Defense Against Cruise Missiles and Drones in Modern War

Since different Western air-defence systems are now finding their way into UA, many commentators rise the issue of their effectiveness against Russian strikes. Among those systems there are some that can be called “legacy”, as well as some of the most modern short to medium range ones. To understand their effectiveness, let’s analyze this issue a bit.

First of all, the first difficulty in defending against low-flying cruise missiles and drones, is the matter of their timely detection. Since most of the air-defense detection capabilities are radar-based, they are inherently limited by their line-of-sight. Earth’s curvature and natural or men maid artifacts make it practically impossible for the land-based radars to detect and track low-flying targets, unless they are passing near those radars.

For example, the most capable Russian air-defence systems of the S-300/400 family, while having maximum engagement range in hundreds of kilometers, are only capable of intercepting low flying targets at distances of around 10 kilometers (give or take, depending on other variables). And this is achieved with special masts that elevate radars tens of meters above the ground level.

This problem is dealt with by using air assets, able to “see” low flying targets from much greater distances. For example, the West will use its large number of AWACS aircraft to detect cruise missiles at long distances. Soviet Union developed a special air-defence aircraft, the MiG-31 interceptor, which was fitted with the electronically scanned array radar and datalink capabilities. A group of 4 MiG-31 interceptors can cover around 800 kilometers of airspace, detecting and engaging cruise missiles from 100+ kilometers range. Israel was developing aerostats, lifting radars (or other equipment) into the air to greatly increase the detection range.

However, a regular air-defense system with its ground-based radar would have greatly reduced efficiency against low-flying targets, because of its inability to provide early detection. That means UA will have to rely on Western AWACS aircraft, operating in NATO or international airspace, or on their fighter jets to detect Russian strikes.

The problem here is that cruise missiles and low-flying drones are harder to detect due to their size and shape, and any detection against ground is more difficult compared to detection against the empty sky. That means, those solutions would have limited efficiency at best. In addition, any Ukrainian fighter jet that patrols the sky in search for incoming cruise missiles, would be vulnerable against Russian long-range ground-to-air and air-to-air missiles. Especially, since their main defense against those is to fly at low levels, which negates the very idea of cruise missile detection. The higher you fly, the farther your radar can see.

So, we established that UA doesn’t have efficient detection assets against low-flying targets. Theoretically, a much larger number of detection radars could compensate for their short effective range against cruise missiles. But we are talking orders of magnitude more, needed to cover or the blind areas. So, it isn’t a practical solution.

Now, regarding the interception of those cruise missiles and long-range, low-flying drones. They are relatively easy targets, once they get into the range of missile or anti-aircraft gun-based air-defence system. If the air-defence systems and its crew had enough time to produce fire solution and engage the target, it can be shot down. Even the legacy anti-aircraft artillery is able to do so. This is especially true for the Iranian Shakhed-136 drones, due to their very low airspeed (around 180 km/h, I believe). The air-defence system should have enough time to detect, calculate the fire solution, and engage those. Since cruise missiles are much faster, operating at around 800 km/h speed, the reaction time would be four or five times shorter. Which means the success rate of intercepts would also be lower, especially if defending with anti-aircraft artillery.

That being said, theoretically, the newly supplied fire-and-forget type missiles could have a big advantage, since they don’t require the uninterrupted external targeting from the time of detection and up until the intercept. Those systems use modern air-to-air missiles, which have the lock-after-launch and/or external targeting capabilities. That means, theoretically, if a cruise missile is detected by some third networked system or radar, the first system can use the general location of the target as the initial rough targeting solution, and launch the missile(s), which would then start to search for the target independently. This requires as many of the detection and air-defence systems to be connected into a single command and control network.

Although, since the number of those modern air-defence systems, delivered to Ukraine, is in single digits, and since those are different systems made by different countries and using different air-to-air missiles, there is probably no simple way of implementing this scheme. Also, using the modern fire-and-forget air-to-air missiles, designed to take down modern enemy fighter jets, is prohibitively expensive. It’s one thing to waste a nearly million-dollar missile to shoot at SU-35, and entirely another to shoot at Iranian drone.

By the way, a few times the Israeli air force was compelled to intercept cheap Iranian drones using very expensive jets and air-to-air missiles. But this was done more for political than military reasons. The same as with the intercepting cheap rockets with expensive air-defence missiles. Israel is relatively reach country with very high defence expenditures, and yet it needs to ask for billions of dollars of US aid to replenish their stocks of the Iron Dome missiles. In other words, this isn’t a feasible solution for any prolonged conflict, even if speaking of Hammas. All the more so, if we are talking about defending the UA against Russian strikes.

If so, what is the point of those modern Western air-defence systems, supplied to UA — one here, two there? I think they are intended for combat-testing and as an advertising. They are expected to shoot down a few of the Russian Kalibr or Iskander-K cruise missiles, maybe even a Sukhoi fighter jet (if Russians will make another stupid mistake), and that will be it. UA won’t be supplied with constant torrent of modern air-to-air missiles to shoot down hundreds of Russian cruise missiles and Iranian drones.

It would be fair to ask when, why is it that Russia is able to intercept hundreds of MLRS rockets, and Ukraine wouldn’t be able to do the same against cruise missiles? The answer is simple — Russian has much more air-defence systems, and its surface-to-air missiles are mostly of non-fire-and-forget variety. Russian legacy, and even many of the modern missiles, are command-guided or semi-guided, which means they don’t require a sophisticated, hundreds of thousands worth “brain” and “eyes” to hit the target. Instead, all the sophisticated (still not as much as the Western ones) electronics are in the launcher, which generates the control commands, transmitted to the missiles. This limits the capabilities of the system but also makes it much cheaper to produce its missiles.

To be frank, the last I’ve heard the Pantsir missiles were grossly overpriced (in my opinion), valued at tens of thousands of dollars each. Yet, it’s still an order of magnitude cheaper than the Western air-to-air missiles, adopted for the land air-defence systems. And if corruption schemes are to be cleansed from the Russian MIC, maybe a Pantsir missile could be produced for around $15,000, instead of $~70,000, or whatever it costs now. I remember that before the introduction of the Iron Dome into the service, its interceptor missiles were estimated to cost about $50,000, and those are much more sophisticated, active-radar guided missiles, produced in a country with higher cost of living. Naturally, since then their cost multiplied a few times, as far as I’m aware.

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