Assessing Ukraine’s Air Defense Deterrent – Analysis


By Can Kasapoğlu*

1. Evaluating Russian Airpower

In the opening stages of its invasion of Ukraine, Russian airpower fell short in two crucial tasks. It failed to attain air superiority, and it failed to ground the Ukrainian Air Force. The inability of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) to run a robust SEAD (suppression of enemy air defenses) campaign proved costly. The VKS’s shortfalls, combined with Ukraine’s dispersed air defenses and effective SAM (surface-to-air missile) capabilities, attritted Russian airpower. Worse for Moscow, its lack of precision-guided munitions forced Russian pilots to fly at lower altitudes. As a result, Ukraine’s MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems) preyed on Russian aircraft at lower altitudes, scoring sensational kills of advanced Russian platforms.

The VKS’s unsuccessful SEAD performance left many of the Ukrainian Air Force’s critical facilities operational, including command-control nodes, ammunition depots, and runways. Thus, while outmatched by the VKS in aerial engagements, the Ukrainian Air Force has managed to fly combat sorties at low altitudes for brief periods to date, exploiting ground clutter and using terrain masking to its advantage.

As previous editions of this report have explained, Russia’s Su-35S and Su-30SM aircraft, equipped with long-range R-77-1 air-to-air missiles, and respectively with N035 Irbis-E and N110M Bars-M radars, outclass the Ukrainian Mig-29 and Su-27 fleet with its R-27R/ER missiles. Advanced Russian aircraft regularly conduct combat air patrols (CAPs)—during which they defend an airspace against adversary aircraft—between altitudes of 20,000 and 26,000 feet. These aircraft, as well as the Su-34 tactical bomber, also carry L-175 “Khibiny” electronic warfare pods that jam Ukrainian platforms’ sensors and in-flight communications. 

Russian air defenses are also strong. Its long-range S-400 SAM systems, empowered by Podlet 48Ya6-K1 radars customized for detecting aircraft at low altitudes, have proven effective against the Ukrainian Air Force. Field reports and interviews with Ukrainian airmen indicate that Podlet radar has helped Russian SAM systems score kills against aircraft flying over 150 kilometers away at altitudes below 50 feet. Su-35S combat air patrols at mid-altitude levels have used R-37 air-to-air missiles to intercept Ukrainian aircraft at even longer ranges, marking kills as far as 177 kilometers away. Layered with frontline SAM systems such as the SA-17 and SA-15, Russia’s combat-deployed air defenses pose a serious threat.

To impede Russian raids, the Ukrainian Armed Forces in large part utilize Soviet-era air defenses, including more than 100 pieces of S-300/SA-10 and Buk-M1/SA-11 launchers. These have been at the center of the fight against Russian missile and drone salvos for much of the conflict’s duration. These systems, however, have begun to starve on a dwindling number of missiles. While Ukraine’s air defenses have managed to register an impressive kill ratio thus far, their limited number of remaining interceptors may cause them to preserve their missiles for high-priority targets.

2. Russia Maintains Its Arsenal

In the early stages of the conflict, Western and Ukrainian intelligence estimated that Russia’s stockpile of weapons would quickly face depletion. According to this line of thought, the prolonged conflict would hamper Russia’s military strategy of wearing down Ukraine with drones and missiles. As the conflict has worn on, this assessment has proved flawed. Facing a pressing operational tempo amidst a prolonged conflict, Russia has done three things to keep its arsenal stockpiled. 

First, Russia has relied on older technology that is less advanced but available in large quantities. The S-300 air defense missiles, for example, have proven extremely dangerous when modified for land-attack roles. While the modified S-300s lack accuracy, they pursue a quasi-ballistic trajectory that puts overwhelming stress on air defenses. Likewise, the VKS now launches the Kh-22 anti-ship missile, originally a carrier-killer tipped with a powerful warhead, into Ukrainian population centers. On January 14, 2023, the missile killed 45 people in a single strike after hitting a residential area in Dnipro.

Second, as Hudson Institute’s Ukraine Military Situation Report series has warned in previous editions, the Russian defense industry has upgraded its available FAB-500 dumb bombs with glide kits. Although these modernized air-ground munitions lack precision, they have gained a range of some 44 miles. In the meantime, Russian defense industries continue circumventing Western sanctions and producing advanced systems, albeit at a slower rate. 

Third, Russia has benefited from Iran’s generosity. Iran-manufactured Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 loitering munitions have been terrorizing the Ukrainian people. These drones come with affordable price tags, as cheap as $20,000, and in very large numbers thanks to Iran’s efficient drone production lines. 

