Russo-Ukraine Conflict: Some Inferences on Air and Air Defence Aspects
Lt Gen (Dr) V K Saxena (Retd), PVSM, AVSM, VSM

February 2022 to June 2024 and counting, that is over two and four months for which a bloody war is raging between Ukraine and Russia with no signs of ebb in the near future. [1] Such a long period of catastrophic destruction has thrown up many inferences both at the tactical, as well as, strategic levels. Many myths have been broken; many new lessons have been learnt; many old ones un-learnt, as this ‘global war in a local scenario’ chugs its blood-soaked path.

This work attempts to look at some inferences in the context of air and air defence war.

The Unfinished Job and its Penalty

In the wee hours of 22 Feb 2022, when the Russian onslaught of the offensive was about to be unleashed on Ukraine as a massive pre-emptive strike, a confident President Putin probably imagined it to be a few days into capitulation of the adversary – a la-Crimea of sorts. No wonder he called it Special Military Operation – a quick cut and finish job.

His confidence was backed by the punch he packed in execution of the Pre-emptive strike. This included frontline aircrafts (MiG 29s, SU 25, 27, 30, 35s), attack helicopters or AHs (Mi 24, 28, 35 and Kamov 51 and 52s) long range surface-to-surface missiles (9k720 Iskander, OTR 21 Tochka, Kalibr), an array of multi-barrel rocket launchers (Tornado, BM21, BM30 etc.) [2] and the gun power (2S7M Malka guns, Giatsint, Koalistsya, Masta, howitzers, large calibre mortars etc.). [3]

The said pre-emptive strike which aimed to kill maximum of the Ukrainian air assets on ground and disable their air defences by blinding its eyes and ears (radar systems) and destroying its command control and communications that control the air defence battle, fell short; very short. [4] With that went the dream of achieving air superiority in providing unstinted support to ground forces in hastening up the Ukrainian capitulation.

The inferences lie in the ‘why’ of pre-emptive falling short and there are quite a few whys. At the onset there were reports in some circles that the ‘surprise factor’, which is its foundational requirement of the pre-emptive strike was partially compromised (uncorroborated). Whether or not, maximum number of Ukrainian strike aircraft and associated support structures were under concrete hence avoided destruction. Similarly, much of the air defence command and control infrastructure was well underground – an exercise that started right after the massacre it suffered in Donbas region in 2014 when Russian air power struck Ukrainian air defences for the first time. [5]

Besides the surprise, Ukrainian successes got a shot in the arm due to many other shortcomings of the Russian war machine that executed the strike. To start with, the very fact that most of the critical targets survived does indicate a certain lack of target information by way of their precise location and the nature of protection each enjoyed. Also there was sub-optimal targeting, may be due to the lack of precision guided ammunition. There were deficits in communications and connectivity (mobile communications for fire control!). Some reports also suggested lack of air space control which cumulatively resulted in air and ground strikes missing their targets.

So, if it ever comes to our scenario of undertaking a pre-emptive strike, we must ensure that the ‘surprise’ factor is kept intact, the targeting information is accurate, there is detailed weapon-to-target matching as to create the right effect at the target-end and above all, a fool-proof air space control backed by redundant communications and connectivity. Also, if we are the defenders, we will do well to follow the Ukrainian model of ensuring maximum air assets under concrete and saving our air defences from the adversary’s onslaught by camouflage, cover, deception counter fire and more.

Blitzkrieg – A Volley of Tactical Mistakes

With skies remaining contested, the next phase of the Russian offensive unrolled in some hope that it will anyway ram its way all the way to Kiev. Hundreds of tanks (T90s, T 80s, T 84s, T 72s), armoured personnel carriers (PTS, GTUs, MT-LB,) infantry fighting vehicles (YPR 765, BMP 1,2,3,4, BTR 4, etc.) and multi-barrel rocket launchers (9A 52-4, BM21, BM30, etc.) [6]advanced as one ‘extended fire arm’ headed to the gut of the adversary’s land. It is where many a tactical mistakes happened. A brief capture:-

