Analysis: Shortcomings of air defence in Ukraine

SOFIA ($1=2.01 Bulgarian Levs) — The Ukrainian conflict has showcased many shortcomings with the usage of air defence against new threats. The war has exposed shortcomings within Russian air defence coverage during offensive manoeuvres that left its forces vulnerable to aerial attacks. However, contrary to some dubious narratives that attempts to portray Russian technology as bad and inferior, Russian air defence quickly proved effective and has damaged the reputation of systems such as the Bayraktar TB2.

Citizen-funded Bayraktar TB2 UCAV for Ukraine landed in Lithuania
Photo credit: Lithuanian MoD

The issue of drones this far in the war now also challenges the Ukrainians, who in mid to late October faced swarms of Iranian-designed Shahed-136 drones that slipped past Ukrainian air defences and struck targets in Kiev and Odessa. Cheap drones more so than advanced drones could prove a more damaging tool that can probe and directly target even the most advanced air defence systems. Learning from Ukraine, anti-drone solutions and the ability to cheaply deal with drones needs serious thought from defence ministries around the world.

The opening week of the Ukrainian war saw huge Russian columns of military vehicles caught up in their own mass using Ukraine’s single-lane road network to move in a western direction. These columns at times stretched kilometres in length, with all manner of vehicles caught up in these massive, armoured traffic jams. Many vehicles towards the rear were the air defence systems designed to provide an air defence umbrella to protect vulnerable armoured vehicles from aerial attacks. This would prove a painful and costly failure that saw air defence units bogged down by military traffic with their radar systems turned off. 

Consequently, Ukraine announced successful hits on these armoured convoys from aircraft and most infamously, the TB2 drones. Videos spread across social media and showcased a massacre of vehicles with streams of logistics trucks, armoured personnel carriers, and main battle tanks destroyed with the TB2s effective air-dropped munitions. 

Bayraktar TB2 MALE unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV)
Photo: Wikipedia

The drones were in their ideal scenario – plentiful armour that lacked air defence coverage. Just like in Karabakh, exposed armour columns were brutally hit with munitions that pierce the thinly armoured tops of vehicles and tanks. More embarrassingly too were the eventually videos of TB2s hitting and destroying Russian air defence assets, which has undoubtedly severely hurt the once prestigious reputation of Russian air defence technology. Among these victims was the Buk-M2 medium-range air defence system in March. 

It must be mentioned that in all these cases when Russian air defence systems were directly targeted by drones, in not one instance were these systems active when hit. These systems were either switched off while they were being relocated to new positions or in some cases when a Russian air defence battalion was at rest. These systems are after all mechanical and need rest periods for repairs and maintenance. They cannot be used non-stop 24/7. The crew were also being rotated to get rest. Operators too require breaks every few hours. In these instances, blame must be laid at the organisation and leadership within the Russian air defence units and above. Regardless, the Ukrainian’s were the TB2 scored significant victories and humiliated Russian air defence units.  

The Russians also intended to utilise and scramble the wireless lines of communication to systems like the TB2 using electronic warfare systems. However, their absence would also explain how the TB2s could get so close to air defence systems and be able to strike them. It has been rumoured that Russian electronic warfare systems were used in the first week of the war, but due to “friendly fire” whereby Russian electronic warfare systems were jamming Russian communications, they were given the order to stand down. This coupled with a disorganised network of Russian air defence systems is what allowed the drones the perfect opportunity to wreak havoc on Russian lines and continues to this day when holes occur in air defence umbrellas.

Bayraktar TB2 MALE unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV)
Photo: Wikipedia

The mass disorganisation and poor leadership of the Russian invasion forces is what should take the blame for the incompetence of Russian air defence in the initial stages of the war. Within time, after the first month of hostilities, it became obvious that the lack of any additional drone footage was indicative of the cessation of TB2 operations or at worst a successful Russian air defence umbrella that wore down TB2 numbers. TB2 usage is now relegated to small opportunities when gaps in air defence is discovered or outright suicide usage on high-value and high-risk targets. 

