Can Western Air Defence systems help Ukraine?

High-tech weapons require managing them in specific environments, a luxury in the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

According to allegedly leaked documents detailing the Western strategy to war with Russia, Ukraine is running low on S-300 and Buk missiles, seriously threatening its ability to defend its skies. But the issue is if the Western Air Defence systems can protect Ukraine better than the Soviet systems.

When analysing weapons’ tactical and technical characteristics, one can see to what extent they depend on the prevailing ideas about military strategy. This is especially evident in air defence systems.

The idea of “air power” developed by the Italian General and Airpower theorist General Giulio Douhet is being taken to an entirely new level by the contemporary strategy of the Western world. Aviation is supplemented by space intelligence, which makes it possible to establish a network-centric control system for ground forces simultaneously. An aggressive or preemptive long-range strike against the adversary is the first step in an air-ground operation. The strike’s primary targets are the adversary’s airfields, SAM sites, and control centres. Massive bombardments on all military objectives begin following the destruction of the enemy’s air defences. And the ground element of the operation begins after the enemy has been virtually completely defeated from the air. This operation portion is analogous to eradicating isolated pockets of resistance and commences once most targets are neutralised. Likewise, air defence systems have little to shoot at because most of the enemy’s aircraft have already been destroyed.

Modern Western air defence systems perform well. At the same time, the SHORAD VL MICA, IRIS-T SLS, NASAMS II, and SPYDER air defence systems have certain common characteristics. The missile load of Western air defence systems is limited to 4-8 missiles per launcher, which is more than enough to defeat a limited air raid. Missile consumption is not projected to be considerable, allowing them to be outfitted with pricey homing heads. However, the latter can also be explained by modern Western missiles originating from air to air missiles, where the seeker is replaced along with minor structural modifications. It helps in cost savings in developing specialised surface-to-air missiles.

Savings also explain why Western air defence radars can support a disproportionately large number of targets. Why should the radar track 100, 300, and 400 targets while it commands three to four launchers, each with four missiles? The reason is simple: radars were developed for entirely unrelated purposes and were included in the air defence system to save money on development. The fact that such radars are substantially more expensive to produce and operate than specialised ones is irrelevant to Euro-Atlantic designers; these are buyers’ problems.

A small automotive chassis doesn’t give one a lot of cross-country ability, but it is not needed to clean up groups and take over towns, and as Iraq and Afghanistan show, specialists from the West don’t go into hard-to-reach places. The systems aren’t very stable in combat but are planned to be in the fighting zone after removing the main enemy air forces.

All of the air defence components are spread out. Different platforms hold radars, launchers, and even control units. This makes monitoring what’s happening in the air while moving hard. It takes a long time to set them up, about 10 to 15 mins, from moving to fighting mode. All of this doesn’t matter much in the Western way of thinking because, first, the attacking side chooses where and when the fighting starts and can get ready for it, and second, it takes a long time to clear the area of the remains of enemy units that were destroyed from the air.

Even a strong feature of some Western air defence systems, like long-range missiles, comes from the idea that air defence systems are just extras, no matter how strange that sounds. The truth is that the Western military doesn’t have any full-fledged medium-range air defence weapons on order. As a result, the air defence systems are in charge of the short-range zone and a part of the medium-range zone. They then pass the responsibility to the long-range systems. These air defence systems aren’t good enough to hit targets in the Medium Range zone, and short-range air defence systems are too expensive to use at medium range. But this doesn’t matter if one faces a single air attack.

What about the Russian air defence philosophy?

Soldiers must be able to manoeuvre swiftly and concentrate their forces on the direction of the strike in a battle with huge ground formations that air strikes have yet to damage significantly. They will require air defence systems that can move swiftly and cover wide regions if they don’t have control of the air. These systems must be attached to the units they guard, such as tank units. One, therefore, requires a tracked chassis. In its most fundamental configuration, the Russian Tor-M2 air defence system is a good example of this scenario. The most crucial aspect of a combat vehicle’s mobility is the time it takes to transition from a move to combat readiness. The Tor-M2 air defence system completes this phase in 3 minutes, 3–5 times faster than comparable systems now used in the West.

Tor-M2DT anti-aircraft missile system on the DT-30PM snow and swamp vehicle
Tor-M2DT anti-aircraft missile system on the DT-30PM snow and swamp vehicle

On the other hand, the Tor-M2 air defence system can be set up while in motion and operated while in motion to track the air and hit targets. This is significant because it offers strategies for dodging opposing artillery fire and aids in cover operations. The system lacks redundant capabilities that consume resources and increase the price of equipment but are not used in combat.

Ukraine’s NATO equipment fixation

In the face of overwhelming Russian superiority, Ukraine requests Western armaments based on the abovementioned Western philosophy. NATO equipment is technologically advanced, time-consuming to produce, and logically costly. Soviet-era systems conduct the majority of Ukraine’s air defence. High-tech weapons require managing them in specific environments, a luxury in the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict. For instance, JDAM-ER reportedly failed due to the Russian military’s electronic warfare capabilities, per a leaked presentation. High tech weapons require a particular temperature and storage conditions. According to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy’s comments to US media, one of the Western Air Defense systems from the West does not function and had to be replaced multiple times.


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