  • An offensive machine of these colossal dimensions moved rather un-tactically- stretched out for km on end, along long winding roads presenting an easy target to the Ukrainian air.
  • The worse was air defence - it in fact sat ‘out of the battle’. Russians are known worldwide for a very strong ground-based air defence weapons. Expectedly, the fire-arm included some deadly air defence weapons. These included guns-ZPU 1 and 2, ZU23, L-70, M55, ZSU 23-4 Schilka, Gepard. SAMs- Strmer, Strela 10, OSA –AK, Pechora, Tor, Pantsir and the mighty PMU series of air and anti-missiles system-PMU 300.
  • It was ironical to see this deadly arsenal not deployed tactically and advancing through the principle of leap-frog (one fire unit deployed, and the other moving) and protecting the mechanized columns. It moved as part of the convoy serials!
  • This allowed the Ukrainian air (that survived to operate another day) to cause many a casualties on Russian tanks and APCs.
  • Most conspicuous were the Russian casualties due to drone strikes by Ukraine. They had quite a few of them (the famous Turkish TB2 Bayractar drone, US Switchblade kamikaze machines , Iranian Shahed 136 and Germanium -2 etc. and the indigenous machines like Aerorovidka R18[7] ).

What enabled these machines to achieve disproportionate gains was the conspicuous absence of tailor-made anti-drone weaponry in the Russian inventory. Mighty conventional air defence systems are not suitable to take on these small drones that require sensors optimized to detect them and suitable kill means in soft and hard-kill domain. It was a pain to see a small TB2Bayractar drone piercing its way through the mighty sensors of the PMU 300 air defence system.

Russian deficiencies in communications, connectivity, gun-to-target end flow of orders continued unabated as Ukrainian anti-tank missiles (Sweden- RBS-70, US- Javelin, and HIMARS, Netherland – NLAW etc.) and the drone power claimed many casualties into the Russian war machine. A stage reached (July-Aug 22) where the tank casualties in upfront contact battles became untenable. If open sources are to be believed there was a whopping 1700 Russian tanks that fell to Ukrainian anti-tank weapons in the period from Feb-Jul 2022 [8] (Ukrainian data)

What are the inferences? Quite a few. This was a classic example of how armoured and mechanised columns should not be launched in a blitzkrieg; especially so when the skies above the ground forces is not secured. This was a classic example how air defence weapons must never be used (as convoy serials), and this was a classic example of how lack of tailor-made anti-drone weaponry can make your mighty systems fall at the hands of the little monsters.

Arising from this end state, there have been some misplaced assessments writing the obituary of tanks and APCs in modern day combat. Nothing can be far from truth. Mechanised forces remain very much relevant. The requirement is to employ these war machines respecting their foundational strengths - mobility, fire power, surprise and tactical manoeuvre in battle.

The Magic of Tubes

Another area from where some useful inferences can be drawn is man portable air defence systems or MANPADS. These are the shoulder/pedestal fired very short-range fire-and-forget missiles that are particularly deadly against adversary’s slower-moving air threat vehicles such as Attack Helicopters (AHs).

  • Russian offensive was supported by a considerable fleet of AHs. Initially these machines went right in and took out targets as much as 50-70 km into the tactical battle area (TBA) in what is called ‘hunter-killer missions’ providing intimate support to the armour and mechanised forces.

  • Then something changed. Ukrainians who had a large arsenal of MANPADs (Igla 1, Chiron, Strela 2, Strela 3, Mistral, Marlet, Stinger SAMs from USA, Star Streak SAMs from UK and similar weapons from Germany, Denmark, Lithuania and Netherlands [9], [10]deployed them in large numbers in the TBA. Stuck unobtrusively in every nook-and-corner of the TBA, these unforgiving tubes overwhelmed the detection and avoidance capability of the Russian AHs. Seeing the twin rotor Kamovs coming down in flames upon taking hits from MANPADS became a common everyday sight.
  • Even with measures like missile approach warning sensors and countermeasure dispensing suits etc., the sheer volume of MANPADS proved to be ‘far too many’ for the AH Fleet. [11]
  • This resulted in disproportionate losses. The magnitude can be judged by figures - out of a fleet of nearly 100 Kamov AHs, some 25-30 succumbed to MANPADs.[12] That is a huge number. The loss was not only of the machines but also trained combat-pilots.

