The scarce information available, regarding the Ukrainian attack targeting the airbase in Belgorod, suggests that the main surface-to-surface strike was preceded by a SEAD airstrike conducted by the Ukrainian Air Force. More importantly, the air defences in the area most probably included elements of the S-400 "Triumph" battery, protected by SHORAD Pantsir SAM/AAA systems.
According to some of the Russian opinion makers, and their official statements, the aforesaid fusion of systems was to be effective enough and sufficient for tasks so critical as the protection of strategic facilities in Russia (Moscow included), or security of operations undertaken by the "Yars" or "Topol" mobile ICBM systems deployed in field. It is also plausible that a set of assets as such has also been used to defend the Belgorod International Airport, just 30 kilometres from the Ukrainian border. The airport is used to host Su-25 attack aircraft, and Mi-8 and Mi-28 helicopters, all used to attack Ukrainian territory. Below one may find photos of Su-25 Frogfoots that flew on 16th October.
Some opinions suggest that Belgorod air defences were formed around an S-300 SAM battery. However, some Telegram channels were disseminating pictures of the Pantsir system wreckage. And earlier on Pantsir had been used primarily with the S-400 systems. Furthermore, assessing the lethality of the Russian GBAD, it is irrelevant whether the S-300 or the S-400 systems were the backbone here. In essence, these assets work in the same manner, utilize similar tactics, or even identical missiles.
Despite the presence of the air defence systems, another missile strike targeting Belgorod took place on 16th October. The Armed Forces of Ukraine Center for Strategic Communications announced that local citizens reported 16 explosions in the area. Even assuming some of those were caused by munitions stored on the ground, this would mean some of the missiles have reached the target, despite the air defences present in the area.
The effect on the target remains unknown. Viacheslav Gladkov, Belgorod's Governor, reported via Telegram that at least 2 people were wounded as a result of the airstrike. Later on, he admitted that 3 people were killed, and 4 were wounded. The videos captured show the Russian GBAD assets in operation. The Russian sources suggest that up to 10 SAMs were launched. Explosions also appeared in the sky, and Russia interpreted these as kills. The problem stems from the fact that these defensive efforts were ineffective. The Russian missiles flew in a direction that was completely unaligned with a Ukrainian missile - also recorded - hitting the SAM positions.
It is quite probable the Ukrainians have employed fairly simple tactics, dating back to the war in Vietnam. First, they provoked the Russian SAMs to activate their radars. Then the Ukrainian aircraft, remaining in the Ukrainian airspace, climbed high enough to send the AGM-88 HARMs (High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles) towards the Ukrainian radars. Flying at a speed exceeding Mach 2, the HARMs easily evaded the Russian missiles, hitting the preassigned targets and eliminating the whole battery in a single strike. This is shown by one of the published movie clips, in which some missile is hitting the exact location from which at least 3 Russian missiles were vertically launched.
This is not the first documented case of a lethal engagement against an S-400 system. The obituary of Lt. Andrey Grakov, operating one of such systems suggests that he was KIA during a Ukrainian attack happening at night, on 5th August 2022. The elements of the S-400 system destroyed were located somewhere within the Ukrainian territory. More importantly, the obituary suggested that the Russian SAM battery was deployed and operated by Russians.
Referring to Grakov's cause of death, it was indicated that the S-400 crew, "ignoring the hazard to their lives, did not leave their work stations and continued to complete the tasks assigned". The air defence effort turned out to be ineffective as "due to a direct hit the S-400 SAM system took, the soldiers were injured by fragmentation".
A Russian air defence system also failed in early October 2022, during an attack targeting the Shaykovka base near Kaluga, 210 kilometres from the Ukrainian border. Shaykovka hosted the 52nd Guards Heavy Bomber Regiment, among other units. There, an airstrike carried out by the Ukrainians destroyed two Tu-22M3 bombers, capable of launching Kh-22 and Kh-32 cruise missiles.
We also know that S-400 batteries have been deployed to Crimea as well. Despite that, we have been witnessing multiple Ukrainian attacks against targets in Crimea, including one targeting the Saki airbase in Novofedorovka. The unofficial data suggests that 24 aircraft and 4 ammunition storage facilities were destroyed there. It is quite difficult to believe the Russian explanation, suggesting that the air defence systems were used either to protect other areas or that they were simply switched off. It is quite clear: the Russian SAMs lack lethality. And now one should wonder why that happens.
When the Russian Air Defences Really were Effective?
