Russian vulnerabilities (I): Air defences


The Russian air defences face a double problem; they are stretched thin and they don't get sufficient support by the flying air force, especially not by AEW aircraft (colloquially a.k.a. AWACS).

Being stretched thin means that there is no redundancy; a radar forced to shut down out of caution by an incoming anti-radar missile means that there's a temporary gap in the area air defences. It also means that the area air defences have insufficient coverage of the front line against very low-flying targets. Cruise missiles can slip through such gaps, and mission planning of cruise missile missions based on passive electronic warfare (triangulating and identifying radar signals plus satellite data) can almost ensure a safe passage of high quality cruise missiles such as Storm Shadow.

A-50 'Mainstay' AEW aircraft (c) mil.ru Sergey Lutsenko, Timofey Nikishin

The lack of coverage by airborne radars (A-50 Mainstay AEW aircraft were few, had questionable readiness and were decimated during the war. Fighters cannot easily maintain a good coverage with look down radar searches because their radars are built in for forward search only), even though MiG-31 and Su-35 have (on paper) impressive radars.

This means that modern cruise missiles can slip through and are most unlikely to be intercepted behind the frontline as well. It's thus not unreasonable for NATO to trust very low-flying cruise missiles for strike missions on stationary and semi-stationary (rarely moving) targets, including ships in port.

The Russian air force's deficiencies extend to the defence against cheap cruise missiles (Shaheed-136 has become the embodiment of these after it was introduced to the Russo-Ukrainian War by the Russians themselves). The costs of such cheap cruise missiles appear to range form the price of an ordinary new car to the price of a cheap family home. This is less than the costs of area air defence missiles, which range from cheap family home price to small new mansion price. The Israeli Tamir missile appears to be the only exception, combing a Porsche's price with a low end area air defence footprint.

Future small cruise missiles may be able to do what was envisaged in a West German combat drone program of the late 1980's already; patrol along roads, find and identify vehicles, engage high-enough value vehicles autonomously. This would add considerable battlefield interdiction ability (against mobile/moving targets).

As a conclusion, cheap cruise missiles are also worthwhile, even if some or many get intercepted. Targets at ranges greater than 1,000 km can be hit by cheap cruise missiles. The warhead is usually rather small and their cruise speed is rather low (or very low), so the target categories for cheap cruise missiles should for now be stationary and semi-stationary targets that can be defeated by a warhead no bigger than 50 kg and require no high impact speed. V-1-styled cheap cruise missiles (pulse jets engines are super simple and cheap) could strike at short ranges (less than 500 km) with much bigger warheads, but impact only at about Mach 0.5 speed. Hardened aircraft shelters would thus largely be ruled out, but Russia doesn't have many of those anyway. Autonomous cheap cruise missiles might have a suppressive battlefield interdiction effect.

All kinds of quasi-ballistic missiles appear to penetrate Russian (area) air defences at acceptable success rates. This means that (quasi)ballistic missiles are promising means of attack against time-critical targets such as aircraft on a tarmac, large radars, headquarters or ships that are just briefly in port. They may also be the most promising choice for very heavily defended point targets such as the pillars of an important bridge. A 'hypersonic'-ish behaviour of terminal manoeuvring from a near-vertical to a more horizontal approach for a pillar hit from the side might be advantageous for this, but many suspended bridges can be cut with a expanding rod warhead cutting steel cables as well.

The poor performance of Russian air defences also requires them to be sited quite far back, as they cannot defend themselves well-enough against small quasi-ballistic missiles such as GUMLRS (colloquially a.k.a. as "HIMARS"). GUMLRS-ER has about 150 km range, so Russian area air defences will either be unable to protect forces at the front or will be limited to ambushes (no radar/radio emissions until briefly before firing to avoid getting found & hit) or will permanently be deployed forward at a high attrition rate. This gives NATO some hopes that the post-Cold War approach of bombing with precision munitions from too high for short range air defences would work against Russia.