In any future combat relating to our scenario, MANPADs can be huge killers. Both our potential adversaries have large MANPAD inventories numbering in thousands. Chinese MANPADS - HN series- HN5, HQ6, the FN series, the QW series.[13] (further details are not covered). Pakistani MANPADS - indigenous Anza, Swedish RBS 70, US FIM 92 Stinger and Chinese FN 16 etc.[14]

It will be logical to assume that MANPADs will be proliferated in the TBA much on the lines of what Ukraine did. These will lie in ambushes marking the most likely avenues of approaches. Our combat aircrafts and attack helicopters must be mindful of this threat.

Besides having countermeasures on board, our aircrafts and AHs must also adopt several other ways of countering the MANPAD threat that includes Manned and Unmanned Teaming (MUMT) where several unmanned platforms accompany the manned air threat vehicles thus increasing the net outreach, look-see and ‘hunt and kill’ capability of the mission. Besides this, measures like the use of scouts that precede the mission (to empty out some of the MANPADs) or the loyal wingman that accompanies manned missions are already in practice.

On the flip side, we cannot gloss over our current deficiencies in terms of MANPADS (details of holdings are classified). Unless and until we are able to proliferate our MANPADS in the TBA we will miss out on a major tactical advantage of overwhelming the adversary’s air threat vehicles; especially the AHs. It is heartening to note that after decades of waiting for MANPADS and living through a trail of failed procurement cases [15] Indian Army has finally received the first batch of 24 Igla S MANPADs on 08 Apr 2024. [16]

Since the requirement is much more than what the imports can address, also in keeping with the resurgent sentiment of Atmanirbhar Bharat, it is high-time we perfected our own MANPAD. In this context the open-source report of Feb 2024 about the DRDO testing its latest MANPAD is a welcome development. [17]

Discovering the Chink in Armour

Early enough in the war and during the faulted Russian armoured thrusts under contested skies, Ukrainians had discovered a serious chink in the Russian arsenal - lack of tailor-made weaponry to take on the small-drone attacks.

Overtime the drones for Ukraine became a ‘Brahmastra’. [18] Drones, having caused disproportionate kill on Russian tanks and mechanised forces kind of exploded into what later came to be known as the Drone Army of Ukraine. The drone became such effective killers that on 06 Feb 2024, President Zelensky created an entirely new branch in the Ukrainian Armed Forces dedicated to drones alone. The President set out a target for making a million drones in 2024.[19]

What did the drones do? Besides attacking the advancing fire arm of the Russian forces in conjunction with anti-tank missiles, drones were used to attack many a Russian targets on the supply chain. Taking advantage of the fact that the entire Russian ammunition supply was road/rail based many an ammunition dumps were hit by a combination of drones and missiles (Kherson, Dzhankoi, Belgorod, Khmeinytsky…. As per one report more than 50 ammunition dumps have been struck.) [20], [21]

Drone attacks were undertaken inside Russian territory by taking on civilian targets- logistic hubs, communication facilities, airfields, even some super stores. A few such missions even reached Kremlin. The aim was to cause desperation, nuisance, chaos and despondency in the minds of ordinary Russians. While most of the drones were shot down some did manage to hit their intended targets. According to one report, the number of drone attacks on Russian territory had crossed 190 by July 2023. [22]

The biggest dividend in drone strikes came from hitting Russian Naval targets in the Black Sea. Here, the drones coupled with more specific arsenal of Neptune, Harpoon (over-the-horizon anti-ship missile) and Brimstone missile (air launched ground attack missile) caused major damage on the Russian vessels. [23]

Another deadly weapon appeared in the Black Sea battle sometime in Aug 2022; Unscrewed Surface Vehicles (USVs). It was a GPS controlled and remotely piloted small boat laden with explosives and capable of precisely navigating to achieve a catastrophic collision with the target vessel in the kamikaze mode. Two models of these USVs initially came in i.e. the Sea Baby and Magura V5. [24]

The combined effect of this armament sunk/damaged more than 20 Russian naval vessels; a third of the entire Russian Black Sea Fleet. [25] , [26]

What happens in our scenario? Needless to mention that Drones over a period of time have emerged as potent vehicles for the execution of the air threat. Both our potential adversaries are well endowed with the drone arsenal. They hold both versions; ones that can carry out intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR machines) and the ones that can mount combat missions with a variety of munitions, viz, laser-guided rockets and bombs, precision guided munitions, soft kill weapons and more. These are called Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles or UCAVs.

