S-300 is a series of long-range surface-to-air missile systems, used since 1978. During the Russian invasion of Ukraine, S-300 turned out to be a devastating weapon. However, at least some of them appeared to be inflatable. Why would Russian forces use inflatable missile systems?
It’s actually not that uncommon. Inflatable and wooden mockups have been used for a very long time, especially since the First World War when aerial reconnaissance became a real tool of war. In the Second World War Allies used inflatable tanks to fake their advances, while some real tanks were dressed up to look like supply trucks. This kind of trickery is used to provoke an enemy’s reaction. For example, they could gather their forces to defend against the attack of armored units that are simply not real.
Russian inflatable S-300 missile systems are examples of the same kind of thinking. It is believed that they were made in the early 2010’s although mock-ups of various weapon systems were definitely used by the Russian Armed Forces before as well. These inflatable systems match the real deal in colour, shape, and size. They were made in a formed hot air balloon factory and can be delivered and inflated very quickly. And they serve several different functions.
First of all, these faux S-300 missile systems are designed to trick the enemy. Aerial and satellite reconnaissance struggles to differentiate between the real and inflatable systems.
This has a two-fold effect. First of all, Russians are hoping that Ukrainians will target inflatable weapons and miss the real ones. Secondly, Russian forces are trying to imitate a strong air defense situation, which might deter Ukrainian air forces from working in a specific area.
Furthermore, these inflatable S-300 systems are thought to be used in occupied Crimea, which is a popular tourist destination. Civilians have a habit of taking pictures of military objects, which is not something the armed forces want. Giving them a fake S-300 system to look at from a distance provides civilians with a sense of security and gives them a harmless backdrop for holiday selfies.
Open source intelligence proved to be extremely valuable in the Russian invasion of Ukraine and both sides and looking into each other’s social media profiles and reporting. Inflatable S-300 systems look real in these amateur pictures.
Ukraine is also using dummy weapons. It’s been said that Russia has destroyed several wooden HIMARS systems, which were placed in tactical locations to ruin Russian estimates of how many of these weapons Ukraine has. By shooting at fake targets Russians can give away their positions.
Finally, inflatable S-300 systems have been used in training as well. Moving a real S-300 is expensive and difficult. If live fire exercises are not planned, they can get away with using inflatable mock-ups, which help troops learn to work around these systems.