reactivation of a mere six launchers could be far more consequential than anyone could have imagined, aiding to turn Ukraine's fledgling UAV capabilities into a threat that is currently unrivalled by any of its neighbours.

[1] На Украине планируются к возвращению в строй шесть типов зенитных ракетных систем
[2] Техника ПВО Украины 24 августа 2001г. на параде в честь 10-й годовщины независимости Украины, улица Крещатик, г.Киев
[3] “Тор” та “Куб” повертаються до бойового складу ЗСУ
[4] На Житомирщині затримали контрактника, який викрав дорогоцінні елементи із ЗРК “Тор”. ФОТО
[5] Tor series surface-to-air missile systems in Ukraine
[6] Завершальний етап випробувань зенітних ракетних комплексів протиповітряної оборони

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