Russian MoD Reveals the Use of Decoy Targets During Latest Cruise Missile Strike

I talked extensively about the lack of massive and efficient suppression/destruction of enemy air-defence (SEAD/DEAD) operations by the Russian military. Not to say it wasn’t done at all, but there wasn’t a systematic and large-scale effort to destroy UA’s long and medium range air-defence capabilities. In recent article from the Russian MoD, they reveal the use of decoy targets used during the latest cruise missile strike on energy infrastructure in UA, and consequent destruction of four S-300 radar stations:

17.12.2022 (15:20)

Russian Defence Ministry report on the progress of the special military operation in Ukraine (17 December 2022)

The Russian Federation Armed Forces continue the special military operation.

On Friday, 16 December, Ukraine’s military command, defence and industrial complex systems and the energy facilities supporting them were hit with a massive strike by long-range, airborne and sea-based precision weapons. … In the course of repelling the strike by Ukrainian and Western air defence systems, a significant resource was expended on deliberately launched decoys.

At the same time, four radar stations of Ukrainian S-300 air defence systems in the settlements of Andrusovka and Pridneprovskoye (Dnepropetrovsk region), as well as Novotavricheskaya and Nikolay-Pole (Zaporozhye region), have been revealed and destroyed. As a result of the unprofessional actions of Ukrainian air defence units, civilian infrastructure on the ground has been damaged.

So, we see first (I believe) official mention of decoys, used to exhaust the stock of air-defence missiles and, not less importantly, to reveal the fire-control radars used by long-range S-300 systems in order to target them with anti-radiation (or other kinds of precision guided) stand-off missiles.

This is a classic example of SEAD/DEAD operation. I will explain its basics.

First, an imitation of air attack is initiated, usually using decoy targets such as purpose-built drones that imitate fighter jets, bombers of missiles. Those decoy targets are then detected by the early warning radar stations. In order to intercept those targets, the fire-control radar stations of air-defence units are turned on, to provide illumination (in the case of semi radar guided missiles) of the targets, or, alternatively, detection/multipurpose radar stations that provide better quality target tracking for the fire-and-forget, passive of actively-guided missiles (such as AMRAAM AIM-120 variants or infra-red homing missiles).

Every radar designed in such a way, that it’s emitting electro-magnetic waves in a very specific direction. This direction called the “main lobe”. Here’s a general illustration:

Lobes of antenna radio-waves emission example: the main, side and back lobes. (Source: Wikipedia)

All the useful information is gathered from the radio-waves emitting in the main lobe (the direction of the radar antenna), reflecting by the target and then detected by the receiver of the radar station, which usually uses the same antenna as the emitter. All the other lobes are considered harmful for the radar operation but cannot be eliminated entirely. Those side/back lobes provide perfect homing signal for anti-radiation missiles, since they aren’t used to detect any targets, and thus the radar will be blind to anything coming from those directions. If the anti-radiation missile to be launched from the direction of the radar’s main lobe, it will be detected, and the radar can be shut down in order to prevent the missile from homing on it all the way until the impact.

Anti-radiation missiles can still be useful to some extent even if the targeted radar stopped emitting, by registering the coordinates of the radar emission and storing it in guidance system memory. Then the emission stops, the guidance system uses inertial or GPS navigation to bring the missile as close as possible to the last registered coordinates of the radar. Yet, the greater the distance, the less effective such backup guidance becomes, so it is much better is the targeted radar would be emitting until the impact.

During this kind of SEAD/DEAD operations, only the radars are directly targeted by the anti-radiation missiles. The launchers, command vehicles, generators and such can only be damaged if they there stationed close enough to the radar in order to be caught in collateral damage.

The other possibility is to use electronic support measures (ESM) to register the emission of the radars, calculate their coordinates, and provide them to other kinds of precision guided weapons, such as TV- or GPS-guided stand-off missiles. In the case of TV-guided missiles, the missile operator can then identify the different components of the air-defence system in the area, and guide the missile into any one of them: the radar itself, the launchers etc.

Generally speaking, the most crucial part of an air-defence system, especially the likes of S-300 or Patriot, which mostly use semi-active guided missiles, is the fire-control radar. Without it, the battery becomes unusable.

The MoD report mentions four S-300 radars destroyed. Usually, S-300 battery (divizion, in Russian terminology) uses different types of radars: the early detection radar which, as its name implies, provides the detection of air targets, the fire-control radars, which are used to guide the missiles towards their targets, and, sometimes, multifunctional radars, which can provide both the detection and the fire-control. The fire-control radars can be specialized in low-flying targets detection, or the general type, more suited for middle and high-altitude detection. Those radars also have limited detection capabilities, and can be used for this purpose if the dedicated search radar is inoperable.

If so, we do not know if whose radars belonged to four different batteries, or fewer. Still, since radars are crucial and very hard to replace, it could mean that the launchers, the missiles and other components would have to be redistributed to the remaining S-300 batteries of the same kind.

The timing is also very interesting, since only a few days before the US acknowledged it is getting ready to supply Patriot air-defence systems to UA. This is almost certainly a signal to the Pentagon that Russia able and will be hunting those Patriots, in the hope US will reconsider replacing the diminishing long-range air-defence capabilities of UA.

That being said, considering the very limited success in destroying Ukraine long-range air-defence potential what Russia has demonstrated up until now, I would view it as a signal to “Western partners” rather than switch towards serious and effective SEAD/DEAD efforts. We know what Russian air force deployed the anti-radiation Kh-31P missiles from the very beginning of the war. Massive air strikes what activate all of Ukrainian air-defence capabilities are perfect opportunities to use those missiles to take down radar stations. And outside of the cruise missiles strikes, air-defence systems were regularly attacked. The only really news we had is the admission that decoy targets were used. Sadly, we don’t know what they are exactly, so it’s impossible to say if it was some one-off occurrence or does Russia now have in its production or possession a large number of decoy targets. If it’s the former one, then it will make very little difference. It it’s the latter, then we could finally see some shift into serious SEAD/DEAD operations that will eventually clear the air-defence threat and untie the hands of Russian air force. At the very least Russia has to enable it air force to operate freely west of the Dnepr in medium and high altitudes, in order to break the stalemate of positional warfare and effectively engage critical infrastructure and amassed enemy troops. Up until now, the only effort to hinder the free flow of reinforcements and supplies to the frontline were the strikes on electrical network facilities, which didn’t have any significant effect up until now.

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