Major Chinese UCAVs include BZK 005, GJ 1 and GJ 2, EA 03, Tianying/Skyhawk, Gongji 1, WZ 7 and more. Another UCAV worthy of mention is Wing Loong- I and II. This UCAV is actually in the same class as the US MQ 9 Reaper, or MQ1-C Gray Eagle etc. [27] ,[28]

Pakistani machines include the Chinese ASN 105A and ASN 206. ASN 105A. Luna from Germany, Snipe Mk II and Streak from UK, Falco from Italy, Seeker from South Africa and more. [29] , [30]

Their indigenous machine is called Burraq. It has a range of 1000km and a cruising speed of 215 Km and an endurance of 12h. Its typical warhead can include guided bombs (YC 200) and AR-1 ASM (a Chinese supersonic anti-tank missile with a range of 10 km and adapted for use by unmanned platforms).

Faced with this drone power what must be our strategy? Build strong counter-drone muscle and ensure that tailor-made anti-drone arsenal is proliferated in our field force. It is heartening to note that Ministry of Defence (MoD) is making concerted efforts to equip our forces with Anti Drone System (ADS) currently in the soft-kill domain by jamming the electronics and electromagnetics on board the drones, to render it toothless. Two very effective and indigenous systems are being inducted; the ADS based on DRDO design [31] and the one made by a private sector company Zen Technologies Limited called the Zen ADS [32]. Efforts are on in the industry to realise the ADS in the hard kill domain as well (i.e. using high-rate-of-fire small arms like MMGs or air defence guns).

Some Turn Around Inferences

What turn around is being refereed to? Here is the answer:-

  • By around Aug-Sep 22, the scale and quantum of casualties on tanks and mechanized forces in the (non-tactically executed) headlong thrusts in Ukraine started to become unacceptable to Russians.
  • In response, a visible change of gear was attempted. In that, the headlong thrust were given a pass, instead, massive fire assaults were inflicted on intended targets to pulverize them before the ground forces moved in for mop up. Tank casualties started to dip.
  • Around this time and anticipating a counter offensive, Russians executed a kind of strategic pull back and dug into a strong defensive position around the line Kupiansk-Kreminna, Bakhmut, Robotyne, and Mariupole. [33]

It is a history that the counteroffensive by the Ukrainians failed to make a piercing blitzkrieg through these defences. As to the air and air defence battle, following are noteworthy:-

  • The Russian air power and AH power now operating over their own defended zone came into full form and effectively countered the Ukrainian air threat thus achieving a local favourable air situation.
  • By this time (Jun-Aug 23) Russians had almost made good most of their shortcomings in ADS both by way of hard as well as, soft-kill measures. These started to counter the Ukrainian drone attacks effectively.
  • Supplementing this effort was the coming of age of the Russian Electronic Warfare (EW) arsenal. Russia is a very strong EW power. It has an entire spectrum of EW weapons; airborne fire control radar jammers- SPN 2,3,4, ground based radar jammers - Krashuka II and 4), VHF/UHF jammers-RB341V, Leer3, GPS and SATCOM jammers- RH 330 ZHITEL, Long range HF jammers-Murmank-BN, anti-drone jammers/ repellent etc.
  • This weapon suit got stymied in the initial months of war due to being frittered in penny packets across parallel and mutually interfering thrust lines. In defences these were deployed as concentrated hubs and caused havoc on the GPS-guided weapons, such as HIMARS, Scalp EG Cruise missiles, storm-shadow missiles, M982 Excalibur arty shells and a large number of drones. [34]
  • Even the deadly arsenal of air defence weapons now being deployed tactically showed their might in downing many a Ukrainian air threat vehicle.

