How feasible is it to cover all of Ukraine with air defense

Patriot air defense system
Patriot air defense system

The so-called “air defense shield” is a deeply echeloned multifunctional system of air defense assets.

On November 7-8th in Tokyo, at a meeting of G7 foreign ministers, they discussed, among other things, a project to create an air defense shield to protect Ukraine from massive Russian missile and drone attacks.

The so-called “air defense shield” is a deeply echeloned multifunctional system of air defense assets. It consists of fire units echeloned by height and range of the areas to be covered. It also includes a command and control system, where all these air defense assets are centrally linked to target detection equipment, and an electronic intelligence and countermeasures system. All this is necessary to detect, identify, capture, and destroy an air target.

In the case of Ukraine, in such a multifunctional system, to create a layered air defense system throughout the territory, we still lack enough firepower or do not cover all the needs for radar intelligence, which requires not only radar stations but also long-range radar detection and control aircraft, which we do not have.

In addition, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, wrote in an essay for The Economist that electronic warfare systems are needed.

They can significantly increase the ability to fight drones, which, despite their low power, can do a lot of damage and, therefore, cause a lot of trouble, diverting the primary air defense forces and means to fight them.

A shield is a combination of everything. It should be understood that object-based air defense includes the means to protect strategically important objects, infrastructure, cities, social facilities, power plants, nuclear power plants, and the military. Highly mobile means it covers moving troops, i.e., it operates in soldiers' combat order.

Air defense systems are one of the primary targets for the enemy

At the same time, air defense assets must also be mobile because the enemy can also detect them. Therefore, such assets must be able to assemble quickly, move to new positions, deploy, and be ready to repel another attack. Tactical air defense systems can usually operate while moving or with a short stop. These are, for example, the S-300 B, Buk, Cube, Wasp, Tunguska, Shilka, Gepard, Stormer, Skynex, etc. Moreover, the weakness of Soviet systems is their low reliability and, as a rule, lack of spare parts, which means that they are inoperable most of the time. However, their declared firepower is on par with Western models and sometimes even surpasses them.

Can an air defense shield be created over Ukraine's entire territory? Theoretically, with a certain degree of conventionality, it is possible, but practically impossible. First, because of the exhaustiveness of our own air defense capabilities, and second, because of the limited capabilities of our partners. It is not enough to simply supply us with air defense systems; they must also be linked into a single control system. And they are not always compatible, especially with the former Soviet ones. I would not say it is impossible to link such a "zoo" into a single system, but it is an additional difficulty that will take time.

In addition, we should remember that air defense systems are one of the primary targets for the enemy. Air defense systems also suffer losses, require repairs that must be done somewhere, and require spare parts and production capacity. Moreover, they do not work independently, but interact with other systems, requiring crew training, availability, and a supply of missiles and ammunition.

In this regard, the Pentagon, at Ukraine's request, launched a special program called FrankenSAM, which aims to combine American surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles with old Soviet launchers and radar stations. Several projects have already been successfully tested. I don't know if there have been any deliveries yet, but both American and Ukrainian companies have carried out such developments. This is one way to close the gaps in the air defense system today and a desirable prospect for the future.

South Korea and Israel have the most robust air defense systems. Israel's example shows that even the best system does not provide 100% protection. However, this country has a reasonably strong echeloned air defense system regarding altitude and range. The famous Iron Dome is the lowest link in the system, which also includes medium-range and high-altitude systems.

We need to consider both sides in a struggle between two adversaries. These two sides are looking for each other's weaknesses; if they find them, they strike at them. Any existing air defense system is weak against massive, combined enemy attacks.

If we calculate the number of targets in a strike, the intervals between them, and the number of targets that can be simultaneously detected, tracked, and fired upon, we can calculate the required number of air defense systems. Moreover, not every target can be detected and hit with one hundred percent probability. That is why no one expects one hundred percent coverage of the territory, but they try to at least achieve 70-80% efficiency in covering specific objects.

Western countries relied on everything in the complex. Aviation is also an element of air defense. After all, striking enemy aircraft firing at ground targets is also an air defense element. That is, we are working not only on the missiles the enemy is firing, but also on the aircraft that launch them. This is a combined system.

Whether air defense systems are placed closer to the borders or dispersed throughout the country depends on their range. If these are targeted air defense systems, they are usually located close to cover objects so that firing units' firing zones overlap. If these are military air defense systems, they should be located at a certain distance from the troops they cover but no closer than the distance that enemy artillery can reach.

Since drones are now the most massive, cheapest, and most effective means of striking the enemy, more attention should be paid to fighting them. It is only partially effective to take stronger missiles typically used against aircraft, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles and instead use them against Shahed and Lancer drones. Therefore, looking for more adequate ways to combat drones is necessary. For this purpose, for example, not only long- and medium-range anti-aircraft missile systems are deployed around the covered objects, but also anti-aircraft artillery systems, such as Gepard and Skynex self-propelled anti-aircraft systems, as well as Tunguska and Shilka, left over from the Soviet era. Even old, decommissioned equipment (for example, twin 23-mm anti-aircraft guns) are used, and mobile groups are being created to fight drones that can be moved to the most dangerous areas.

In addition, the Lviv administration, for example, has taken the initiative to create such mobile groups not only in the army but also in local communities. With the help of such flying units, we could cover a considerable territory in addition to what we are already protecting. The main problem is the equipment of such mobile groups. Now, the communities themselves are creating improvised anti-aircraft installations, such as twin machine guns combined in four or six pieces and mounted on jeeps, and this is how they try to fight unmanned aerial vehicles.

What is the most dangerous for Ukraine now: drones, cruise missiles, ballistics, or guided bombs? Here, we need to consider the targets of attack. Regarding the frontline regions, the most difficult to hit with air defense systems are bombs. Drones are the most massive, invisible, and, therefore, more challenging to combat. Cruise and ballistic missiles are the next best regarding warhead power and damage. Now imagine that the enemy uses all this "nastiness" in a combined strike simultaneously. That's why detection, recognition, and assignment of targets to firearms is one of the most critical and complex tasks for an air defense control system.

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For each type of attack, looking for ways to counter it is necessary. There is no single way for everything. This is the difficulty, and this is the advantage of the enemy when he combines drone and missile strikes. The enemy takes a mass of drones and launches cruise or ballistic missiles under their cover. Ukraine will have a hard time if such a massive, combined strike is carried out. This is exactly what I fear: that the Russian army is now accumulating forces for such attacks. Hamas has inspired them.

The information is that with the onset of cold weather, the Russian Federation may change the tactics of massive shelling and direct a large number of missiles at one target. In this case, it will be tough to fight. Even the current air defense specialists cannot name at least one single result. Of course, they can say that we are preparing to repel such attacks with all our might, but we are still determining how well we can repel them. The fact is that no one knows how massive such a strike will be or how many missiles and drones it will involve. The effectiveness of the fight depends on this. Therefore, we must prepare for any outcome, even the most terrible. Both the air defense forces and the facilities themselves must be ready. The latter must be protected by engineering. Many experts have already said that it is necessary to bury the facilities underground, build some concrete structures around them, and so on. And this, in turn, should not be a one-time campaign but a well-thought-out, comprehensively justified system of measures.

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