What Goes Around Comes Around - Changing Contours of Air and Air Defence War in Ukraine
Lt Gen (Dr) V K Saxena (Retd), PVSM, AVSM, VSM

The old cliché, ‘what goes around comes around’ best describes the changing contours of the air and air defence war as it unfolds in Ukraine and is now spilling into Russia. This work examines how this part of the conflict has changed its colours in the year and four months gone by.

Like everything else, the war in the air and its counter in multiple mediums on ground Sea and air have followed the contours as were forced by the circumstances that evolved as the war chugged along its bloody course and continues to do so now in its rebound mode. These are briefly captured.

A Suboptimal Start and its Outcome

What shaped the air-air defence war in its early days was the outcome of a sub-optimal operation by Russia that failed to give them the type of results they were expecting. In that, the so christened ‘Special Military Operation’ which President Putin presumably thought of winding up in a few days of crushing Ukraine with his vastly superior military might ( a la Crimea) didn’t quite happen. Why? Multiple reasons:-

  • Despite Russia pressing in a huge amount of strike power ( aircrafts -SU 25, 25SM, 27, 30, 35, Migs 29, attack helicopters (AH) –Mi 24,24P, 28, 35 and Kamov 51 and 52, missile force, rocket artillery and more), it could not achieve its aim fully. What was the aim?
  • The grand plan as in every pre-emptive strike that kicks off the air war is to kill maximum of the adversary’s combat and support air assets on ground (called counter air operations or CAO) as also to blind its air defences by destroying their ‘eyes and ears and battle management capability’ (called the suppression of enemy air defence or SEAD).
  • Peculiar SEAD targets include air defence sensors for early warning, target designation, gun and missile guidance and the air defence control and reporting system or ADCRS which manages the complex air defence battle (not explained further).
  • Neither the CAO could adequately destroy Ukrainian air assets nor the SEAD could debilitate the air defences to a point where it is no more effective. Had these succeeded as planned, the resulting air supremacy of the Russian air power coupled with a blitzkrieg by its huge fire arm of mechanized forces would have produced the type of ‘quick capitulation’ doing rounds in President Putin’s mind.
  • It is inconsequential for this work to explain the WHYs for this outcome. May be just a list will do. Here it is – initial surprise not fully achieved, Ukrainian air assets largely under concrete, ADCRS assets mostly dug down thus protected from catastrophic kills, targeting information with attackers rather patchy, training of combat pilots, iffy… the list is long.
Outcome 1: The Attack Helicopters} AHs Succumb to MANPADS
  • With skies remaining contested, even the second mightiest air force in the world was denied even a favourable air situation what to talk of air superiority!
  • While both sides suffered casualties, the air losses of Russia mounted. The heaviest brunt was taken by its AH fleet especially the twin rotor Kamov machines. Some 25-30 out of the 100+ deployed were downed (a huge number indeed)
  • The serial killer for AH fleet proved to be the shoulder-fired man-portable missiles (MANPADs). Talking of MANPADS while the Ukraine had its own inventory of MANPADS ( Strela 2, Strela 3, Igla 1,) the rest (and a huge number) were provided by the US and western powers (US - Chiron, Mistral, Marlet, Stingers, UK-, Star Streak and similar weapons from Germany, Denmark, Lithuania and Netherlands. [1],[2]
  • Tucked into the nooks and corner of the Tactical Battle Area (TBA) a large proliferation of these SAMs played merry hell in downing a large number of AHs.
  • Experts cite several reasons for such high casualties. Sheer numbers of MANPADS overwhelmed the defensive measures like approach warning sensors and countermeasure dispensing suits etc. on board the AH. All hunter-killer stations could not be identified by attacking gunships. There was sub-optimal situational awareness of the battlefield. Also there appeared a lack of communication and connectivity between aerial threat vehicles and their ground controllers [3].
  • As per one open source report, the Russian losses between the period 24 Feb to 27 Jun 2022 totaled up to some 39 combat aircrafts and 26 AHs [4].
Outcome 2: The Blitzkrieg Remained Short of Plan