A turn around in air and air defence battle had come about. There were no more disproportional kills of AHs at the hand of Ukrainian MANPADS but it was kind of the other way around. Same with drone kills and kills on tanks and mechanised forces.

In this turn around lie the inferences:-

  • For the air power to play to its potential, the minimum requirement is the local favourable air situation (FAS) if an all-around FAS or air superiority is elusive.
  • GBADWS are deadly if these are deployed tactically with their sensors and BMC2 systems performing to their capability.
  • Drone power is deadly, no doubt. But the same when pithed against a full spectrum of anti-drone arsenal, the threat can be reduced to insignificance.
  • For the EW arsenal to come into its own, it requires to be given the freedom to operate in the threat domain without mutual interference.

As the war chugs along, and Russia continues to make steady gains, its air and air defence power is now performing to its capability.

Endnotes

[1] “Russia-Ukraine war: list of key events..< at www.aljazeera.com. Accessed on 01 Jun 2024.
[2] Ibid. Accessed on 02 Jun 2024.
[3] 1ibid. Accessed on 02 Jun 2024.
[4] “An year of air and air defence war,” at www.vifindia.org. Accessed on 03 Jun 2024.
[5] “Prelude to the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” at www. en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 04 Jun 2024.
[6] “List of Russo-Ukrainian war military equipment, “at www.en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 04 Jun 2024.
[7] Ibid.
[8] “Russia has lost 50,000 troops in Ukraine..,’ at www.rferl.org. Accessed on 04 Jun 2024.
[9] “What are the MANPADS that the west is sending to Ukraine?” at www.thehindu.com. Accessed on 04 Jun 2024.
[10] “List of equipment of the armed forces of Ukraine,” at www.en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 05 Jun 2024.
[11] “How the Ukrainians wrecked the Russian best helicopter regiments,” at wwwforbes.com Accessed on 05 Jun 2024.
[12] Ibid.
[13] HY5, HN-5, HQ-5” at www.global security .com. Accessed on 05 Jun 2024..
[14] “List of missiles of Pakistan,” at www.en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 06 Jun 2024.
[15] “Critical requirement of VSHORDS – a user’s perspective,” at www.vifindia.org. Accessed on 06 Jun 2024.
[16] “Indian army receives fresh batch of Igla S hand-held anti-aircraft missiles,” at www.wionews.com. Accessed on 06 Jun 2024.
[17] ‘DRDO’s VSORAD gears up for low altitude missile test,” at ww.idrw.org. Accessed on 06 Jun 2024.
[18] Drones used
[19] “Ukraine’s Zelensky orders creation of a separate military force for drones.” At www.reuters.com. . Accessed on06 Jun 2024..
[20] “Russian ammunition depot hit during Ukrainian drone attack on Crimea,” at www.reuters.com . Accessed on 06 Jun 2024.
[21] “Ukraine says that it has destroyed 50 ammunition depots,” at www.reuters.com. Accessed on 06 Jun 2024.
[22] “What do we know about drone attacks in Russia,” at www.bbc.com. Accessed on 06 Jun 2024.
[23] 20 ibid
[24] “Meet Ukraine’s small but lethal weapons.” at www.apnews.com. Accessed on 07 Jun 2024.
[25] “Ukraine says it hit two Russian naval vessels in a major attack on Crimea, “ at www.cnn.com. Accessed on 07 Jun 2024.
[26] “Russia Ukraine Conflict; The down end of the see saw,” at www.vifindia.org.
[27] ibid. Accessed on 07 Jun 2024.
[28] ibid. Accessed on07 Jun 2024.
[29] 2 ibid. Accessed on 7 Jun 2024.
[30] Bokhari Farhan " Pakistan to deploy its own UAVs over FATA" Janes Defence Weekly.
[31] “DRDO anti-drone technology handed over to BEL,” www.thehindu.com. Accessed on 07 Jun 2024
[32] Anti drone system,” at www.zentechnologies.com. Accessed on 07 Jun 2024.
[33] 4ibid.
[34] “Russian electronic warfare tactics changing on frontlines in Ukraine,” at www.businessinsider.com. Accessed on 07 Jun 2024.

(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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