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Armed Forces

Massive Russian Strikes: 4 Things to Know About the Ukrainian Air Defence [ANALYSIS]

Slovak S-300PMU system during an exercise. These systems have recently been delivered to Ukraine.
Photo. Slovak Ministry of Defence

Russian Armed Forces have carried out a massive strike against targets located in Ukraine, including critical infrastructure. Waves of cruise missiles launched from strategic bombers flying in the Russian airspace, and loitering munitions launched from Belarus were involved. The strikes were conducted despite the well-functioning air defences. Why did it happen?

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Lviv, Kiyiv, Dnipro, Ternopil...The list of cities that suffered from airstrikes in Ukraine is long. The Russian attacks involve a variety of assets. Mentions have been made of the Kh-101 (4 thousand kilometre range, air-launched from strategic bombers) cruise missiles, as well as Kalibr missiles launched by warships, with a range of 2.5 thousand kilometres. These munitions may be launched from Russian territory, and this is not dangerous for the carrier platforms. The cruise missiles are the only thing that could be neutralized.

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Noteworthy, the airstrikes utilizing these weapons, targeting Kyiv or Lviv, were also happening at the beginning of the full-scale conflict. Then, the intensity of the use of these assets went down. Only between 24th February and 6th March, 600 strikes happened, and a total of 1,000 was recorded until 17th March. Then we have been witnessing a decline. The opinionmakers were saying that this happened due to the limited Russian stockpile of missiles - the cruise missiles are expensive and require sophisticated components. The missiles shot down over Ukraine often contained western-made parts. This is also proven by the fact that Moscow decided to use the obsolete Kh-22 missiles, dating back to the USSR era. These hit, among other targets, the shopping mall in Kremenchuk back in June. Another matter was the use of the S-300 SAM system effectors for surface-to-surface engagements.

However, after the Kerch bridge explosion, caused by Ukraine - as the Russians claim, which is not certain - another series of missile strikes has been launched, targeting civil infrastructure, including the power plants. Did the Russians finally use their wartime strategic stockpile that had not been a part of the "special operation" before? Actions as such may point to an evolution of the conflict profile, but this should be covered by a separate analysis.

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Iranian Shahed-136 UAVs were used in the airstrikes originating from the territory of Belarus. These systems are theoretically capable of attacking targets located up to 2,500 kilometres away. So far we could have witnessed them being used against targets near the frontline - such as the artillery positions - that had been pinpointed by the Russians. However, these UAVs may also be used in terrorist attacks in the cities, despite their lighter, 20-30 kilogram warheads.

Numerous opinionmakers wonder why those airstrikes have not been stopped by the Ukrainian air defence assets. Let us add, that the kill ratio of these assets has been a major surprise for the analysts. Even though the Ukrainian IADS has not been able to fully stop the massive airstrikes against the cities (like the ones happening in February or March), from the onset of the conflict the air defences have been causing trouble to the Russian Aerospace Forces, also shooting down some cruise and ballistic missiles.

Furthermore, the air defence systems have also been effectively protecting the Ukrainian forces on the ground, at the frontline. The Russian air assets, both MRCA, as well as the attack helicopters, cannot effectively support the land units. This has been one of the main factors that made it possible to conduct an effective counterattack in the Kharkiv region. Manoeuvring elements of the land forces may be a vulnerable target, unless proper protection is provided, contrary to camouflaged, and stationary units. The Ukrainian forces have an effective set of air defence assets at their disposal.

The Ukrainian air defence component utilized mostly Post-Soviet systems, such as Osa, Buk, and S-300P/S-300V SAMs, and Western-made MANPADS (Stinger, Piorun, Starstreak). Recently the Armed Forces of Ukraine also received the Gepard AAA systems. This forces the Russians to employ "spray and pray" tactics. This set of tactics involves a low-level approach to the target and the launching of an unguided rocket salvo using a ballistic trajectory - which extends the range. Then the aircraft rapidly leaves the endangered area.

