Leaked Defense Department documents reveal possible weak links in Ukraine’s military campaign against Russian forces, warning that Kyiv could run out of crucial air defense missiles by May.
Under relentless attack by Russian missiles and drones, Ukraine is using up large amounts of air defense munitions, including Russian-made BUK and S-300 systems, according to two purported secret Pentagon documents, among a trove that have appeared online.
If Ukraine is not able to bolster its air defense munition supplies in time, Russia could potentially secure air superiority and begin flying warplanes over areas held by Ukrainian troops, according to one of the two documents, dated Feb. 28.
Such a scenario could alter the outcome of the war in favor of Russia, military analysts say. Up until now, neither side has been able to achieve the upper hand in the air and Russian aircraft generally avoid venturing into Ukrainian-controlled air space, analysts say.
NBC News obtained more than 50 of the leaked documents.
A Pentagon team is looking at the veracity of the documents and the possible impact of the disclosure, spokesperson Chris Meagher told reporters on Monday.
“The Department of Defense is working around the clock to look at the scope and scale of the distribution, the assessed impact and our mitigation measures,” Meagher said.
The documents appear to contain “sensitive and highly classified material,” he said.
A senior U.S. official said previously that the government’s “working theory” is that the documents are real but that some may have been altered.
According to two of the documents marked “secret” and dated in February, Ukraine is facing a looming shortage of Russian-made air defense missiles without sufficient deliveries of similar systems from NATO countries.
“Ukraine’s ability to provide medium range air defense to protect the FLOT (front line of troops) will be completely reduced by May 23,” one of the documents states.
Ukraine is balancing the need to protect critical infrastructure, population centers, front-line troops and other key assets across Ukraine with limited resources, it says.
Russian-made SA-10 and SA-11 missiles comprise 89 percent of Ukraine’s air defense protection for medium- to high-range threats above 20,000 feet, it says.
The supplies of BUK SA-11 missiles will be completely depleted by Thursday at current rates, the S-300 by May 3 and the shorter-range SA-8 by May, according to a chart in one of the documents. The same chart predicts U.S.-made NASAMs will run out by Friday.
Under that scenario, Russian bombers could have “freedom of aerial maneuver” and Russian aircraft could strike Ukrainian ground forces or other targets without having to rely on drones or cruise missiles, according to the documents.
Ukraine could then lose the ability to resupply its troops from planes or helicopters or mass its ground forces along the front line or for a possible counter-offensive, one of the documents says.
To help Ukraine maintain its air defenses, Kyiv’s forces could alter their tactics to conserve their munitions and employ “military deception,” according to the documents. Western countries could also deliver more air defense systems, including U.S.-made Patriot batteries and NASAMs.
Another leaked document outlined the burn rate for HIMARS long-range rocket systems that the U.S. provided to Ukraine, information that could be of interest to Russia. But the documents do not offer a forecast of when the munitions will run out.
Russia’s daily aerial attacks could gradually weaken Ukraine’s air defenses, according to Western analysts and a U.S. military official. The U.S. and NATO allies have vowed to provide more air defense systems and munitions to Kyiv, with Washington promising to deliver additional Patriot missile batteries.
A study last year by the Royal United Services Institute, a U.K.-based think tank, warned that Western countries needed to urgently bolster Ukraine’s air defenses or else risk seeing Russia operate with impunity in the air.
Russia’s failure to destroy Ukraine’s mobile air defense missiles has prevented Moscow from using its large air force of bombers and fighter jets to hit key Ukrainian targets and troop positions, according to the report. » …