Finally, there's still the sophisticated and expensive capability of strike packages, an invention of mid-World War Two that got refined to almost its modern version over Vietnam in the early 70's. There's little reason to believe that the Russian air force could resist such strike packages for long, if at all. The quality displayed by its flying and land-based forces is so low that the Russian air force is probably not even on par with the French one overall. Strike packages can be considered cost-inefficient, though. They're furthermore merely a 'pulsing' capability. There would be strike aircraft over Russian ground  for some hours of the day, but not for most hours. Ordinary high frequency radio transmissions would suffice to alert Russian forces on the ground to hide rather than move on roads when such a strike package is nearby. So in the end, all that effort for strike packages is redundant to the abilities of cheap cruise missiles, cruise missiles and quasi-ballistic missiles (in the high value point target-busting role, not in regard to quickness).

I should mention that some if not most problems of the Russian Air Defence appear to be the result of poor training and poor maintenance.

What should Russia do to make its air defences fit?

  • improvement of training
  • improvement of maintenance, especially through large stocks of spare parts
  • introduce in quantity cheap area air defence means against cheap cruise missiles and drones, ideally Tamir-like and capable of taking on some quasi-ballistic missiles (such as GUMLRS-ER) as well
  • create a survivable (!) AEW platform, preferably a supercruise aircraft with decimetric AESA radars (possibly one rotating AESA antenna front and aft each for twice hemispheric coverage)
  • rely on battlefield air defences that can be hidden easily (and require no on-board radar)(example)
  • create area air defences specialised on ambushing (to protect the land force sin the field) rather than built for near-permanent observation of the sky
  • increased use of passive radars or multistatic radars with cheap emitters
  • plentiful use of believable decoy emitters and fake radio transmissions to make it hard to identify gaps in the air defences
  • localized on/off jamming of satellite navigation (GPS, Galileo, Beidou, even the own Glonass) to force the use of more expensive navigation and targeting electronics in cheap cruise missiles
  • use many cheap jammers to deny aerial and satellite radar reconnaissance
  • use lasers to dazzle photo and thermal imagery reconnaissance satellites
  • have long-range surface-to-air missiles to keep NATO AEW, tanker, standoff jammer, ELINT and air/ground radar reconnaissance aircraft at a long distance
  • minimise the need for radio communication by the air defences

I doubt that Russia can do most of these within the next 15 years - before autonomous drones become dominant almost for certain. Cheaper forms of air defence, some passive radars, more and better decoys, distributed cheap jammers (untypical for Russia, but feasible especially with Chinese input) and laser satellite dazzling appear to me as the most probable measures till the mid-2030's. A series production of the Su-57 won't make much of a difference regardless of the quality of the aircraft type and its missiles.

NATO may decide whether it's going to trust its ability to strike with stealth aircraft through gaps, to wear down air defences in a DEAD (destruction of enemy air defences) campaign or punch through defences with strike packages. The Cold War-style confidence in terrain following flight of manned strike aircraft appears to be the most risky and least favoured approach.

Alternatively, we could skip all those expenses for F-35's, dedicated anti-radar aircraft ('Wild Weasel'/ECR) and anti-radar missiles. We could use long-range container-launched cruise missiles (turbojet, 3000 km x 500 kg warhead), container-launched quasi-ballistic missiles (solid fuel rocket single stage, 1000 km x 250 kg warhead), long-ranged cheap cruise missiles (piston engine, 3000 km x 50 kg warhead) and cheap cruise missiles (pulse jet, 500 km x 500 kg warhead) and combine this with (survivable!) passive electronic warfare assets + proper mission planning (separate planning teams for hasty and for deliberate strike planning). This would cover our deep strike needs pretty well.











P.S.:  The question remains how to do battlefield interdiction against vehicles on roads. Their movement maybe dispersed rather than in convoys, and it's near-impossible to render a road network unusable for offroad-capable motor vehicles.