Russian air defences were only effective, when the enemy did not expect them to be deployed, and when their capabilities were unknown. The U-2 spy aircraft piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down like that, on 1st May 1960. The Americans had been unaware back then, that the Soviets already developed missiles capable of neutralizing threats at extremely high altitudes, above 27 thousand meters. The surprise was also caused by the protection of the information scheme implemented in the USSR. That policy resulted in a situation, in which knowledge of Soviet weapons was usually sourced during the Red Square Victory Day parades, on 9th May each year.
That element of surprise did not last long, as the West was usually quick to find relevant countermeasures, in a form of proper weapons, EW assets, or adequate tactics. It always turned out that the Soviet-, and then Russian-made air defence systems are easy to neutralize or even destroy.
No longer were the capabilities of Soviet missiles a problem, as the number of those missiles on the battlefield became an issue - which was quite evident in Vietnam for instance. It quickly became obvious that even a high number of air defence assets was not enough to provide sufficient protection - as the 1982 Bekaa Valley fights during Operation Mole Cricket 19 have shown. The Israeli Air Force managed to destroy up to 20 Syrian air defence batteries, also shooting down more than 80 Syrian MiG-23 and MiG-21 fighter aircraft.
Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the situation evolved somehow. Russia could no longer afford to engage in expansive research on new anti-aircraft systems and the commissioning of new air defence assets on a large scale. These deficiencies were obvious, during the defensive effort undertaken concerning the Kerch Strait bridge for instance. The Russians have deployed a mock-up of an actual S-400 system there, which was accidentally exposed in a media report on the air defences in the region.
Furthermore, looking for funds Russia was forced to sell its latest systems abroad. That meant that the Moscow Victory Day parades started to become a source of boredom for foreign intelligence analysts. The West and China quickly learned about the capabilities of the latest S-300 systems, Tor or Pantsir solutions, or even the famous S-400 Triumph. Especially given the fact that real-life deployments in conflict zones did happen, in Iraq, Syria, North Africa, Nagorno Karabakh, and, finally, Ukraine.
Kremlin's explanations were less and less credible, as the Russians were claiming the Russian-made air defence systems were destroyed as they came in an export variant and they were also operated by foreign personnel, not the well-trained Russian crews. The West gradually found out that export variants of the Russian air defence systems follow more strict manufacturing standards, and utilize a better set of components, than the systems operated by Russia. Otherwise, the customer handoff would become a challenge. The foreign operators, usually trained by the Russians, were usually professional, while in Russia just contract troops, with less experience, to operate these systems.
These assumptions turned out to be valid, during the war in Ukraine. There, Western tactics and technologies were employed against the latest Russian air defence systems, hailing from the top military units, being operated by Russian personnel. Despite the above, the Ukrainian aircraft can still conduct combat sorties, also deep behind the enemy lines, skillfully adopting their tactics and brilliantly utilizing western-made weapons.
Russian IADS: A Formidable Threat That Can Be Defeated
The truth is that even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russians have been trying to further develop their air defence assets. The generational progress was made mainly in the area of mechanical systems or motors. Here, the Russian solutions may indeed be impressive. However, using “space” like rockets against small aerial targets may be viewed as a symptom of paranoia.
Meanwhile, having a look at the simple electronics of the Russian air defence systems it is clear that they have fallen behind, being overtaken both by the West, as well as the Chinese. Even though the performance envelope of the Russian missiles was being pushed (hence the introduction of S-200, S-300, S-400, and S-500 missiles), the guidance methods have remained essentially unchanged.
Contemporary conflicts have shown that range increase does not translate into a decisive change of capability in the case of modern anti-aircraft systems. The Russian missiles utilize a semi-active guidance solution - here the ground-based radar needs to be continuously tracking the target. Even if the air/missile defence effectors of the latest Russian S-500 system have a range of up to 600 kilometres, when used against air-breathing targets, at 600 kilometres they would only be capable of shooting down targets flying at altitudes higher than 20 kilometres, due to the Earth's curvature. No series-manufactured Western aircraft flies at that altitude.
And placing antennas on high masts (like the 36-39 meters tall 40V6MD, or 13-25 meters tall 40V6M) would be irrelevant, as these antennas are used mainly to detect low-flying threats, due to their low power output. Antennas installed on tall masts as such must be light, and that imposes major size and weight limitations on the designers. Due to the aforesaid limitations, the S-300's 9S32 fire control radar can detect fighters at a distance of only 140 kilometres, while the S-300PMU1's 30N6 radar can detect threats only at a 300 kilometres range.