In these circumstances as the next planned phase of the operation unleashed its fury in the form of mechanised columns (tanks and armoured personnel carriers) attempting to pierce their way into the gut of the adversary land from South and SE, it remained a dream largely unfulfilled.
The long-winded armoured columns were often grinded to a halt by disproportionate number of kills scored by US Javelin Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs), UK-Swedish Light Anti-Tank Weapons (NLAWS) and more importantly the Turkish TB2 Bayractor Drone.[5]

Several reasons accounted for such an outcome:-

  • Ukrainian strike power survived to fight another day. Casualties in air assets mounted on both sides.
  • The operation of the AH fleet in close support of the moving mechanized columns came under increasing MANPAD fire stunting their operations somewhat at the firing line.
  • Initially the solid might of the Russian Ground Based Air Defence Weapon Systems (GBADWS) to include 23 mm towed and self propelled guns, a full spectrum of Very Short Range Air Defence Weapons ( VSHORADS – Strela 2m, Strea10m, OSA AK) and Medium Range SAM systems ( SAM 6 Kvadrat, Buk2M, Pantsir etc) didn’t really pan out to their full-kill potential.
  • A large number of potent GBADWS were often seen moving huddled along as a ‘convoy’ (sic) rather than tactically leapfrogging in a manner as to keep the advancing head of mechanized forces in their beat.
  • Also, the Russian GBADWS firearm had a conventional tone, i.e. more suited to take on the conventional threat of aircrafts, AHs, SAMs etc. The specific anti-drone arsenal, both in terms of electro-optical (EO) and RF sensors and kill means based on soft-mode of RF kill or laser kill were not seen in action. The author even saw a sickening video of a small drone ramming into lethal missile guidance radar of BUK 2 M system (sic).
  • The casualties to mechanized forces, both men and machine were mounting. According to an open source report in Jul 2022, a whopping 1700 armoured vehicles and some 6% of all personal casualties (23,367 killed as of 19 Jul 2022)[6] were tank men. Even when corrected hugely for misinformation, the losses are huge.
A Change of Gear and its Outcome

It was around this time (Jul/Aug 22) when the Russian prosecution of war showed a clear shift in gear. The headlong armored assaults through long mechanized fire-arms gave way to heavy fire assaults by a large number of guns and howitzers of varying calibers spewing fire upto a range from 30-60km.

The gun fire was supplemented by Artillery mortars and a series of Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRLs).

  • The strategy was to not to rush in the mechanized forces in opposed scenarios and take casualties but to pulverize the target with such preponderance of fire before the contact battle that the resistance is squeezed out a-priori.
  • In some cases the sheer quantum of fire assault was such that the defenders had to leave their posts even before the contact battle joined (case in point - attack on the city of Lysychansk in Eastern Ukraine on 04 Jul 2022)[7].
  • This was the state obtaining around Oct/Nov 2022. An open source report dated 10 Nov 2022 claimed that Russia is firing a staggering 20,000 artillery rounds on Ukraine per day while in reply the Ukraine is doing some 4000[8]. Even if the numbers are filtered for exaggeration, the skew is unmistakable.
Enter the Mass Drone Phase

It was on 08 Oct 22 when an Ukrainian truck bomb partially destroyed the critical road bridge (Kerch Strait Bridge)[9]. Not only it was the sole road link from Crimea to Russia, but also, the same had a prestige angle. It was personally inaugurated by President Putin in May 2018. Retaliation was huge:-

  • A mass rocket and missile attack targeting the cities of Kharkiv, Kyiv, Ternopil, Lviv, Khmelnytskyi, Zhytomyr and Kropyvnytskyi ensued[10].
  • This was followed up by massed drone attacks; 40-50 or more of them in a single mission and causing widespread damage. A large portion of these unmanned machines were reported to be the Turkish origin Shahed136 drones (Geran-2 in Russia).
  • The pattern of attack seemed to be focussed on taking out the thermal or hydroelectric power grid in Ukraine as hundreds of these Kamikaze machines struck causing much of the power outages and ushering in a dark and cold winter.[11]
  • It was around this time (Oct 22) when the Ukrainians pulled of a drone attack on the Russian Black Sea fleet located in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol damaging a Slava-class Moskva guided missile cruiser and a few minesweepers[12]. This would be the beginning of many such drone attacks.
Hypersonic Missiles Enter the Scene

