How effective is Ukraine’s air defense against massive Russian attacks?
In recent days, Russia has attacked Ukraine with a record number of missiles and drones. Will Ukraine's air defense withstand new strikes and what resources does Kyiv have?
This is reported by DW.
Russia has launched around 200 Shahed-type attack drones and close to 300 missiles at Ukraine in the previous five days alone. The Russian army launched the largest-scale airstrike to date on December 29, using 36 drones and 122 different types of missiles. The attack resulted in at least 150 injuries and over 40 fatalities. 27 Shaheds and 87 cruise missiles were shot down by the Ukrainian air defense.
Russian forces have hardly attacked Ukrainian land with missiles in the last few months. Shaheds were the main weapon used in the shelling of Ukraine's rear areas, and the Russian army has been launching more drones over time. The Air Defense Forces were able to shoot down almost 3,000 of the about 3,900 Shaheds that Russia has fired against Ukraine since September 2022, according to the Ukrainian side.
Mobile fire groups and air defense systems
Ukraine's Defense Forces are trying not to waste expensive missiles for air defense systems, especially Western ones, on relatively primitive attack drones, so the Shahed UAVs are primarily shot down by mobile fire groups. "What the German Gepard and its analogs are doing today is very successful. However, we don't have enough of these weapons. The Gepard has a kill radius of five kilometers. Therefore, it is clear that we need more units to cover as many directions as possible," explains Yuriy Ihnat, spokesman for the Air Force.
According to him, the mobile fire groups also have portable surface-to-air missile systems (MANPADS) equipped with night vision devices and thermal imagers.
However, as Ihnat explains, it is extremely difficult to disable a UAV with small arms. "A bullet can pierce the drone, but it can still fly on if some of its important elements are not hit.” If mobile units fail to destroy the drones, fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft missile systems are used.
Different types of air defense systems on guard of the Ukrainian sky
Old air defense systems that were left over from the USSR also guard Ukrainian skies. These systems include variously modified S-300 systems, Buk-M1, S-125, Osa, a few TOR systems, and Cubs that were given to Ukraine by allies in Eastern Europe. Additionally, Ukraine was given outdated but reliable Western short- and medium-range systems including Aspide, Hawk, and Crotale.
Long-range air defense systems supplied by Western allies, notably the incredibly successful American Patriot air defense system and the Italian-French SAMP/T development, also protect the skies over Ukraine. Three Patriots Ukraine have already gotten three batteries, according to open data.
However, missiles for all of these systems are in short supply, as Ukraine receives them only from its Western partners, Ihnat emphasizes. "We do not produce ammunition for air defense systems today. And a large amount of it has to be used on shooting down missiles and drones. Therefore, our military and political leadership and diplomatic corps are working with the countries that help us," he emphasizes.
Ukraine depends on the West even for missiles for old Soviet systems, he admits. "In particular, missiles for Soviet systems were purchased from countries that have them in service. For example, from Bulgaria and Slovakia," Ihnat said.
In the face of a shortage of missiles for Soviet air defense systems, the United States and Ukraine have developed hybrid air defense systems called FrankenSAM, which allow the use of Western missiles from Soviet-converted launchers. However, they have not yet been used in Ukraine. "There have already been successful tests of Buk-M1 systems with American Sea Sparrow missiles. There have already been tests at the range. The range of this system is small - about 15 kilometers. But it will serve as a local defense for troops on the front line," Ihnat explained.
Scarce anti-missile systems
The Ukrainian Air Force spokesman refused to estimate how many Russian attacks Ukraine currently has missiles for its air defense systems. However, he emphasized the need to replenish missiles, especially for the Patriot air defense system, which is capable of successfully hitting all targets, including Russian X-47 Kinzhal, which Russian propaganda has called "invulnerable." According to him, anti-missiles for this system are not produced very quickly. "This is a high-tech process that takes some time," he said.
Gustav Gressel, a German military analyst and security expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), also points this out. According to him, it takes longer to produce a missile for the Patriot than it does for Russia to produce the Kinzhal. And this is exactly the effect Russia is counting on when it plans to exhaust the Patriot, the expert said in an interview with the German media outlet ntv.
So far, Ukraine has some accumulated stocks of air defense ammunition, and work is underway with partners to replenish them promptly, Oleksandr Musienko, head of the Ukrainian Center for Military and Legal Studies, told DW. "Judging by the way the air defense system worked during the attacks on December 29 and January 2, I did not notice any significant difference that would give us the opportunity and reason to believe that we are running out of missiles or ammunition," he said.
Effectiveness of Ukrainian air defense
According to Mykola Oleshchuk, commander of the Ukrainian Air Force, the Ukrainian Defense Forces are now downing 85% of the Russian attack drones and cruise missiles that are being utilized against Ukraine.
In order to reduce the percentage of downed missiles by overloading the air defense system, Russia resorts to massive attacks, Gressel believes. "On average, a missile has a higher chance of passing if it is used in a massive attack. Ukrainian air defense shoots down 90 percent of the missiles in small attacks and only about 70 percent in large ones," he said. In his opinion, Moscow is well aware of this difference.
Musienko, in turn, notes that Russia is now changing its tactics of shelling, trying to act more concentrated. "That is, they focus on one or two targets. In this case, it was two cities - Kyiv and Kharkiv. And they are trying to use more air attack assets to penetrate our air defense systems.”
Missile stockpiles in Russia, production capacity, and the threat of new attacks
According to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry's Main Intelligence Directorate, Russia can produce about 100 missiles of various types (Kh-101/555/55 air-launched, Kalibr, Iskander-K, Iskander-M, and Kinzhal) per month. As of early November, Ukrainian intelligence estimated Russia's existing stockpile at about 870 high-precision missiles of the operational and strategic level, which can hit targets at a distance of more than 350 kilometers. However, in recent days alone, Russia has used more than 320 of these missiles in its attacks on Ukraine.
In addition, the Russian Federation has anti-aircraft missiles for S-300 and S-400 air defense systems, which are adapted for ground strikes, Ihnat reminds. "Russia has a lot of missiles for the S-300. But they can hit with them more or less accurately at 50-70 kilometers," he said.
Also, according to media reports, Russia has launched the production of Shahed-136 kamikaze drones in the Alabuga Special Economic Zone in Tatarstan.
Therefore, there is no doubt about Russia's plans to continue shelling Ukraine. Musienko predicts that in the near future, the Russian army will launch another one, two or three large-scale attacks similar to those that have taken place recently.