The Surprising Success of Ukraine’s Air Defenses Against Russia’s Missiles

Russian Tu-160 bombers fly over St. Basi

Russian Tu-160 bombers fly over St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square in Moscow on during a Victory Day parade on May 9, 2010. Russia has been unable to fly its heavy bombers like the Tu-160 over Ukraine because of stiff Ukrainian air defense, which has also been effective against cruise missiles launched by bombers. Photo by Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images.

ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

KYIV, Ukraine — Around 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 2, Russian Tu-95 and Tu-160 bombers flying over the Caspian Sea — well beyond the reach of any Ukrainian air defenses or warplanes — launched a volley of eight Kh-101 cruise missiles toward Ukrainian territory. Skimming the earth at tree-top altitudes of between 100 to 230 feet, the missiles traveled roughly 400 miles before entering Ukrainian airspace and tracked toward different targets in central, southern, and western Ukraine.

Ukraine’s air force reported that its ground-based air defense systems downed six of the Russian missiles, and a Ukrainian fighter jet shot down another. An impressive tally, considering the Kh-101 is Russia’s “most modern” air-launched, conventional land-attack cruise missile, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The single Russian missile to find its mark on Tuesday struck a military site near the city of Radekhiv, in Ukraine’s far western Lviv Oblast.

According to US and Ukrainian estimates, Russia has likely fired more than 3,000 missiles against Ukraine since the invasion began Feb. 24. Yet, after more than five months of full-scale war, Ukraine’s largely Soviet-era air-defense network remains remarkably effective against Russia’s top-of-the-line cruise missiles, and the vast majority of Ukrainian airspace outside of the occupied southern and eastern regions remains contested.

USS Nimitz intercept and escort Russian bombers

A Russian Tu-95 Bear in 2008. The Tu-95 design dates to the 1950s but remains a front-line bomber for Russian forces. US Navy photo.

U.S. Navy Photo/U.S. Navy

“The fact that strategic Ukrainian air defenses, S-300s, operate five months into the conflict only speaks about the Russian Aerospace Forces’ weaknesses and inability to suppress them during the initial period of war,” Konrad Muzyka, the president of Rochan Consulting, a Polish defense consultancy, told Coffee or Die Magazine.

First used in combat in Syria in 2015, the Kh-101 is “a stealthy long-range cruise missile, with advanced guidance systems capable of hitting targets with incredible accuracy,” according to the US-based Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.

To navigate, the Kh-101 missile uses data from Russia’s GLONASS satellite navigation system, as well as a TV terminal guidance system. Together, these fused guidance systems allow the missile to swerve around obstacles and air defenses and for ground operators to change the missile’s target in flight. Coupled with stealthy attributes and tree-top cruising altitude, the Kh-101’s flight-path flexibility “makes the missile very hard to detect, as it can evade defense systems in real time,” according to the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.

UKRAINE-RUSSIA-CRISIS-POLITICS-KRAMATORSK

A Ukrainian MiG-29 flies above pro-Russian activists blocking a column of Ukrainian soldiers in the city of Kramatorsk on April 16, 2014. Photo by Anatoliy Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images.

A Ukrainian MiG-29 flies above pro-Russian activists blocking a column of Ukrainian soldiers in the city of Kramatorsk on April 16, 2014. Photo by Anatoliy Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images.

Apart from failing to achieve air superiority, Russian air power has also not stopped the crucial flow of Western military hardware and ammunition to front-line Ukraine forces. Relying on mobility and strict operational security, Ukraine’s accumulating arsenal of Western land warfare weapons has also largely eluded Russian airstrikes and missile strikes, further underscoring Russian air power’s failure to tip the war’s scales in Moscow’s favor.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed this week that Russian forces had destroyed six of the 16 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, the US has so far provided to Ukraine. Days later, Reuters reported that a US Department of Defense official denied Shoigu’s claim, calling it “patently false.” Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense reported that none of the US-provided HIMARS have been destroyed in combat.

While ineffective at changing the course of the war, Russian missile strikes have inflicted widespread devastation against civilian targets in Ukraine, destroying apartment blocks and shopping malls. According to Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, the majority of Russian missile strikes against Ukraine have targeted civilians.

On June 27, two Russian missiles hit a shopping mall in the central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk, killing at least 20 people. Nearly three weeks later, three Russian Kalibr cruise missiles hit the center of the city of Vinnytsia on July 14, killing 26 and wounding more than 200, local officials reported.

“When we see such massive attacks with missiles on a place full of civilians, like in the middle of the day in the center of Vinnytsia, it’s one of the ways that the Russian Federation is trying to create terror,” Oleksandra Romantsova, executive director of the Kyiv-based think tank Center for Civil Liberties, recently told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. “They are trying to scare people, ordinary civilians, because they try to destroy our resilience and our support of the work of the Ukrainian army. Under international humanitarian law, this is not a legal way to wage war.”

To defend against Russian missiles, Ukraine is largely relying on Soviet-era anti-aircraft systems. Thus, Ukrainian defense officials are pressing Washington to deliver to Ukraine dedicated anti-missile defense systems, such as MM-104 Patriot missile batteries.

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A Tu-160 bomber drops a Kh-101 cruise missile. Russian Ministry of Defense photo via the Center for Strategic International Studies.

“With cruise missiles, it is more difficult for our air defense,” Kostiantyn Stanislavchuk, chief master sergeant of the Ukrainian Air Force, told Air Force Magazine in a recent interview.

“We only have anti-aircraft defense equipment,” Stanislavchuk said. “In addition to aircraft, we also shoot down cruise missiles, although this is a difficult target.”

Other advanced US air defenses could also improve Ukraine’s ability to defend against Russian missiles, experts said. To that end, a US military aid package to Ukraine approved in July includes NASAMS air defense systems — a ground-based version of the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), which is used to defend high-priority sites in the Washington, DC, area.

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Nolan Peterson is a senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine and the author of Why Soldiers Miss War. A former US Air Force special operations pilot and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nolan is now a conflict journalist and author whose adventures have taken him to all seven continents. In addition to his memoirs, Nolan has published two fiction collections. He lives in Kyiv, Ukraine, with his wife, Lilya.
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