These three factors have allowed Russia to continue threatening Ukraine with drones and missiles. Two further dynamics bear monitoring. First, should Beijing become involved in arming Russia, it can opt for transferring ZT-180 loitering munitions that would pose an additional threat. Second, United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 imposes only time-limited restrictions on Iran’s missile program. These restrictions are set to expire on October 18, 2023. The Western intelligence community should therefore monitor any missile transactions between Russia and Iran, particularly for Fateh-110 derivatives that can be transferred in large numbers and could devastate Ukraine. 

3. Ukraine Requires Improved Air Defenses

Faced with these threats, Ukraine requires improved air defenses. Its arsenal of Soviet-era SAM systems is now running on a dwindling supply of interceptors, while Russia’s air assault defies Western expectations. The Russian military continues to procure drones from Iran, and open-source defense intelligence shows it has recently been employing dynamic assets with distinct flight trajectories in mixed strike packages. Air-launched and naval-launched cruise missiles, aero-ballistic missiles, and loitering munitions unleashed from Krasnodar and Bryansk now pound Ukrainian cities in operational harmony.

Mixed strike packages overwhelm not only interceptors but also the sensors network of Ukraine’s air defense systems. On March 9, 2023, for example, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation launched their largest missile and drone salvo to date. At least 84 missiles of various types (e.g., Kh-22, Kh-101/Kh-555, Kalibr, Kinzhal, Kh-31P, Kh-59, and modified S-300s) and at least eight Shahed-136 loitering munitions pounded Ukraine. The Ukrainian air defenses were able to intercept only 34 missiles and no more than half of the loitering munitions. 

Even worse, the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact NATO nations are reaching their limits in supplying the Ukrainian military’s arsenal with Soviet-era interceptors. This is why NATO capitals should accelerate Ukraine’s transition to Western SAM systems while keeping Kyiv’s Soviet-remnant air-defense edge operational as long as possible. Without resupply and gradual replacement, Ukraine’s battle-torn air defenses will continue to remain vulnerable to Russian attacks.

M-SHORAD (maneuver short-range air defense), which integrates existing guns, missiles, rockets, and sensors, is also critically important ahead of the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ long-awaited counter-offensive. Without this capability, Ukraine risks sending mechanized brigades unprotected into the teeth of the VKS while being unable to hold its fixed defensive positions and rear areas.

These considerations highlight the importance of Western weapons transfers to Ukraine. Just this week, the Ukrainian military shot down two advanced Russian aircraft—one Su-34 and one Su-35—and two rotary-wing platforms, at least one of which was a valuable Mi-8 MTPR-I electronic warfare helicopter. (While the Ukrainian military initially denied responsibility, as the incident took place in Russian airspace around Bryansk, available evidence suggests that Russian friendly fire is unlikely to be responsible.) While Ukraine has thus far relied largely on mid-altitude systems like NASAMS and IRIS-T, strategic SAM systems—especially the Patriot—hold great potential.

4. The Patriot’s Potential

The Patriot surface-to-air missile could be just the weapon Ukraine needs. Recent news of deliveries of AmericanDutch, and German Patriot packages, as well as French-Italian SAMP/T systems, have justifiably made headlines. Open-source writings suggest that the US and Germany are transferring one Patriot battery each to Ukraine, while the Dutch will send two launchers. This combination would allow Ukraine to operate at least ten to twelve launchers, and potentially even more. 

The Patriot’s most recent large-scale combat success was defending the Gulf Arab states against missiles launched by the Iran-backed Houthi. Open-source evidence suggests an impressive interception rate for the system, especially against ballistic missiles. The Houthi drones and cruise missiles, however, caused trouble for the Patriots with their small radar signatures and complicated flight paths. The Patriot is also an expensive weapon.

Such an expensive American-made weapons system has therefore become a magnet for Russian strikes. The Kremlin recently launched Kinzhal aeroballistic missiles carried by Mig-31 interceptor aircraft to eliminate the Patriots on Ukrainian soil. Catching military analysts off-guard, the Patriot system reportedly intercepted one Kinzhal missile, while at least one Patriot launcher suffered damage. 

The Kinzhal, the aeroballistic variant of the Iskander ballistic missile baseline, climbs up to Mach 4 immediately following the launch and then gains speed rapidly, with Russian sources claiming it can accelerate up to Mach 10. While Russia promotes it as a hypersonic weapon, almost all ballistic missiles reach hypersonic speeds above Mach 5 at some point during their paths. It has excellent maneuverability and an erratic flight trajectory. 

Just like the Patriot, the Kinzhal is an expensive weapons system, and one that Russia possesses in limited capacity. Nevertheless, one can be certain that the Russians have marked the Patriots as their highest-priority target in Ukraine.

*About the author: Can Kasapoğlu is a Hudson Institute Senior Fellow

Source: This article was published by the Hudson Institute and first appeared as a part of Hudson’s Re: Ukraine newsletter series. To subscribe, click here.

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