The Ukrainian approach is to engage motor vehicles at up to 20 km depth with drones. This poses a persistent threat. Strike packages cannot persist like that. Aerial sensors (or sensors on very high vantage points such as mountains) could enable land-based fires (dumb HE, DPICM, 'smart' artillery munitions, drones) within their effective surveillance range (including ability to sufficiently ID targets as military targets). That would likely not be much farther than 20 km because the longer-ranged SAR/GMTI radars can be jammed and deceived cheaply. So how do we impede hostile ground forces & supply movements beyond attacking (semi)stationary targets? Can't we do anything about dispersed lorry movements 500...20 km forward of our troops? We used to have battlefield interdiction aircraft for this in Western Europe (Tornado IDS, Jaguar).



  1. Is there utility in a returning strike drone concept, where the drone serves as a bomber, doing several runs?

    Does it increase cost effectiveness if the drone serves as a mothership that transports one or several smaller drones further than they could on their own, with the transported drones striking with greater precision. Would it make sense to use the mothership drone to rearm them while deployed?

    Would a combination of drone and robot make sense with the ability to precisely place charges or do other manipulations as a kind of remote operate commando unit?

    1. I suppose the drone would be MUCH bigger if you add the means to fly back a long distance. This adds costs (among other things it also needs a bigger engine) and signature.

      In the end, it's analogue to using a strike fighter vs. using a 'kamikaze' cruise missile. You don't have substantial training expenses with a reusable drone, but the platform costs + munition costs have to be compared to the higher munition costs per shot of a 'kamikaze' drone. There's going to be a break-even somewhere.

      The question is will the reusable drone type on average survive enough missions to reach the break even? (I think I covered this before in some blog post comparing Iskander-like missiles to strike fighter JDAM bombs.)

      Another issue is that 'kamikaze' cruise missiles can be launched in huge waves (even a single alpha strike), while a reusable platform brings firepower to bear over time.

    2. Thank you.

      Could you write about Israel's combination of drones and robots in Gaza sometime?

      I imagine Ukraine might be able to transports robots by drone to accomplish missions impossible by just blowing up stuff.

    3. That kind of concept makes sense if you need some highly manouverable or highly distributed targeting that works with limited explosive power. Works hereby meaning: Is more efficient. That said, you are betting everything on the mothership not getting shot down with this one before it can release its payload of smaller drones.
      It might work in a sort of role where you put it on a long endurance, high spec battlefield surveilance drone that releases the smaller ones to strike targets of opportunity, but at that point those drones are really just slower, albeit more manouverable, ATGMs.

      So in the end, it will probably be effective so long as it stays cheap enough that it is inefficient for the enemy to use a SAM on it.

  2. I definitely think Western militaries need to embrace the el cheapo cruise missile (e.g. Shahed/Harop).

    I started wondering if we could make a very cheap, reusable UCAV. If we stuck with a piston engine or cheap turboprop, we might be able to shoot for a $500k unit cost, if bought in bulk.

    Look at the Evolution Aircraft Piston version for rough size/range/payload, but slim it down to the point where it's just engine, prop, gas tank, minimalist airframe and pylons.

    It could carry one 1,000lb munition on a 5-800nmi combat radius (hi-hi-hi), or somewhat shorter lo-lo-lo profile.

    Make all sensors not associated with takeoff, landing, and navigation optional pods to keep core costs down. Comms could also be modular, with basic Tomahawk two-way satcom built in (and perhaps an inexpensive LOS datalink), and everything else an add on.

    Given the price point, these would be attritable, perhaps even deliberately used as SAM sponges. They could carry ALE-class decoys and jammers to further confuse the situation for SAM operators.

    Their benefit vs Shaheds is their ability to use inexpensive J-series weapons, or even dirt-cheap dumb bombs with less accuracy. Shahed's small warhead limits its target set. A 1,000lb bomb (or multiple 250 or 500lb bombs), can hit a much wider variety of targets.

    Fighters with guns would be a prime enemy. They'd have to be managed with other means.

  3. RUSI assessed that Russia was achieving a "significant" number of intercepts against HIMARS spring of last year. They also assessed they were able to intercept most fired HARM anti-radiation missiles. I suppose what counts as an acceptable success rate for HIMARS depends on a number of factors, but Russian IADS appears passably adequate against it, particularly when defending static positions.

    See "Meatgrinder: Russian Tactics in the Second Year of Its Invasion of Ukraine," by Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds, pg. 20.