It should be recalled that in the first two weeks of war, confirmed drone strikes were around a dozen, but by the end of the first month those strikes went down to nearly zero. In general, once Russian air defence was smacked into sense, and assumed positions that provided amble coverage, airspace was closed to systems like the TB2. 

Recently, a prank call by the infamous Russian prank-calling duo, Vovan and Lexus, to senior Ukrainian official Serhiy Pashinsky who stated that “there is more PR and corruption in Bayraktar than combat use”.

This adds evidence to the fact the Ukrainians know the TB2 is no longer very useful with small exceptions. Despite early successes, the system has very limited usage in a battlefield rich in anti-air systems.

Some experts who appear to possess deep anti-Russia feelings have attempted to point all blame at the quality of Soviet and Russian military-technology for failures in the early days of war. This is more than often untrue. Ukraine is perhaps a better example of a country that with legacy, but numerous Soviet-era systems has shut down its airspace for the Russian aerospace forces. Ukraine has a substantial air defence network that includes Buks but also has a large amount of S-300Ps and even some S-300Vs at its service. Many of these systems were never upgraded since the Soviet era but are extremely dangerous to an adversary. 

On both sides, friendly-fire incidents have also been an ongoing issue. This can be blamed on a lack of attention given towards safety measures such as Identification friend or foe identification system that can avoid such incidents. There have been cases of both sides shooting down their own aircraft and helicopters and this is down to a communications failure but also the lack of IFF systems in many Soviet and Russian equipment pieces.

Ukrainian air defence systems have faced a new challenge with the usage of the Geran-2, a Russian designation for an Iranian kamikaze drone originally named the Shahed-136. This small-sized drone packs a powerful warhead ranging from 40 to 50 kilograms and uses cheap commercial parts such as the engine. The drone is cheap, simple, and can be used in swarms that can overwhelm air defences around key targets including cities. 

Russia put a GLONASS navigation module in Iranian Shahed-129
Photo credit: Twitter

October was the month where Ukraine first experienced these swarms, where videos came out of policemen in central Kiev firing their automatic rifles into the air in a punitive attempt to stop the incoming kamikaze drones. Videos and clips spread through social media as these loud and intimidating flying kamikaze drones seemed to reach Kiev and Odessa relatively unchallenged and whereby the score multiple hits on Ukrainian targets. 

It is possible Ukrainian air defence was relatively absent for two likely reasons. Primarily, these attacks could have a secondary function whereby air defence systems could expose their position by engaging these targets and be hit by Russian attacks shortly after. A second more fatal issue is by this stage of the war it is assumed Ukraine is running very low on missiles for some of its legacy Soviet equipment and is sparring them engaging these expendable drones. Afterall, when a missile costs many times more than the object it is destroying and stocks of these missiles is finite, the engagement will not benefit the defender. Ukraine for instance will struggle to find missiles or systems to replenish its S-300P losses.

Russian Leer-3 jams GSMs in Ukraine and sends SMS for provocation
Video screenshot

Russia’s Orlan-10 reconnaissance drone also plays the same tune whereby it can be used in an expendable role to deplete the stocks of Ukrainian air defence missiles. While the drones are not armed, they pose a severe threat as they can conduct reconnaissance and relay information to Russian artillery pieces. The Ukrainians face a dilemma whereby they cannot afford to intercept these drones with the more complex system but cannot afford to let these drones conduct reconnaissance unchallenged. The Ukrainians thus attempt to utilise MANPADS, medium-calibre, and even small arms fire whenever possible to shoot down these drones. If necessary expensive systems, such as Buk, will be used to eliminate the threat of the drones exposing Ukrainian positions. 

There is therefore much needed action in many militaries to look at dedicated anti-drone and counter-unmanned aerial system equipment. Relying on missile-based air defence system proves too costly and expensive when dealing with cheap drones like the Shahed or the Orlan, and such countries examine the usage of dedicated SPAAGs and medium-calibre cannon systems that can more cheaply and efficiently shoot down drones.

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