Following the commencement of Russian air strikes in the morning of February 24, which targeted military infrastructure, air defence sites, airfields and aircraft, Russian official sources reported less than three hours later that Ukrainian air defences had been neutralised.
The assets used by the Russian Air Force and possibly the Navy for these operations remain unknown, but it was long speculated that Su-34 strike fighters and Ka-52 attack helicopters in particular would play a central role in spearheading any such operations should hostilities break out.
With Ukraine relying heavily on ground based air defences due to its lack of modern post-Soviet fighter or interceptor aircraft, having a sizeable military budget exceeding $4 billion, and with its forces being on high alert for over two months as tensions with Russia remained high, the speed with which the country’s airspace was made free for Russian military aircraft to operate in could be seen to represent an unacceptable failure.
An assessment of why Ukrainian air defences were compromised so quickly provides important insight into the strengths of Russian air defence suppression assets, as well as the investments other countries potentially facing threat of air attacks could in future seek to avoid.
Aside from very short ranged man portable systems, Ukraine’s air defence network is entirely comprised of Soviet era air defence systems all of which Russia itself also inherited from the Soviet Union. This ensures a high degree of Russian familiarity with the performance specifications and weaknesses of these systems, and makes it far easier for Russia to make effective use of electronic warfare to blind Ukrainian air defences in a war’s opening stages.
Ukraine’s only long range system inherited from the Soviet Union, the S-200, was retired without replacement due to its age and lack of mobility which left it highly vulnerable to standoff precision guided attacks. Other older systems such as the S-75, a predecessor to the S-200 also optimised for engagements at longer ranges and higher altitudes, were also retired.
Ukraine did recommission S-125 systems in 2020 after a long retirement, with these dating back to 1961 in its service and also lacking mobility. Its decision to again field the S-125 reflected a serious lack of more modern options.
The backbone of Ukraine’s air defences were formed of the S-300P/PS/PT medium range systems from the 1980s, complemented by shorter ranged BuK-M1 systems from the same era. Although the S-300 has gained a reputation as a world leading air defence system, with the S-300V4 system in production in Russia today, Ukrainian S-300s were not designed for defence of large areas, do not have a multi-layered defence capability, and provide a much more limited degree of situational awareness.
Their much lower mobility and ageing electronic warfare countermeasures made them highly vulnerable to modern Russian air defence suppression assets such as Su-34 strike fighters armed with anti radiation missiles. A portion of Ukrainian S-300s were reportedly sold to the United States for testing purposes, with some BuK systems sold abroad to Georgia, meaning Ukraine’s network even of these two systems that have not been retired is smaller than it was when the USSR collapsed.
With the Russian military training to counter state of the art air defence systems deployed by developed countries, and itself fielding what are widely considered the world’s leading air defence systems, tackling Ukraine’s relatively small and largely obsolete 1980s network could be achieved within a few short hours.
How Ukraine could seek to rebuild its air defences after the current conflict will largely depend on the outcome – namely whether Kiev continues to be aligned with Western interests or whether a Russian aligned government will be installed.
The fact that NATO states have generally not invested heavily in ground based anti aircraft systems, relying much more heavily on aircraft for such roles, notably limited their ability to support Ukrainian efforts to improve its own air defences in the eight years since a pro-Western government was installed in Kiev.