All takers just a couple of seconds - it is a moment too brief for the air defence systems to react before the aircraft disappears, hiding behind terrain. These tactics lack any effectiveness, and the Russians are suffering from losses anyway. Oryx Spioenkopp claims that Russia has lost 60 combat aircraft since the beginning of the war - and most of them were caused by air defences. And not all of the aircraft downed have been photographed.

Paradoxically lethal Ukrainian air defences could have made an impression of being impenetrable. No IADS like that exists, and never will. How did the Russians manage to conduct the airstrike then? There are several reasons.

1.Saturating the Ukrainian air defences. The simplest and most obvious explanation is saturation, with the sheer number of Russian assets overwhelming the Ukrainian targeting channels - sensors and effectors. Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Valeriy Zaluzhny, announced that the Russians have launched 75 missiles during the first phase of the strike. 41 were supposedly shot down, and at least 34 have reached their targets. The airstrikes also involved UAV assets.

3M-14 “Kalibr-NK” Launch, project 11356 Admiral Essen frigate, December 2019.
Photo. mil.ru

2.Target profile. Cruise missiles and loitering munitions have been the primary weapons used in the airstrike, along with ballistic missiles such as the Iskanders. All of those are a challenge for the air defences. The cruise missiles travel at a speed of around 300 meters per second, several to 150 meters above the ground. Taking the Earth curvature into the account, the GBAD sensors can detect them at less than 47 kilometres (assuming that the missile flies at an altitude of 100 meters, and the antenna array is placed 10 meters above the ground). If the missile is lower, the detection may be possible at an even shorter range, especially when the terrain around the sensor is not flat.

This gives the air defence systems 60-120 seconds to react. It is difficult to down such a missile, even when an early warning is provided. The time listed above is available for target detection, discrimination, assignment, and launch sequence. It is not enough to illuminate the target with the fire control radar beam, after which a pilot of a manned combat aircraft could resign from carrying on with the mission. Let us add that the reaction time for the Buk/Gang SAM (one of the primary Ukrainian assets) is as long as 24 seconds (ref: J. Sadowski, "Broń Przeciwlotnicza" (PL: Anti-Aircraft Weapons), Bellona, Warsaw 2002).

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3.Specific nature and capability gaps in the Ukrainian Air Defence System. Another element that comes into the equation is the capability of the Ukrainian air defence system (and its deficiencies). The capabilities are formed by numerous, layered air defence assets. The first layer comes in a form of the S-300P system, with an estimated range of 75-90 kilometres, capable of attacking high-flying threats (up to 27 kilometres). A small number of heavier S-300V systems also remains available, used against ballistic targets. The second layer is formed by the Buk system, with a range of 30 kilometres, and capable of attacking threats flying 11 kilometres above the ground. Both systems offer multi-channel capability which means they can neutralize multiple targets at once. These, however, use semi-active/command-based guidance and very much depend on the fire control radars that need to lock onto the targets throughout the engagement time. The above means that it cannot be assumed that an S-300P system would protect an area within 90 kilometres radius, with 360-degrees coverage. Not only is its NEZ limited by what the radar sees, but also by the Earth's curvature - for low-flying threats such as UAVs or cruise missiles.

More importantly, these are legacy SAMs, with less capability to rapidly react to threats emerging suddenly or using a terrain-following flight profile. A certain number of modified Neva systems is also available in Ukraine - also a legacy solution, with guidance depending on the fire control radar and all of its deficiencies. The lowest levels include SHORAD assets (like OSA), and VSHORAD systems (Stinger, Piorun, Starstreak). Here, however, we should ask a question how many of these protect the cities, and how many are used at the frontline? There is also very little time to conduct a successful engagement against a cruise missile flying at 300 meters per second, with a system the range of which does not exceed 10 kilometres. The launch sequence needs to be properly prepared. And this always takes up precious time. So, even such a sophisticated, layered air defence system can be overwhelmed.