Even if the Russians manage to bring the guidance system’s antenna to 16 meters above the ground level, the S-400 would only be capable of acting against targets flying higher than 9,400 meters, if engagements at a distance of 400 kilometres are considered here. Any aircraft flying lower would remain safe. Missile range extension is thus, meaningless.
Dubious Nature of S-300V4 Success
The disadvantages of Russian air defence systems become clear, when one analyses the success announced by the Russian propagandists, immediately after the events in Belgorod. The Russians announced that their S-300V4 SAM managed to shoot down two Ukrainian fighters taking part in the airstrike - a Su-24 Fencer bomber, and a Su-27 Flanker fighter. These were supposed to climb before launching the missiles. Then they were supposedly detected and shot down over the Poltava Oblast, as they were returning to base. The Russians also claimed that these aircraft were shot down at a distance of 217 kilometres - a new record for the SAM system involved in this event. In reality, it was impossible to shoot down those aircraft, for several reasons.
Leaving aside the fact that no imagery confirming the event (of wreckage for instance) was released, the S-300V4 can only engage air threats at 217 kilometres if they fly higher than 2,300 meters AGL. No Ukrainian aircraft flies so high in the endangered areas.
Taking the Earth curvature into the account, at 48 kilometres it is enough for the aircraft launching the HARM missile to fly no more than 40 to 50 meters AGL. Being above their own territory, the Ukrainians could have detected the radars of systems defending Belgorod and launched their missiles (fire and forget mode), and made an evasive manoeuvre immediately. It is ridiculous to claim that the aircraft were shot down at a distance of 217 kilometres, as it would mean that following the launch, the Ukrainian Flankers climbed 2,000 meters. Such a basic error is not probable, even when the danger of friendly fire is present.
Theoretically, engagement as such could have been possible if the Russians used missiles featuring an active radar seeker, allowing for a "fire and forget launch". Such an active radar has a range lower than ground-based battery radars, it is thus not probable it would detect a target at a distance of more than 100 kilometres.
Most of the Russian SAMs require ground guidance, thus the targets need to be continuously tracked by the shooter system. If a weapons control radar as such is turned off, the missile would remain unable to reach the target. This is why the Americans are working on new-generation air-launched anti-radiation missiles.
As the Russians tend to generally not use surface-to-air missiles offering a fire-and-forget capacity (except for the MANPADS), they began to protect their batteries by turning off the radars. It turned out to be costly. The missiles were losing the lock, and they were being lost. The explosions of the Russian missiles recorded may not signify hits, as this may have been a sign of self-destruction after the missile lock was lost as the radar had been turned off or destroyed. No guidance data was then available to the missile. A movie clip is circulated online, showing a SAM without a self-destruction unit entering a ballistic trajectory briefly after the launch, hitting the ground several hundred meters away from the launcher.
Intentional turning off of the Russian radars has already been addressed in the West. In the case of Israel, the solution came in a form of loitering munitions with station time long enough to detect a potential activation of the enemy radars. The Americans began to introduce new generation anti-radiation missiles. Contrary to the first, simple AGM-45 Shrike missiles, not only can the new HARM effectors engage active radars, but they can still attack radars that were turned off, with the position of the enemy radar being stored in the missile memory.
The latest variants of the HARM missiles may also be guided towards the target before the launch, thanks to the aircraft's EW suite, position data, and the data collected by the missile's own seeker unit. The third methodology is probably the one used by the Ukrainians, flying the ex-Russian aircraft and using the HARM's seeker as a radar detection sensor. If this method is used, there is no need to connect the aircraft's weapons control system with the US-made missiles attached to the hard points. The missiles remain autonomous here, starting from detection and tracking, and finishing with the engagement itself.
The present analysis has not addressed the matter of electronics used by the Russian air defence systems. Data on that issue is not available. But this situation may soon change. The Americans have managed to capture the Pantsir system, while the Ukrainians have taken over “Tor”, “Tunguska”, “Buk”, or S-300 systems as well. The Russian chaos also makes it plausible that soon elements of S-400 batteries and components of the Russian IADS C2 suite could also be captured.
Then it may turn out that the Russian air defence systems utilize components used in mobile phones, washing machines or TV sets in the West. And nothing seems to suggest that evolution may be expected here, over the course of the upcoming decade or two. The Russians may suffer from that, not scoring many armament procurement deals in the future.