By this time we were two months into the Battle of Bakhmut which commenced on 01 Aug 22 and rages on 11 months and counting[13]. It has been the deadliest and the bloodiest of all the wars in Ukraine till date that has reportedly accounted for 60,000 Russian casualties and 20000+Ukrainian (western media; figures to be seen in that light)[14]. In the context of air and air defence battle, it is around this time that Russia used its Kinzhal hypersonic missiles (Kh-47M2 with range 1500-2000km).
It reportedly happened around Feb/Mar 2023 though there were reports of its use in the opening days of war as well. These were launched to cause lasting damage to Ukraine’s energy networks. These could not be countered and caused catastrophic damage at several energy, infrastructure and population targets.

The Rebound

As Bakhmut bled and fighting intensified in Eastern Donetsk and the southern Mariupol region there was much reportage of a Ukrainian counter-offensive that kicked off on 04 Jun 2023- a hard-slog inch by-inch offensive that reportedly is going slower than expected ( further details of ground war not covered) . As regards the air defence war, the counter-offensive or equivalent thereof (rebound) started in parts quite early. A trail of this rebound is captured briefly.

Somewhere around Aug /Sep 2022 when the Russian artillery fire assaults were gaining in intensity and causing catastrophic damage, an effort was made by Ukraine to mount attacks on the ammunition depots feeding the fire offensive. Some important events are mentioned:-

  • Jul 22-Russian ammunition depot at Noha-Kakhovka ( South Ukraine attacked)
  • Aug 22 – Russian ammunition depot near the village of Timonovo (Crimea) attacked.[15]
  • Oct 22 – Major ammunition depot at Kherson attacked.
  • Jun 23- Repeat attack on Ammunition depot at Kherson.

The aerial threat vehicles used for the attacks were largely the small-sized kamikaze drones(Bayracter TB2, US Switchblade, indigenous Aerorovidka UJ 22, R18 etc) backed by missile barrages.

The next visible pattern emerged when the drones were seen increasing their beat of attack into Russian territory. Staring end Apr/ beginning May 2023 and continuing thereafter, Ukrainian drones have carried out several strikes inside Russian territory mostly in the Bryansk and Belgorod region in Russian NE border with Ukraine and in Crimean region. The targets have been oil facilities, airfields and energy infrastructure. Here is a small sample[16]:-

  • On 03 May a drone footage was released alleging an attack on Kremlin.
  • On 10 May a drone attack was mounted on a training facility in the Voronezh region killing 10 soldiers.
  • On 31 May 23, the drone attacked an oil refinery in Krasnodar region in Southern Russia.
  • Around the same time drone strikes were reported in Belgorod region.

Though not strictly related to the air-air defence war, several sabotage attempts are being executed inside Russian territory allegedly cultivated by Ukraine (not detailed any further).[17]

Changing Tactical Gears- Lessons from Earlier Campaign

Another fact that is noticeable at this point is time is a perceptible change in gear by the Russian forces quite in contrast to their actions during the early run of the campaign. Some points in this regard are stated:-

  • The earlier fire assaults and more importantly the counter rocket artillery and mortar (CRAM) fire on Ukrainian positions were both sluggish and many times inaccurate. This changed overtime, the CRAM are now witnessing an up-skilled job, where fire is getting returned both promptly and accurately.
  • The earlier headlong surges by mechanized forces, drilling their blood-soaked way into the Ukrainian positions mainly relying on brute firepower and taking disproportionate casualties at the hands of killer drones and many an anti-tank missiles slowly became a passé. Especially seen in Bakmut, the Russian armoured convoys were far more cautious, preceded by probing attacks and often drawing fire proactively to identify gaps.
  • Better artillery co-ordination, better air space control and far more responsive ADCRS can now be seen in the nearly 600 odd miles front line. This is in sharp contrast to the suboptimal use of air defence guns and missiles and the much needed offensive air support to the forward line.[18]
  • One prominent failing noticed in the earlier days of the campaign was the lack of tailor-made anti-drone arsenal including the soft kill capability. This is also changing fast with deployment of Russian electronic warfare equipment that is proving to be quite a damper in drone-based assault operations by Ukraine and for misguiding many a Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM or precision guided munitions) that work on satellite based positioning, navigation and targeting system.[19]
  • For Russia, better fire and maneuver tactics, small team operations, quick outflanking of Ukrainian positions before final assaults, much lesser prisoners of war, better drone surveillance, better and quicker concentration of artillery for effect were witnessed during many a battles in the period Feb-Jun and counting.

