NewsRussian air defenses crumble under relentless Ukrainian drone attacks

Russian air defenses crumble under relentless Ukrainian drone attacks

Within a month, the Russians lost six Buk-M1 anti-aircraft systems.
Within a month, the Russians lost six Buk-M1 anti-aircraft systems.
Images source: © East News | Armed Forces of Ukraine

2:34 PM EDT, May 25, 2024

Since the beginning of the war, Ukrainians have been forced to mitigate Russian advantages. They strike where it hurts Russia the most: critical systems whose absence severely hampers their operations. The destruction of each anti-aircraft system is harrowing for the Kremlin.

In a month, the Russians lost six 9K37 Buk-M1 anti-aircraft systems, which are responsible for air defense over distances up to 50 miles. These systems are designed to shoot down not only aircraft but also cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and even HARM anti-radar missiles. However, they all fell victim to unmanned aerial vehicles, including improvised commercial drones and tube artillery.

Since the beginning of the year, the Russians have lost nearly two dozen different elements of self-propelled anti-aircraft systems - from radars to launchers and technical vehicles. As a result, Russian anti-access bubbles are bursting with a bang. Many geopolitical experts previously asserted that these bubbles were so extensive and modern that a potential adversary of the Kremlin would think twice before striking Russian forces.

The anti-access bubbles have burst in the case of strategic anti-aircraft systems, which cannot prevent attacks on the oil and energy industry or effectively protect bases and ports.

Both equipment and human factors fail

Moreover, at the tactical level, anti-access bubbles are also failing. Meanwhile, smaller systems like the Pantsir-S1 often recognize aerial vehicles of this size as birds and do not attack automatically or semi-automatically.

Such drones are best shot down manually by anti-aircraft gun crews, where good eyesight and soldier skills matter, and the Russians are lacking in these areas.

It has reached the point where the Russians have attempted to shoot down FlyEye drones using the 9K37 Buk-M1 system, which is theoretically not designed to destroy targets of this size. The attempt resulted in the firing of four missiles that missed, ultimately leading to the destruction of the launcher by artillery directed by the drone operator.

The biggest problem for the Russians is the lack of appropriate radars and communication systems to detect targets and relay their coordinates in real-time to the launchers. In theory, the Russians have such systems. In practice, both the equipment and the human factor fail. The systems are susceptible to interference, causing the operators to become blind and deaf even before the strike.

"Wild Weasels"

However, there are circumstances in which Ukrainians prefer when Russian radars are operational. This allows them to detect and destroy Russian positions using American HARM anti-radar missiles. Ukraine is the first former Eastern Bloc country to have established its own "Wild Weasels" units - radar hunters.

HARM guidance can be conducted in several ways and works even after the radar station is turned off, as the missile "remembers" the last location of the signal. The rocket can self-guide to the target, receive information from an onboard radiation warning station or the aircraft from which it was launched, and attack previously identified targets regardless of radar activity. Additionally, the high sensitivity of the sensors in the warhead allows targeting from the back and sides, not just the radar's front, which emits the most radiation. This is crucial as "Wild Weasels" cannot always strike from the most advantageous position.

Missile as a detector

For now, Ukrainians do not have the appropriate equipment in their MiGs to detect enemy radars. However, Ukrainian and Western engineers have integrated with MiG-29MU2, installing an additional panel in the cockpit that allows coordinates to be set for strikes, enabling missiles to target in automatic mode.

They thus use the missile itself as a detector. The WGU-2 warhead can independently detect an operating radar and automatically direct itself toward it. The missile remembers its position and strikes even when the radar is turned off. The HARM's over 1,500 mph speed ensures the radar crew does not have time to change position before impact.

This allows Ukrainians to not only create a breach for cruise missiles to pass through but also send aviation back to support ground forces, which need it very much now.

Thanks to the elimination of more radar stations, Ukrainian assault aircraft have reappeared over the front, paralyzing Russian communication just behind the front lines. Additionally, the Russians have few remaining short and very short-range systems that directly protect key objects, hence the appearance of Buk systems near the front. However, these are slowly depleting. The losses suffered in the past month have surpassed production twice over.

Once again, despite significant limitations, Ukrainians have shown the Russians how to conduct an air war.

Related content