The First casualty: Suppression of Ukrainian Air Defences


TASS, the Russian News Agency claimed within hours of the Russian offensive that “Ukrainian border guards are not putting up any resistance to Russian units. The Ukrainian air defenses are suppressed. The military infrastructure of Ukrainian Air Force bases has been degraded”. The suppression, and possible destruction, of the Ukrainian air defenses (AD) was always expected to be high on the priority list of the Russians but the speed with which it was achieved was remarkable and in some ways reminiscent of the suppression of Iraqi Air Defences by the coalition forces during the Gulf War. To better understand the suppression of Ukraine’s Air Defences it is important to step back in time and see how the events unfolded and if it is as total a suppression as claimed by Russia.

Ukraine initially had a separate air defence force, patterned on the erstwhile Soviet Air Defence Forces that served from 1992 to 2004 when it was merged with Ukrainian Air Force. The first Ukrainian air defence formations and units were part of the 28th AD Corps (itself part of the Soviet 2nd AD Army) hat were transferred to 8th AD Army of Ukraine. The new AD Force HQ were formed based on HQ 8th Air Defence Army. There were three air defence corps: the 28th  (Lviv), 49th  (Odessa), and 60th  (Dnipropetrovsk).   In 1994, the AD Force was organized on regional basis with three AD Regions coming up as Southern, Western and central AD Regions. 49th AD Corps became the Southern AD Region, 28th AD Corps the Western AD Region with Central AD Region was based on 60th AD Corps. In 2004, the AD forces were amalgamated with the Ukrainian Air Force with the Army retaining some AD units of its own. 

After years of hiatus, the armed forces of Ukraine began a transformation process after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and conflict began in the country’s east. One major reform intended was to align the armed forces  with Western military standards and make them capable of territorial defence. The priority laid down by the Air Force was to develop its air-defence forces, primarily through the modernisation of Soviet-era equipment. There were plans to increase inventory numbers by bringing back into service previously decommissioned assets, including S-300V (SA-12A Gladiator), 9K330 Tor (SA-15 Gauntlet), 2K12 Kub (SA-6 Gainful) and S-125 Neva (SA-3 Goa) surface-to-air missile systems. 

Organisation and Inventory

The organisation of AD units under the Air Force was as follows:

Air Command West, Lviv

193rd   Airspace Control and Reporting Center, Lviv

11th   Anti-Aircraft Missile Regiment,  (Buk-M1)

            223rd   Anti-Aircraft Missile Regiment (Buk-M1)

            540th   Anti-Aircraft Missile Regiment,  (S-300PS)

Air Command Central, Vasylkiv

192nd  Airspace Control and Reporting Center, Vasylkiv

96th  Anti-aircraft Missile Brigade, Danylivka (S-300PS)

            156th  Anti-aircraft Missile Regiment, Zolotonosha (Buk-M1)

            201st  Anti-aircraft Missile Regiment

Air Command South, Odessa

            195th  Airspace Control and Reporting Center, Odessa

            160th  Anti-aircraft Missile Brigade, Odessa (S-300PM)

            208th  Anti-aircraft Missile Brigade, Kherson (S-300PS)

            201st  Anti-aircraft Missile Regiment, Pervomaisk (S-300PS)

Air Command East, Dnipro

            196th  Airspace Control and Reporting Center, Dnipro

            138th  Anti-aircraft Missile Brigade, Dnipro (S-300PS)

            3020th  Anti-aircraft Missile Battalions Group

301st  Anti-aircraft Missile Regiment, Nikopol (S-300PS

According to the Military balance 2021 published by International Institute of Strategic Studies, the total SAM holding with the air force is 250 S-300P/PS/PT (SA-10 Grumble) and 72 medium range 9K37M Buk-M1 (SA-11 Gadfly) with some re-commissioned S-125 Pechora missile systems. Command and Control is exercised by the Air Force Command Centre through the Airspace Control & Reporting Centres co-located with regional Air Commands.

The Army has four AD Regiments. While it has some S-300V missile systems and six short range 9K330 Tor-M, the mainstay is the 75+ 9K35 Strela-10b (SA-13 Gopher); 9K33 Osa-AKM (SA-8 Gecko) and 75 K22 Tunguska (SA-19 Grison) along with 23mm ZSU-23-4 Shilka and the towed 23mm ZU-23-2; 57mm S-60 AA guns. 

Recent Developments

Ukraine’s air defences went on a high alert in December 2021 as Ukrainian defense officials announced  that air defenses would be increased at key locations across the country, including “more than 1,000 troops and hundreds of units of military equipment, covering bridges, hydroelectric power plants, nuclear power plants, and other critical infrastructure.” Additional deployments and re-adjustments were carried out following this, including depoloyment of the long range S-300 missile systems.Reports suggested that Ukraine deployed a S-300 battalion in January 2022 from the 201st  Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade in the south to cater for a possible attack from Crimean territory. Additionally, Ukraine reportedly deployed five Buk-M1 anti-aircraft missile systems from the 223rd  anti-aircraft missile regiment on its controlled territory in Donbass in February 2022. Separately, a battalion of the S-300 SAM systems of the 160th  Air Defense Missile Brigade was redeployed from the Odessa Region to the Kramatorsk airfield. 

