The State of Ukrainian Air Defense (Part Two)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 98

(Source: Ukraine World Congress)

Executive Summary:

  • Russia’s long war against Ukraine has highlighted the importance of front-line air defense systems as well as the accompanying munitions and reconnaissance/communication capabilities.
  • The proliferation of precision air attack weapons and the unprecedented number of simultaneous air threats have elevated the importance of not only implementing more modern systems but also possessing a large quantity of them.
  • Increased logistical support, improved communications, and more high-tech detection systems will be critical for Ukraine to maximize the potential of its air defense assets in disrupting Russian dominance in the air.

*Read Part One

On June 23, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that Kyiv has “already received decisions on new Patriot [systems]” and is “working on receiving additional air defense systems” from Western partners (Kyiv Independent, June 23). Zelenskyy’s declaration comes after Washington announced on June 20 that it was redirecting air defense assets, including MIM-104 Patriot batteries and National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMs), from other allies to Ukraine (, June 20). While Russia maintains the initiative on the ground and in the air, the arrival of fresh Western support and the expected arrival of F16 fighter jets look to help Ukraine gain the upper hand. Air defense remains one of the central topics of discussions between Kyiv and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members and is sure to be high on the agenda at the NATO summit in Washington on June 9–11.

Russia’s long and intense war against Ukraine has highlighted the importance of front-line air defense systems (see Part One). Army air defense is traditionally a set of forces and assets that are directly part of the ground forces and are designed to protect critical facilities and troop positions from air attacks. In 20th-century warfare, enemy tactical aviation—attack aircraft, strike aircraft, tactical bombers, and helicopters—represented the main threat. Accordingly, most army air defense systems were designed for these purposes during the Cold War era (National Security Archive, November 16, 2010).

In modern warfare, the situation is radically different. The initial stages of Russia’s full-scale invasion saw the traditional use of tactical aircraft with unguided weapons (see EDM, September 14, 2022, August 15, 2023). Over time, the war in the air has transformed. It has been characterized by the unprecedented proliferation of precision air attack weapons. These include precision-guided munitions (e.g., UMPK glide bomb kit and D-30 SN glide bombs); tactical aircraft missiles (e.g., Kh-38, Kh-59, and LMUR); tactical and anti-ship air-launched cruise missiles (e.g., Kh-35U); anti-radar missiles (e.g., Kh-58 and Kh-31); high-precision missiles for multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) (e.g., 9M544/9M549 missiles for the Tornado-S MLRS); tactical ballistic missiles (e.g., Iskander-M and 9M723 missiles); and kamikaze drones (e.g., Kub, Lancet, and Shahed varieties) (see EDM, June 16, 2022, March 6, May 18, 23, September 26, 2023, June 4).

Overall, these weapons are almost meaningless without the proper reconnaissance assets to guide their usage. In Ukraine, a slew of reconnaissance drones (e.g., Orlan-10, Orlan-30, and ZALA) have been the main means for providing proper target coordinates to ground units (see EDM, November 11, 2022, September 14, 2023). While these drones are often small and light, their simplicity, high efficiency, and low production costs make them devilishly dangerous. The relative cheapness of these drones has led to the entire frontlines becoming saturated with them (Ukrainska Pravda, November 18, 2023, February 5). This, in turn, has resulted in an unprecedented level of battlefield awareness. It is now almost impossible to carry out any action without being noticed by the enemy. Even the mere movement of tanks away from the frontlines during the day can prove fatal (Kyiv Post, February 4, April 12, June 18).

Drones have not only changed the course of the war on land but have also had a significant impact on the war in the air (see EDM, September 25, 2023, March 26). Never has army air defense faced such a high number of simultaneous targets. Various drones have been produced in hundreds and thousands of units, and thousands fly missions every day (Meduza, February 16).

The air defense situation in Ukraine is unique in military history. To win the battle in the air, Ukraine can strengthen its air defense in several key ways. First, Ukrainian forces can develop methods to more effectively counter modern threats. The typical targets for surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), self-propelled anti-aircraft guns (SPAAGs), and short-range air defenses (SHORADs) have changed quite a bit, while the means of countering them have not. During the Cold War, the fight was against “big and hot” tactical aircraft. Now, fighting focuses mainly on “small and cold” drones. Accordingly, the technical obsolescence of Ukraine’s typical air defense approach has hurt its effectiveness. Some progress has already been made in this direction, with Ukrainian forces unveiling new electronic warfare capabilities to counter Russian airstrikes and new strategies to take down Russian reconnaissance drones (Euromaidan Press, November 16, 2023, May 17, June 2).

Second, the emergence of an unprecedented number of air targets brings with it new challenges. As a result, despite the increased effectiveness of modern anti-aircraft weapons, the need for a high quantity of assets remains enormous. To counter Russian missile and drone strikes, Ukraine needs many more air defense systems and thousands of corresponding munitions (Ukrainska Pravda, March 2). The wide range of modern drones has also elevated the need for a higher quantity of anti-aircraft systems and missiles.

Third, the new level of reconnaissance and detection means that air defense assets near the frontlines are constantly exposed (Kyiv Post, November 11, 2023, February 6, March 29). Modern drones and electronic warfare systems can detect targets quickly and efficiently, and high-precision weapons (e.g., Izdeliye-52 kamikaze drones and 9M723 tactical ballistic missile) are able to hit targets quickly. Accordingly, three tasks are at hand: ensuring the relative safety of air defense systems near the front, increasing the number of air defense systems to compensate for inevitable losses, and organizing a more effective system of equipment recovery.

Fourth, the Ukrainian Armed Forces being fully equipped to counter air threats is not enough. As mentioned, for anti-aircraft systems to operate effectively, they need round-the-clock, high-quality reconnaissance of targets. If the air defense system is blind, it cannot conduct any of its tasks. While the combination of modern SAMs and electronic intelligence strengthens the ability to strike targets accurately, high-speed, secure, and consistent communication is critical to successfully intercepting Russian drones and missiles. Command posts, detection equipment, and the crews of each air defense system rely on constant communication during combat operations. As such, Ukrainian forces require not only additional air defense systems and munitions but also improved reconnaissance capabilities (see EDM, January 28; Meduza, February 1).

Fifth, improving logistics is a key consideration for Ukraine’s military leaders, as it is impossible to fight effectively with bare hands. However, without the proper manpower, iron is also worth little. Given the scale of fighting, mobilizing sufficient soldiers to maintain positions on the front and establishing a broad but highly effective system of training goes hand in hand with solving logistical logjams (see EDM, April 10, 24). While the training of Ukrainian soldiers in the United Kingdom and Germany has seen success, the transport of soldiers between these countries and the front has slowed down the process (RBC-Ukraine, December 28, 2023, June 27).

Sixth, even with sufficient matériel and manpower, the presence of high-quality and competent officers, both junior and senior, is critical to unlocking the military’s full potential. Their expertise and experience can go a long way to maximizing the armed forces’ technical capabilities and, to some extent, can compensate for the shortcomings of equipment. Kyiv’s Western partners have applauded efforts to develop a noncommissioned officer corps as “the key to victory against the Russian invader” (, February 28, 2023).

In sum, Ukraine and its supporters are actively working to strengthen the country’s air defense. Specifically, Ukrainian forces need additional air defense systems and munitions that can effectively counter Russian missiles and drones (e.g., SAMs, SPAAGs, and SHORADs). They also require more high-tech detection and reconnaissance systems. Finally, increased logistical support and improved communications will be critical for Ukraine to maximize the potential of its current and future assets in disrupting Russian dominance in the air.

*Read Part Three