Russia Reconsiders Its Air Defense Strategy
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 22
Throughout January 2023, Russian Telegram channels worried Muscovites with footage of the placement of air defense systems on the rooftops of official government buildings in Moscow. For example, the Pantsir S-1 has been deployed at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Defense and Moscow Department of Education (Obozrevatel.com, January 22). These locations represent some of the tallest buildings in the city that can withstand the weight of such equipment.
In addition, the Telegram channel Sirena recently posted a video that supposedly shows a Pantsir battery standing next to Zarechye village in Moscow region—13 kilometers away from President Vladimir Putin’s residence in Novo-Ogaryovo. Sirena also published a video in which, presumably, Pantsir complexes were deployed in Voskresenskoye village near Moscow (T.me/news_sirena, January 23). Two S-400 air defense systems were also deployed in Moscow—one in Losiny Ostrov National Park (“Moose Island”) and the other in the experimental fields of Timiryazev Agricultural Academy.
All in all, the Kremlin has been fairly confident in the air defense capabilities in and around Moscow. In 2018, the commander of Russia’s air and missile defense forces, Lieutenant General Viktor Gumenny, declared that Moscow’s air and missile defense system is capable of automatically providing missile attack warnings, timely detecting all enemy threats and ensuring the defeat of the entire class of incoming targets (RIA Novosti, July 7, 2018). In December 2022, the former commander of the Russian Ground Forces, Army General Vladimir Boldyrev, confirmed Gumenny’s claims, declaring that Russian air defense systems are capable of repelling any attack (Nsn.fm, December 12, 2022).
However, ever since the Ukrainian drone attacks on the Russian military airfields at Engels and Dyagilevo, the effectiveness of Russia’s air defense capabilities have been brought into question. In December 2022, on a talk show of the state-owned television station Russia-1, Russian military expert and director of the Museum of Air Defense Forces Yuri Knutov complained that the Russian Federation has serious problems with air defense. Knutov explained that, after the large-scale invasion of Ukraine, most Russian defense systems were moved closer to the Ukrainian border. Nevertheless, he argued that Pantsir complexes had been quite effective in identifying drones during operations in Syria (Smotrim.ru, December 8, 2022). In addition, he stipulated that Ukrainian Armed Forces, with the help of the United States, will be able to plan specialized drone flight routes to bypass Russia’s air defense systems (Tsargrad.tv, January 25).
Even so, some Moscow experts note that additional defense capabilities are needed after Ukraine announced the receipt of long-range combat drones (Tsargrad.tv, January 20). For example, the former deputy commander-in-chief of the Russian Air Force for the Joint Air Defense System of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Lieutenant General Aytech Bizhev, has proposed establishing round-the-clock air defense duty at key strategic facilities, including the Kremlin, Ministry of Defense and headquarters of the Federal Security Service (Nsn.fm, January 20).
On December 29, 2022, Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov refused to answer a media question about defending Moscow’s airspace from drones, instead passing the question on to other government departments (Mk.ru, December 29, 2022). The Russian Ministry of Defense did not respond to the query, but on December 31, 2022, it reported that 1,800 soldiers of the 1st Air Missile Defense Army would be on combat duty for New Year’s Eve (Interfax, December 31, 2022). Previously, this unit was made up of no more than 1,700 soldiers. As a result, it can be concluded that an additional 100 personnel joined the grouping to bolster the defense of Moscow. Indirectly, this may indicate an increase in the number of servicemen within the 1st Air Defense Army.
Beyond the 1st Army, the anti-aircraft missile brigade of the Western Military District, armed with S-300 surface-to-air missile complexes, are involved in strengthening Moscow’s defense against drones. Earlier, in January, these systems participated in exercises to repel air attacks on critical military, industrial and administrative facilities (Mil.ru, January 21).
The Pantsir S-1 has been in service with the 1st Air Missile Defense Army defending Moscow since February 2018. At the time, more than 20 units of the mobile complex were delivered. Currently, the relocation of air defense complexes from the wider Moscow region to the center of the capital may indicate that the 1st Army command may not provide a 100-percent guarantee in protecting Moscow from drones. This notion is also supported by the desire to defend specific targets around the capital, including the Kremlin and the presidential residence in Novo-Ogaryovo.
Overall, the Pantsir system is capable of conducting single combat operations, from target detection to interception, at an altitude of up to 15 kilometers (km) and with a range of up to 20 km (Rostec.ru, February 18, 2019). When the Pantsir entered service with the 1st Army, the Ministry of Defense proclaimed that its task was to provide cover for the S-400 Triumph anti-aircraft missile systems. The Pantsir air defense complexes that recently appeared in Moscow and on the city’s outskirts are not new complexes, but rather existing batteries that were moved from permanent bases to these new destinations. As a result, with the transfer, the protection of Russia’s S-400 systems and the overall defense of Moscow from traditional threats becomes more difficult, according to a Moscow military expert, speaking on condition of anonymity with this author (Author’s interview, January 22).
Moscow’s air and missile defense apparatus has a comprehensive design consisting of two systems. The first is the A-135M strategic missile defense system. And the second is the S-50M system, which consists of the Baikal-1 and Universal-1 automated control systems, the S-400 and S-300PM2 complexes, as well as the Pantsir anti-aircraft systems. By moving some of these complexes from their original areas of combat deployment, the Russian Ministry of Defense has thereby jeopardized their effectiveness in carrying out the main tasks of protecting the capital from air strikes as well as cruise and ballistic missiles. Furthermore, this posturing will hurt effective defense against drones, which is becoming ever-more crucial as the war progresses and the Ukrainian side continues to strengthen its capabilities.
In truth, the Kremlin seemed to be caught off guard regarding the vulnerability of its military airfields at Dyagilevo and Engels to drone attacks launched from Ukrainian territory. Yet, back in November 2022, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev had called for increasing the air defense forces stationed in the Central Federal District to protect critical facilities (RIA Novosti, November 15, 2022). Apparently, this was not heeded nor implemented. As a result, after the breakdown in air defense, as protective measures, the Russian military command decided to disperse remaining aircraft to other air bases throughout the country and to focus air defense resources on critical facilities in Moscow point-by-point. Thus, Ukraine’s successful use of drones to strike targets within Russian territory has pushed the Kremlin to reconsider its air defense strategy and capabilities.