Embarrassed by Ukrainian drones penetrating Russia’s most sacrosanct air space apparently at will, Kremlin air defense planners are trying several creative countermeasures: parking expensive anti-aircraft missile systems on towers, piling used truck tires on the wings of strategic bombers, and putting up smoke screens.

Moscow’s flagship “news” channel Rossiya 1 aired a detailed report on Sunday featuring a well-scrubbed air defense soldier standing in a field and enthusiastically describing his commanders’ clever plan to strengthen national air space defense: by parking one of the Russian Federation’s most modern anti-aircraft missile launchers on top of very tall objects.

Images showed one Pantsir (NATO reporting name SA-22 Greyhound) missile-gun anti-aircraft system perched on top of a 10-meter tall steel structure, resembling an oil rig, and another Pantsir target acquisition radar partially hidden by sandbags and a camouflage net, step up atop a 5-meter high, concrete firing ramp.

 According to its manufacturer, KBP Instrument Design Bureau in Tula, the Pantsir system combines advanced air search systems, modern data-linking and machine-slaved guided missiles and autocannon to give operators the capacity to spot and knock down aircraft out to a range of 18 kilometers. Open sources place the cost of a single system at between $13 and $14 million.

The tactic of positioning Pantsir firing and target acquisition systems on raised platforms will increase effective range and make detection of low-flying, smaller aircraft even more effective, which will make the Russian military even more effective in battle, the Russian lieutenant explained to the Kremlin-financed Rossiya-1 TV crew.

Those casualties accounted for the vast majority of the global figure, which rose to 1,172 in 2022 — the highest annual number since CMC began reporting in 2010.

The Russian-language service of the independent and US-financed Radio Liberty news agency was quick to geolocate the firing ramp in the Kremlin news report, publishing on Monday the 14-digit grid of a site adjacent to the village of Zarechye, an otherwise unremarkable hamlet well to the west Moscow, but only 10 kilometers from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal Novo-Ogaryovo residence. 

 Drone war

Ukraine in mid-August kicked off a campaign of selected but continuing attacks by long-range drones against targets in Russia. The Moscow region air space has seen almost daily Ukrainian drone incursions since then, triggering repeated air alerts and shut-downs of major Moscow airports, sometimes for hours. Drones carrying explosives have caused minor damage, but the continuing overflights by Ukrainian drones over the Russian capital have been a major embarrassment for the Kremlin.

Some Ukrainian drones during recent Moscow strikes flew not only unscathed but unfired upon as they buzzed past a Pantsir system situated on top of the headquarters of the Russian Ministry of Defense, less than 300 meters away. 

The independent Ukrainian military news magazine Defense Express in a Monday analysis lampooned Kremlin hopes that Pantsirs atop purpose-built tall objects could lock down Russia’s airspace.

“Drone strikes on Moscow have achieved their main goal – to force the enemy to concentrate the maximum number of means precisely in the area of their capital, thereby reducing their number at the front. One needs to understand the Russian Federation is a huge country in terms of area… and it cannot protect all the territory within range of Ukrainian kamikaze drones. That is, striking other objects (for Ukrainian strike planners) will become easier,” the report said in part.

Kyiv’s drone campaign, aside from strikes around Moscow, appears to be prioritizing Russian air force jets and airbases, particularly those used for the Kremlin’s long-running cruise and kamikaze drone bombardment of Ukraine launched in October 2022.

The Ukrainian drone raids since Aug. 22 have scored some spectacular successes against the supposedly heavily defended air bases, damaging at least three Tu-22 strategic bombers parked in airfields near Novgorod and St. Petersburg, and an undetermined number of fighter jets in a strike near Bryansk. On Aug. 30 a drone swarm hit a military airfield near Pskov, according to reports, destroying two Il-76 transport jets totally and damaging two more beyond repair.

The accumulating aircraft and airbase ground facility damage, combined with a continuing Ukrainian ability to launch more strikes, has raised charges even on Russian state-controlled television that there is something wrong with the national air defense, and bitter debate about what to do about it.

Tires, smoke screens, and other improvisations

Unreported on Russia state information platforms, but gleefully passed on by both Ukrainian conventional and social media, has been an imaginative Russian defensive tactic spotted by a civilian satellite overflying Engels air force base near Saratov Russia: Dozens of truck tires piled on the wings and fuselage of a Tu-95 bomber, according to reports placed there in hopes of dissipating the warhead blast of a Ukrainian drone, if and when it reaches the Russian aircraft.

Russian air defenders in Crimea have since July operated multiple smoke generators designed, in case of possible drone attack, to obscure the logistically critical Kerch Bridge connecting the occupied Ukrainian territory with Russia’s Kuban region. The system has proved less than totally effective, because of a strong sea breeze present almost continuously in the Kerch Strait, which tends to dissipate the smoke.

On Aug. 12 following a pair of unexplained explosions near the bridge, authorities turned on the smoke generators but the protective smoke headed rapidly away from the bridge and skyward, concealing little.

According to Ukrainian combat reports, Russian commanders use a combination of jammers, ground-based anti-aircraft systems and even fighter jets over the battlefield to find and attack Ukrainian drones.

As in the skies over Moscow, the Russian frontline air defense network, though considered generally modern and effective, has at times struggled against remotely operated Ukrainian aircraft, often smaller and lighter than airborne targets Kremlin military radars were designed to register.

A Sept. 1 video published by Ukrainian army intelligence (HUR) showed a Kyiv observation drone intercepted over the Black Sea and fired on at close range by a Russian helicopter gunship, but flying onward because the Russian pilot, the HUR report said, was unable to score any hits.

A Russian “airplane” and a second helicopter also tried to stop the Ukrainian drone but failed, the report claimed. A voice recorded with the video, possibly a drone operator, said the problem was the Russian helicopter pilot “was shooting crooked.”