NASAMS launcher.
Photo. J. Sabak

4.Wear and workload imposed on the Ukrainian air defences. We need to remember that the Ukrainian air defences have been fighting the aggressor for more than 7 months now, suffering from losses, and equipment wear and tear. The supplies of western origin are limited to VSHORAD assets only. The S-300P/Buk stockpile would be challenging to replenish, even with deliveries from Slovakia for instance. Ukraine is yet to receive Western-made systems. And at least several such systems would be needed. This year, a single German IRIS-T SL and two US-Norwegian NASAMS systems are scheduled for delivery. We also need to remember that Ukraine is facing a dilemma - do we protect the cities or the Armed Forces? This would not be surprising if, when fewer airstrikes were targeting the cities, Kyiv transferred some of the air defence assets to protect the troops on the ground, also including the area air defence systems such as S-300P or Buk.

More importantly, the Ukrainian air defence systems need to be constantly on the move, they cannot be stationary. Should this not be the case, they would have fallen a victim to the Russian SEAD/DEAD effort a long time ago, despite all deficiencies of the Russian airstrike and reconnaissance system. That also means that not all of those assets are available at any given moment when they are needed. Let us add that changing the firing positions is not a novelty in the air defence domain. Thus, the new Polish Narew and Wisła systems (net-centric, 2 generations younger than the Ukrainian counterparts) would include doubled number of fire units, 360-degree coverage fire control radars, and two C2 systems. When one unit is engaging targets, the second one may, or even must be on the move.

Summing it up, it is not a surprise the Ukrainian IADS has been unable to defend the area from such an intense attack. Kyiv's air defences are strong and quantitatively expansive, but they have their limitations that need to be taken into the account. If a similar airstrike was conducted against NATO nations, MRCAs, coordinated by AWACS AEW assets, and capable of launching multiple AMRAAM or Meteor missiles would be a part of the defensive effort. It is not a secret that the number of GBAD assets would be insufficient - in Germany, or even in the US. The West has just started to recover the relevant capabilities in that domain.

One of the major weaknesses of the Ukrainian air defence system is the lack of assets that would make it possible to track targets beyond the horizon (such as the AWACS platform), and the inadequate sophistication of the air defence means. Especially painful is the lack of systems capable of defending the given area from a massive airstrike, regardless of the directions where the threat is detected. This would require multi-channel systems with missiles guided by active radar, not being limited by the capability of the fire control radar, such as CAMM, IRIS-T, or NASAMS. Deliveries of such systems have just been planned - from the Ukrainian point of view, it would be desired to accelerate them.

Summing it up, however, taking just the GBAD systems into the account, and excluding the warships with strong, layered air defence systems (the German and French land forces lack, for instance), and the air force, the Ukrainian air defence system may be viewed as stronger than its most advanced NATO counterparts (Poland as well). However, any air defence system is a part of a comprehensive combat solution and needs to be perceived in that context. For instance, Ukraine does not have the capacity now, to carry out deep strikes in Russia.

One could risk stating that to respond to a threat similar to the one faced by Ukraine, the assumptions for the Polish Narew or Wisła systems have been developed. These would cost at least several billion dollars, and they would be integrated with modern sensors, also airborne ones. Maybe the Polish F-35s would take on that role. This is proof of the complex nature and costs associated with the neutralization of an airstrike as intense, as the one faced by the strong Ukrainian air defences. Paradoxically, as the opinionmakers and media highlight the suffering of the civilians, also caused by the destruction of the infrastructure (that had not been a target to that extent before), one should not forget about tasks and decisions that the Ukrainian air defence component is facing.

The allocation and deployment of assets, and the "cities or the military units" dilemma would have a major impact on the course of the war. Even if the Ukrainian land forces have their own, organic GBAD assets, alongside those of the air force, the air defence system is viewed as a whole, and this is how the deployment of assets and forces is usually treated. Currently, in light of the threat to civilians, decisions on the deployment of air defence assets would be even more challenging.

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