All this while, Ukraine was asking for military assistance especially to boost its air defence capabilities. The request was met with resistance from within the Biden administration as it feared that Ukraine could not “absorb” a large volume of Stingers.

In January 2022, United States (US) rushed military hardware to Ukraine as US pledged all help short of boots on the ground. The Stinger air defence missiles were top of the list of the weapons systems dispatched to Ukraine.   Following this, Latvia delivered another consignment of Stingers on 23 February 2022. 

2282419 10.09.2013 Зенитный ракетный комплекс “Печора-2М” вооруженных сил Республики Таджикистан на совместных учениях объединенной системы ПВО стран СНГ “Боевое Содружество-2013” на полигоне “Ашулук”. Михаил Мокрушин/РИА Новости

Limitations of Ukrainian Air Defences

Ukrainian Air Defences had serious limitations, both in numbers and vintage equipment that equips it. The 250 S-300P/PS/PT  missile system were the only long range missile system but these were never enough to defend a country as large as Ukraine. Plus, they are of 1980s vintage and have a limited target engagement capability i.e. each unit is capable of engaging under half a dozen targets. (By contrast even Russia’s S-300PM-2 from the early 1990s can engage 36 targets and guide up to 72 missiles simultaneously). The Ukranian S-300 batteries were thus always prone to being overwhelmed and vulnerable to saturation attacks. The meagre number of short range SAMs make it near impossible to provide any layered AD, increasing  the vulnerability of its long range batteries.

The long-range SA-10 sites are largely static due to a chronic lack of spare parts, making them highly vulnerable. The re-commissioning of S-125 SAM, a relic of 1960’s, may have boosted the inventory by some numbers but the vintage system has limited capabilities. The Ukrainian variant is believed to have an extended range and modern EW countermeasures but not many of its own S-125 have been upgraded. The added limitation is the lack of integration between Ukrainian SAMsystems making them vulnerable to standalone threats.

The other systems like the Buk-M1 (SA-11 Gadfly) and 9K330 Tor-M are too few in numbers to make any difference. The point defence systems like the Stingers and the AA guns also have serious limitations in taking on the Russian air threat. 

Suppressing the Ukrainian Air Defences

Russia had more than a couple of options to neutralise and suppress the AD. It may not have the Tomahawk cruise missile, the Kalibr cruise missile missiles launched from submarines in the Black Sea is more than lethal to meet the requirement of SEAD. The other option was  precision standoff munitions deployed by Su-34 strike fighters. 

As the coalition air forces had used the Apaches to blow the first hole in the Iraqi Air Defences, Russia had the new Kamov Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopters to carry out the SEAD function. Reports indicated that 3rd  Squadron of Russia’s 39th  Helicopter Aviation Regiment had carried out training in this role. The high end electronics, combined with standoff munitions and low operational altitudes made them an ideal weapon system. Artillery strikes, especially using high-precision munitions, were another option available for the SEAD task.,

In the end, Russia used a sledgehammer to demolish the Ukrainian AD. Russian forces fired roughly 100 missiles from both land and sea against targets in Ukraine as the opening salvo. These included short- and medium-range ballistic missiles and  cruise missiles. Also, about 75 fixed-wing Russian bombers were used in the onslaught, with targets focused on military depots and air defense systems.

Withing three hours of the commencement of Russian air strikes on 24 February, the official sources reported that the Ukrainian AD had been neutralised. Russian military claimed to have destroyed 74 Ukrainian military targets on the first day including eleven Ukrainian airfields, three command posts and 18 Ukrainian radar stations of the S-300 and Buk-M1 missile systems. The Russian sources mentioned that high precision weapons had been used to disable the AD systems though  it is likely that the weapon systems used by the Russian Air Force and possibly the Navy included the  Su-34 strike fighters and Ka-52 attack helicopters also. A new system that may have been used by Russia are the Strike Drones armed whish have recently entered service and are capable of taking out armored vehicles, from mobile surface-to-air missile launchers to heavy tanks.

The Scorecard

Ukrainian air defences may have been neutralised but they did manage to shoot down six aircraft and a helicopter on the  first day itself. With scores of Stingers and guns spread over the countryside, the Russian losses may well increase in the days to come and it may be too soon to completely write off the Ukrainian air defences as yet.

Wisdom with the Hindsight

With hindsight comes wisdom. And ideas of what could have been done to avert disasters. It was the same with Ukrainian air defences. The systems could have been upgraded. More systems inducted. The West could have helped more. As a US official said, “I think air defense would have been a very smart move,” he said. “If we had put more out there sooner, we would not be where we are now.”

But all this is only of academic interest now as the Ukrainian air defences have become the first casualty of the latest conflict. 

The Russians learnt the necessary lessons from the recent conflicts and laid due emphasis to develop capabilities to carry \out SEAD in the initial stages of the conflict. The moot question is -have we, or will we learn the right lessons and when?