Russian air defense systems are poorly equipped to combat modern drones, which are smaller and cheaper. The West is not saying so, but a Russian report analyzing the country’s anti-drone capabilities does.
Small drones have become a bane for Russia in the ongoing conflict against Ukraine. It has become more apparent with each passing day, and a recent video showing Ukrainian drones stalking the Russian air defense systems that are supposed to be shooting them down and bombing or directing precision artillery fire onto them.
The 193-page report is written by Professor Sergey Makarenko of St Petersburg Electrotechnical University (LETI) and is titled Countering Unmanned Air Vehicles. Makaranko studies military applications of technology, and this is one of the few open-source documents giving a peep into Russian anti-drone capability.
The report analyses why Russia has been so bad at hitting drones in particular. The report looks into the efficacy of the layer anti-air defenses available for Russian forces like the short-range air defense system Pantsir S1, self-propelled anti-aircraft guns Tunguska, surface-to-air missile system Tor and Strela-10 tracked vehicles with heat-seeking missiles for close-in defense and shoulder-fired Igla-S.
Makarenko lists the spate of encounters between Russian air defense systems and drones in Libya, Syria, and Nagorno-Karabakh, where the Russian air defense systems did not work out well for the defenders.
Prof. Makarenko’s report indicates that these air defense systems fail in the face of drones. He insists that even though the sophisticated features of these air defense systems publicized by the developers are “not fully confirmed” in practice. He repeatedly underlines that bringing down the small drones is “practically impossible” as the Russian radars cannot see them.
The Russian tactical radars are designed to pick up fast-moving jets, not small, slow-moving targets. “The results of field tests showed that the target detection radar of the Tor air defense system provides detection of small UAVs at ranges of only 3-4 km,” writes Makarenko.
Hence, the Tor air defense system cannot spot the drones unless they are too close, and by then, it is challenging to shoot the unmanned vehicles down. It is also why the Ukrainian drones can get so close to the Russian systems and take videos.
The situation remains grim as Ukraine continues to take giant strides in drone technology. The Ukrainian forces now have drones carrying out autonomous strikes against Russian troops without a human operator. The Saker Scout drones can find, identify, and attack 64 different types of Russian ‘military objects’ on their own, operating in areas where radio jamming blocks communication and prevents other drones from working.
The Russian troops are trying everything they can to shoot down, ground, and deflect the tiny, explosives-laden Ukrainian drones. Russian forces even tried strapping small RP-377 radio jammers, designed to block the signals that detonate radio-triggered roadside bombs, to tanks and other vehicles in the hope of stopping the signals that control speedy first-person-view drones. However, the improvisation failed miserably.
The Achilles Heel Of Russian Air Defense
“The practical experience of experimental firing at small targets [with Tor] … indicates the low efficiency of their destruction. The main reasons for this are the imperfection of the SAM warhead detonation control system, as well as large errors in target tracking and SAM guidance on small-sized UAVs,” the report reads.
This video, Tor missile hurtling past a Ukrainian quadcopter without exploding, is an example of the detonation control failure that Makarenko has written about.
The Pantsir is also riddled with the same problem. “The results of field tests of the Pantsir-S1 air defense missile systems show that firing missile weapons at small-sized UAVs is practically impossible.” So, when the system detects a drone, it is within the minimum missile range, making it impossible to hit.
The other problem is that these air defense systems must fire ample ammunition to bring down a small drone. “The use of cannon armament of these 3PKs against small-sized UAVs is fundamentally possible, but due to the small size of the UAVs, the probability of their defeat is low,” says Makarenko.
In a test in 2020, a battery of four Panstsirs opened fire on a slow-moving drone but failed to destroy it despite firing multiple salvoes. Again, Tunguska has the same problem. It needs a ton of ammo to have any chance of hitting.
“When firing at a mini-UAV of the Akila type with cannon weapons at a distance of 3 km, to achieve a value of the conditional probability of hitting a target equal to 0.5, it is necessary to expend from 4 to 13 thousand shells,” says Makarenko.
The Tunguska fires an impressive five thousand rounds per minute from its two cannons but only carries 1,904 rounds in total. Based on this data, a drone would have to hover within range long enough for the Russian air defense operators to empty their guns, reload, and then empty them again to have a 50 percent chance of a hit.
This may be why a Pantsir crew is bailing out of their vehicle before it gets hit by an incoming drone that they could not stop.
The Strela heat-seeking missiles, designed to home in on the hot exhaust of a jet engine, are finding it difficult to lock on to small drones with low infra-red signatures. “Target acquisition via the IR channel is generally impossible due to its feeble thermal radiation,” says Makarenko.
He adds that most Russian surface-to-air heat-seeking missiles are fitted with impact fuses, which works well with big targets like aircraft. However, with small drones, unless the missile hits it directly, it just flies right past.
Some of the missiles have been fitted with proximity fuses. Small numbers of shrapnel are best to destroy big aircraft, but they can easily miss a small drone.
Swarm Drones Add To Russia’s Woes
The reports paint a glum picture of the future as a swarm of drones is getting inducted into the forces, and the existing Russian air defense systems are woefully inadequate to deal with these threats.
“The number of simultaneously fired targets is limited to 3 for the Pantsir-S2 air defense missile system and 4 for the Tor-M2 air defense system. In this case, the targets being fired simultaneously must be in the viewing area of the guidance radar. As a result, it is impossible to work on targets attacking from different directions simultaneously,” suggests the author.
The proliferation of small, cheap drones will make the situation worse. Makarenko performs an exercise that calculates that a standard air defense system will run out of ammunition without stopping a swarm of 15 attacking drones. “Light and relatively cheap UAVs can paralyze any air defense,” Makarenko adds.
By the end of 2023, Ukraine intends to have an “army of drones” with 200,000 drones in strength. “Army of Drones” is a Ukrainian government initiative with relaxed import restrictions and taxes for drone technology, spurring the development of a local industry to supply the country’s military better.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com