Russian air and air defence tactics are showing the following signs of change:-

  • The GBADWS are far more connected to their surveillance and weapon guidance radars thus are becoming increasingly potent to deliver aimed fire on Ukrainian drones and other aerial threat vehicles.
  • The operations by strike aircrafts that cooled a bit after the initial losses are getting back with improved BMC2 system. In order to cut losses in one-on-one dogfights, the emphasis is on delivering standoff weaponry (lofted S8 salvos, FAB 500 glide bombs etc.) from ranges 50-70 km thus remaining out of the harm’s way[20].
  • The AH fleet is increasingly getting back in action keeping in mind the preponderance of armoured and mechanized vehicles being pressed into the counteroffensive by Ukraine. It is reported that the twelve Brigades (each of 3500-4000 personnel) lined up for the counteroffensive have in all some 1550 armoured vehicles and 230 tanks[21]. An ideal battleground for the Russian air might.
The Battle Continues…

The narrative above that describes how the Russians are kind of getting back to where they started in terms of correcting much of their initial follies and the Ukrainian’s trying a rebound give relevance to the caption- what goes around comes around.


[1] “What are the MANPADS that the west is sending to Ukraine?” at www.thehindu.com.Accessed on 14 Jun 2023.
[2] “List of equipment of the armed forces of Ukraine,” at www.en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 14 Jun 2023.
[3] “How the Ukrainians wrecked the Russian best helicopter regiments,” at wwwforbes.com Accessed on 16 Jun 2023.
[4] ibid
[5] “Why drones turned the tide for Azerbaijan,” at www.vifindia.org. Accessed on 16 Jun 2023.
[6] “Casualties of the Russo-Ukraine war..,” at www.en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 16 Jun 2023.
[7] “War in Ukraine-BBC News,” at www.bbc.com. Accessed on 17 Jun 2023.
[8] “Russia and Ukraine are firing 24000 or more artillery rounds a day,” at www.nbcnews.com. Accessed on 20 Jun 2023
[9] “Key bridge linking Crimea to Russia hit by huge explosion,” at www.the guardian.com. Accessed on 20 Jun 2023.
[10] “Ukrainian cities hit as Russia retaliates after the Crimea Bridge collapse,” at www. Theindianexpress.com. accessed on 21 Jun 2023.
[11] Ukraine’s power grid destroyed on a colossal scale..” at www.theguardian.com. Accessed on 21 Jun 2023
[12] “Massive’ drone attack on Black Sea fleet,”at www.BBC.com. Accessed on 21 Jun 2023.
[13] Battle of Bakhmut” at www.en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 22 Jun 2023.
[14] ibid
[15] “Russian munitions depot ablaze near Ukraine border,” at www.themoscowtimes.com. Accessed on 23 Jun 2023.
[16] “What do we know about drone attacks in Russia.” At wwwbbcness.com. Accessed on 27 Jun 2023
[17] “Ukraine has cultivated sabotage agents..”at www.cnn.com.cdn.ampproject.com. Accessed on27 Jun 2023.
[18] “Russia learning from costly mistakes,” at www.nytimes.com. Accessed on 27 Jun 2023
[19] “Jamming JDAM..” at www.rusi.org. Accessed on 27 Jun 2023
[20] “Russian tactics in second year of invasion,” at www.rusi.org.Accessed on 27 Jun 2023.
[21] “Factbox: who are the forces involved in Ukraine’s counteroffensive,” at www.reuters.com. Accessed on 27 Jun 2023

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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